Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine

“Tully, You’re a Worthless Weenie!”

“A strong but fair competitor and the best damn trucker in the system.”
(North American PC box art)

By all accounts, the shortcomings of the full-motion video fad in early 90s game design should have been apparent from the very beginning. With the trade-off made in presenting visuals that were “as good as real life” being crippling limitations placed on gameplay, it’s astounding just how many developers still went and staked their futures on going all-in on the format. And with the dawn of true 3D graphics just on the horizon, the idea of a studio debuting in as late as 1994 to make that very same gamble should sound like the most disastrous business plan imaginable. Clearly, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure all this out… And yet, if you were to take this particular studio’s name at face value, you might figure we’re looking at a whole team of supposed aerospace engineers, here!

The story of Rocket Science Games might be that of one of the all-time biggest blunders in the history of the games industry. Lasting only four years and managing to release just five games before folding, the tale told by their brief existence should serve as something like a parable for the dangers of trying to meet impossible expectations. Or, maybe it’s more of a treaty on the downfalls of hubris? Hell, there are some who might just come away with the conclusion that they were simply a studio in the wrong place at the wrong time. The truth of their demise is probably a combination of all three of those factors, plus maybe a hundred more too nuanced to mention here. What’s certain though is this much: Their failure as a games developer was as inevitable as it was absolute.

In centering this article around the release of Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine for the Sega CD [and it’s subsequent DOS conversion], I won’t deny that I’m anchoring a larger examination of the studio behind it to one of their “least-acclaimed” titles. That said, there’s certainly plenty to be said of the game itself, and I’ll most definitely be taking the time to do so. In many ways, the design of Loadstar is emblematic of Rocket Science Games’ approach to game design as a whole, and makes for as good as case study as any into why they were doomed to fail. I also feel I’d be remiss not to spend a fair chunk of time covering the actual game in question, considering that it’s another title in our series of Patreon-requested articles (courtesy of @BillyMaysR1P). And so, with all that being said, I reckon it’s time for me to recount this whole sorry legend.

“A Graduate of the Ronald Reagan Military Academy.”

“Videogames get HollyWired!”
(WIRED magazine for November, 1994)

First things first, and to dispel a long-running misconception: The “Rocket Science Games” responsible for Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine is in no way affiliated or associated with one “Rocket Science Productions” — a developer responsible for a pair of NES games in 1991 (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure) and 1992 (The Mutant Virus). Thanks to their sharing similar names and their having operated in adjacent timeframes, these two distinct entities are frequently / mistakenly lumped together as being one continuously-running company. While little is evidently known about the operations of the earlier studio, there is a plethora of documentation surrounding the history of the subsequent entrant to the games industry.

The Rocket Science Games of 1993 was established most largely in part thanks to one Steven G. Blank, with its founding marking something like his fifth start-up venture in Silicon Valley’s turbulent tech industry. Of his previous four companies, three were considered to be quite successful (SuperMac Technology, MIPS Computer Systems, Convergent Technologies), with a fourth described as a “smoking crater” by his own admission (Ardent Computer). Make no mistake: Mr. Blank is a business man above all else — a stone cold capitalist, and an oft-proclaimed “Father of Modern Entrepreneurship.” As such, it’s pretty plain to see that his motivations for getting involved with the games industry were purely financial, rather than for some love of the art form. In fact, in recalling the moments before an initial business pitch by company co-founder Peter Barrett, Steve recounts his only knowledge going into the meeting as being that “[Peter] wanted to talk about something I was utterly uninterested in – video games.” But the pitch that was to follow would prove to be quite persuasive:

“As Peter began to speak extemporaneously our mouths slowly fell open as he described the video game market, its size, its demographics, the state of the technology, and the state of games. He took us through a day (and a night) of a hardcore gamer and told us about the new class of CD-ROM based game machines about to hit the market.

Peter described the first company in which ‘Hollywood meets Silicon Valley’ and we were enthralled. When he elaborated how CD-ROMs were going to change both the nature of gaming and the economics of the content business, we were certain he had a brilliant idea and by the end of the meeting convinced that this was a company would make a ton of money.” ~ Steve Blank, Rocket Science Games

Needless to say, Barrett’s case to be made for the potential profitability of the games industry was compelling enough to pique the interest of Blank. One month and $4 million raised in capital later, Rocket Science Games was officially born. While that may sound like sufficient time to lay the groundwork for a new business venture, Steve himself would likely be the first to tell you (with the benefit of hindsight) that it’s not — especially when you as a founder are not already an expert in the relevant field. To quote some more recent business insights from the man; “Subjects in which you are not a domain expert always sound exciting,” and “Never join (or start) a company whose business model you can’t draw.” However, not having learned these valuable life lessons quite yet, Blank and Barrett pushed boldly forward, and soon entered the talent acquisition phase of company management. And on that front, it was decided that no expense was to be spared.

Blastar for Commodore VIC-20 (Elon Musk, 1984)

As Wired would report in their November 1994 issue – in which none other than the faces of Rocket Science themselves adorned the cover – the company staffing strategy revolved around one core tactic: “Spending a ton of up-front money to hire a high-profile team of hit-game creators, software engineering wizards, special-effects magicians, and top Hollywood writers and production designers.” After all, when your company tagline reads “Hollywood meets Silicon Valley,” you’d better be prepared to burn through a bit of money bringing on Hollywood-grade talent. With Peter Barrett being something of a programming whiz kid himself (having developed the hugely important CinePak compression codec, among other advancements in video production), his credentials would help convince a number of decorated games developers to climb aboard; including the likes of Lucasfilm Games’ Brian Moriarty (who will play an additional role later). Additionally, they would bolster their Hollywood image by hiring from the ranks of Industrial Light & Magic, as well as bringing on all manner of production designer and screenwriting sorts. By Wired’s measure, Rocket Science were set to establish the industry’s “first digital supergroup.”

So, here it is: The moment some of you (?) have been waiting for. This is the part where I mention that one of the hires made in this period was a young man by the name of Elon Musk, who would eventually go on to become a notable billionaire (and thoroughly insufferable Twitter user) with an interest in the field of actual rocket science. By estimation, his contributions to Rocket Science Games amounted to “pretty much all low-level code,” with the gig simply serving as a night job to supplement his work at the Pinnacle Research Institute. As a bit of additional trivia here; his games development work at Rocket Science was preceded by at least one previous contribution to the medium in the form of 1984’s Blastar. This was a Commodore VIC-20 game he had developed independently [at the age of 12], submitted to a South African tech magazine, and managed to receive a $500 prize for. It’s also a barely functional mess of a game to be frank, and can be played online here by those curious.

(Panel from Computer Gaming World, Issue 121)

With matters of staffing squared away, the real development work began. Not necessarily on any one game in particular, mind you; but rather, on developing the tools and systems that would allow them to develop all their planned titles. See, in Rocket Science’s vision for bringing Hollywood into the games industry, the decision was made to go all-in on full motion video titles, so that presentation would be the key selling point for any of their given releases. And to this end, the initial target consoles for their software would be DOS-compatibles and Sega’s CD peripheral for the Genesis. To be clear: That latter piece of hardware here was already leaning towards obsolescence by the time Rocket Science had emerged on the scene, thanks in large part to the very same novelty of FMV-driven games quickly wearing thin. To have any chance at this gamble panning out, they were gonna need a killer feature to stand out from the rest of the herd.

