Everyone can identify that one definitive moment, the tiny magic second when a game managed to turn them from a casual part-timer into a full-time passionate gamer. Perhaps that passion, over the years, has been replaced by something else, but that hardly factors in this discussion. What matters is that mystical moment where everything else was suddenly lowered in volume. Perhaps one’s moment might not have come during childhood, maybe it came later. Be that as it may, everyone usually remembers that eye-opening moment and, well, for me it was Hopeless. I am no exception.
A little known Commodore 64 game, it was available in Italy under the usual kaleidoscope of random pirated names. My version, in particular, was called Jim Rost, for some reason, and was the first game on the cassette. I was no more than 6 or 7 years old and that cassette happened to be part of a blind bag, so it was even more of a special case than usual: a completely random find. Without a manual, I was just stumbling around, trying to figure out how to play: by then I had learned that many games made use of the keyboard, as well as the joystick. After walking around a bit, I started pressing keys at random.
As soon I came upon the F1 key, Jim (well, what else was I going to call him?) activated his jetpack and started floating around in the air. At first I was confused, but then I realized that if I opened the starship “door”, I would be floating around in space. Wait… but where was I supposed to go? Pretty soon it dawned on me: I was not really supposed to go anywhere. I had a full universe of planets to explore at my fingertips. That magical F1 keypress turned me from a casual player into a full-on fanatic.
I wanted more and Hopeless was ready to deliver.
Open world games in the Netherlands
Hopeless, or Hopeloos as its original Dutch title, was developed by John Vanderaart in 1986, one of the founders of Radarsoft, at the time the country’s most important software house. The company has a long and fascinating history which I will not go into here; perhaps, with enough sources, it could be the topic of a standalone article. Since I had the pleasure of interviewing John Vanderaart himself, he will chime in as I go through the design of the game. The programmer, in his homecountry, is considered something of a “nestor”: a term which we might translate with “wise expert” of the Dutch gaming industry.
Talking about the development of Hopeless, he told me: “I wanted it to be fun, really that was my plan all along: hours of fun. It is open world, in the sense that there is a lot to see and a lot to do!”. I also mentioned to him a previous Radarsoft game, Eindeloos (Endless), also developed by him in 1984. In that game, the player pilots an helicopter trapped inside of a cave, looking around for a way out while having to defend themselves from enemies attacking constantly. Despite its title, the game can – apparently – be completed, as was later confirmed by Vanderaart himself. About Endless, John told me that that game was more “one track”, just shoot your way to the end, while Hopeless was more about gameplay nuances, with puzzles and platforming influences.
In 1985, Radarsoft also released Caves of Oberon, which employed a similar idea of wandering an open world, along with a sort of primitive version of the interface which Hopeless would improve on. Oberon was developed by one of the other founders of the software house, Cees Kramer. “They were developed together, using the same open world trick. If there is one thing I took from Caves it was the way the world was built, but Hopeless was really its own thing” remembers Vanderaart. In a way, it makes sense that the software house’s work on open explorable spaces hit its peak with Hopeloos. Vanderaart was already quite fed up with the way the industry was going, especially after having tried to market Radarsoft’s games in the US, which ended in failure.
From an interview from 2011, John says “Back when we started, making the games was the most important part of our job. They were finished when they were finished and after that, Nardo [the publisher, ed’s note] had to find a way to sell them. Later on, it was the other way around, he would tell us what would sell and then we had to make it. While it is a valid way of doing business, I didn’t like having someone telling me what I should be making”. Hopeless would be the final game developed by him to receive a release by Radarsoft, after 1987 he quit the company for good.
Radarsoft and John Carpenter: a match made in Space
It is now time to find out what is going on in Hopeless. Apparently… they are shooting a movie. Yes, John “The Thing” Vanderaart defined this as a “film/game”, even though the idea never really comes back in the gameplay and, well, stops at the packaging and cover art. Vanderaart tells me: “it was a marketing gimmick, combined with my love for cheesy movies. Like ‘The Swamp Thing’, ‘Return of the Killer Tomatoes’, ‘Evil Dead’, ‘The Fog’. I really enjoyed making that package! And Hektivision was the name for how I did the smooth scrolling without (!) stripes in any direction“.
