I recently hunted down the 1996 CD-ROM title Tracer after I found it mentioned in passing in one of my old multimedia exploration journal entries and noticed that it wasn’t in MobyGames. I haven’t read so much inane, incomprehensible cyber-pap to describe how to play a cyberspace-themed game since Forbes: Corporate Warrior. And when I tried to run one of the 4 accompanying tutorial programs, I wasn’t sure if this message screen was just part of the gimmick:
I mean “Tracer” is supposed to be the name of a dreaded computer virus that can kill a hacker like you, so this might be part of the narrative setup. The year is 2023 and you’re a successful, mercenary hacker, highly reputed in the underground for being able to destroy entire multi-national corporations by sabotaging their computer systems. You do this by entering cyberspace somehow and use a series of code pads in order to forge paths to the data core. After you tap into this latest assignment, your coach/agent/guide artificial intelligence (AI) warns you that this job is a setup and that there is a killer virus on your tail.
It was rather frustrating to keep up with all the jargon in the manual describing navigating through cyberspace. As someone who is well familiar with computer hardware and software, I should probably just “go with it”.
It’s a fortunate thing that I was able to let go and roll with it because I have to tell you: once I got into this game and figured out the gameplay, I discovered one very good game. Not a great game, but a very fun one, nonetheless, and one that immediately earns a spot on my “good” list.
What we have here is essentially a fast-paced 3D puzzle game. You are standing in a large grid. You have to put down code pads on an adjacent square in order to move to that square. You have up to 10 code pads which are shown at the bottom of the screen. Each code pad has 4 sides, each of which has a color (red, green, blue, or magenta). Adjoining sides must have the same color. It’s a bit confusing until you jump into it. But you don’t have much time to think about it because the Tracer virus is constantly pursuing you, consuming the code paths that you have already laid down. You must build code paths to areas of the grid that contain refills on code paths as well as a few more items (a magnetic pad slows down the virus’ pursuit for a short time), all while trying to forge your way to the exit.
The game boasts 50 levels, plus a level editor. The levels keep throwing more and clever obstacles for you to think your way around. You are able to cycle through your available code pads in order to build the optimal path to your next destination. In practice, that’s incredibly hard to do since the Tracer virus is always closing in so quickly. The game’s tagline, “Think fast… or your next move may be your last!” is absolutely no joke.
I must mention that the soundtrack is definitely up to snuff for the genre. Great electronic/techno music recorded as 5 redbook CD audio tracks, all ripped, all on my iPod now (part of my ever-growing “Game Music” playlist consisting largely of ripped redbook audio tracks). Here is the first track for your approval:
The game also has personality. I guess what that boils down to is that I appreciated the voice acting. It wasn’t hard to get into the mood of the game with an intro like this, which starts out with an underground radio DJ and winds up with your fast-talking AI agent briefing you on your next job:
Tech support section (where I display problematic error dialogs I encountered and type out their text for the benefit of search engines): I saw a number of curious dialogs when I tried to install Tracer:
“Severe: 7th Level Setup: Out of memory. (E9)”
“Read Only File Detected: A read only file, .\tracer.txt, was found while attempting to copy files to the destination location. To overwrite the file, click the Yes button, otherwise click the No button.”
“Severe: General file transfer error. Please check your target location and try again.
Related File: .\TRACER.TXT”
Wouldn’t you know, the standard remedy applied: Using the properties dialog on the SETUP.EXE file on the CD-ROM, set the compatibility mode to Windows 95. That saves many an old game and never ceases to impress me.
- Forbes: Corporate Warrior— business-oriented cyberspace FPS
- The Lawnmower Man— silly game based on the well-known cyberspace-themed movie
And as a bonus for the game programming geeks (and wannabes like myself), I observed that the directory structure has a directory named ASCILVLS which I surmised means “ASCII levels”. Sure enough– dozens of .TXT files which pretty clearly spell out the initial arrangement of each level. Program a little game logic around them and you could probably reimplement the game. Here is a sample level file: