Games of yore #7: Scarab

I figure I’ve talked enough about old games over the past few weeks. It never gets old (no pun intended), but I find myself missing the regular programming, so I’m going to cap this series off at lucky number seven – for the time being anyway.

Now, here’s one I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear anybody’s never played – or even heard of. This mech shooter from 1997 is obscure enough to not have a Wikipedia article, and I only dabbled in it myself a very short time, but it left enough of an impression on me to last the years.

Scarab was a product of, of all devs, Electronic Arts (is this where the ‘when EA was good’ jibes go in?), but in this case, that’s not a sin. It sticks in my memory first and foremost for the premise – which occupied a mere two paragraphs in the manual, and wasn’t even that well written, but whoever wrote it sure knew how to hook lovers of weird history. It’s reproduced here for your pleasure.

There’s only one video of it on YouTube worth showing – hours long, and narrated in Czech, but the game language is English so that’ll have to do.

Scarab utilized the familiar holy-trinity class layout of later games like Tribes. You had your agile, jetpacking lightweight, your all-purpose all-rounder, and your slow-ass juggernaut, with the corresponding pros, cons, and armament restrictions. As new as I was to gaming when I played it, it never occurred to me that these would be tremendous as a combined-arms effort – or even whether the game had any multiplayer. I recall I just picked the heavy mech, belted up, and prepared to kill before I got killed.

Except killing wasn’t the only thing to do in Scarab. With the Egyptian theme, it would be downright weird to not have the gods & magic angle realized as a key gameplay mechanic. This came in the form of towers, which were basically field generators of divine power for the mechs – and a crucial strategic element of winning matches.

As I recall it (I think I still have the manual, but it’s too far buried to dig out), you had to call your dropship to drop towers at your location, and then defend them for a few minutes while they incubated. Towers were finite, so placement was important – proximity to a friendly one bestowed advantages like shield recharging, and so on. And because establishing ‘influence’ over the map via your tower network was key, having one within the ‘zone of influence’ of an enemy one nullified both’s power, buying you time to undermine your opposite number. Like wrecking their network, or shooting down their dropship.

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I remember the towers because they gave me an idea in another game: StarCraft.

Toying with SC’s map editor as I was at the time, I found myself trying to recreate Scarab’s simple ‘capture the map’ mechanic as a custom map. Goliaths stood in for the mechs and pylons for the towers, which were spawned at the goliath’s position by a crude SCV-to-beacon trigger mechanism (ah, the ingenuity of map designers of the day!). Might have made a neat little idea, had I followed through. But that’s a lament for another time.

All in all, I don’t think I spent more than a few hours in Scarab. It was too clunky and too difficult – and I wanted to shoot the dev in charge of the shielding system. The mechs’ shields were essentially bubbles made up of ‘panels’, each of which could be shot out – which both created frustrating blind spots and allowed hostile fire to slip through. The only way to deal with these in a firefight was to rotate the shield – via your numpad. I wasn’t savvy enough a gamer to look for key binding options or tweak .ini files then. All I could think was, which of my two hands was I going to use for that, heh?

I never played another mech shooter. Between Scarab and Titanfall, I’m sure there were a lot, known and unknown alike, but the concept of piloting giant walkers just didn’t take off for me after this one. (Except for another one-shot in Silent Line: Armored Core on the PS2 years later, and boy, was that one hard as well!) It remains in my memory as a mere oddity: a relic of the days I cared enough – and had time enough – to experiment with games far outside my sphere.

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