This is the first in a series of articles about homebrew games. Quite simply, outside of the fanbase for a particular system, a number of these go clear under the radar. It’s a terrible shame, given that a lot of these homebrews end up being better than commercial releases. As such, I’m going to highlight some of my particular favorites for a variety of systems!
I had written previously on the subject of gravity in Spacewar, one of the earliest computer games ever made. The concept of gravity’s effect on games has extended beyond that, but only a few noteworthy games have ever stood out. One in particular, a BBC Acorn game (later ported, famously, to the Commodore 64, among others) entitled Thrust, became something of a cult classic.
Thrust was something of an evolution from Atari’s arcade game, Gravitar. In that game, you were flying from planet to planet, destroying guns and grabbing fuel before taking off to the next one. Ever present was the gravity each planet would ensnare you in, forcing you to make your moves carefully, lest you fall too far and crash.
Thrust took this a step further—instead of flying from planet to planet, now you were warping onto a planet, battling turrets and the forces of physics as you made your way deep into planetary chasms to grab a fuel cell. Once you had latched onto it with your tractor beam, you had to carefully maneuver your way back out, all the while fighting with the weight and inertia of your cargo.
Fuel was also a concern, though not a large one. If you used your thrusters too much, you’d crash into a wall. Each planet also had a reactor, which if fired upon, would knock out the guns for an ever increasing amount of time. Shoot it too much, however, and it goes critical, forcing you to escape the planet in 10 seconds or get killed. Escaping with the reactor blowing up gave you a nice bonus to your score, but fail and you’d not only lose a life, but also any score you would get for simply grabbing the fuel cell and going.
The C64 version’s theme song, by Rob Hubbard, is a popular subject for remixes, and is generally looked upon as a high point in the SID chip’s musical life, no small feat. It’s so highly considered that a virtual concert program was written for the C64 solely featuring the game’s theme:
So, with all this complexity in mind, it was something of a surprise when in 2000, programmer Thomas Jentzsch released a version of the game for the Atari 2600. Even more surprising, he had managed to cram all of the gameplay of the computer versions, as well as a good approximation of the music. The game was as long as the computer ones, the levels were painstakingly recreated, and it quickly made the rounds among the growing Atari collector community as one of the best games ever made for the console.
In 2002, Atariage.com held a high score contest for Thrust. The prize was a special edition copy of a revision of Thrust, known colloquially as Thrust+. This new revision of the game boasted compatibility with the Atari driving controller, which allowed for precise 360 degree control. Since this also meant you could no longer thrust or use your tractor beam, the game was also made compatible with a new foot pedal controller, which the winners would also get. Rounding out the feature-set was functionality for the Omega Race booster grip controller, and a new pause function. There was some problems with getting the prizes out, however, as several players did not receive their packages for months.
A final revision came in 2003, when Atari music virtuoso Paul Slocum redid the music for the game, adding in the Commodore 64 version’s theme song and music tunes between levels. With that, the Thrust homebrew story had ended… at least for the Atari.
Then, in 2004, Ville Krumlinde put out a port of the game to the Vectrex. Due to the nature of the Vectrex console’s display, everything was done in very crisp vector line graphics. I can’t help but feel as though this added to the whole otherworldly feel of the game in a way no other version can. Tiny particles fly up when you take in fuel. The fuel pods have platforms that they rest upon. The music and sounds were also translated beautifully to the unique console. He also added a few new features; a hard mode, with homing bullets, new levels, and the ability to lock your thrusters while you fire in another direction; and a time attack mode.
I’ve sunk a lot of time into Thrust over the years, though I’ve never managed to make it all the way to the end. Reverse gravity, invisible planets, and then a combination of the two always conspire to end my adventures prematurely.
But it remains quite possibly one of my favorite games ever made on any platform. There’s nothing quite like squeezing through passages, or getting your ship under control after a bad burn sends your cargo into a pendulum swing. The physics make this game, and they make it worth your time.