Have You Played… Iron Seed?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I didn’t play any of the Star Control games when they first came out so when I first discovered the second in the series, years after release, it reminded me of Iron Seed. For most people, the situation was probably reversed, 1994’s Iron Seed being vaguely reminiscent of 1992’s Star Control 2. For me, Iron Seed was part of the same family that contained Captain Blood though: weird, trippy sci-fi that blew my tiny mind.

From afar, Iron Seed doesn’t even seem particularly strange. It’s an ambitious game, and one of those too-often-forgotten nineties titles that was so ahead of its time we’d be happy to welcome it into the fold today. At a basic level, it’s a space exploration game, with diplomacy, trading and combat. You control a single ship and must build your resources and equipment as you prepare for a final battle on the homeworld of the galaxy’s antagonists, The Scavengers. It’s a little bit Space Rangers, a little bit Star Control and just a teensy bit FTL.

Except almost everything about the visuals and the world-building is just off-kilter enough to make you go ‘eh?’ or ‘oohhh’ or ‘aarrgh’. This is a far-future setting in which Earth hasn’t just been worn down into a decrepit state, but is so incredibly fucked that nobody speaks of it without shuddering. Your crew can’t shudder though. That’s because their bodies were torn off them before they signed up, and their personalities and intellect have been encoded into various parts of the ship. Essentially, you’re controlling a bunch of ghosts in the machine, and the machine, your ship, might be hundreds of thousands of years out from its starting point when the game begins, deep in the unknown.

Iron Seed is one of a trio of games that I loved but never fully understood in my teenage years. Captain Blood, already mentioned, is another. The final one was MissionForce: CyberStorm, which involved artificial humans controlling mechs. I was unnerved by those BioDerms, which Wikipedia describes as follows:

The player’s soldiers are “BioDerms,” or artificially created humanoids, designed to pilot the HERC war machines. The BioDerms are supposedly used because of their genetically engineered reflexes, their ability to be directly “linked” to the HERCs, and their obedience. The instructions and early parts of the game indicate that these BioDerms are sub-human, more like trained dogs, but later communiques show that they are intelligent, can think independently (and even rebel), and even think of one model as a “messiah.” Thus, the BioDerms are actually slaves: disposable humanoids to be used on the battlefield, and “recycled” for a few credits or blown up in kamikaze attacks by corporate officers when they are no longer useful.

Not what I expected when I bought a tactical combat game with awesome mechs.

Iron Seed was similar in that I bought it because I thought it would be like Elite but with a more strategic angle, and back then the idea of random planets making up the galaxy seemed very exciting indeed. I didn’t expect to be controlling a haunted vessel, powered by the remnants of rogues and scoundrels, in a distant quadrant of space where every species was being slowly assimilated.

It’s changing world, which never seemed to stand still even when my own progress stalled, seemed extraordinary and I wish I could buy a digital copy to explore the outer limits one more time. The developers have made the source code, and other resources, available, but you’ll need Borland Pascal to compile it.

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15 Comments

  1. NickAragua says:

    My first encounter with this game was the pretty amazing soundtrack, sometime at the beginning of the last decade. I couldn’t get the actual game to work until DosBox came out, at which point I bounced right off because the actual gameplay made very little sense to me. Couldn’t figure it out even after reading the manual.

  2. Ghostwise says:

    I think that it’s the first game review (of sorts) that I read that ends with “but you’ll need Borland Pascal to compile it.”

    That keeps me from becoming jaded !

    • April March says:

      Do you know how to contact this Mr Borland Pascal to come install my game?

