Sunday, September 27, 2020

Subterrania (Mega Drive)

Gravity Arena
Checkpoints OFF / ON
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Zyrinx
Published by Zyrinx in 1994

When Gravitar was released by Atari in the arcades a new type of shooter entered the gaming scene. I was different, and it was decidedly very challenging. Due to its unique gameplay, only a few other titles were bold enough to follow in its footsteps, of which Subterrania is definitely one of the most interesting and exciting ones. Released both in Europe and in the US, this outstanding game was unfortunately a commercial failure due to a combo of bad advertising and word of mouth about supposedly hideous controls and impossible difficulty. Suffice it to say neither of these foul gameplay accusations is true in the slightest.

The overall feel of an Amiga video game is no coincidence, after all Subterrania was developed on Commodore Amiga computers for specific use on the Mega Drive. That's probably why it does not share the same lukewarm or disastrous results of both Amiga shmup conversions for Sega's 16-bit console, Battle Squadron and Xenon 2 Megablast. In fact, it's actually one of the best Mega Drive games I have ever played regardless of genre. Players who're not afraid of a challenge and are keen on experiencing something different and compelling with outstanding music and gameplay will feel right at home here.

Infiltrating underground environments to defeat aliens and rescue trapped miners is how Subterrania initially works. You pilot an experimental fighter craft and need to fulfill several missions in order to go from one stage to the next. Prior to the start of every level, briefing instructions are displayed and indicated over a full stage map, then you're dropped in a specific spot where you need to return to once all mission objectives are completed. Controlling the spacecraft is accomplished by using button B for thrust, down to reverse-thrust and left/right to turn. Button C either shoots the weapon or activates the resource selected by using button A.

Warning for shield low

Firing the regular weapon produces a constant stream of shots that behave according to three colors: red (default), green and blue. These colors can be switched or upgraded (take the same color over the current one) by touching the correspondent cycling flasks found in fixed locations. The differences between weapon colors are minimal when they're maxed out at level 3, but in general red offers brute force, green has a mild homing ability and blue adds side shots to the main pattern. Other types of flasks contain items such as extra lives and special weapons/resources that can be either temporary or essential to the completion of the current level (guided missiles, antipressure device, mirror lazer, etc).

Dealing with gravity is what actually turns many players off since it's such an unusual way to propel your ship. That's why getting used to the controls in the first couple of stages is so important in the long run. Subterrania doesn't allow players to strafe, so whenever you need to hit a target, moving or not, it's necessary to devise a proper strategy that involves good positioning, clever use of gravity and the ideal amount of thrust. Getting hit and bumping into obstacles damages the ship, which is indicated by the red coloring of the current life icon. Dying strips away one power level of the main weapon and forces you to depart again from the take-off point. Finally, besides focusing on the mission objectives you also need to worry about the most precious resource of all: fuel.

Managing fuel is essential for survival. The more you thrust the faster you burn fuel, whereas free falling makes fuel level go down more slowly. Even when you're safely landed fuel is also consumed, albeit at a much lower rate. Once the fuel reserve is low a message will appear on screen, prompting you to look for the closest orange refill canister. These are always located on flat surfaces, and the correct way to refuel is to safely land the ship over them. Blue refill canisters, on the other hand, serve to recover the ship's hull/life to its full original status. Watch out for the message that warns you about the shield being low.

While most missions are straightforward in execution, the puzzle element is certainly more important in a couple of them. In stage 3, for example, you need to use/position a series of deflector shields in order to advance. Later on, as stage 7 begins the computer briefing fails and isn't shown anymore, leaving players alone with figuring out what to do to navigate increasingly larger mazes in between rocky underwater formations, all of that at the mercy of much stronger gravity. During this final part of the game there won't be miners to rescue anymore, and the main objective is to find the way out before runing out of resources. Tip: don't forget to dive left as soon as you start the last stage to pick up the item for unlimited fuel.

A blast of absolute subterranean awesomeness on the Mega Drive
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)
Even though Subterrania does strike people as a hard game, it's never outright impossible or unfair. There are indeed a few enemies that can kill you in a single blow with slingshot attacks, and the ship can explode in mere seconds if you get caught inside a dent in a wall and try to desperately flee with the wrong thrust input. Fortunately the game gives you a few alternatives to help out with some of these hazards. If you refrain from shooting, for example, you'll see the "mega" gauge fill up, which allows you to fire a more powerful blast. This attack can kill several enemies at once if used correctly, as well as inflict great damage on larger targets. In some places there are also rail threads to which you can cling to and ride in order to move around and reach tricky areas more easily. 

The good news about the gameplay is that once you get the hang of the controls the game acquires a whole new dimension. Memorization makes conquered levels easier and might even lead to better time bonuses. That factors in nicely in the scoring system, which makes cheap exploits useless because even if you die and replay the level enemies won't respawn at all. If you happen to completely fail an objective (by killing miners, accidentally destroying items or dropping them in wrong places), all you have to do is get back to the mission starting point to reestablish your directives. You'll still be at the mercy of the remaining fuel cells though, so take that in consideration.

With so much to worry about gameplaywise, it's easy to overlook the fact that Subterrania doesn't have many bosses. In fact, you'll only face boss-like enemies in three levels, and only in the final one players need to cope with a real threat. Thankfully you won't be sent back to a checkpoint if you die on the last boss (also look out for the extra gauge that appears below the mega bar and shows Svin's health in his two forms).

Some people will certainly frown upon the lack of continues in the game. I have no qualms about it but understand those who do, but other than that I can't point out any other aspect that might disappoint the fans. However, a detail that does come out as an incorrectly implemented idea is the acid meter that appears in stage 8. At first I thought it should impose some sort of extra strain on the ship's energy, but it actually doesn't. I also ran into a strange bug a couple of times that made me restart one of the later levels with all mission objectives already fulfilled, so all I had to do was head directly to the way out again. 

My 1CC score shown below was achieved in the Normal difficulty. I had great fun remembering things since this wasn't the first time I beat the game. Note: if you can cope with more severe gravity and more demanding fuel/health requirements, Hard difficulty will also grant better stage bonuses for higher completion scores.


  1. I remember seeing this at the time, but I was at the height of platforming infatuation at the time. I thought it looked really cool and somewhat familiar. It has the same kind of system as Jupiter landing, thrust and some other games I enjoyed back on the C64. I should get around to checking it out one day.
    Nice write up!

    1. Thanks!

      I never really got to try any gravity-based game back in the old days, but this is a style that pleases me considerably I'd say. Solar Jetman kinda opened the gate for me, but there are some more I'd like to tackle in the future!