We talk quite a lot about “video game auteurs” these days, and how modern technology allows game designers to realise their visions like never before.
This sort of thing has been going on for quite some time, however — and in some respects, it’s even more impressive when a developer clearly expresses their creativity through a work from the earlier days of gaming.
Such is the case with The Adventures of Rad Gravity, a 1990 release for NES developed by Interplay, designed by Brian Fargo (of Bard’s Tale and Wasteland fame) and published by Activision. Oh, and no need to brave the second-hand market to find a copy any more, either — it’s part of the Interplay Collection 2 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system.
The Adventures of Rad Gravity quickly establishes itself with some title screen music that has become legendary over the years for its seemingly cacophonous, atonal nature. But there’s structure there amid the seeming chaos; the rhythmic bass and percussion stays constant while the lead line delivers an energetic, dissonant and improvisatory-feeling melody over the top.
In fact, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the jazz substyle known as bebop, which was characterised by a grounded rhythm section coupled with wild improvisation over the top. Bebop first came to prominence in the 1940s — which, coincidentally, is also the decade that is regarded by many as the “golden age” of science fiction, and which The Adventures of Rad Gravity’s visual aesthetic is very clearly aiming to pay homage to within the limitations of the NES’ capabilities.
It goes about this in several ways. Firstly, there’s the comic book included in the original game manual, which sets the scene for the adventure in a distinctly “pulp comic” style that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the 1940s newsstands. Secondly, there’s the imagery of the eponymous protagonist on the title screen, which likewise brings to mind these same comic books. Thirdly, there’s the surprisingly large and detailed sprite used for Rad in between the main levels, whose fixed grin, huge chin and perpetually immaculate quiff are the very image of a ’40s or ’50s space hero.
And finally, there’s the level design itself, which imitates the sort of locales a hero from a “golden age” sci-fi work would have been to. Strange alien planets filled with dinosaurs; computer rooms filled with flashing lights and bleepy noises; worlds full of slime monsters where the gravity is seemingly reversed (actually achieved by simply turning the camera upside-down — or in this case, having flipped versions of all the sprites). It’s all there, and quite how consistent it all feels in terms of aesthetics is seriously admirable considering the host hardware.
What about the game itself, though?
The Adventures of Rad Gravity is a non-linear side-scrolling action adventure in which our hero is cooperating with a sentient computer known as Kakos to prevent a sinister plan. The narrative is actually surprisingly ambitious for an NES game, though it is a little undermined by the complete lack of punctuation anywhere in the game’s dialogue sequences, which leaves everything feeling a bit stilted and like a young not-entirely-literate child wrote it.
Quite why this happened isn’t clear, though in the 8-bit days every character in every text box was at an absolute premium so far as available storage space was concerned, so perhaps it was simply a practical decision so that Fargo and company could fit more fancy graphics in. After all, by this point Fargo had already showed himself to be more than capable of using computers to tell effective stories through his prior works such as Borrowed Time and Wasteland, so it’s not as if he was an unskilled writer by any means.
Indeed, look past that glaring grammatical issue and The Adventures of Rad Gravity will take you on a surprisingly interesting narrative journey, featuring intrigue, betrayal and plenty of mysteries to solve along the way. Well, all that and an inexplicable cameo appearance from what appears to be Cheech and Chong in one level.
Gameplay-wise, you control Rad from a side-on perspective and are initially armed with an energy sword you can stab out in front of you. Interestingly, enemies do not award any points or drop any power-ups and tend to respawn quite quickly, so combat is definitely not a focus of the game; your foes are, instead, obstacles to be overcome, and this pattern continues throughout the game’s more major encounters, too.
Your initial task as Rad is to locate the teleporter coordinates for a variety of other planets to continue your mission; once you’ve achieved this, the game opens up considerably, allowing you to tackle any of the available levels in whatever order you please — though there’s something of a “best” order to follow that relates to the various upgrades to Rad’s weapons, armour and life bar you can collect along the way. You’ll soon figure it out; if you’re getting one-shot by enemies, you should probably go somewhere else first, though the nice thing about the game is that if you’re a skilled player you can quite feasibly tackle the harder stuff first if you really want to challenge yourself.
Collecting an upgrade item appears to add a completely randomly generated number to Rad’s score, and your score is not lost upon continuing after death, making it completely irrelevant. The items are instead important for their functionality: weapons allow Rad to take on more powerful foes at greater range, while life and armour upgrades make more dangerous environments easier to handle.
However, many of these items are hidden in locations you wouldn’t necessarily think to look. For example, an upgrade to Rad’s initial energy sword and a life bar upgrade are hidden on a level you can only visit once as a part of the narrative, and to locate them you have to deviate from the main critical path, jump off the top of the screen and climb an invisible path to the right. If you didn’t know that was there, you probably wouldn’t ever find it, since there are no visual cues to point you in that direction.
There are a couple of situations where progressing through the main game feels a bit like that, too, but if you pay close attention to the things the game wordlessly tells you, you’ll usually have all the information you require before you need to use it.
For example, on one planet, there are slimes that creep along the floor. Stand on them and they’ll drag you along — including while you’re crouched. Doing this is the only way that Rad can move through a single tile-high passageway, since his fat head means that he’s two tiles tall when standing up.
You may not immediately make the connection here, but the game has already shown you what to do in a subtle manner — even if it just seemed to be a funny gimmick the first time you encountered the mechanic. Introducing a new gameplay technique, providing the player with an opportunity to experiment with it and then requiring them to use it to progress is a method that Nintendo would go on to refine considerably, particularly in their Super Mario and Zelda series — it’s interesting to see it implemented in a slightly more inelegant manner by a Western developer here.
Rad Gravity is a stiff challenge, to be sure, and there’s a fair amount of “learn by failure” going on. Thankfully, the infinite continues mean you can experiment to your heart’s content, and a password system allows you to pick up where you left off at a later time — or, of course, on emulators or devices such as the Evercade, you can always save your state and resume later that way.
Checkpoints in the game initially feel rather ungenerous, but this is very much an old-school platformer at its heart: it rewards players who learn the levels, understand the combat mechanics and carefully observe the environment. Sometimes failure might feel “cheap”, but more often than not repeated, seemingly unavoidable failure is an indication that you perhaps need to try something else instead — again, this is a technique that modern developers (most notably FromSoftware) continue to use in more recent games, albeit in a somewhat more polished, arguably clearer manner than here.
Is The Adventures of Rad Gravity worth playing today? Absolutely. Not only is it a solidly designed game — albeit a rather unforgiving one at times — but it’s also a prime example of creators from the relatively early days of gaming making a marked effort to realise a creative vision (within the constraints of contemporary technology) as much as simply release a product to market.
In that sense, it’s noteworthy from a historical perspective, and is worthy of your respect — even if, ultimately, you determine you don’t have the patience to deal with its idiosyncrasies!