Shadowfire is still among the most celebrated home computer titles released in the mid Eighties, produced by then-young newcomer British studio Denton Designs (the Home of Happiness?), it also was (apparently) the first commercially released title where Steven Cain did the design. He developed one of the first turn based strategy/adventure games to feature an entirely icon-based interface, that the player used to interact with the “enigma force” team in order to stop evil dictator Zoff’s plans to overtake the Empire.
A few months later, it was followed by a much more action-oriented sequel, that simplified its interface and almost seemed to switch the gameplay to an entirely different genre. That sequel also ended up being the final chapter in the series. For all intents and purposes, on paper, this might sound like a very early case of a sophomore slump, or – perhaps – even a developer selling out just to sell more copies. But is that really the case?
Enigma Force, despite being quite different from Shadowfire, featured several intriguing game design ideas that completely transcended its time and, perhaps, even its predecessor.
Making a case for a "mainstream" sequel
Similar to Shadowfire, in the plot to the sequel the evil traitor Zoff has managed to escape while the team was bringing him to trial. It is now up to the player (who acts as a member of the team, as described in the manual) to find and, finally, bring him to justice. The sequel does a great job in continuing its predecessor’s narrative, even though not providing many details on what happened between the two titles, not even in the manual.
Enigma Force is clearly more action-oriented, and its design, at least, seems to be partially inspired by another Denton Design title, the Frankie Goes to Hollywood game. With a stripped-down interface and a 2D isometric view bringing a more immediate view of the action, it might be surprising to find out that Enigma Force, still, remains an action-adventure with icon-based interface.
The team is now made up of four members, as opposed to the six of the previous title: the insectoid Sylk, the rogue Sevrina, weapons droid Maul and the leader with the cybernetic arm, Zark. While in Shadowfire it was necessary to plan according to each of the characters’ abilities, in the sequel it becomes less central to the gameplay mechanic since it is not a turn-based adventure anymore. Designer Steven Cain decided to let the player freely choose how to control the team members. It is possible to both issue (and queue, much like one would in The Sims) single commands to any of the characters by using the icons or control them directly via the joystick, by way of the peculiar “green moss icon”. It is also possible to switch between them on the fly, in real-time.
The Enigma thickens
After the team crash lands on an unfamiliar planet, they will soon find out they’re in the middle of a civil war between the insectoids and the Empire. It is a subplot the player can actually interfere with by befriending the Insectoid ambassador, which will bring many of his fellows Insectoids to the team’s aid. The subplot theme adds an unprecedented level of depth to the gameplay, especially for 1985. All of these elements enhance Enigma Force’s dualistic nature: a title of careful planning and decisions and one of immediate action and gunfire fights. The gameplay will always take place in real-time, which means actions shall happen regardless of the player doing something.
Switching from the overhead map of Shadowfire to a 2D isometric view, allows the player a direct approach to the characters’ movement and actions, but makes navigation less immediate. Expertly navigating the base will be the key element, especially because of Zoff, the insectoids and the Empire guards moving freely in the complex, a time limit and several locked doors that need to be opened with the right keycards. Fighting is mostly automatic but can also be controlled via the joystick, should one wish to. Since every character has its own specific set of skills, making use of the team’s synergy will still be fundamental to fully embrace and master the gameplay mechanics: an idea that will inspire future classics like Sirtech’s Jagged Alliance.
Indeed, Enigma Force is not an easy game to approach, even if one is very familiar with its lauded predecessor. While the interface was redesigned to fit the new action-oriented flavor of gameplay, there’s still plenty of strange icons that are not really immediate to understand: picking up an item, dropping it, activate a button, follow a person. Even the original instructions helped little in deciphering what each icon does or how it should be used. There is no hand-holding of any kind here: the player shall learn the ropes by trying and failing.
