Dig if you will the picture: you’re fifteen and you have the money from your first “real” paycheck burning a hole in the back pocket of your faded Wrangler jeans. Slapping Whoppers together for the slave drivers at Burger King is man-sized job for fuck’s sake, so you want to purchase something that will take your mind off the mind-numbing intricacies of pickle placement within said Whoppers with this hard earned cash. You want something worthwhile. You want something radical. You want something EPIC, goddamit!
After perusing Toys ‘R’ Us’ massive corridor of games for what seems like hours, you finally decide on a game because it has a bad-ass looking helicopter and slick, neon-styled lettering on the front. As a brief aside here, there were no actual boxes stacked on the shelves then…no, no… there were only laminated placards depicting the front and back of the game box and tickets you took from the pouch of the corresponding game, then moseyed on up to register, paid for the game, and finally liberated your game from the dark and creepy “game cage” where the video games of all color, genre and platform were held in bondage for some unknown offense. Ah, 1986…where have you gone?
The copy on the back of the laminate makes this game sound sufficiently EPIC, so you pull the trigger on this sale. Little do you know that this seemingly random, impulse purchase would go on to be one of your favorite video games of the 8-bit generation…
The game is titled INFILTRATOR. You’re not really sure what that means, but you’re pretty sure it has to do with breaking into places and generally doing things you’re not supposed to do. As a red-blooded, 15-year-old boy, the thought of this alone gives you a raging boner and you want to get cracking on this infiltration business ASAP. The game starts you off with a flight simulator-esque helicopter ride, which seems an odd choice at first, but you go with it. It’s good thing you do because this is unlike any hum-drum flight sim you’ve ever played. It is fun, wryly humorous, appropriately challenging and perfectly sets up the “you’re now in the shoes of super spy” vibe.
Once you’re on the ground, you set those super spy shoes in motion, taking control of a jack-of-all- trades badass who goes by the name of James “Jimbo Baby” McGibbits. But this is no simple run and gun affair, kid. You’re going to have to use your wits (along with a heavy dollop of stealth) in order to get in and out of the Mad Leader’s heavily guarded compounds unscathed. The items at your disposal –sleep gas grenades and canisters, a mine detector, a camera, ID papers, explosives and a security card — seem meager at first blush, but used intelligently and effectively they can be difference between a world living in freedom or a world crushed under the thumb of an insane tyrant.
After a few games, the sweaty joystick slides out of your hand as sit back in your creaky, broke-ass chair, and you smile to your 15-year-old self. You made a wise decision today. This game is totally AWESOME; it fluidly meshes different genres into a cohesive whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts…just a like a couple of your other favorite C64 games: Raid Over Moscow , Beach-Head and Beach Head II. Now, the only question is: do I play a few more games or do I tackle the Trig homework that is due tomorrow?
Like that even needs an answer — I’m 15 — what the fuck do I care about the sine, cosine and tangent of shitty triangles when the world needs saving?
Jimbo Baby, here I come…and let the Mad Leader BEWARE!!
The one man creative force behind INFILTRATOR, Chris Gray, was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the creation of this classic game and the current state of the video game industry as he sees it.
JB/GR: What was the impetus for creating “Infiltrator?”
CG: Infiltrator started out as a helicopter action/simulator. At the time of the original concept, in 1985, there weren't any helicopter-oriented flying games. Most everything else in the flight genre was based around jets, historical military sims, or spacecraft. During the designing phase, I realized that no one had created a game with the concept of, say, getting out of the helicopter and wandering around. Seems silly to say it now. I was thinking about James Bond movies at the time, and how they could influence the copter, weapons, missions, that sort of thing, when it occurred to me that the game could be focused the person who happens to be flying the helicopter, not about the helicopter itself. And it evolved from there. Coincidentally, (Libyan dictator Muammar) Gaddafi was in the news back in the day, threatening the U.S., etc.. He was the inspiration for the “Mad Leader.” I find it slightly ironic, given the events of the Arab Spring over the past year. He was still in the news after all these years…
JB/GR: What difficulties /challenges did you face in completing the game?