This where Peter Barrett earned his pay; by developing compression algorithms that would allow for nearly-fullscreen full motion video at highly conservative filesizes. The intrusive borders and oppressive UIs that plagued the bulk of other titles on the Sega CD were, miraculously, not an issue for Rocket Science’s offerings. While lacking the means to prove this theory, I’d guess that Barrett (with help from some former Quicktime developers, who would already be familiar with Barrett’s code) adapted and iterated on his CinePak codec, in order to achieve the gains in higher resolution video present in their pair of titles on the Sega CD. Looking at competing releases which utilized CinePak in its original licenseable form (the likes of Dracula Unleashed and Jurassic Park), none were ever quite able to match what Barrett was able to drive from the hardware; leading me to believe that Peter was still holding back a few “trade secrets” from the rest of the development community, so that Rocket Science could maintain a competitive advantage.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm for Sega CD (Rocket Science, 1994?)

Boasting what may have potentially been the best FMV capabilities on the market – despite not actually having released a game demonstrating them yet – the hype and marketing machine was cranked to the maximum. With their work being heralded as “the next significant step in the evolution of interactive-video production,” and having secured a further line of investment from Sega Enterprises [and a partner in Bertelsmann Music Group] to the tune of $12 million, Rocket Science were proving that big-name hires and even bigger promises are all you really need to get the money men swooning. But for all the marketing speak the studio were doing in regards to their tech and Hollywood ambitions, it seemed that the aspect being given the least time spent talking about was the actual matter of gameplay. At most, you might’ve been lucky to hear Peter Barrett mention how the appeal of something like Mortal Kombat was less about the fidelity of it’s violence and more to do with how it’s “loads of fun to play,” before inevitably trailing off onto a tangent about how his own games are going to present “like summer movie fare — big, brash, exuberant stuff.”

At the very least, it was easy enough to lock down what genre of game they would primarily be focusing on, with their first and second plotted releases both falling under the rail shooter umbrella. The first up to bat would be Cadillacs and Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm — which the Internet has failed to provide an accurate release date for. Disregard anyone who claims that the game came out in June of 1994: Indications from the publication of reviews for the game / magazine adverts seem to point closer to a Q4 1994 / Q1 1995 release date, pairing closely with the [also undocumented] launch of Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine. Indeed, both games were developed and marketed simultaneously, and follow similar design templates; the key differentiator being that Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is centered around a cartoon animation presentation, as it’s based on a comic book turned-multimedia franchise. And while Capcom had adapted the Cadillacs property as an arcade beat ‘em up a couple years earlier, Rocket Science’s design would call for a genre that would take better advantage of their tech: A rail shooter with rudimentary driving elements.

Actually, calling what’s available here “driving” is being pretty generous, as all you’re really able to do is steer and hop over some hurdles. Furthermore, that steering is also inextricably tied to aiming your crosshair, as the standard Genesis controller hardly allowed the inputs for controlling two independent methods of movement / aiming (Be ready for this to be a talking point we come back to later). Past that, roughly 70% of the game’s one hour play time takes place in what feels like the same 60 seconds of looped background footage of jungle, only broken up later by 15 minutes on an even more restrictively-controlled mine cart. Simply put: It gets real repetitive real quick, and isn’t worth much beyond its novelty as a fullscreen-FMV driven title on a piece of hardware that – by all accounts – should not have been able to run it as smoothly as it does. That, and its ability to seamlessly load in alternate routes at forks in the road is an admittedly impressive bit of optimization — something which similar titles would have to constantly pause and load for if they had attempted to implement it.

Seeing as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs had been developed simultaneously alongside Loadstar; by the time Cadillacs had released, Loadstar was already finished and ready to ship shortly thereafter. The latter would have no time to benefit or learn from the reception to its sister game, and could only rush headlong in its footsteps. As such, I’m gonna hold off on telling all y’all how Cadillacs was received critically or how it fared financially, until we discuss the matter of Loadstar’s own reception later. Additionally, I’m going to review the MS-DOS release of Loadstar first, despite its releasing nearly a year after its debut on the Sega CD; due to the fact that it is the more definitive version of the game, and a more substantive base to work from. With all that said and cleared up, it’s high time we finally embark on our voyage to the back side of the Moon.

In addition to professing this claim on his very own website; he’s also credited under this billing on his Forbes.com contributor profile, as well as on his listing as a Senior Fellow within Columbia University. A true king of modesty.

“Warning: Toasters Always Attack When Fired Upon.”

“For those of you so inclined, track your progress. Good luck!”
(North American PC back of box)

“By 2010, the people of Earth had begun to understand the problem.” That being, we may have let overpopulation get a little out of hand, and allowed the deadly trifecta of “crime, cults and video games” to corrupt our now-starving society. Clearly, there’s only one solution for it: Move all environmentally dangerous industry from the Earth to the Moon, and go colonize the rest of the Solar System while we’re at it. Come the year of our Lord 2103, we’ve apparently made pretty good on this mission; having colonized every solid planet, moon and asteroid in our humble little 7.5 billion mile expanse. Oh, by the way: There ain’t no aliens out there either, and we still can’t venture too far outside of our designated stretch of space to check the rest. It’s all just as well though, since we’ve still got plenty of planets to go to and goods to transport between them. Speaking of which, that’s where a man by the name of Tully Bodine comes in.

Strictly speaking, Bodine and other ‘Outrollers’ like him aren’t necessary for piloting the mass quantities of goods and materials across space; as these processes and the ‘utility rail’ freighters that carry them out can be entirely automated. But there remain those among the future folk who prefer to do things the old-fashioned way… for as old-fashioned as you can describe interplanetary travel. Basically, we’re talkin’ a subculture of wannabe CB truckers, who insist on manually piloting their personal ‘Jump Trucks’ across the rounds of space. As you might’ve guessed, some of this particular ilk is additionally comprised of pirates and outlaws, smuggling illicit goods under the radar of the traditional transportation system. It is in a role of this sort that our hero Tully finds himself; made to carry a load of contraband cargo (a haul of camels stolen from a government facility) on what he intends to be his last-ever delivery, with plans afterward for a quiet “retirement” to be spent in the hotel business with his sweetheart Molly.

Tully is regarded as perhaps the most respected Outroller among his peers; standing out for his colorful personality and his willingness to assist his fellow trucker. Being born on Earth, he’s referred to as a ‘midtowner,’ though he hardly seems to consider the planet home. Having served as a United American Ranger and having helped put down a fanatic cult known as the True Light Fundamentalists, he saw fit to spend some of the following years as a merchant spaceman, before settling nicely into the Outroller life. It’s on a visit to a hub on Mendaleev – an industrialized crater on the Moon – where fate deals him a tricky hand. Shortly after receiving a job offer from a shady individual known as William Snid (tied to organized crime), the sheriff of the Lunar Federal Territory enters the bar where Tully and his peers are congregated. Named Francis Wompler, he shares a history in the same unit of the Rangers as Bodine, as well as having been in a previous relationship with the same Molly as mentioned earlier. Tensions between the two men, naturally, are quite high, and Tully is soon dealt an ultimatum to leave the station within two hours. It’s here where Tully begins the task of hitching his load of outgoing cargo, and where players take control.

