What Makes This Game Great: Nebulus

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By Kodiak

Originality in any gaming genre is as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth, but with Hewson's release in 1987 of Nebulus, a truly unique, quirky (in a good way) and wonderfully playable game for the Commodore 64 entered the annals of 8-bit gaming lore and, who knows, probably helped the developer pay off his mortgage, such were its sales levels across a host of platforms.

So let's take a closer look at what makes Nebulus on the C64 great!

  • Its fundamental gameplay totally rocks; at the crux of this is the intuitive control of the main character, an essential ingredient in attaining immersive symbiosis with the game environment.
  • It's addictive, because building on the core movement mechanics, there are many satisfying interactions along the way, chiefly based on avoiding contact with hostile objects, but also on encounters with native-feeling game-world obstacles, lifts, steps and doorways leading to the other side of the tower, etc., in the pursuit of progress, which, in the form of advancing to completely new locations (i.e. additional towers), draws the player to probe further into the game world.
  • Fairness: It has a reasonable, if inconsistent (which I explain below), difficulty curve which right away lifts it head and shoulders above 90% of C64 games, such as the vast bulk of Ocean's huge portfolio of slickly packaged, overpriced rubbish; this fairness is underlined by the relative ease with which additional lives in the game may be obtained.
  • It has a great and - for its era - almost unmatched interlude level in the form of a submarine shoot-em-up sequence with parallax scrolling.
  • Its graphics, in particular the rotating tower effect, were state of the art and even now remain top notch, having stood the test of time very well, unlike many popular titles from the mid-to-late 1980s.
  • Its bubbly, watery sfx endow the game with distinctive audio as well, which is another way in which it stands out from the crowd.
  • It has a sprinkling of little, barely noticeable snippets of finesse; for example, the shadow underneath the submarine in the interlude gets darker the closer you get to the seabed. Slick.
Nebulus Interlude

With such an abundance of lavish praise, surely this game is close to perfection?

Well, no... Not quite.

It has a few blemishes which we'll consider now, as I turn to list the things I would do differently (speaking as a Commodore 64 game developer myself):

  • Though few and very far between, it suffers from that staple annoyance that plagues many platform games: pixel-perfect jumps... So I would remove those rare instances.
  • You know how I said the controls are intuitive? Well, for me personally, they would be even more so if we didn't have to press fire + up to jump; up alone would suffice.
  • Nebulus has two coding bugs, the first of which sees the occasional mistiming of the “flying spanner attack”, but this only emerges as an issue on very rare and unpredictable occasions (hence it would have been hard to debug and either missed or quietly swept under the carpet, so to speak...) but I would like that fixed!
  • A worse bug is that the entire sprite movement and scrolling (in fact, the whole system) slows down under high CPU load, notably at the start of level 6 ("The Swimmer's Delight"), which is a less excusable bug than the previous one and could and should have been resolved by better coding or optimisation.
  • The levels are not strictly ordered in difficulty ranking; for example, in my experience, level 5 is much harder than most of the others that follow, so that's another thing I would want addressed.
  • I would like it to have in-game music as an option, but this may have been difficult given the already heavily tasked CPU and probable RAM constraints... a modern cartridge reboot would overcome the RAM issue though and the advances in reducing raster time over the years might also make it viable.
  • A time-addition pick-up would be a welcome new feature.
  • One final wish-list improvement would be a bit more variety in the enemy sprite designs, but again, this likely boiled down to RAM limitations on what was a single-load game.

I would have to concede, however, that all of the above are minor issues and Nebulus, despite them, was and remains an enduring classic on the Commodore 64.

And yes, would you believe me if I said its main sprite, the little frog-like creature, had a direct influence on Parallaxian?

The way he rotates as he turns inspired the animation frames for the main craft in my game as it turns, so that's perhaps a somewhat surprising connection with Nebulus.

You can download Nebulus here.

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