So, our main character is actor Sir Percy “Massacre Machine” Hampstead, who plays Al “Dutch Meat” Muntz (a name inspired by Lt. Norman Buntz from in Hill Street Blues). Our hero looks like a stock blonde-haired sci-fi protagonist from a 30s comic book, like a Buck Rogers or, maybe, Flash Gordon. While Al was enjoying some time off with his girl, Jane (actress Merrill Heap), she ended up being kidnapped by the “most wanted person in the universe”: Manic Munk (played by Claus Clinchky). While Munk looks appropriately menacing on the front cover, in the game he ends up looking like an evil version of He Man’s trusty sidekick, Orko; John again says the inspiration was a movie from the Eighties, but he’s not sure what was the title. Munk is keeping Jane prisoner in his fortress in the heart of a new universe, called New Almere (adapted in the cracked Remember version as “Milton Keynes”), protected by fourteen gates which are, in turn, activated by hearts.
In order to rescue Jane, Al Muntz will have to destroy all of the hearts in order for the gates to open and, thus, get access to the final planet and win the game. The universe of New Almere is a reference to the, back then, recently founded town of Almere, the youngest town in the Netherlands to have become a municipality, in 1984. John explains very directly: “In those days, it was some kind of pathetic colony in Flevoland. Nobody wanted to live there, just poor people from Amsterdam. More than 40 years later Almere is still somewhat nothing”. The packaging sticks to the movie trope right to the end, also making up names for people doing sound effects and music. But, again, nothing about the “movie” is referenced in the game itself.
The heart of Hopeless
The player shall have to guide Muntz in order to explore several planets all over the New Almere universe, looking for the coveted heart terminals while constantly being under attack by enemies. Hopeless is usually described as a platform game, but it definitely plays closer to a pure action game greatly enhanced by its main exploration mechanic. Still, if one wants to stick to the platformer moniker, similarities with the design of Hopeloos would have to be found in Impossible Mission or Jet Set Willy, rather than The Great Giana Sisters or, well, Super Mario Bros.
Vanderaart is still incredibly proud of the work done for making exploration seamless, in 2011 he mentioned: “[…]It was really unique back then, splitscreen smooth scrolling without any raster-flickering and, for the first time, we were using way less video memory for swapping sprites. At that time there wasn’t a single game in the world that graphically could accomplish the same thing. That’s the whole truth. I was really proud of that, it is exactly what I wanted to show to the world. For me, this was the reason why I really started programming: to get my name out.”
While speaking about Hopeless in 2022, he confirms and explains to me: “with a special editor I created more than 1000 screens, made of character-like bricks with 8 x 8 characters. That is what you actually see (with an extra character set under I/O) on the map: 1-on-1. At that time Hopeless was the C64 game with the most screens loaded from a single cassette.” The technique was – as mentioned – defined by Vanderaart as Hektivision, a humorous name which appropriately sounds like a generic technicolor technique from the 50s.
It is especially interesting how Hopeless’ interface tries to emulate a somewhat realistic spacesuit AI and the way it communicates with the player. Along with information on the resources we are currently utilizing and a compass (we’ll get to both later), the interface keeps the player updated on the “mode” in which Al is currently in. In the main gameplay mode, walking around and killing enemies, the interface will just say “Hopeless”, while it will switch to “Map” or “Teleport” appropriately when logged into the various terminals that can be found in New Almere. But, the interface also features a single line of perpetually scrolling text, which will keep the player in the loop on how many hearts are left to crack, along with with “essential” information on the copyright to Hopeless, plus our current score and highscore.