CG: I totally underestimated how long it would take to write it. My earlier projects had been on shorter timelines. I had just finished high school in Canada. I remember telling my agent at the time it would take about 3 months… then 5 months… I think it took me nearly a year by the time it was done. It was also the first game I'd worked on where one of the publishers had a dedicated team of bug testers, which was an alien concept to me in those days. I remember getting increasingly annoyed with them as day after day, just when I thought the game was done and I could take a break, I'd receive a fax with another list of 20 bugs or whatever it would have been. But the bugs were real, much as it annoyed me, so I fixed them. Eventually it was done, but it was exhausting since I designed and built the game, all the development tools, and wrote it in assembly language without a proper debugger! I dare you to try that now, engineers. Then after the bulk of the work was done, I had to help the European publishers with cassette versions (the original game was design only for floppy disk) and translations to other platforms. It ended up on Spectrum, Amstrad, Apple II; I even hired the artist to do the original box cover art, to ensure it was consistent in as many countries as possible. By the time it launched everywhere, it was probably closer to eighteen months development time. Not so different from today's timelines. As an aside, I had to abandon a long-planned European back-packing trip with my high school friends partway through the trip, just to make sure I could help get all the different versions out the door. No cell phones or internet in those days, and try finding a fax in rural Spain!
JB/GR: Infiltrator was one of the few action/adventure games of that era to promote non-lethal options (i.e. gas grenades/canister) to deal with enemies. What was your reasoning behind that decision?
CG: In earlier versions of the game, I did toy around with Jimbo (the player's character) having a gun. Again I was referencing James Bond and spy films for some inspiration. But then I remember feeling strange about sneaking up on a guard, and shooting them point blank with a machine gun. It felt cruel. Later on I incorporated the gameplay of a base alarm going off if there was a disturbance, building on the stealth ideas, and I thought it really made no sense to try to be stealthy then shoot some poor guard and as a result set off all the base alarms. Why not knock them out, say with sleeping gas. It was also fun to get the added gameplay of having them wake up later, possibly surprising the player. Overall it felt more fun, less predictable, and yes, a bit less cruel.
JB/GR: In my opinion, Infiltrator seemed to be a perfect hybrid of the flight sim/stealth genres. Was this a conscious decision or something that evolved as you were making the game?
CG: Definitely it evolved. As I said it started as an helicopter action/sim, since there really weren't any at the time as far as I can remember. And later, inspired by a love of James Bond and spy fiction, I thought it might be fun to actually get out of your helicopter! In the early days of computer games, I don't think people were thinking about the character inside the machine wanting to go somewhere, and get out! Strange as that may sound now. It was considered deep enough to fly, and that's all. But I thought: what's the point of flying a cool stealth helicopter if you can't go anywhere after you land? Seemed obvious enough. There's another game I designed after Infiltrator (the unfortunately named “Road Raider” (or the UK, “Motor Massacre”) which was inspired by Mad Max. In fact it was later released on the NES as the actual "Mad Max" licensed game. I had you driving around and getting out of your armored car, exploring buildings infested with Zombie-like creatures. I always liked the idea of mixing machines, whether it's a helicopter or car, and on-foot exploration gameplay.
JB/GR: What are your thoughts on the recent crowd-funding/Kickstarter boom that's allowing developers to make games without a “big” publisher involvement?
CG: I think it's a terrific development, and could have only happened with the internet and the increasing understanding we have of spending money online. There is a trust factor that had to evolve, a comfort level with sending someone money on the chance that they'll make this cool piece of entertainment for you. There are some risks for investors, since there's no guarantee the game will actually be published, or make money if you buy shares in a company, for example. But the era of publishers funding smaller titles has largely ended, and to be able to reach out to a smaller but highly enthusiastic & motivated fan base, across the world, is a powerful idea. I was thrilled to see the reaction to the DoubleFine and InXile pitches. There are so many great ideas percolating out there, backed by people or development teams which could never hope to find funding with a larger company like EA or Activision. They're driven by predictability of revenues and guaranteed hits, which is in turn driven by Wall St. expectations, so you end up with the big investment, big-return mentality. Which is fine, but ultimately boring for people like me. I am tired of trying to explain why a game idea is cool to someone who works in the "Demand Planning" department. It's more fun when you dream about doing something fresh and exciting that may or may not work. So the short answer after the long-winded answer is yes, I might start some crowd-funded projects together soon myself.
JB/GR: With many classic games getting an HD facelift these days can we expect to see this happen for Infiltrator sometime in the near future?
CG: Yes, I've decided to leave the world of larger publishers behind for the time being. I had a good run at EA but, having tried another publisher briefly after that, I realized I don't like working for anyone else. With the explosion in mobile devices it's the perfect time to start a new venture. I now live in the San Francisco bay area, and it will be based here. There is a version of the classic 8-bit game available now on the iPhone App Store. It's been published by Elite Systems in the UK; they've done a nice job on an 8-bit emulator. The game was designed for a keyboard and a joystick, so the interface is hardly ideal, but worth a look if you want to see almost exactly how it looked and played back in the 80's!
Anyway, I think it would be cool to dream up a new version of Infiltrator for mobile and tablets. Maybe add some location-based features…