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        Benratha says:

        I reckon ‘Borland’ is actually the surname of Monsieur Pascal, also better known as a manufacturer of a V.S.O.P Napoleonic brandy. His little known dark side is revealed in creating incomprehensible code after imbibing about 1l of his own product.
        Then again, possibly not…

  3. Risingson says:

    For most people with a bit of videogame background Star Control 2 was just like Starflight :D

    There were quite a few games in the 90s about travelling the universe, selling and buying and revealing a conspiracy of a some kind. Did anyone get to play Millennia: Altered Destinies? Or NOMAD? Or Protostar? Oh the times where the game interface was the steep learning curve…

    • Brian Rubin says:

      I’ve pretty much played all of those. Millennia is one of my all-time favorites. Protostar…ahh, what could’ve been. I’ve attempted to play Iron Seed a couple of times and found it just never clicked, which is odd given the massive Starflight fan I am.

  4. NOPper says:

    I’ve been playing on and off for years, and the compiled game isn’t that hard to find with a quick search.

    If you DO have the means to compile it, there’s even fan-made patches and such here: link to ironseed.net

    Super interesting game even if I never managed to get very far without constantly reverting my crew to backups after every battle.

  5. Sin Vega says:

    Bugger. I toyed with pitching an article on Iron Seed quite recently, but had to play it again to do that, and never really found my way back in. It didn’t help that the combat was usually a curb stomp either way. In theory you could flee a losing battle, but in practice you would probably only be marginally faster, and it wouldn’t let you quit a fight until you were a certain distance away. Cue 20 minutes of watching absoutely nothing happen just to get back to where you were before the fight. And you might run into the same enemy again minutes later.

    And a lot of its really fascinating ideas were wasted – the whole personality matrix thing was impenetrable, and backing up and restoring crew members when their minds broke was a cool idea but they never really did anything with it.

    Super atmospheric and weird and original, though. It’s almost a shame it turned into a plot-heavy thing as you progressed, though: I’d love to see something like it but with a slightly more sandbox feel to make the most of all the weird crap you could build and places you could go.

    Only slightly, mind. Making it another icon-’em-up would be awful.

    Slight nitpick: the crew aren’t exactly inhabiting the ship, but their minds are encoded and housed in a liquid that’s either stored in, or coursing through parts of the hull. Apparently the colour of the liquid is one way to tell how capable they are or how close they are to going berserk, but like so much of the game it is rather opaque until you spend a lot of time and thought on working it out. Which is interesting in and of itself.

    Also they’re weird fundamentalists escaping an even more fundamentalist theocracy, and… yeah, absolutely bonkers, weird dark story behind this one.

  6. geldonyetich says:

    I tried it once and bounced off when I realized how lazy the developers were.

    There is a battle simulation mode you can activate to practice. If you lose, the game ends, because they could not bother to code the game to act differently if you lose a simulated fight than when you lose a real one. They hand wave this in the manual with a lore explanation.

    More damning yet, the game was a poorly-paced slog. No balance, most solar systems were monotonous to explore, and your crew went fully insane with no gameplay ramifications whatsoever.

    That said, the lore was great, as was the complete future shock of a story.

    Also, abusing bioderms was fun.

    • phlebas says:

      I’d suspect something like that is more likely to be down to premature release rather than straight laziness. But the thing about obvious coding holes like this is that if the developer were to release the code, someone might be able to help with that. In fact the change log mentions a fix “Dying against combat drones is no longer game over.” so it sounds as though they already have.
      Now if we can just get hold of this Borland Pascal chap…

    • unacom says:

      I disagree strongly on abusing bioderms.
      I especially hated sending them into missions which would quicken their aging.

  7. CheeseFarts says:

    No i havent.
    But have u played this?

  8. Babymech says:

    I’ma let you finish, but first I gotta say that the humans were the greatest villains of all time, when they made the Androsynth into slaves which drove them into space and lead them to ultimately let the Orz slip into our universe, bringing about the destruction of everything. *frumple*

  9. helsinkiharbour says:

    about “but you’ll need Borland Pascal to compile it.”

    This is not true, first, there are builds available by the original developers which run under DOSBOX. link to ironseed.net (inlcudes binaries) here is a dosbox configuation link to github.com

    Second, there are ports to SDL allowing compiling for non-DOS with FreePascal, e.g. here for Linux. link to github.com Should compile also with minggw for windows.

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