But that is not all, since the interface addresses some of the limitations of the gameplay. For example, many times it will not be entirely clear if an enemy has touched Muntz, since the sprite has no “damage” animation of any kind. The interface will come to our rescue by communicating damage with “That Hurts!”, along with giving us a “Zapped!” everytime we kill an enemy. Perhaps, this last one could be considered superflous, since Vanderaart decorated each enemy’s death with an animated skull (a very similar sprite can be seen in Eindeloos). John mentions that he made the interface quite big, in order to keep the “play area” scrolling as smoothly as possible: “I also made a task scheduler for every screen refresh, with the main character and aliens going first and the background and interface last.”
Our hero “Dutch Meat” (or “Dead Meat” when he kicks the bucket) does not really have a life meter, rather three different energy meters: Strength, Energy and Fuel. These three numbers are constanly shown on the screen and counting down even when staying still. Even though one would think strength would be the only number to go down when an enemy bumps into Muntz, they all get reduced by 100 points. I am not sure about the reason why fuel would go down when an enemy attacks us, but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. Energy is used to power mainly the shield, apparently designed as the main way of attacking, while fuel is used to keep the laser firing, along with the jetpack.
All three of the meters can be replenished at one specific point in the map, by logging-in to the three appropriate terminals. Speaking of which, terminals are quite a big thing in the game, so much so that Dutch Meat has a specific animation – appropriately called “log-in” – and can interact with computers by pressing up + fire on the joystick. The first computer can be found right after starting, it is used to activate the spaceship gate in order to start exploring New Almere. That very same kind of “access” terminal can be found all across the galaxy. Even though having different shapes, like crosses or rectangles, they all serve the same purpose: opening barriers or chains.
The refueling terminals, as mentioned above, can only be found in a specific part of the galaxy, and do come in handy for long treks around the galaxy. Still, I would not say they are particularly essential while playing, for reasons we will discuss later. Teleportation is also possible by using the appropriate terminals: they allow the player to be zipped-zapped mostly everywhere, provided there is a working terminal on the other end. This means that it is not possible to be teleported to heart or “key” terminals, for obvious reasons, which can be mostly found inside planets. Teleportation is designed only to travel through space, along with being a one-way trip only.
Teleportation and refueling terminals are two systems that show the care Vanderaart put into the design of Hopeless. Despite being a game that can be pretty much finished in one sitting, even though requiring quite some time and patience (plus, perhaps, some skill in cartography), the designer allowed plenty of space to plan ahead and design strategies. And, well, if one does not want to plan ahead, Muntz has fifteen lives: basically more than one per single heart, definitely enough for most players. John told me: “I wanted to give the players a lot of playtime. There is nothing as frustrating as games with only three lives. That’s a money-grabbing trick good for the arcades. In the case of a C64 game, you already paid for it. So why not just have fun?” Hopeless was smartly designed to not be impossible or hard, instead provides just the right amount of challenge, requiring investments of time, rather than just plain skill. This is probably why calling it a “simple” platformer would be missing the point.
The map terminals allow Dutch Meat to take a look at the vastness of space he is “lost” in, along with setting up waypoints. These are shown on a compass which, along with guiding our way, is also juxtaposed with a four way D-pad showing the direction in which the player is aiming the joystick towards. The two together make for some very efficient navigation, thus despite the subtitle “Lost in Space” (in the English version), John Vanderaart did everything he could to make exploring the advertised 2000 (or were they 1000?) screens of the game as painless as possible. It is fair to say he succeded.
Finally, we come to the heart terminals: activating all fourteen of them is the end goal. Each working one gives the player an extremely satisfying “Heart Attack” animation and jingle, then sending us back to the spaceship with all of our counters replenished. But, it is not as easy as it might sound, since there are many fake terminals floating around. With the universe being rather big, spending twenty minutes to travel around, solve puzzles and open gates only to discover that a terminal is fake, will test many players’ patience.
