Way back in 1993 a college student by the name of Andrew Welch released a small shareware game called Maelstrom. Despite being little more than an Asteroids clone -- created mainly to prove that a Mac IIsi could handle decent 256 color animation -- the game was so successful that it led to the formation of Ambrosia Software. Subsequent games solidified the developer in Mac gaming history, but it was Maelstrom that paved the way for the legendary shareware company.
For those who don't know, the game's premise is that you are a border patrol recon pilot caught in the middle of the 'Maelstrom' -- an expansive asteroid belt that stretches from 'Alpha Centuri' to 'Beta Carotene' where Shenobi fighter pilots lurk menacingly in the darkness. To steer you through the mayhem you have only a ship with plasma cannons and a force shield, and nothing but your wits and good luck to keep you alive. As you might have guessed, the game is full of parody and pop culture references -- though perhaps not as many as later Ambrosia titles, which were not as limited by scope or depth.
This is the first in what will hopefully be a recurring feature highlighting classic Mac games that were never officially released for OS X but have since received unofficial OS X versions, or formed the basis for another game.
Maelstrom utilized cutting-edge graphics and impressive sound to hook players -- unaccustomed to such a rich arcade experience on the Mac. Explosions were particularly impressive, and even today are noteworthy for the way they seem to jump off the screen and out of the speakers. Each power-up and 'wave' completion is accompanied by an audio-clip from some now-forgotten relic of popular culture, such as Ren and Stimpy. The animation of the ship and the asteroids is smooth and fluid, making the sprites appear to be far more detailed than they actually are.
A healthy -- some would argue excessive -- dose of randomization ensured that no two plays were ever quite the same. Power ups and score multipliers could appear at any time, as could UFOs, homing mines and even black holes. All of this resulted in a game that sometimes became very hectic, and was always challenging, but could at times be frustrating because the contents of a power-up capsule was not indicated until you picked it up. Some power-ups would give a welcome shield boost or increase in firing speed; but others would have more unpredictable and possibly unwelcome effects, such as a violent shaking of the screen.
As for pure comparison with the original Asteroids' gameplay, Maelstrom ditched the hyperspace in favour of an expendable shield, and added a bonus points meter that reduces with time. In this regard, it is more indebted to Asteroids Deluxe -- the 1980 sequel to Asteroids. It also utilized conservation of momentum -- unlike the original Atari game.
Will that lonely pilot ever get home?
In 2001 the Linux port of Maelstrom was ported to OS X, making the game playable by a new generation of Mac gamers.1 And it still works (on Mac OS 10.5.8, at least). This version added network play, giving gamers the opportunity to face-off in a multiplayer deathmatch over LAN. And there are several sprite/sound packs that change the game's look and feel. I personally recommend the Star Trek pack for its fantastic audio, although the sprites from the "Maelstrom 1980" pack are also very charming.
Maelstrom can barely hold a candle to Ambrosia's later efforts, but is still an enjoyable game and playing it is a great way to put the developer's growth into perspective. It's where the journey began; the predecessor to classics such as Escape Velocity, Apeiron and Deimos Rising. Ideas and concepts that matured in those later titles are seen in their infancy here.
If you're at all a fan of any of Ambrosia's more than thirty games you owe it to yourself to play Maelstrom. And if you're a long-time Mac user who has never played it, what's wrong with you? Get it now; it's free, and if you really like it, buy the original to support the developer.
1Note: The OS X port is blessed and recommended, but not supported, sold or distributed by Ambrosia Software.