The binary nature of Enigma Force makes it a… well, a bit of an enigma, really. The more one analyzes it, the more its peculiar concept of trying to cater to a wider audience but, in the meantime, not alienating old-time Shadowfire fans, will cloud the mind. Along with many unresolved questions on its gameplay. Like, can the insectoids actually win the war? Does the bomb found in the base have any use? Are all the single character’s abilities required to progress? Despite all these puzzling questions, the final product – at the time – seemed to confused no one, since the whole of the gaming press ended up recommending EF to all fans of the previous installment, even the negative reviews. But still, there are many – myself included – who have no clear interest in trying to learn how the original works, instead just content with the sequel, along with Shadowfire fans who – clearly – don’t like the sequel at all.
Where does its real nature lie?
Enigma Force gameplay
"We've Taken the Icons Out"
Well, here’s the kicker: despite the lack of immediacy, Enigma Force is not a difficult game at all. By 1985 standards and, especially, for the Commodore 64 it probably would be among the easier titles. Once the map has been committed to memory, it is possible to anticipate Zoff’s movements (which never change) and complete it in ten minutes. Again, going back to the “sellout” narrative: its predecessor was definitely more complex, along with requiring time to complete, even if one had memorized everything. Indeed, in this regard, it would be obvious to consider Enigma Force disappointing. But, frankly, it is a gameplay detail that is rather beside the point, almost 40 yers later. Cain’s design approach was nothing short of revolutionary in balancing action, strategy and team management in one single package, while also trying to please the general audience. It might be easily argued that his design wasn’t completely successful, but the genius of it still shines through today.
Graphically, Enigma Force was clearly a step up from its functional predecessor, featuring decently animated big sprites and a pretty overall cleaner look. Granted, there is not much variety in the different locations of the base, which might add a bit of confusion in trying to commit the map to memory. The sound effects are fantastic and there is, also, a very memorable tune by Fred Gray that plays from the beginning until the end. Fred remembers working on the music: “I had a cheap synth which I used to dream up melodies but I would start work on the backing first as that was the backbone and driving force. I would mess about on the synth with one hand while assembling one tune and new tunes would pop into my fingers (not my head) as I messed about the synth. […] like with Enigma Force, where the hell did that melody come from?”
In the following video, Fred mentions Enigma Force as being a “Japanese game”, not exactly sure what he means:
Fred Gray on composing Enigma Force
I mentioned the positive press reviews. Sure enough, Crash magazine published an enthusiastic review, awarding Denton Design’s title with an 88% rating and calling it a “worthy successor to Shadowfire“, most other magazines followed suit. Zzap! was among the few – if not the only – that wasn’t enthusiastic at all, giving it a 65% and outrightly calling Enigma Force a disappointing sequel, criticizing the lackluster graphics (even though the two reviewers have clearly different opinions) and blaming the instructions for describing the gameplay in a very confusing manner.
Finding information on the development of Enigma Force, sadly, didn’t turn up as much information as I’d liked and, with the passing of Steven Cain, it is improbable that any interesting news will surface in the future. Also, it doesn’t help that, at the time, crediting developers wasn’t really the norm, so recognizing who did what is problematic. Still, from what I can gather, the idea of having an icon-based interface apparently originated from Ian Weatherburn, who also sadly passed away.
My original theory on the “sellout sequel” was merely a provocation, but does remain a matter to ponder about.
In trying to develop a sequel – in a few months – to an adventure game which had tremendous public and critic success, Steven Cain did the most difficult thing he could think of. Went back to the drawing board and, somehow, he came up with something completely different, while also keeping its “adventure” genre roots intact. Enigma Force is both more accessible to a wider audience and, contemporary, less accessible. Its impossibly dualistic nature produced a unique take on the adventure genre, one that few developers attempted, even back in an era when there was no real discussiong about “genres”. Steven Cain continued designing games in the following years, among them Black Lamp and the successful Star Trek: The Rebel Universe, but – arguably – his more influential titles remain the two in the Shadowfire series.
While Enigma Force might be easily considered, nowadays, more of interest to gaming historians than actual gamers, I would still recommend all lovers of strategy and game design to give it a spin. It might just be that kind of weird in/accessible that captures the imagination.