The designer also hid some working heart terminals inside rather simple to solve planets, while the more difficult ones, in many cases, have several fake terminals.The ending is, as was the case with most games of the time, nothing to write home about: the “final planet” is a nice touch, but all one gets is a swift congratulations message, then back to the start. John explains: “Unfortunately, there was no more RAM in the C64. There where only 8 or 10 bytes left. A pity… If I had 2/4 KB extra, I could have made a shooting sequence similar to that of Revolverheld; a compete game with art and levels made with only 4K of RAM.”
Kicking the prime minister's butt
While travelling, either in space or through the various planets, Al will be continously under attack by enemies. That neverending onslaught would be pretty much unbearable in any game, if not for the quite inventive and varied rooster of baddies. Both in space and on the ground, Muntz will be attacked by different types of baddies: Crazy Eddy, Terminal Twin, Jumping Jolly, Der Rudi (who, John explains, was a reference to the then prime minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubbers who always had a five o’clock shadow) and so on.
Each enemy is designed to bring something a bit different to the table. For example, Terminal Twin will hang around next to computers, obviously, and it really is the easiest one to defeat. Crazy Eddy is probably the more dangerous, since it tends to appear randomly on the screen and bumping into it is only a matter of time, really. Der Rudi, instead, will respond to being happily kicked in the butt… I wonder why? Anyway, to make matters worse, our main evil guy Manic Munk will also make an appareance from time to time. His shtick is that he is almost a jumpscare, with the soundtrack going all horror and the interface screaming “Here he is!”. Funnily enough, sometimes he can get stuck around in the planets and the “Munk theme” will stick around for seconds. While he can be easily killed like all other enemies, his touch is deadly: instant life lost and back to the start.
To defend ourselves, we have a pretty varied arsenal at our disposal. As mentioned, Al has three attacks, that can be switched over with the F3 key: an energy shield, a laser and, well, karate. Naturally, only the first two can be used in space and are, clearly, the ones useful to dispose of most enemies. The energy shield covers Muntz with a round barrier that kills everything it comes in contact with. It comes pretty in handy in space, since we’ll be moving around quickly and being able to defend ourselves, even at the last fraction of a second from enemies coming straight for us, is necessary. The laser is quite nifty to use, but being so rigid means that it only serves pretty specific situations.
Thus, we come to the (probably) one single reason the game is still somewhat recognized by some Commodore 64 players: the karate attack (or “oriental martial art” as the manual calls it). Naturally, being the only physical attack, it has a rather short range and can be used only while on the ground, but, as much as it sounds weird, it still can come in handy in some situations since it does not make use of fuel or energy. Also, Al does a pretty funny animation, coupled with appropriate sound effects. John mentions he added it because he wanted to give Al some more special moves, including the way he bends his knees after falling from a great height. I also would like to add that Al has an idle animation, where he starts saluting the screen thus breaking the fourth wall, years before a certain blue hedgehog did it.
Hopeless and the open world design lessons
What I find most striking about playing Hopeless, 30+ years after that first time, is that rare quality of each single mechanics of the gameplay designed to bring to the player a feeling of loneliness in the vastness of space. But, that’s not all, since in an era how incredibly difficult and unfair games, John designed it to bring a fair challenge as well. Interestingly, for the most part the game is played in complete silence: the one single track, composed by Roelf Sluman, plays only on the title screen and while logged in at the terminals. This also was an interesting decision by Vanderaart since consulting a map feels, rightly so, like a respite from the endless (and hopeless) fighting.
While strolling around the universe, the only accompainment will be the sound of Dutch Meat’s own droning jetpack engine and the almost constant spawning of enemies, which sounds almost like a dog closing its jaws. Time to address the elephant in the room then, since we all know sound does not travel in space, this is all factually wrong. God forbid, who would think that a sci-fi game from 1986 featuring an astronaut going around breaking hearts could get such simple science facts wrong?
