For almost as long as there’s been a thing as sci-fi, it’s gone hand-in-hand with horror. Somnium by Johannes Kepler, widely regarded as the first sci-fi story, features humans consorting with demons, and many of the stories that ushered in the modern age of sci-fi—such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and The Time Machine—feature horror staples such as reanimated corpses, alien invasions, and flesh-eating mutants. It’s a natural marriage: the unknown is terrifying, and science is all about exploring the unknown—and, if you’re unethical, tampering with it. What’s more frightening than taking the very fabric of time, space, and reality, and screwing around with it like you’re taking apart the toaster?
Unfortunately, it’s a relationship that doesn’t always get its due respect. Although sci-fi and horror are both genres that tend to be on the outer periphery of what’s socially acceptable, sci-fi at least has some begrudging respect from the mainstream. Better a nerd than a gorehound, right? So, it is that, just as media like Silence of the Lambs gets the safe, polite label of “thriller” to avoid any link to the horror genre, horror films with sci-fi elements are relabeled solely as sci-fi in order to maintain some modicum of respectability. Most of the time, this is harmless posing; the world isn’t going to end if people want to consider the Alien movies strictly sci-fi instead of horror. Sometimes, though, it leads to certain milestones or achievements going overlooked. Case in point: What was the first survival horror game?
For years, the “correct” answer to that question was Sweet Home, a 1989 NES game released in conjunction with a film of the same name. It was essentially a horror-themed version of Final Fantasy, in which you control a TV crew that ventures into an abandoned mansion to film a story on the reclusive painter who lived and died there, only to discover that it’s haunted by the ghost of his crazy, baby killing wife. Though it never got a release in the US, the game was a cult success in Japan and went on to influence the Japanese gaming industry throughout the 1990s. Game director Tokuro Fujiwara would go on to help co-create the Resident Evil series, which itself began as an attempt to essentially remake the game for Capcom; and the Resident Evil series even takes its’ English name from a phrase found in Sweet Home (roughly translated, “the house where evil resides”). Just five months before Sweet Home’s release, though, it was beaten to the punch by the true first survival horror game. There was only one problem: It was a sci-fi survival horror game, and for the next two decades, most of the world would only pay attention to the sci-fi part of that equation.
Released in July of 1989 by EA, Project Firestart has all the ingredients of a classic survival horror. The year is 2066 and you control Jon Hawking, an agent of the United System States, a spacefaring organization that’s something like a more bureaucratic and less utopian version of the Federation from Star Trek. The crew of the space station Prometheus, operating in orbit around Jupiter’s moon Titan, has gone out of contact with Earth, and the USS is afraid something has gone wrong. It’s your mission to board the station, rescue the crew if possible, and, in a worst-case scenario, activate the station’s self-destruct system to prevent whatever happened there from reaching Earth. Once on board the Prometheus, the situation immediately becomes apparent: The station is littered with horribly mutilated corpses, and one of the crew members died attempting to write a warning in his own blood. With no backup, limited ammunition, and a space station filled with Cronenbergian abominations out for your blood (and I just realized that somehow autocorrect on MS Word recognizes “Cronenbergian”—sweet!), you have limited time to determine just what happened to the crew and escape before the USS considers your mission a lost cause and blows the Prometheus up themselves.
Gaming outlets like Penny Arcade and IGN have only recently begun to acknowledge Firestart’s place in the gaming canon; I can only think that the reason it’s taken so long is that for years it’s been acknowledged primarily as a sci-fi game. The plot owes a lot to Aliens—gunning down multiple, giant, alien creatures, dealing with a corrupt human seeking to exploit the creatures for his own gain, and a climactic battle with a giant version of the aliens that ends with you and another survivor in escape pods—and that film is firmly enshrined as an action/sci-fi movie rather than horror. Most of the game’s puzzles also revolve around computers and other high-tech gadgetry, and the manner in which you kill the final, uber-abomination relies on you having read and understood the scientists’ notes regarding the regular creatures’ various systemic weaknesses. It is unashamedly a horror game for sci-fi geeks, but it is a horror game nonetheless.
Though the majority of the game’s endings are uplifting, for the bulk of gameplay you’re maneuvering around a silent, giant environment with mindless aliens ready to strike at any moment. Combined with your limited ammo, labyrinthine nature of the Prometheus, and real-time time-limit, it creates an anxiety-provoking atmosphere, one made more palpable by the Commodore’s 8-bit graphics. They’re pretty high tech by the system’s standards, but, looking back on it today, there’s a certain primitive uncanniness to the visuals. From the perspective of 2017, there are parts of the game that make it seem as though it were programmed by a lone person with too much time and a degrading psyche—sequences in which you run through the Prometheus’ empty, windowed corridors, with their lonely view of Titan, have a strange ability to evoke a sense of isolation and loss despite their clunkiness. Too, there’s something weird about seeing 8-bit eviscerated corpses surrounded by pixelated blood pools. It’s like something out of a Creepypasta.
All this said, there’s another reason that Project Firestart probably hasn’t gotten its’ just desserts. Not to be harsh, but it’s a less enjoyable game than its competitor or progeny. Sweet Home, as I said, operates very similar to Final Fantasy; it’s easy to learn the mechanics and, as such, has a higher replay value. The same clunkiness that works in favor of Firestart’s aesthetics works against its actual playability, though. It was made for someone with the patience of a hardcore computer geek who’s comfortable with putting a lot of effort into a video game. There are just enough aliens to make them a threat and add to the tension, but at the same time, the dearth of combat also means that too much of the game is spent endlessly running down identical corridors. Unlike the original Silent Hill, which has a similar ethos in its isolated setting, low-fi graphics, and overall sense of wrongness, there’s not much reward for exploration in Project Firestart. You must find the science logs in order to beat the game, but beyond them, there are no secrets to reward inquisitive or diligent player, other than the game’s multiple endings. All of this was apparently a result of the game’s prolonged production. Per a retrospective on IGN, the game took a very difficult two years to complete, at the end of which modern technology had surpassed the game’s engine. Director Jeff Tunnell was so displeased with the final product that he’s reticent to talk about it to this day, and doesn’t list it on his gameography. EA, too, was aghast at the end product and quietly debuted it on the by now dying Commodore 64, where it was a commercial bomb.