The broader strokes of this history and the introductions to our cast of characters are depicted in some highly-produced bits of live action cinema; with consummate character actor Barry Primus playing a rare starring role as our Tully Bodine, and the somewhat more notable Ned Beatty as the character of Sheriff Wompler. There’s also the voice of one of the game’s own designers Brian Moriarty (that same ex-Lucasfilms fella from earlier) as Tully’s computerized assistant “Mort,” plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series of shots where you can spot Twin Peaks’ Michael J. Anderson. I really wasn’t kidding when I called this bit of full-motion preamble well-produced, either: An eight-minute cinematic at the top of the game may well be the package’s most defining, stand-out feature. Briefer bits of cutscene interspersed throughout the rest of the story – primarily dealing in interactions between Tully and Mort – offer further flavor and help give the game that much more personality.

It should be noted that there is a further mass of backstory, lore, and hints at future events made available across the game and its manual. After all; this title was intended as the first in a trilogy, which would ultimately never materialize. While this entry’s plot works decently enough as a self-encapsulated story about a space trucker unknowingly carrying illegal cargo and evading the law, subsequent entries were meant to further develop Tully as the stuff of titular “Legend”: Proceeding with Tully discovering a huge cataclysm set to occur on one of Pluto’s moons, and becoming “the reluctant hero who must save the solar system from destruction.” Interestingly, much of this story is retrofitted from an adapted screenplay initially written in the 1970s by Rocket Science’s resident Hollywood screenwriter / designer Ron Cobb. Of course, back then during the “CB craze” sweeping the Americas, it was envisioned as a more straightforward (and likely Earth-bound) trucker story, and pitched as starring no less than John Wayne in the Tully role. Now, imagine for a moment living in the alternate universe where the Duke lived long enough to star in an FMV game, and have yourself a little chuckle.

The amount of video footage we do get ends up coming at a price on PC: The game spans a whole three discs, with each being dedicated to one of the respective three levels in the game. As each stage is introduced with a new cutscene, and relies on a different set of background / on-rails footage to be constantly playing back during gameplay, you can understand how they managed to fill three 700MB CD-ROMs in attempting to provide the least amount of compression possible for PC players. In that sense, the video files manage to hold up pretty well when compared to comparable DOS FMV titles! Sadly, it’s all still pretty far from “high-def,” and I don’t believe the original reels for all the live action sequences have ever leaked out? So, while this may well be the best version of the footage known to be available, it still leaves something to be desired in the modern day.

Of course, the question lies in how all this video is incorporated into the gameplay proper? And for that matter, how can I best describe the gameplay? As mentioned earlier, the game takes place entirely on rails — specifically, electromagnetically-charged rails that allow your jump truck (the titular “Loadstar”) to zoom along speedily through Mendaleev’s taxiways. As per the selling point, this is all depicted through the use of FMV; incorporating the layering of multiple different visual tracks for elements such as the path ahead, incoming enemies, background elements, and so forth. To be clear here — and before I let this point get lost in all the shuffle and criticism: The programming and fast-loading that allows all this interactive footage to flow damn-near seamlessly is incredibly impressive stuff, and really does help Loadstar to stand out from just about every other FMV-driven title of the era (on the merit of sheer complexity).

Now, with everything being on rails, you might expect to not have to worry about steering or navigating; assuming the game will take care of things for you as it plays out on its given course. As it turns out, piloting the Loadstar isn’t quite as passive: You may not be able to adjust acceleration or hit the brakes, but you’ll be tasked with switching tracks and staying on-course on a near-constant basis. At the beginning of a given level, you’ll be pointed in the direction of your destination and possibly shown a looming element in the background that you’re meant to attempt to orient yourself towards. You’ll also get a handy little compass navigator to help point out the way, and be given directions by your onboard navigator Mort when you need to make some snap turns. It’s entirely possible to allow yourself to wander off-course or make a series of “wrong turns” during a level, and wind up missing your arrival time / failing the mission as a result.

Your key means of interacting with the lanes ahead are steering (track-changing) and honking. By holding down either the left or right arrow key, you’ll determine which direction to turn at a given fork or exit. This certainly makes for a more practical control solution than – let’s say – using the position of the crosshair on the screen to determine your intended direction. But more on that later. For now, it needs to be mentioned that you’ll occasionally have to employ some emergency turns in order to avoid head-on collisions with incoming traffic, or to make sure you don’t split your driver’s cab down the middle when faced with a fork. Either of these scenarios will instantly cost you a life, as you can imagine it’d be pretty hard to just push your truck back on the tracks while it’s a smoldering wreck. That said; you should probably allow Tully to meet an untimely demise at least once in this fashion, as the accompanying bits of video for it are worth a chuckle. Honking, by the way, comes in handy when you’re due to rear-end a slower-moving freighter, as it will send them a “narrow-beam radio pulse” that forces their control computer to accelerate.

Unsurprisingly, the flow of traffic is not your only obstacle on the rails. You’ll also have to deal with automated security systems in the form of attack drones and tactical intervention units, firing projectiles at you with intent to derail or destroy. Naturally, the threat and number of incoming artillery escalates with each level — seeing Tully’s charges escalated from simple speeding, to smuggling, and presumably peaking with mass destruction of police property in evasion of arrest. The earliest obstacles to your commute will be so-called ‘SAP’ units, whose primary means of attack are to attempt to collide with the Loadstar in their attempts to stop you. You’ll soon advance to the likes of ‘Toasters,’ who fire relatively pithy 62-caliber railguns at you. Eventually, you’ll have to contend with 88-caliber rail gun-toting ‘AX’-class drones, and ‘Scorpion’-grade jump tanks firing 2.2 kiloton nuclear warheads at you. Hell, you’ll even end up squaring off against a handful of boss-type ships, who strafe on and off the screen and require having individual segments of their hull destroyed before finally being explodable. Unfortunately, none of these battles are particularly satisfying to prevail in.

In fact, all of combat is pretty much as basic as can be, and gets to be downright tedious when further paired with the unending number of enemies to contend with. For the first two stages, your sole means of counter-attack is your own ‘Sapper’ cannon, which are supposedly meant to scramble the control signals of these electronic attackers. They fire roughly as fast as you can click, require nothing along the line of reloading, and are generally effective enough — despite making for a pretty boring weapon overall. Only in the third level do you gain temporary access to your ship’s ‘Degausser / Depolarizer,’ which allows you to fire off an electronic discharge that knocks any on-screen enemies out of the picture [and grants you a few seconds reprieve afterward]. Unfortunately, this weapon is only granted to you with limited ammunition, and accidentally expending all of these charges renders you unable to complete said level. For whatever it’s worth, setting off what is effectively a smart bomb to clear the screen of attackers makes for probably the most satisfying maneuver in the game.

