Ant Attack [1983]

The opening screen.

Now here’s something: A game that’s in grayscale on purpose. The ZX Spectrum is famous for its garish color schemes, and Ant Attack [1983] flaunts that up front, with a title screen that has the name of the game written in a color cycle on a background of hot pinks, blues, and yellows, as if to assure you this is no technical limitation but an extremely deliberate choice. (The sequel, Zombie Zombie [1984], is essentially Ant Attack in color.) The ZX Spectrum was to be the playground of both isometric platformers and of aesthetes: designer Sandy White was, like John O’Neill, trained in art school, though as a sculptor not a painter. Also not pictured above is the informational sub-bar — what would later be called a “HUD” — which is rendered in again-garish blue and pink. The space this takes up on the screen means that the actual playspace is in widescreen, compounding with the grayscale for an impression of cinema.

Adam And The Ants – Ants Invasion [1980]

With a name like Ant Attack, you know you’re solidly in B-Movie territory, and it’s a more faithful approximation of a monster movie than Donkey Kong [1981], but an entirely different type of monster movie. The referent here is not the big monster in the bigger city of King Kong [1931], but the small town under siege of Them [1954]. Those ants are big, sure, but they’re not kaiju, and a look at the title alone indicates their threat is mainly found in their numbers. So, given the pedigree of bugs as a sublimation for paranoiac xenophobia I’ve already laid out in this blog’s survey of video games, mixed with the pedigree of 1950s American B-movies to be barely-veiled throbbing raw nerves of anti-communism, I thought I had the requisite social commentary angle basically figured before I even played the game.

My expectations were utterly wrong, though. The ants here absolutely do not function as some kind of metaphor for other humans. Their metaphorical function is for a natural disaster, that’s the kind of monster movie we’re in here. In particular, it’s a flood. The player character’s duty is not to defeat or eradicate the ants, like one would if this were a war against a foreign invasion, but strictly to rescue desperate citizens who have been stranded on top of rooftops. (Zombie Zombie even supplies a helicopter.) Ants, of course, are famously incapable of climbing walls. Your own ability to move vertically is actually your key advantage in this floor-is-lava game — this game absolutely requires 3D for this conceit of warring planes alone. The gameworld is designed as a series of islands. You regularly cast yourself down from your safe perch up high back down into the fray in the name of progressing, and once you’re down there you must use the horizontal axis to bob and weave around the ants. A 2D version of Ant Attack, something more like Lode Runner [1983], simply couldn’t have this rhythm, this war between vertical and horizontal — its series of peaks and valleys arranged linearly would amount to an underwhelming and slow endless runner, inevitably pitching you into situations where taking damage is unavoidable. The 3D allows the player to take many routes through the gameworld, and simply finding your target becomes a challenge of its own, with a red/green signal light to combine floor-is-lava with the hot/cold signals of a backyard Easter Egg hunt.

While you do have limited offensive capability in the form of a few grenades, they can only buy you a little time: You simply do not have enough to hope of stopping the ants, who seem to be endlessly replenished. A direct hit is actually much less effective, only stunning the ant you hit instead of wiping a radius of ants off the map. You can also easily get caught in the splash zone and blow yourself up if you try to use it at close range. Meanwhile, the ants can only attack at melee range, and they move exactly as fast as you possibly can, but they move that fast all the time, trying to get in close. Your best strategy is to let them congregate below you and drop death from above to clear a temporary path. This is a pretty good example of game balance, that friction of tradeoffs that are at once inequal and precisely equal, resulting in situations where you might have the upper hand at one moment and lose it to the computer the next, but not irrecoverably.

It isometric geography is also notable for the whole game taking place on one large unbroken map, despite having 10 levels. (Not that this is unheard of in 1983 — Ultima [1981], for example, has a much larger overworld, and coincidentally the series would later help lead the charge to make the isometric perspective a CRPG staple… not a platforming staple.) Instead of having bespoke designs, it’s a persistent world where each level changes your destination within the map, with some light randomization to keep you on your toes as you replay. This makes you get good and acquainted with the gameworld — not, like Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/1977], a memorized script and an external map, but a more intuitive knowledge, the type where you generally know things by their vague spatial relationships and the time it takes to get there, by landmarks like the ziggurat pyramid. Even though none of its structures have any identifiable purpose beyond the playground equipment or sculpture garden that they are, there’s a sticky verisimilitude to the ruins of the neighborhood called Antescher. That’s pun on Manchester and on MC Escher, whose isometric styles also directly inspired Q*Bert [1982] and Marble Madness [1984], before seemingly disappearing from the library of commonplace game developer inspiration sources for about 30 years.

Though none of the 80s isometric titles I listed features an impossible geometry, Ant Attack does inherit the strangely muted, flat affect of the matter-of-fact MC Escher. It’s considerably more arch and austere than a thrilling chase through B-Movie pulp trappings in practice, its bizarre greyscale architecture jutting out indifferently to human and antkind alike. It feints at being Them, but its back-of-the-box manual and flavor text evokes more the likes of L’Immortelle [1963] in its quest to intrigue with mystique, building Antescher poetically into a mythical dreamworld outside of oh-so-slippery time populated by the interchangeable but all-too-separable “He” and “She”, who have played a game gone wrong. These stand-ins for the gender binary cast, like the city itself, and the ants, as universal mystic symbols — of capital-d Death, of nostalgia for the missing glory of eons past, speaking silently through its crumbling Roman bathhouses. The most recognizable part of Antescher is the graveyard, dotted with crosses.

Ants by Matilda “Dalm” Dow, photography by me, Art Maybury

If you liked this article, you might also like Sandy White’s personal Ant Attack page in all of its 2000 glory (WordArt!) and David R. Howard’s short An Ode To Ant Attack.

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