Sunday, 18 September 2011

There's No Place Like UTOPIA

(or why Mattel should stick to making plastic bimbos)

Imagine this: it’s the 1980s, and your mother has bought you a computer. Fantastic, except your dear old mum knows nothing about computers. Whilst your friends get Spectrums, you get a ZX 81. When your best mate gets a Commodore 64, you get a Vic 20. And it gets worse: you’re one of the few people to own a Commodore 16 or a Mattel Aquarius. Thanks to your mum, your experience of 8 bit computer gaming is very different from your friends. But it’s not all bad, after all, even the duffest computer had its gaming moments

Case in point: the Mattel Aquarius. In the 1980s Mattel was already a well respected toy company, added to which they’d already part conquered the world of computer gaming with the rather wonderful Intellivision (a sixteen bit console introduced a full nine years before the Sega Megadrive). You might hope then that Mattel would have built on this heritage for its first foray into the world of home computers. But no. Instead, Mattel bought a design off-the-shelf from the no-mark Hong Kong firm Radofin. There was a good reason no one had heard of their computers before: Radofin’s design had only 4k of memory and relied heavily on cartridges for its games.

About the only thing the average British user found familiar about it were the Spectrum-esque blue rubber keys. It had the smallest space bar in the history of home computing too. The oft- repeated rumour was Mattel’s own staff took to jokingly calling the Aquarius ‘ The system of the 70s’ (which wasn’t much help if you got one for Christmas in 1983). Merely owning a Mattel Aquarius was likely to get you bullied at school. Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners would often take breaks from their ‘ Who’s got the best computer ’ argument to pound on Aquarius owners – if they could find one.

And yet not all was lost. Mattel had remembered a thing or two about making good cartridge-based games from their Intellivision days. And for the games starved Aquarius owner this offered a lifeline. Whilst your playground bruises healed, you could ‘console’ yourself with Snafu (a Tron-a-like bike game), or best of all Utopia.

PC owners today are spoiled for choice when it comes to God Games, but Utopia was in a very small way the forerunner of many of these games. The premise was simple: two islands (which to me always looked like the Falklands – but which probably looked like the Malvinas to Argentinean kids) sat opposite each other. You, and preferably a friend (or your mum if you were really stuck) would each ‘rule’ an island. You could develop it however you saw fit, by building forts or planting crops. The aim was to make your island as prosperous as possible. The real fun however came from the mischief in the game. Attacking the other island was part and parcel of success, and nothing was more fun than knocking down your friend’s newly built fort – or sinking his fishing boats. It somehow kept you away from real life vandalism as destroying an entire island was much more fun than breaking the glass in your local bus shelter.

Utopia also had a few tricks up it sleeve. Random rain was needed to make your crops prosper, but random hurricanes would also saunter across your little island, knocking down your hard built forts. Sneaking in and destroying your opponent just as he’d been Katrina’d was a favourite tactic. The game was round-based, but the user could set the length of the round to as little as 30 seconds – which allowed fast and furious game play.

Not that everything was fabulous in Utopia. The Aquarius was horribly limited in both the graphics and sound departments. The main map looked remarkably like the teletext weather map (try page 401 on BBC1 text to get an idea). And the sound was no more than the occasional beep. Plus, there was no save feature, but as the average Aquarius owner probably hadn’t invested in a cassette data recorder it didn’t really matter. And that was the point about Utopia: it was fun, but throwaway. It’s doubtful that Utopia had much impact on the development of modern strategy games, simply because nearly nobody played it, even when it appeared on the Intellivision console.

Ultimately, the rare, fun oddity like Utopia wasn’t enough. The age of Aquarius never dawned and the machine was withdrawn within a year of launch, destined for the elephant’s graveyard of unsuccessful 8 bit home micros. The Mattel Aquarius and Utopia: terrible computer – great game.


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