The “justification” for swatting down the countless waves of baddies being tossed at you is that each of them is (ostensibly) unmanned; allowing you to blast them away without guilt or remorse. This was even something of a marketing point for the studio at a point, who boasted that “in both Loadstar and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, for example, you can’t shoot people, only inanimate objects like robots and rocks. […] Ron Cobb says we’re restoring violence to its good name.” This seems to parse cleanly enough… until you read in the manual that those Toaster-class cruisers you’ll spend most of the game swatting down “require onboard piloting and weapons management by a crew of two.” So, yeah: You’ll effectively be mowing down police by the hundreds come endgame, for whatever that may mean to you.

Given the number of adversaries that’ll be firing at you, some form of defense is required. This is where your ‘Megashield’ comes in handy; allowing you to deploy a nitrogen field to surround the Loadstar and absorb damage in the stead of your hull. This also results in a visually-impairing layer of purple dots overlaid on top of the screen, which you’ll eventually just have to get used to peering through. While you’re graciously still allowed to continue firing your Sapper while shields are up, maintaining the field depletes from a slow-to-recharge percentage indicated in the top-left corner of the screen. As such, rapid toggling on and off of your shields to attempt to absorb bursts of incoming fire becomes the strategy, in order to preserve and maintain as much of them as possible. You’re also safe to shut them down and recharge while driving through tunnels, where enemies are unable to appear or pursue you. Given that you seem to drive through a tunnel every 10 seconds or so in order to “hide” the seams in the background loops, this gives you a decent number of opportunities to replenish your supply.

Of course, you’re not gonna be able to protect yourself from every last ion blast or railgun bullet to come your way. When your ship takes a hit, you can keep track of your damage by consulting the ‘Mag Lev’ percentage and meters in the bottom-right corner, where a value of 100% means you’re toast. Nestled right beside it is the ‘Status Bar,’ which additionally (read also; “redundantly”) indicates whether your ship is ‘operational’ or ‘terminal.’ Oh, and right above that is yet another field which tells you which component of the Loadstar was last affected by damage — which I only seem to remember flashing either ‘Coil’ or ‘Hull,’ and can’t actually recall having any effect on anything? On top of that, there’s also a flashing indicator on the left-hand side that indicates when you’ve taken a hit, sitting adjacent to your “Elevation” readings: Yet another means of gauging the Loadstar’s operating capacity by measuring the strength of it’s electromagnetic charge aga– look, do you get what I’m getting at here yet? What I’m saying is that the HUD suffers from a bit of “information overload,” with the compulsion to indicate the same value [for your ship’s health] in no less than three different ways. It’s hard to even credit it as being immersive when all the data on display is downright redundant.

Putting all that fluff aside, is there a way to replenish your ship’s health? Sure enough, Mort will occasionally indicate to you when you’re soon to be passing by a maintenance bay, which you can quickly stop at for a free repair to your hull integrity. However, their usefulness is slightly diminished by their tending to appear shortly after reaching mid-level checkpoints (visualized by signposts on some longer stretches of track), where you’ll be respawned and fully restored at should you lose one of your spare lives. On the other hand, crashing and burning has the additional drawback of not restoring whatever time spent driving past that checkpoint before blowing up, which can leave you behind schedule and doomed to fail a given level if disaster should occur late enough in it. This can be a particular pain in the game’s third level, which only provides the one sparse checkpoint and zero maintenance bays to duck into. Sure, chalk it up to escalation of difficulty and all that, but I for one would’ve welcomed Mort calling out one final pit-stop in the home stretch.

Therein lies the secret to the game’s casting budget, by the way: Mort quickly takes the reins to become the single most omnipresent role in the game, as if to take advantage of the fact that he’s the one lead role not voiced by a veteran screen actor. In gameplay, you’ll hear him chirp and alert you to all manner of incoming hazards, while also notifying you as to what turns you should take. Granted, these are all pretty vital directives – save for the times where Mort literally just screams in terror at the sight of incoming traffic – but also the sort of thing that could be conveyed by visual indicators or by Tully’s own voiceover. It’s not even as if Mort’s voice is particularly grating either, though his repertoire of canned responses can certainly get old quick. Honestly, I think the aspect of him that irks me most is just the fact that he’s such a cliché; playing the “worry-wort artificial intelligence” role à la C-3PO, and generally standing to demonstrate how the game’s design isn’t meant to rock any boats. I dunno: As far as helper characters in games go, you could certainly do worse than Mort, but I reckon you can still find a whole lot more interesting.

So far, I’d figure it’s pretty fair to say that Loadstar doesn’t deviate too far from the typical script for either generic sci-fi or the standard FMV rail shooters (your Sewer Sharks or Microcosms). One of the game’s few sort-of shake-ups to the genre formula comes in the third stage; where a rival outroller by the colorful name of Rat Bag Baxter takes to playing ‘chicken’ with the two of your jump trucks. These potential head-on collisions are well-telegraphed and easily avoided by changing tracks – even with a screen full of smaller baddies firing at you – but make for a nice little bit of variety nonetheless. Still, I can’t exactly claim this as an innovation or previously unseen mechanic in games of this ilk — it all amounts to a bit of narratively-incorporated level gimmickry, really. For whatever reason though, this was the one element of the gameplay that stuck with me above the rest, and something which I’d have like to have seen in more vehicle-themed rail shooters.

I reckon that the game’s most novel departure from format comes with the true final stage: A boss fight taking place in open space, with the Loadstar squaring off against a souped-up Scorpion. Here, no longer constrained by the rail system, you have to attempt to steer and dodge away from your opponent in order to buy time to recharge your shield. Other than the addition of this element [and the taking away of whatever extra lives you may have accumulated], the boss fight plays out like both of the previous, and is best solved with rapid fire on the handful of vulnerable spots on your foe. With the Scorpion slayed and the space in front of you opened up, the game ends with a brief cutscene of Loadstar flying toward its delivery destination Phobos, with some number of police still in pursuit. Cap that off with a titlecard reading “Stay Tuned,” and you’ve got yourself an unresolved cliffhanger nearly 25 years pending. This being the reward for roughly an hour and a half’s investment is a bit lacklustre, truth be told; but that’s the risk Rocket Science ran for being so sure they would resolve this story.

That really is the wrap on the whole game, right there. If you’re looking for replay incentives like alternate paths or endings, you’ll find none. Even the idea of chasing high scores doesn’t really appeal much when the game doesn’t even present you with your final point count after the final boss, and where I honestly sort of suspect that most [if not all] playthroughs will end up landing somewhere near the 800K mark anyway. You can up the difficulty from ‘Easy’ to ‘Hard,’ if you feel like taking slightly more damage from a handful more enemies. And as for bonus features? Sure, you get a scant few from the very start: A few videos detailing the features of the spacecraft you’re made to spend your time shooting, and a trailer for Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. I would’ve at least expected something like a blooper reel – showcasing the top-paid talent mangling deliveries of some of the shlockier lines and sci-fi jargon – but no such luck. Hell, I’d have even settled for some concept art or behind-the-scenes photos, if only to get a glimpse into how this whole game got put together.

