A Pioneering Survival Horror Game in 8 Bits — Project Firestart, Commodore 64

Project Firestart is a game that deserves so much more recognition than it generally gets for being a pioneer of survival horror - and a damn good one at that.

Published by Electronic Arts and developed by Dynamix (who you may know from their Sierra-published flight sims), Project Firestart made its home on disk-only Commodore 64s in North America in 1989. No loading tunes here, I'm afraid! But what you are treated to instead is a stunning and atmosphere-building cinematic intro that knocked my socks right off the first time I saw it early in 2022. It feels way ahead of its time and even manages to pull off an FMV sequence feel with the use of a digitized pixel head.

Once you're through the intro and its creepy tuneage, the premise is clear: You're taking on the role of Jon Hawking, a seasoned agent working for the United System States. A research vessel orbiting Saturn has suddenly gone radio silent and it's up to you to board the ship, find out what has happened, and recover valuable research data. All within a time limit before the powers-that-be trigger the vessel's self-destruct mechanism. Not super original stuff, but it gets the job done.

Then it's onto the game proper and this is where Firestart really flexes its survival horror pioneer muscles. The game presents itself in two different camera angles - side-on and pseudo-3D cabinet projection. This is really effective stuff and Dynamix knew how to mix the two together effectively.

The game is joystick-controlled and uses only a few keyboard inputs for functionality. Minimalism is something that runs through the game, especially in UI design. There's no stylized status panel taking up half the game screen here - just a few text HUD elements and that's it. Oh, and keep an eye on the timer on the bottom right. Firestart runs in real time and certain events will happen regardless of where you might be and will affect which ending you get. Yes, that's right, it also has multiple endings.

Sound design is another strong and ahead-of-its-time feature of Project Firestart. Remember how in Resident Evil, it would get all quiet and you'd only have your own thudding footsteps to break the spooky silence and you'd start feeling nervous about what's about to happen? Project Firestart did that first - and with aplomb. Bursts of music are used strategically as you traverse the ship and its cohesive environment, mapping it out. You'll learn to love one particular triumphant musical sting that signifies that all is safe. You can relax - for the moment. And for those who enjoy found narratives, Firestart is reportedly the first game to dabble in it through ships logs to be recovered as you piece together what the hell happened on this ship. 

I feel I've whetted your appetite enough at this point. Project Firestart is a triumph of cinematic game design in an era when people were still figuring it out. Zzap64 were certainly fans of it back in the day, awarding it 91%. Sadly the disk-only nature and North America-only release stopped it from getting wider recognition at the time in Europe where tapedecks ruled. And tragically, no 16-bit port was made - something Zzap themselves decried. 

I can't recommend Project Firestart enough. It's smart, it's spooky, and it still holds up the best part of thirty-five years after its release.

Download: Project Firestart EasyFlash
Youtube: Sharka's RetroBytes