Monday, 12 September 2011

Morpheus (Commodore 64)

Ambition. It's what drives so many people on. Ambition to be bigger, better, faster stronger. The ambition to do what has never been done before. The ambition to create what has never been created before. Or, perhaps, to refine something into the best it's ever been.

Andrew Braybrook's ambition led him back to the cold black of space for his next game - a game more epic than anything he'd attempted before. A game called Morpheus.

And we're off!

Alleykat hadn't really gone down as well as Braybrook's prior games... it was well-received, certainly, but not spectacularly so. It might have been nice to just be allowed to plug away at the next game, but that wasn't to happen... Morpheus became the feature of ZZAP! 64's Diary of a Game. I don't know how that came about... maybe both parties harkened back to Birth of a Paradroid and hoped that lightning would strike twice. It was certainly possible with such an undoubtedly talented programmer...

You can read the Diary of a Game in HTML format here, via the excellent DEF Guide to ZZAP! 64 site. It's also available in scanned format from the site's front page.

Get it! Get it! Oh, hang on... that's the wrong one.

The diary ambled along for eight months... that's a long time for the development of a Commodore 64 game. It makes for tortured reading at times... there were long periods where AB wasn't sure what he wanted in the game, couldn't come up with enemy designs, had to break from the game foran eye operation, had to break from the game to work on new versions of old games... it's almost a wonder that Morpheus was released at all. And maybe it wasn't... throughout the length of the diary, this was going to be a Hewson game, but it ended up being released by Rainbird.

So, it was hardly a smooth path that Morpheus trod. In such cases, the end product can often be a disappointment. It's difficult to say whether that was the case with Morpheus... I suppose it depends on what you wanted from the game.

Haha, yeah, you wish. It'll take ages before you've earned enough to buy this bad boy.

Morpheus is a space shoot 'em up. But just hold it right there before you go rushing in willy-nilly to wipe out wave after wave of attacking space craft. This game isn't like that at all.

It's a knocking bet that your first game of Morpheus will end in confusion and death. Your ship exits the docking station, which fades away as you enter the vastness of space. Then you blunder around, bumping into creatures indigenous to the area, which will bump into you and shoot you. Then you encounter a pulsing star, which will bombard you with bullets. If you're lucky, you will "de-mat" back to the docking station. There, you will see that you don't have enough money to buy anything, so you'll exit the docking station, and this time you will die.

Red scanner at night - space pilot's delight. That means you've shut down the nucleus.

Then you'll notice that you don't lose the credits you've accumulated. Morpheus is not quite the cruel mistress she appears to be... in storing your credits after you die, you can at least give yourself a sporting chance of getting somewhere. It might take a few games and a bit of time, but eventually you'll have the funds to commission yourself a new unit of some description.

Customisation of your ship is one of Morpheus' strong suits... to a degree. There's a large number of upgrades to choose from... if you have the cash, you can treat yourself to a new, bigger hull (essential if you want to get anywhere, as it can carry more upgrades), and other goodies such as weapons, energy supplies, radar, shields, etc. You might need to experiment a little to find the upgrades that work best for you. It's a very deep system, and it's handled in a very interesting way.

There you go, your first upgrade. Now your path will be clearer...

The upgrades don't work the way of most games, where you might find them floating around and pick them up, or you might go to a shop and buy them. In Morpheus, you must commission a new system (this, of course, is dependent on funds and the availability of a space on your ship for installation). Once a part is commissioned, you'll have to wait for it to be ready. You'll have to fly back into space and do battle for a while, and hope the mechanics will have finished working when you get back.

I like this aspect of the game. In this world of instant gratification, it's refreshing to play something where you have to really earn every upgrade. On the other hand, it doesn't make the game any more accessible, and in my time with it this time around, I never did manage to get a hull upgrade. But this isn't a straightforward arcade shoot 'em up, as the programmer takes great pains to point out.

Oh, bollocks. That didn't last long. What a waste of a grand!

Morpheus has fifty levels, or "timeslices". Getting through them all would be a real challenge... or maybe a chore, depending on your viewpoint. Each timeslice has a positive and negative phase, which you can alternate between depending on how much positive charge you're carrying. It kind of reminds me of the Entropy system in Jeff Minter's Iridis Alpha, but I don't think it's implemented as successfully. Unlike that game, in Morpheus, I never quite knew where I was or how the positive and negative was really working.

I think that Morpheus suffers from being too ambitious. Too ambitious for its time, and the technology of the day. Once you start adding stuff to your ship, especially hulls, everything starts to feel cramped. Even at its smallest, your ship takes up a lot of the screen, and it's easy to just blunder into everything willy-nilly. Of course, adding other units helps to compensate for this, but not entirely. I think that a remade version, taking advantage of today's widescreen tellies and higher resolutions, could really be something. As it was, Morpheus was a game for those with extremely high patience and the love of a stern challenge. It's more likely to appeal to the sort of person that liked Elite, Citadel or Hunter's Moon, which I think might have been the idea while the game was in production. But this one is very much an acquired taste.


  1. Impressively ambitious indeed and shockingly a game I had never heard before.

    Thanks for the write-up Paul!

  2. The characters you entered didn't match the word verification. Please try again.

    Actually I rember reading the diary -then waiting for the game to come out seeing adverts, then watching it go to Rainbird - then came the court case - then Hewson went bust and then it finally came out!

    You absolutely had to read the manual and practice then go back and read more and practice more. The most accessible game in the world it was not!

    Things I loved? The evolving enemies. The upgrade system - the frantic strafing trying to avoid getting hit. The depth of play and the long games. Thinkgs I didn't like? The repetititveness of the game task. The limitations of the control method. The fact that going backwards was a BAD idea. The way you couldn't fire your brand new weapon and the toothpaste laser (as I recall anyway). As Paul has said I think this is a prime candidate for a modern remake - not a clone but a gamne which takes advantage of modern hardware like joypads, widescreen monitors mutliple fire buttons and so on. Hard though this was I did come to love it (as I did all of Andrew Braybrooks C64 games) and I think I eventually got to about level 40. I finally stopped playing when the 64 got put away. Its not a game for for an occasional play.

    Thanks Paul!


  3. I really, really wanted to love this game. But I simply could not get into it.

    At all. Ever.

    There were very few games that have broken my heart (Deus Ex: Invisible War is a particularly not-so-fond memory, and No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle and Crackdown 2 also make the list... all sequels, who'd have thunk it?), but Morpheus is the pick of the list. I adored the Diary, reading every entry at least a dozen times, and even used a lot of his text as a basis for my own sprite multiplexer. But the game felt too restrictive, too constrained, too claustrophobic to be enjoyable at all... but at least I can admire the ambition behind it.

    I wonder what Andy's thoughts about the game are now?

  4. It looked stunning and I did spend a lot of time playing it. The idea was sound... The screen just wasn't wide enough. Going backwards would be fine if the scanner displayed more than just the atomic particles. I'd like to see a modern hi-res remake of it but that would entail someone actually understanding the upgrade system. I imagine it didn't sell well with the 14.99 rainbird price tag either... I'm surprised the guy didn't just give up on the games industry after that launch fiasco.