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How a forgotten ’80s gem created the formula for video game horror

From the box art of Project Firestart. Photo: Hardcore Gaming 101
From the box art of Project Firestart. Photo: Hardcore Gaming 101

Imagine an alternate timeline where Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, instead of riding the wave of critical praise and commercial success that enabled it to become a template for so many modern games, had faded into obscurity. Unable to capitalize on a handful of enthusiastic reviews and dragged down by a platform that’s fast becoming obsolete, its innovations pass largely unnoticed and its influence remains minimal. In this hypothetical world, one of the medium’s most revered works is remembered almost exclusively by hardcore devotees and the occasional archive-snooping journalist. Eventually, the genre it should have been credited with spawning is rediscovered independently by another game—perhaps no less worthy, but definitely more zeitgeist-attuned—a few years later. This theoretical tragedy is the real story of Project Firestart.

Screenshot: Project Firestart

Conventional wisdom tends to ascribe the birth of survival-horror to Alone In The Dark. Infogrames’ 1992 Lovecraftian adventure bore practically every hallmark of the genre and proved a major influence on its two most prominent series, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. What’s often omitted from history books is how Dynamix’s Project Firestart, a much less conspicuous title, had been released for the aging Commodore 64 three years earlier and provided the genre’s formula.

It takes place aboard the SSF Prometheus, a research ship stationed near Titan’s mines. Its scientists are working to produce a new breed of laborer by combining human DNA with that of local fungi. As the vessel has failed to respond to all recent communications, your mission in the role of special agent Jon Hawking, is to board the Prometheus, assess the situation, locate and acquire its science logs, and activate the station’s self -destruct mechanism, which will hopefully leave you with just enough time to escape before the ship and everything inside it is blown to cosmic dust. A time limit of two hours has been set for concluding your mission, at the end of which the research station will be bombarded remotely.

The first and most easily identifiable survival-horror staple Project Firestart introduced was a disempowered protagonist. It used limited ammunition—although not an innovation in itself—not as a gimmick to ramp up difficulty or incentive for tactical decision-making, but primarily as a means of reinforcing its oppressive, sinister mood. Spare weapons to replenish Hawking’s firepower are few and far between, tucked away in the space station’s most remote rooms. Your vulnerability is not restricted to the scarcity of ammo. Like Leon in Resident Evil 4, Hawking can walk and shoot but is unable to do both simultaneously. Going on the offensive leaves him at his most exposed. More importantly, the monstrosities that have infested the research station are highly resistant to damage, and it takes several shots to destroy one. The game even comments on this deliberate disempowerment: During the opening cinematic, you are advised not to take “that cannon you usually carry for a gun” as “it’d blow a hole right through the hull of the ship.”

Screenshot: Project Firestart

There is a subtle difference between a hero who has been weakened and one that is simply weak, and Project Firestart shrewdly exploits the distinction not just through those introductory lines of dialogue but also by gradually and sadistically eroding your few footholds for survival. Your weapon’s rate of fire decelerates as your ammo reserves are reduced, the time remaining for your escape takes a nosedive as soon as the ship’s self-destruction is activated, and even your vision starts failing after the Prometheus is plunged into darkness during your mission’s final stages.

The game’s ingenious visual design aims to contribute to this growing unease, as well. The backgrounds are drawn to convey a sense of scale and isolation (aided by a minimalist soundtrack of echoing footsteps and metallic whooshes) that leaves you feeling helpless and insignificant. Massive planetary bodies hover in the distance, indifferent to your human woes, while monitors broadcast live images of remote rooms whose purposes remain unidentified but whose lack of human activity is no less glaring. The Prometheus’ maze of rooms, interconnecting levels, and lengthy corridors is just confusing enough to delay players, perhaps forcing you to backtrack on occasion or take a wrong turn in a moment of panic, but it is not completely disorienting.

Screenshot: Project Firestart

In that way, Firestart explores the fruitful dynamic between lack of awareness and claustrophobia. Individual rooms are always fully visible but cramped and unfit for maneuvering. If a wandering alien decides to barge in, the immediate proximity alone could kill you. Corridors, on the other hand, are better suited for combat, as long as you can see the creatures coming. But since these often extend beyond the visible borders of the screen, scrolling in both directions as you move down their length, it’s easy to become surrounded by enemies attacking from both sides before spotting them. The interplay between side-scrolling corridors and isometric rooms foreshadows the psychological effects of the fixed camera angles in the first wave of survival-horror games. The Commodore 64 was not nearly powerful enough to render the 3-D environments of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but the crooked framing and elevated angles that formed those games’ visual repertoire effectively merged the two types of tension produced by Firestart’s spaces, restricted movement and restricted awareness.

There’s another, less tangible aspect of Project Firestart that, while arguably not a hallmark of survival horror exclusively, is often the ingredient separating its greats from the heap of imitators: a command of pace. Instead of rushing to throw its hordes of green-skinned abominations at you, the first few minutes of your mission are spent quietly investigating the areas closest to your boarding vessel. The evidence slowly piles up. A mangled body next to the word “Danger” painted with the corpse’s own blood seems to give away the fate of the crew, but there are still unanswered questions: Are there any survivors? Who, or what, has caused this? Most pertinently, are they still on board? The game holds back until you’ve discovered what has befallen the Prometheus, and only after that moment does it unleash your adversaries with a chilling leitmotif you will learn to dread for the remainder of your mission.

Screenshot: Project Firestart

Its mysteries only multiply from there. A series of cutscenes reveals the existence of two surviving crew members in the ship’s cryo chambers. By the time you reach them, one has already woken up. Is there a way to save the woman still lying in a state of suspended animation and to locate the man that has seemingly vanished? What is the new threat walking the Prometheus’ corridors, powerful enough to leave a trail of alien corpses in its wake? Who is responsible for the power outage, and is there a way to fix it?

The sense of uncertainty is enormously assisted by Project Firestart’s open exploration and rare insistence on tying its interweaving subplots to the ticking clock instead of your character’s actions. Implausibly, for a game that takes up less than a megabyte of disk space (the equivalent of four Commodore floppies), the narrative can unfold with myriad permutations. Cutscenes and environments change depending on your decisions, and there are multiple endings and side quests, including what may well be gaming’s first-ever escort mission. The ambition on display is stupendous, and Project Firestart is plucky enough to turn even technical limitations into advantages. The monstrous demands its detailed backgrounds made on the Commodore’s 64 kilobytes of RAM meant that each room had to be loaded separately, a short delay that, not unlike Resident Evil’s famous doors, served to build up suspense.

Screenshot: Project Firestart

So why does Project Firestart remain a footnote in the annals of the medium? Despite a few rave reviews in some of the more popular magazines of the era, including a coveted Sizzler award from Zzap!64, the game was not a commercial success. Hurt by a prolonged and evidently quite troubled development (according to a retrospective by IGN, Firestart’s director, Jeff Tunnell, seldom talks about it and has even removed it from his gameography), it was effectively ignored by its own publisher, Electronic Arts, which made minimal efforts to promote it.

As sad as the final chapter of such an ambitious, genre-defining project may be, it was perhaps an inevitable one. Firestart’s two and a half years of development had seen the Commodore 64, the world’s most successful gaming computer when production began in 1986, fall from grace not once, but twice. Its host system supplanted by a new generation of 16-bit computers and the growing popularity of consoles, Project Firestart arrived with little fanfare on a dying platform, a bitterly ironic fate for a game whose ending rests on perfect timing. What remains is a testament to the ambition of a team that dared to think beyond hardware limitations and received genre templates—that, and a precious suggestion of the minor wonders that may still lie forgotten in the dusty shelves of gaming history.