Genuinely; this is a game where I’d love a look at the insights of its production, and it’s frustrating as hell that Rocket Science weren’t content to share any of it. While the setting and story certainly don’t deal in the most hard / complex science fiction, it’s still a world I’d like to learn that much more about if given the means. I wanna hear the whole pitch for the Outroller lifestyle, and find how they fit in a universe ruled by hi-tech and instant gratification. And for as little on-screen time as Barry Primus is cumulatively given to flesh out the character of Tully Bodine, he certainly makes the most of it — playing him as unflappably cool around his peers, but unafraid to ham it up when the scene calls for it. He’s the sort of anti-hero you wanna get behind; where his criminal ways are just a means to end, and whose motivations for saving the world simply amount to wanting some peace and quiet. I, for one, would be absolutely fascinated to see how this character evolved from a dusty old screenplay about dirt road truckers.

Now, with that small handful of compliments paid, let’s talk about how nearly every facet of the actual gameplay in Loadstar is a dismal failure.

One of the problems you’ll face if you decide to set your game in front of the backdrop of space is finding ways to make different stages look… well, significantly different from one another, as it turns out. The easiest ways to do this are to have your game span across multiple planets, or to have players go in and out of space stations, or whatever other means of forcing yourself to change up the scenery. Rocket Science instead opted for a different solution: They reused the same scenery assets (presumably a mix of CGI and physical miniatures) to create three incredibly similar-looking stages, and let variety be damned. As such, you would probably not be able to tell the differences between any of the game’s three levels from looking at footage of the gameplay in action — let alone standing still images from each stage against each other. When you additionally consider that each stage only has maybe a grand total of 60 to 90 seconds of unique background footage to pull from, you already have the makings for one of the most monotonous rail shooters ever conceived. Unfortunately, we’re only just getting started.

So, thanks to that plodding / uniform set design, your game is now struggling to convey a sense of progression or forward momentum to the player. What better way to add to this sense of stagnancy than to have a grand total of four recurring enemy types who are all effectively functionally identical to one another, and have your player’s only means of dealing with them be a singular point-and-click weapon? Then you can drop some droning, repetitive techno music in the background, only to be drowned out by a small selection of generic laser beam sound effects and faux-future computer noises playing over it near-constantly. And hey, while you’re at it? Go back and arrange those levels so that a single inopportune turn (out of dozens presented to the player) can set you back by as much as three minutes of driving in the wrong direction, ultimately resulting in potentially unknowingly unwinnable scenarios. Cap it all off by having a full playthrough run players only just about an hour and a half of their time, and call the whole thing a wrap. That’s the whole of Loadstar’s gameplay in a nutshell, folks.

It’s here where all the warts and flaws of the “interactive movie” genre really come to a head — with the spotlight shone as bright on them as it has ever been. In developing a game meant to evoke the “big, brash, exuberant” feel of a so-called summer movie, it turns out that the constraints of an FMV-driven game can hinder more than they might help. And with no effort expended on trying to overcome or avoid the inherently constrictive nature of the format, you’re inevitably left with gameplay so bare-bones as to bore the bulk of buyers. The saddest part is that in the case of Loadstar, the alternatives and improvements were likely never even considered! By Steve Blank’s own accounts; almost no executives or creative heads within the company had actual game development experience on their resumes, and feedback on the gameplay loop would never even make it to the game’s developers:

“When I looked around at our executive staff, there wasn’t a single founder who was a gamer. Worse, there wasn’t a single person on our executive team who had come from a game company. Nor was there anyone with game experience on our board. […] When I pointed out my rising apprehension, [Peter Barrett’s] response was, ‘I’ve been playing games since I was 10. I know what’s great and what’s not. We agreed this part of the company was my responsibility. Don’t worry the games are going to be great.’

I hired a VP of Marketing from Sega, one of the video game platforms on which our games would run. After only two weeks on the job, he came into my office and said, ‘Have you’ve seen the games we are building?’ What kind of question was that? Of course I had seen pieces of the video we shot and beautiful storyboards. ‘No,’ he insisted, ‘Have you seen the game play, the part that supposed to keep players addictively glued to the game console for hours?’ Hmm. ‘No, not really, but my partner owns the studio and tells me it’s spectacular and everyone will love it. Don’t bother him; he knows what he’s doing.’” ~ Steve Blank

Maybe if some player feedback had managed to pass through the walls of the echo chamber, some potential improvements could’ve been made: More along the lines of stage and scene variety, as well as meaningful differences between the enemy types made available. Some additional weapons / fire modes to stave off the swarm certainly wouldn’t have kill them to add, either. Perhaps more lenient checkpointing may have alleviated some player woes, or even opened up the possibility of stretching and extending the game’s length? If the developers had felt particularly inspired, maybe they could’ve even implemented a means of controlling the Loadstar’s speed and braking — giving players more direct control and allowing them to better tailor the pacing of the action to their liking. I believe that the bulk of these suggestions wouldn’t even require too much along the lines of creating potentially expensive new assets, and could be implemented as code-driven tweaks and additions to the existing mechanics.

Of course, all this talk of gameplay isn’t even made to consider that the game’s main selling point was never intended to be it’s mechanical merits to begin with: It’s all about the presentation, and chasing that non-specific “Hollywood feel.” And honestly? Loadstar doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park in these regards, either. No disrespect to the acting talents and prowess of Barry Primus and Ned Beatty, but they are both C-list celebrities [at best] in terms of having tangible name value / marketability. The production would’ve been better served by hiring one bona fide big-name actor to lead, and building the game’s marketing around their role and presence. This, and actually investing more time in the game’s narrative aspects / filming and incorporating more live action scenes into the progression. As it stands in the final product, the minimum of filmic set pieces and video footage ends up feeling like an afterthought atop a foundation of gameplay — the exact opposite of what was likely intended.

Weighing together all these points, Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine might embody everything that was misguided in Rocket Science Games’ initial approach to the video game industry. Mixing wholly underwhelming gameplay with downright baffling live action production decisions makes for a game that doesn’t much appeal to anyone; be they the coveted “hardcore gamers” or simply those meant to be impressed by the glitz and glam of a game’s presentation. In effect, Loadstar wasn’t developed for actual video game players as much as it was to impress the likes of shareholders and investors: Folk with no interest in actually playing games, but rather in how they can be marketed and make them money. Metaphorically, Loadstar is a bulleted list of buzzwords and theoretical selling points, attempting to inhabit the same space as more fully-formed creative visions turned concentrated consumer products. And in this field, it never stood a chance.

Presented in its original intended format (as allowed by PC hardware of the era), and with all its content offered as intact / uncompromised as was possible, the DOS version of Loadstar fails to impress on most every conceivable level. It’s honestly hard to say whether more months of development or more millions of dollars thrown at it would’ve even been able to make it significantly better. But now, we must move on and consider an additional wrinkle to the tapestry of this title: It came out on the Sega CD first, and was foremost advertised as being available for that platform. So, I reckon it’s high time we get to covering that version of the game, and discussing what’s lost in the translation from the fully-featured version of the game on DOS.

