Let me take you back. To a time when the idea of 3d graphics was still something of a novelty. Something that had mainly been used in the slower space navigation games such as elite. The fast action shooters was still the domain of 2d bitmap powered engines.
Then, almost unnoticed a title appeared on the Archimedes that quietly re-wrote those rules. Zarch provided the player with a fixed perspective window of a large 3d space. Islands and sea were rendered in light sourced three dimensions. Then into this world arrived aliens that slowly infected the place, turning the green tundra to mud and soot. Tree’s decayed, fields turned to mud, alien pods were planted.
What first trikes the player though, is not the slow unwinding of the environment, but the sheer speed at which you could fly through it. At full pelt, the engine would throw a bewildering stream of land and sea at the player. They could accelerate both horizontally and vertically at rapid speeds. The experience became one of sensing the wider space you were exploring. This is the first time I had the real feeling of another reality that I was connected to, and could play in.
And this play was possible because of another highly distinctive aspect of the game: it’s control system. The game chose freeform play and flexibility over accessibility. The first time you launched your little ship into the unknown would go fine for the first 10 seconds. Then came the point where you needed to change direction, which usually resulted in much fumbling with the mouse until the ship flipped upside-down and rammed itself into the ground. Both curious and frustrating. (So much so that the Z-Virus remake of this game felt it necessary to provide and defualt to a different control scheme.)
Hoever, for those who persevered with this, there was a gem of a play dynamic to be found. It would slowly dawn on you that moving the mouse up did different things to the ship depending on its current orientation. And slowly at first you would begin to be able to fly in the direction you wanted. Then as you clocked up your fly-time, things would start to click into place, as you were able to hang the back of the craft out on an arced turn, or quickly flip direction for rapid braking. Eventually you hit the sweet spot and the experience was much like surfing around the place with your hand resting on an imaginary wave.
The rest of the game, the levels and enemies essentially provided a framework within which you could enjoy flying the ship, performing increasingly audacious maneuvers. Because of this the replay value of the game was huge, the opportunity to catch another ‘wave’ always beckoned.