Jokes aside, everything in Hopeless seems to have been designed with that precise objective of making the player feel alone in the vastness of the universe or, if you like, lost in space. John Vanderaart mentions: “I wanted the player to feel the huge vastness of space. So I first made the shuttle, then the main character, then his animations for walking and climbing, then the weapons and the monitors. Finally I got to work on the planets and designed as many as possible until I had no more space.”
This also makes sense with the “fake” heart terminals: they are there not to simply prolong the gameplay or make it more challenging, bur rather to entice the player to explore. While it would have been interesting if the heart computers were randomized for each new run, this is not something that Vanderaart wanted. “I hate randomizing in big games like Hopeless. In the days there was no save option, you had to learn your ways and your moves. And when you start a new game, I think it is fair that you’d want to keep your experiences and your knowledge.”
Overall, I think it is understandable why Vanderaart chose instead a static map, so as to make the pacing as streamlined as possible. Hence, allowing the player to memorize the terminals, as to complete the game in the shortest time possible. Hopeless brings a very specific feeling and, while it can feel rightly nostalgic, I would say that very same experience has hardly been replicated, even in subsequent games released after 1986.
Granted, comparing Hopeless to a more accomplished open world game on the Commodore 64 like Mercenary: Escape from Targ, or a later experience (which seems somewhat inspired by Vanderaart’s title) like Exile, would reveal how the Dutch game fits much more into the tradition of “low budget” action platforms. But, Vanderaart worked wonders inside the limitations of the 8 bit computer and, to be fair, in 1986 there were not that many 2D open world games on the Commodore 64. It was a feature usually reserved for 3D space exploration, as originally featured in Elite.
The interesting about John’s galaxy design might not even be that noticeable while playing and it sure does not make a great difference, in the end. The combination of mazes and puzzles, with some significant, but minimal, aestethic differences between the different planets, contributes to a wholly strange feeling of actually being in a randomly generated universe. But, still, the flow of going from one planet and the way the heart terminals are spread around is intentionally designed. So, it keeps that exquisite feeling of random generation, but also never makes the player feel in the hands of a cruel mistress such as fate. Another interesting thing to note is the finished narrative, even one quite deranged like the story featured in Hopeless. A full narrative taking inside of an open world was definitely something that a player would not see very often in 1986.
But, I am sure you are wondering, there surely have been titles, released after the Eighties, which have successfully recreated that very same experience of being lost in space. Sure, there have been dozens of games that take place in an open world since Hopeless, even in space. Perhaps the closest comparison – as weird as that might sound – would be one to No Man’s Sky, either in its original vision or the one was constantly tinkered with during the years. But, still, Hopeless feels entirely different and unique, even all these years later.
A quick gameplay session will tell you why: the feeling of silently travelling in space, without any kind of soundtrack, except that of the humming of the jetpack and the distant thud of the enemies spawning. Al Muntz is not even in a craft, he is just alone with his space suit and jetpack. Constantly travelling towards a destination that is going to be filled with things looking to end his life. That is how, finally, the game brings the title into relevancy. Al is really hopeless, and lost in space as well, and we are there with him every step of the way.
Hopeless being put on hold
Despite the game being (apparently) released in various European countries, or at least being sent in for review in several magazines in both the UK and Germany, finding traces of these English or German releases of Hopeless has proven to be a rather fruitless endeavor. Did the game have a different cover? A different story? I have no idea. What I have been able to attest for sure is that it has been, obviously, released in its homecountry, along with the various pirated versions floating around in Italy. John himself is not sure about the different releases since he left right after it was published.
Anyway, the press was generally quite ambivalent towards Radarsoft’s final open world game. Ferdy Hamilton of Commodore User gave it a 2 out of 10, saying “Hopeless is more what I would call Useless […] boring, unoriginal, poor excuse for an arcade adventure“. Well, the game did not catch the man on a good day, apparently. Your Commodore was much more generous, saying “Hopeless is a highly original game and one that, unusual for a game on such a large scale, is both playable and addictive. Well worth keeping an eye open for.”
