A little look at… Storm

Micronet’s 1988 computer game introduces itself as a NEO STRATEGIC SIMULATION to a rather rockin’ chiptune arrangement, which is a rather fancy way of saying ‘Japanese SRPG… in SPAAAACEEEE’ complete with all those beautiful 80’s-style sci-fi bells and whistles. The version I’ve played and the one shown in the screenshots below is the PC-88 release, although the game also saw the light of day on the Sharp X1 and the PC-98 too – as far as I’ve been able to tell all three are identical, or have differences so minor they’re not obvious to me or significant enough for others to mention.

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Storm starts off with an intro that’ll blow your socks off – there’s animated graphics and a single line of speech (even if it is muffled to the point of being unintelligible)! There’s even a plot told through a mixture of dialogue and in-mission cutscenes (gasp!) rather than scrolled past the player in a single plain text intro crawl, never to be seen again.

When you’ve recovered from that audiovisual extravagance it’s time to knuckle down and get on with the game proper. The first thing you’ll notice is that it looks like you’ve only got a single unit to take on the hordes of enemy forces with – always a worry – however your moon base is thankfully stuffed with a selection of offensive spacecraft ready and waiting to deploy. You’ll find shortly after you try to place all your units on the battlefield that the game uses some interesting rules for positioning of both enemy and friendly forces, as all craft in the game have a meaningful physical presence that stops you from forcing a ship through a line of other allied forces if there’s not actually a clear space between them. It sounds irritating, but in a game where you’re flying manoeuvrable fighter craft around in the depths of space it’s really the only sort of terrain-effect management that makes any sense, and the maps are spacious enough to accommodate the idea without it feeling overly restrictive.

Encounters with enemy ships use a slightly different take on this, employing a ‘zone of control’ system to prevent you (and them) from just barging past a hostile target like the hungriest person at an all-you-can-eat buffet. What this means in practise is regardless of your ships range of movement, if you come within one square of an enemy you’re forced to stop and optionally, open fire. You’re not completely immobile if you find yourself caught within this zone, but movement is reduced to a single tile in any free direction while engaged in combat.

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So the game has a lot of polish and some quirky twists on accepted genre norms, and to top it all off the CPU takes its turn quickly and cuts out all the (wonderful, but) lengthy battle animations too – meaning this is one of all too few SRPGs you spend more time playing than watching. Yay! Later on there are even on-foot side scrolling sections as you take on exciting infiltration missions, but I can’t tell you about those as after several days play I’m still stuck on the lengthy opening mission.

It’s really not my fault! I always give these things a good go and in my time I’ve managed to finish some very hard and very long old computer games, but this one’s just not happening.

It all starts off well enough – there are a few enemy fighters at the opposite end of the map, you have a good range of allied units to take them out with, and you can even have them retreat back to the moon base for repair if needs be.

Then you realise fresh enemy ships are appearing at the edge of the map. And they just keep on coming.

But all’s not lost! A friendly carrier-type unit shows up in the thick of enemy territory – they’re here to help blow them all away, aren’t they? No.

It turns out they need escorting to safety while you painfully inch your moon base over to a location THEY’VE ONLY JUST GIVEN YOU, at a speed of one tile per turn, and even if you know exactly where you’re going it still takes about twenty turns to get there. Oh and for fun and giggles loads of enemies have just appeared near this friendly unit, because why not.

By the way, if your moon base or the new friendly AI controlled unit dies – game over! Marvellous. At this point I’m having a Final Fantasy Tactics flashback and can be heard mumbling ‘escort mission’ in-between the sort of talk that’d make a sailor blush.

After a few failed attempts I managed to anticipate enemy behaviour enough that it all went a bit seat-of-the-pants but I wasn’t failing – my battered ships were at least distracting the enemy away from this infuriating friendly ship and the moon base had finally reached the agreed map point and… then game decides to throw in a super-fast and super-powerful Ultra Enemy Ship of Doom into the mix, on top of all the other craft that are still pouring in from the edge of the screen…

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But Storm’s still not a bad game! There’s an awful lot to like here, from the general battle mechanics to some really very impressive presentation. I’m not even convinced it’s unfair either, it just happens to start at ‘mercilessly hard’ and then work its way up from there. European computer fans might remember the days when a game was deemed ‘too easy’ if you had a fair chance of seeing the ending before your fingers dropped off from old age – this is very much of the same mind-set, where ‘value for money’ was determined by how long it took to see the ending of a game for the first time, rather than how many times the player wanted to come back and see that ending again themselves.

In spite of the nightmare-inducing difficulty I still want to be a better Storm player. I want to play more of this polished and clever game, to see what other forces it’s going throw at me and maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll come out on top.

But today is not that day.