“When It Says ‘Terminal,’ That’s Not a Good Thing.”

“The little twit willing to do everyone’s dirty work.”
(North American Sega CD box art)

Though the market for the Sega CD may well have been already-fledgling come 1995, it was still a more easily-accessible – not to mention far more affordable – piece of gaming hardware than a standard DOS-compatible [with disk drive]. If your target as a studio was for the “mass market,” and your constraint was only being able to contain your game within compact disc technology, the Sega CD was still your best bet for being able to get your multimedia title out to the largest number of potential consumers possible. Oh, and it probably sweetened the pot for Rocket Science that Sega had expressed early interest in their company and their compression codecs, and were probably able to make a pretty compelling offer on console hardware exclusivity. This would not be the last time Sega would have a hand in shaping Rocket Science’s futures.

With the move to the Sega CD’s hardware came some number of drawbacks out the gate: Less color depth (a maximum of 64 on-screen colors versus the 256 standard being established for PCs), variably slower disc-reading, and limited controller inputs — just to name three of the most outwardly apparent. However, as something of an unexpected “positive” result of this further compression and consolidation, the game is condensed from three CD-ROMs down to just one! Of course, this actually comes at a high cost to the integrity of the game itself, but we’ll delve deeper into that in a minute. What’s perhaps more important to note here right off the bat is that this conversion is a slapdash job of the quickest, dirtiest degree; developed to meet the bare minimum of functionality on the console and little else more:

“The Sega CD version that was shipped as pretty much the first version we produced that had no obvious bugs. To pass Sega’s testing procedure, it simply had to play for a certain number of hours without crashing — and it could do this, just. But there was no quality control as such. There was no play testing. No one bothered to find out if it played any good. No one spent any time trying to make it fun. And although it passed the tests, all the Sega people hated it.” ~ Brian Moriarty

To the developers’ credit; it’s not as if the game runs poorly or is prone to any major malfunctions or anything like that. Hell, I reckon the quality and resolution of video present on the SCD is the best the system would ever see, which is a pretty major achievement in itself. It’s just the fact that it’s still Loadstar we’re talking about here, and a watered-down version of its initial vision at that. If the DOS master release is best described as a “no-frills” experience, you’d have to summarily describe the SCD version of the game as being stripped down to the marrow. What exactly am I driving at here, you may ask? Well, in condensing the game into just one disc, a number of features and some of the already few flourishes had to be cut in the process.

For starters, the game lacks a tutorial featured at the top of the DOS release, which serves to describe your controls over the Loadstar. Sure, it’s something you can just as easily gleam from the game’s instruction manual, but the lack of effort / desperate need to reclaim disc space here makes this version of the game stand it stark contrast to its source. Next on the chopping block is the compass arrow pointing toward your goal as present in the DOS version, replaced instead by a numerical HUD element indicating your direction in angle value. For this number to mean much of anything to you as a player, you need to first line up your destination in the center of the screen using it’s sprite in the background layer, and make mental note of what bearing / angle that corresponds to. From there, you’ll have to recalculate and re-orient yourself in terms of clockwise movement in order to figure out which directions you’ll want to turn to stay on track. Because that’s the sort of navigational busywork you want to be doing while rail shooting, right?

Once you get the end of a given stage, you may be surprised at what you find — or rather, what you don’t. Gone are the boss battles that added a little extra challenge and flavor to the game, and replaced with absolutely nothing. Coming from the DOS version into the SCD release, it does leave the level endings feeling somewhat abrupt… though I suppose most Sega players probably wouldn’t know any better, as I’d wager the number of them who would’ve played the game on both console and PC was pretty thin. That said, it does still feel like a missing beat at the end of any given stage when you simply coast on in to your destination without any novel hurdle or last-minute obstacle. Which leads us to maybe the most egregious cut: The complete lack of a final boss battle / the game’s “Finale” scenario.

Here on the Sega CD, the game ends with Tully taking off from Mendaleev on the last rail stage, before cutting immediately to the Loadstar coming in hot to Phobos. It makes for an absolute whimper of a climax to the game, and takes that much more satisfaction away from the already-contentious cliffhanger ending. It doesn’t matter if was cut due to space constraints or some unforeseen technical hurdle: Rocket Science absolutely needed to find some way or workaround to re-implement this final encounter into the game, and the fact that they chose not to is absolutely unforgivable. The only “acceptable” excuse is if the DOS conversion truly was an iteration on the SCD release as the original intended vision, and if the boss battle wasn’t envisioned until after this version of the game was already released. If this was, in fact, the case; how the hell did Rocket Science originally think to end their game on such a hollow, completely flat note? No matter which timeline you subscribe to here, Rocket Science were absolutely inept in designing a satisfying conclusion for players on Sega’s console.

On top of all that, there’s one more major gripe I have with the Sega CD version of Loadstar. And that is the means for controlling which direction the Loadstar itself turns, as it is tied into what side of the screen the crosshair is on when approaching junctions. The issue here with tying movement to crosshair placement in a constantly-assailing rail shooter should be fairly obvious; in that you’ll have to stop tracking / shooting enemies as soon as you spot a fork or turn in the distance, if you want to be sure of which direction you’ll go. And in a game where a wrong turn can either mean minutes of derailment or instant death, you have absolutely no choice but to drop whatever you’re currently aiming at to steer the ship, at a constant rate of what feels to be every 20 seconds or so. Needless to say, this can all get to be a bit irritating, and makes me wonder if the developers really didn’t see an issue with implementing the steering in this way? My suggestion would be for a button toggle that determines whether you’ll take left or right turns (or stay straight ahead) on an automatic basis, so that you can retain full control over the crosshair at all times. But I suppose that would’ve taken some additional programming work, and that clearly wasn’t allotted for in the development schedule

I reckon there’s a number of other less pressing changes from the DOS version, but the only other one my brain caught on to was changing the way the game displays your megashield being active. Rather than the overlay of swimming purple dots present on PC, you get a more straightforward green tint on the Sega. A lateral move, but one I feel like I have to note for the sake of thoroughness. Oh, but there is one new, unique feature to the SCD version which I’ve so far neglected to mention! See, if you pause the game while Mort is on-screen (which he does so fairly regularly), and press “C, A, Left, Left, A, C, A, Left, Left, A” in sequence, you’re treated to a cute little easter egg where you get to play “Mort-Pong” with your AI’s generic smiley face serving as the ball. Most interestingly about this, the game continues to play in the background as you bounce your unfortunate assistant back and forth, while you don’t seem to take damage from enemy fire? There may very well be some means of using this goofy cheat code as a means of bypassing some of the game’s challenge, but hell if I’m gonna be the one to look any further into it.