Indeed, it was the frustrations around the release of the game, one that Vanderaart really believed and spent so much time on, that led to him wanting to leave the software house after 1987. He remembers: “The situation around Hopeless was the last straw for me. The game was finished in the beginning of 1986 […], I couldn’t cope with the fact that Hopeloos was put on hold until later in the year, when the game would sell better. That’s when I decided to leave Radarsoft.”
Finally, Vanderaart goes on blaming piracy for basically ruining what could have been a strong gaming industry in the country: “It never was for the money, we did not get rich making games. It was homecopying (pirating) that destroyed the young games industry in the Netherlands. Today, usually a game has 2 to 3 months to rack in money before it’s declared dead in the water. But with us, at the time, all you had was one weekend! You would sell nothing anymore after that, because everybody was copying your game by then.” Definitely a situation that also rings true for Italy as well.
Me and "Jim Rost"
More than thirty years since the first time I played Hopeless, that one single magic moment of pressing F1 and opening an entire new world of possibilities, still beats strongly in my heart and lives rent free in my brain. Back then I was accustomed to simple games, which were the ones published by pirates on the notorious cassettes in newspaper stands. Back then I had no RPGs, no textual adventures, games sold by pirates were mostly very simple one-trick ponies. My mind was blown when I realized such a complex game could be found on a single cassette, even one that actually featured other games as well!
Years later I managed to track down the pirate manual. Apparently, they made up a story about a man employed by a business mogul to go into the “castle of Ghosten” to pick up treasures. In another version the story goes that “the cybernetic android KK has been sent to the planet Delta 56 to find robots that have rebelled against humans and bring things back to normal.” I think I stopped wondering long ago if they ever played the game before making all that stuff up.
Anyway, my child brain could not imagine there was a game out there that would allow me to explore space, not in the classic well protected and safe spaceship, but directly in the fragile shell of a human body, constantly exposed to attacks and enemies. While I usually liked to share my favorite games with my friends, especially the ones that could be more fun to play in two, Hopeless seemed to be a rather special case. I tried showing it once to my best friend of the time and he did not really seem to find any appeal about it. For him, exploring the vastness of space was just boring. So I decided, I wasn’t ever gonna show it again to anyone. I wanted to treasure that completely unique sensation, that of exploring the universe at my own pace, visiting distant alien planets.
As a child, I also did not like difficult games that kept sending you back to the start with only a “game over”. I could definitely feel the anxiety racking up while playing space shooters or Pac-man clones. Hopeless never feels like it wants to cause anxiety to the player. Instead, through its varied systems and a quiet clear interface that does not need a manual to be understood, it feels welcoming. It is open to whoever wants to explore the vast recesses of space to find working heart terminals lying around and be rewarded by that exciting Heart Attack screen and that one line screaming “GOTCHA!”.
Vanderaart successfully played a difficult, but very fine balance between challenging gameplay, the excitement of exploration and constant onslaught of enemies, while giving the player all the possible tools to finish the game without much hassle. A map system, waypoints, teleportations, smooth scrolling, huge universe to explore: this is the top that a 1986 computer game could provide. The only thing Hopeless demands of the player is time and patience. It is that rare experience that, almost forty years later, has barely aged at all: it still feels exciting, honest and fair. The final work of an incredibly talented programmer, finally defeated by a market that just wanted to make money, while he? He just wanted people to have fun.
This is as much as I can tell you about Hopeless, in my years of research and endless passion about the game. I have been lucky enough to have had an opportunity to talk with John Vanderaart, which was a lifelong dream of mine. As you might have gathered by reading this, Hopeless still stands as one of the most important games I have played. Despite having already spoken with him via e-mail, I still would not hesitate to take a plane and go to the Netherlands just to shake hands and say thanks to John Vanderaart. Because, at least part of who I am today, I think in someway I owe it to him too.
This was a post requested by patrons.
Special thanks to John Vanderaart for being so patient, Matthijs Dierckx for his kindness and his 2011 article and to Wouter for the help on the translation of said article.