In 1987, FTL released a game on the Atari ST that would not only boost the platform's popularity immensely but which also went on to become the best-selling ST game of all time. Dungeon Master was and is an all-time classic, and its position in the gaming hall of fame is 100% deserved. However, FTL also released another game in 1987 - a game which, for me, was every bit as incredible as Dungeon Master but was overshadowed by its sibling to the extent that it is now, to most people at least, long forgotten. That game was 'Oids', and this is my attempt to redress the balance.
Unlike Dungeon Master, Oids is an arcade game through and through. Taking influence from the BBC Micro classic 'Thrust' and Brøderbund's 'Choplifter', Oids charged you to take control of a small triangular ship and rescue the titular Oids, a race of androids enslaved by the evil Biocretes and forced to work themselves to death in their factories. To do this you must visit 32 planetoids spread over six galaxies and bust them out of jail, while avoiding or destroying the defences which the Biocretes have set up to prevent their rescue.
You control the game in classic Thrust fashion by rotating left or right and firing your ship's engines in order to increase your speed; the initial learning curve can be fairly steep if you're unfamiliar with this type of game, and the early stages will be less about rescuing the Oids and more about teaching yourself how best to control your own momentum while successfully fighting gravity. All the while, the Biocrete defences will do their very best to blow you out of the sky; gun turrets and missile launchers are standard fare, but there are also gravity-bending attractors and repulsers, hidden mines which explode when you draw too near, and shielded bases which continually launch waves of missiles and attack ships until you can finally destroy them.
The Oids themselves are trapped within cages spread throughout the scrolling landscape, often in well-defended or hard-to-reach spots; mountains and ridges make navigating the overworld tricky, but there are also tight cave complexes which requires all of your piloting skill to navigate. Cages are opened by shooting them, releasing the Oids who will then roam the area nearby until you can safely land and pick them up. Your job's still not done once they're on board, however, as they're not truly safe until you can return them to your mothership; this means heading back to where you were dropped off at the start of the level without wrecking your ship en-route (and thereby killing any Oids unlucky enough to be on board).
To help you fight back, you have a fixed number of ships available and each is equipped with a fast-firing front-mounted gun and a small stock of novabombs which explode on contact and do significantly more damage. You also have a shield which can be activated at any point to prevent incoming damage, but which runs down with use. This can be recharged at any point but will be unusable during the charging sequence so careful planning is required to make sure you're not caught undefended at the worst possible moment. Fuel pods on the surface can be used to replenish your dwindling supply, and returning Oids to the mothership also earns you a refuel, along with extra novabombs and, for each eight Oids you rescue, an extra life.
Save (or kill) all of the Oids on a planetoid and your mothership returns to whisk you on to the next one, your ultimate aim being to clear each galaxy with the highest score possible.
Looking at screenshots of Oids, it's easy to see why Dungeon Master drew all the attention. Although it has a clean, sharp graphical style with a wonderful contrast between the earthen shades of the planetoid and the silver-and-chrome Biocrete facilities, the graphics are all fairly small and (at first glance) seem relatively unimpressive. It's not until you actually see the game in motion that you realise just how much detail is packed into these tiny pixels. The Oids themselves are the star of the show; only a few pixels high, they still somehow manage to display a huge amount of personality as they run across the planetoid's surface, occasionally stopping to jump and wave, and you always feel terrible when a badly aimed volley of gunfire accidentally tears a group of them apart (although their fiery, over-acted death animation is also beautifully realised).
Your craft and the alien defences also move and animate beautifully, and the planetoid scrolls quickly and smoothly in all directions, giving you ample opportunity to see what's heading your way before it riddles your ship with bullets. The controls seem a little complicated at first, and due to the number of buttons it's best played with the keyboard rather than with a joystick, but once you get used to your ship you'll find it crisply responsive; with a little confidence on your side it's possible to pull off some quite outlandish manoeuvres in order to best the enemy and save your android friends.
All of this makes for an incredibly tight gaming experience. The game loop itself is simple, but the risk-reward balance is just about perfect; do you risk grabbing the last two Oids at the end of a cave system in order to fill your ship to capacity and gain an extra life, or do you play it safe and return to the mothership now, knowing that you may well need that life before you can get back? Do you use your last novabombs against a base's shields, or save them for an emergency and attack much less efficiently with your guns? You can recharge your shields at speed by sacrificing fuel and this can save you from disaster, but do you then have enough left to make it to a refuelling station?
For an arcade-style game, Oids offers a huge number of options and requires a great deal of thought as well as good reflexes. Although the level layouts are fixed, each replay can work out very differently based on your choices and this makes for an excellent level of re-playability as you try to learn and game the systems in an attempt to save every single Oid and earn a higher score for each galaxy.
All of this would be brilliant on its own, but Oids is also hiding a spectacular trick up its sleeve. Built into the game itself is a full level editor, which allows you to create new planetoids using the complete set of features seen in the main game. Planetoids can be arranged into galaxies and saved to disk, appearing on the main menu right alongside the bundled levels and complete with their own persistent high score.
The editor is both simple to use and incredibly fun to play with; back in the day we would often spend days creating new, furiously-difficult levels to challenge our friends with and doing so was almost as entertaining as playing the game itself. It's a feature which could well have been sold on its own as a separate product; bundling it for free was a master-stroke as it encouraged groups of friends to all buy their own copy of the game and meant you could essentially play the game forever without getting bored.
Alas, it wasn't to be for Oids. Despite some excellent reviews in the European press (ACE rated it a massive 969/1000 in May 1988) the game was quickly overshadowed by Dungeon Master and consigned to the dusty corridors of memory. A Macintosh port followed in 1990 and was similarly well-received but did little to boost its visibility; despite having a small following of dedicated fans it remained a cult favourite rather than achieving the mainstream success that it deserved.
And that's a real shame, because Oids is a genuinely brilliant; perhaps the greatest Thrust-style game ever made, a game with hidden depths and almost infinite re-playability, and above all a game which is fantastic fun even today. Dungeon Master may have taken the awards and the limelight, but after all these years it's Oids that I still come back to again and again. It may not be a popular opinion but for me, at least, Oids will always be FTL's finest hour.