You may be surprised to hear me say that the last bit about the Pong minigame isn’t enough to save the Sega CD release of Loadstar from being a complete and utter disappointment. I’m tempted to wish that Rocket Science had split the game across two discs – which wasn’t entirely unheard of for the hardware – but restoring that lost content would really only do so much for the game. I get the feeling that Rocket Science wouldn’t have bothered or opted for the opportunity anyway if Sega had presented the multi-disc option to them; since all indications seem to point to this version of the game somehow being a total afterthought, despite it’s being the one made available on the leading platform of the time. For as much insight as we’re now provided into Rocket Science’s development process and business dealings, it’s still impossible to gauge or figure out why they were so willing to self-sabotage this release of the game. Perhaps there was some fourth-dimensional chess going on in the company’s upper echelons that somehow justified this complete lack of support for Sega’s platform, but I’m just too simple-minded to understand? In any case, it certainly didn’t do the consumers any favors, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it worked out well for Rocket Science either.

I suppose it isn’t really known for certain whether it was the Sega CD or DOS version of Loadstar that was developed first, and which formed the foundation for the other. I’m of the belief that the DOS release is the master [despite it’s later release date], and that content was stripped from it in order to create the SCD conversion.

“It’s All a Matter of Economy.”

With so many industry experts and analysts caught up in all the hype and marketing leading up to Loadstar (and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), it was a bit of a challenge to dredge up a skeptic among them. After all; when you consider that all this high production and hooplah could only result in a sure-fire thing, only a real stick in the mud would stand to deny it. Bring in one Sean McGowan; a so-called “toy industry expert” with Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co., and the sole voice of skepticism in Wired’s infamous fluff piece on Rocket Science Games:

“All the hype right now is about a sizzling technology, because they haven’t put out a game yet. […] To me personally, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is a dead license – it didn’t work as a toy or a comic, and I don’t see it as a compelling game. Loadstar looks pretty good, I guess, but they’ll have to have a lot more than these two titles next year. I don’t quite get what the hype is all about, but at the end of the day all that matters is how the games play.” ~ Sean McGowan

Leave it to the toy expert to understand the appeal of video games better than all the investors, tech writers, and even the game developers themselves in this case. Sure enough, when that all-important element of gameplay becomes the afterthought in all the conversation surrounding your “interactive entertainment product,” there’s a good chance your game has wound up on the wrong track. And sure enough, critical reception to Loadstar’s releases would absolutely reflect this poor prioritizing — much the same as it had been for Cadillacs and Dinosaurs before it. Focusing primarily on feedback for the Sega CD release (as it was the most prominent / influential), it was not hard to find journalists who were critical of Silicon Valley’s attempts to establish so-called “Silliwood” through interactive movie titles, and who would happily call out the misallocation of production values. Reviewers for Next Generation magazine would remark “All the company has managed to do is prove just how little $3 million worth of Ned Beatty on digitized footage adds to a game.” Additionally – and in a recurring theme across several reviews I read – the writers would compare the release against the console peripheral’s own pack-in title: “Look, Sewer Shark comes free with your Sega CD, why actually pay for this?”

Even within the pages of dedicated Sega magazines, which were presumably paid to promote the game, the critics’ disdain for Loadstar would be presented as wholly unfiltered. An issue of Mean Machines Sega – whose first four pages consist of both an advert and a table of contents centerpiece on the game – would still go on to provide an incredibly negative write-up in it’s reviews section: “Deary, deary me, what a tawdry piece of CD trash this is. […] Rocket Science have cooked up a digital catastrophe. No redeeming features.” It’s clear that beyond the commitment of being made to promote the game’s release, almost no publication was willing to actually go as far as to recommend it to their readers. Of course, that isn’t to say that the condemnation was unanimous: GamePro represented one of a few magazines that did decide to go to bat for the big-budget release, citing the presentation as their primary point. “All the bells and whistles found in a good sci-fi flick are on view here. The full-motion video footage of the lunar site, your battered vehicle, and fiery collisions are straight out of a Lucas film. […] As they say in Hollywood, ‘Ready… action!’” Even with that almost adorably childlike perspective accounted for, it’s still safe to say that the majority journalistic consensus erred on the side of “unimpressed.”

This lukewarm critical response to Rocket Science’s first two titles translated to more than just lukewarm sales: The numbers here are downright dire. Between Loadstar and Cadillacs – and evidently combining figures for both the Sega CD and DOS releases – only a paltry 8,000 copies were sold come mid-1996. When taking into consideration the budgets for development, marketing, and distribution – forgetting who knows how many other financial facets at play here – we’re talking potentially tens of millions of dollars spent, with the ultimate return on investment most likely falling well below a seven-figure sum. With sales this grim in the face of so much money spent, it wouldn’t have mattered if Loadstar was the greatest video game ever made: Rocket Science Games had already failed completely, and ensured their doom was certain. Which brings us to the all-time great quote reflecting on the studio – nay, maybe one of the greatest quotes we’ll ever pull for this website – as provided by none other than the company’s own founding father:

“We raised $35 million and after 18 months made the cover of Wired magazine. The press called Rocket Science one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley and predicted that our games would be great because the storyboards and trailers were spectacular. 90 days later, I found out our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash. This can’t be happening to me.” ~ Steve Blank

Action taken within Rocket Science was swift as it was brutal. The move before the end of the year was to restructure the entire studio; abandoning plans to operate as a publisher, so that they might focus solely on development. This came with the decision to downsize from a staff of more than 100 down to just 35 — shedding most of upper management in the process, and re-focusing the company around it’s developers. This culling would also see the simultaneous exodus of almost all the studio’s founders; including the likes of Blank and Barrett. The growing list of casualties would then move to include a number of software titles either in-planning or already in-production. One of the most notable of these was a roller coaster simulator to be titled DarkRide, which designer Brian Moriarty had hyped up across multiple interviews for it’s ability to “genuinely make you motion sick.” Setting aside that strange boast; further cancellations included the follow-up installments in the Loadstar trilogy, for which all the live action footage was supposedly already “in the can.” I’d be very interested to hear if someone was still holding onto those film reels or video files…

There was just one more title scheduled for release before 1995’s end: Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky. It’s just another FMV rail shooter in much the same vein as Loadstar and Cadillacs before it – suffering many of the same flaws as well – only now with a World War I backdrop and putting players in the role of a fighter pilot. Of interest is the fact that Wing Nuts would completely skip a Sega CD release, debuting exclusively on DOS-compatibles. Internally within Rocket Science, some of the blame for the failure of their debut titles was placed on Sega themselves; with Peter Barrett [shortly before his departure] bemoaning the fact that they had “backed the wrong horse,” and proclaiming “We didn’t raise all this money and gather all this talent to make action games. But we felt our backers wanted to get some titles out on the market fast, and that seemed the best way to go.” Further posturing and parting words from Peter would posit that “the morale around Rocket Science remains high in the face of adversity.”

Rocket Jockey (SegaSoft / Rocket Science, 1996)

With Barrett and other blame-pointers out of the picture moving into 1996, Sega would swoop in to scoop up what remained of Rocket Science as part of their new cross-platform publishing venture “SegaSoft.” Reportedly, the acquisition saw all the studio’s marketing personnel brought in-house to SegaSoft’s Redwood City headquarters, as well as a number of their development team — effectively rendering the whole operation something like a SegaSoft sub-division. It was under this new arrangement that Rocket Science’s subsequent games would be published, and intended to release across both personal computers and the then-new Sega Saturn. However, due to developing circumstances within SegaSoft – namely, a restructuring of their own come ‘97 – only PC players would have a chance to see the last few releases from the perpetually-floundering game developer.

