The year was 1993. Four guys sit down in Krister Karlsson's basement in Alingsås, Sweden to work on a game called Shenandoah: Daughter of the Stars. Unfortunately, the group chemistry dissolves, development stops, the diskette lands in a box and is forgotten. 20 years later Krister tidies his attic and rediscovers this massive space adventure. Using both new and old colleagues they rework the old Amiga coding, calibrate the game for a widescreen format, and change the name to the more appropriate 1993: Space Machine. This game is as much about the story behind it as it is about what actually happens on screen (read our coverage of the backstory here).
1993: Space Machine is a side-scrolling shoot em 'up, where level design, animations, music, and history have been recycled in their entirety from the '90s, as well as the graphics. The game when in motion is a sight to behold, with dozens of enemies on the screen at the same time without ever dropping in framerate. We were curious to see whether it would look as good on a 55 inch TV screen as it did on a small monitor, and sure enough it did.
The inevitable space war (if Hollywood has taught us anything it's that an invasion is imminent) has, in 1993: Space Machine, just ended, after which the super villain Colonel Nestor gathers a gang of pirates together for more mischief making. From our hero he steals a space machine meant to give the various planets a decent standard of living. Three elderly people sporting fancy facial hair send me on an assignment to blow Nestor & Co to smithereens as this piece of hardware must be returned to the good and decent people who deserve it. With limited amounts of space cash to spend we choose a craft that packs a lot of fire power, but a smaller shield. We imagine ourselves finishing this adventure in an evening. Big mistake, as it turns out.
This is a game that requires some serious skills, and it nearly brought us to tears during the 15 hours it took us to bring back the stolen machine. However, the difficulty is made more manageable thanks to the music. It does a brilliant job setting the mood as we tackle intergalactic baddies, especially when there's a massive boss battle at hand. When combined with sound effects all is not well, however. For example, the heart-breaking sound of taking damage increases in volume so that we feel forced to turn down the volume on the speakers.
After a challenging section where some enemies leave cash behind, we get to board a ship that sells upgrades and weapons roughly the size of my ship. Hence, it becomes difficult in the heat of battle tell the difference between your gun and your craft as hordes of enemies spray bullets all over the screen. But adding new hardware is exciting and highly satisfying and helps motivate us as we take on the difficult worlds.
Most of 1993: Space Machine is spent feeling desperate and with a constant sense of being humiliated. Our paper pushing sidekick shows up during boss presentations, he makes an amusing joke and we laugh, only to immediately fall victim to a massive attack and explode into two-dimensional scrap. "You died," reads the screen along with the always uplifting information of how many times we've been killed. 296 times times, which makes for about 20 deaths per hour, based on how long it took us to reach the end credits. An average of three minutes alive.
There is no hand holding here and that's appreciated. The controls, special attacks, and shield usage is left up to us to figure out, which means that once we get comfortable we feel incredibly empowered. Then we die, thirty times straight without the faintest idea of how far away we were from the next checkpoint. To add injury to insult a bit further on a bug prevented us from progressing further. We tried to boot up new save files, and tried to will our way past it, but to no avail. The next day we were able to progress and the issue was magically gone. On another occasion our ship got stuck in a pit, but as a whole 1993: Space Machine isn't a buggy or glitchy experience.
Taking short breaks was key to our success. After a breather we're able to progress further and fill our wallets with money to spend on a bunch of lovely hardware, gaining access to the lovely feature of being able to carry four weapons. The size of our ship goes from Magikarp to Gyarados (small to large if you don't know your Pokémon), and precision moves go out the window. Does it matter? Well, the levels also involve some tight platforming. Once again, death and despair 296 times over.
After completing the game you can spend your time replaying the levels with a fully upgraded craft, and the boss fights are naturally the main appeal here. Additionally there is Hardcore Mode where you have to make it through the game without a shield and just three lives. Let us know if you manage to beat the game in Hardcore Mode, if you do you're one skilled gamer.
Overall this side-scroller entertains at the same time as offering the sort of challenge that borders on being frustrating for the player. We would have liked a more fleshed out story, and it would have been neat to see the game offer up even larger groups of enemies (as in Resogun). All in all, 1993: Space Machine is a neat retro game with looks and tunes that impress.