Rocket Jockey – released near the tail end of 1996 – is perhaps the most unique release across Rocket Science’s brief history. It’s a fully 3D vehicle combat game, with jockeys riding ‘Rocket Cycles’ set to compete in variations on racing, soccer, and lasso-driven jousting. I’d describe it as a fascinating mess; certainly demonstrating some unique concepts and a strive for variety, but held back by a intensely difficult curve for mastery over its controls, and high-end system requirements [for it’s time] that prevented most players from being able to properly enjoy it. Additionally, the promise of LAN-based multiplayer didn’t ship with the retail release, and had to be patched into the game later in the form of a download distributed in early 1997. But among players who invested themselves in the game, it did apparently develop something of a cult following. One of the original game developers in Sean Callahan has reportedly been able to get the game up and running on modern-day operating systems – even claiming to be able to port the game to Xbox and Xbox 360 – but unable to distribute his work in any capacity due to the hell of rights issues surrounding Rocket Science Games.

This brings us to 1997’s Obsidian, and the last big gamble by Rocket Science to make a splash in the industry. Relying on a heavy marketing push by SegaSoft across magazines and TV commercials – all centered around aspects of the surreal and psychedelic – the game once again saw the studio return to their FMV-driven roots; only this time, in the form of a first-person puzzle adventure game (à la Myst). It has a plot centered around a scientist couple, whose work sees them launch a satellite with intent to restore the Earth’s ozone layer, but quickly finds the onboard artificial intelligence become sentient and seeking to “reboot” the whole planet. I’m of course doing a great disservice to the game with my weak summation here, but the key takeaway is that the game gets pretty deep into its abstract environments and dealing in some heavier concepts. It’s all a bit “much” for me to be honest, but I’ve heard of folk who swear by Obsidian as a forgotten masterpiece of the adventure game genre. Your mileage may vary.

… Aaand that’s just about where the cookie finally crumbled for Rocket Science Games. Come April of 1997, Obsidian had only managed a meager 14,000 units moved since it’s January release, with Rocket Jockey selling even more dismally at a count of less than 3,000 copies. Only a matter of days into the month, Rocket Science would announce their breaking off from SegaSoft — likely a split initiated by the dissatisfied publisher. In a statement by Bill Davis – who served as Rocket Science’s president and CEO during its last two years of operation – he would offer the explanation that SegaSoft were “focusing more on online efforts, and our product mix just didn’t fit with the profile they were looking for.” Just a short time later that same month, Rocket Science Games would ultimately cease operations, with Next Generation confirming the news in their July 1997 issue: “Unable to find more financial backing, or a publisher to ally with, Rocket Science shut its doors.” Their final game still in production – titled The Space Bar – would have its development finished up by another short-lived developer in “Boffo Games,” and see a release in July.

TV commercial for Obsidian.

As with all company closures, the dissolution of Rocket Science saw its remaining employees either seeking follow-up employment within the industry or deciding to leave it behind. You can only hope that their time with the short-lived studio made for some decent resume fodder in their searches for new jobs. At the very least, that Elon Musk fella managed to land on his feet, huh? As for the original founders and faces of the “digital supergroup” era – who could afford the luxury of stepping out as soon as things first hit the fan – they all went on to continue being absolutely stinking rich, with their reputations barely tarnished by their bad decision-making. Steve Blank has continued in his entrepreneurial pursuits, and passes the time by passing advice along to aspiring venture capitalists across his lectures, books, and personal blog. Peter Barrett would follow in his benefactor’s footsteps as something of a protégé; entering into the field of entrepreneurship himself, and generally being handed executive positions at every company he’s worked for since.

If I sound a little frustrated with how the CEOs and executive types all got away scot-free, it’s only because I reckon I rightly am. The fact that Steve Blank gets to look back at all this and laugh while framing his lessons learned as his “redemption” – all the while continuing to be hailed as a genius of business and entrepreneurship – only continues to prove more pertinent and infuriating than ever in this current era for the games industry. At our current point in history where the heads of the largest active games publishers never seem to face any punishment for their failures – passing the lay-offs down to their hapless developers – it only goes to show that nothing ever really changes in the world of game development. The aspirations of executive-level employees stand in as stark a contrast as ever to the workers who are genuinely passionate about making games.

“Why was this allowed to happen? Too many people within the company saw Rocket Science as a means of getting into Hollywood. They didn’t want to make games, they wanted to hang around Hollywood sound stages getting massages from good-looking babes. What did they know about games? Nothing. Steve Blank, the CEO, was a very smart guy but he wasn’t a gamer — he wouldn’t even let his own kids play videogames. I was the hired ‘expert,’ but they didn’t listen to me.” ~ Brian Moriarty

The most learnable failure of Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine isn’t from its sub-par gameplay or misallocated production. It’s a failure on a far more fundamental level: That it represents all the inability of investors and executives to understand how the games industry should operate, and why consumers and developers are both drawn to it in the first place. Loadstar’s sin is idolatry — the worshipping of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and in particular the money that comes with it. The relic left in the wake of this collapsed sect is the game itself; and for as fascinating as it may be to study on its own, the larger ruins of the studio behind it still remain to be fully catalogued and learned from. I contend that the story of Rocket Science Games should be counted among the biggest failures in all of gaming history, and that Loadstar should well serve as the primary example of their flawed ways of thinking.

What I’m saying is; someone should convert this whole article as a message to be beamed into space and received by aliens, so that they can hopefully learn from mankind’s mistakes. That’s just about the only real hope for the future, at this point.

This obviously isn’t to say that all video games across the board need to prioritize gameplay and entertainment above all else. There are excellent games that have been developed with their primary focus being on aspects of story-telling, art direction, or around any other number of features not directly related to the actual act of interacting with them. Here, I am specifically talking about cases on the “AAA” side of industry — where games are ostensibly designed for mass appeal and casual escapism.

b c d e f Snider, Burr. “Rocket Science.” WIRED. November 11, 1994. Web.
b c Blank, Steve. “Rocket Science 2: Drinking the Kool-Aid.” SteveBlank.com. July 2, 2009. Web.
Bailey, Dustin. “Elon Musk made a game in 1984 […]” PCGamesN. February 16. 2018. Web.
Urban, Tim. “Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man.” Wait But Why. May 7, 2015. Web.
Blank, Steve. “Rocket Science 5: Who Needs Domain Experts.” SteveBlank.com. July 16, 2009. Web.
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b Blank, Steve. “Failure and Redemption.” Forbes. February 23, 2013. Web.
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b “SegaSoft Breaks from Rocket Science.” Next Generation Online . April 3, 1997. Web. (Archive)
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Cassidy is the curator of a bad video game hall of fame. Whether you interpret that as "a hall of fame dedicated to bad video games" or as "a sub-par hall of fame for video games" is entirely up to you. Prefers "They / Them" pronouns. Genuine cowpoke.

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1 Comment

  1. Great read! Some good research and fascinating info on a game I’d never heard of.

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