Rescue on Fractalus! (1984)

Defining Moments: An Alien Surprise

One of Lucasfilm’s First Video Games Received a Helpful Note from George Lucas

In 1982, most of Lucasfilm was busy at work on the next year’s release, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. That included part of the growing Computer Division, who were making a computer-animated representation of the Death Star and forest moon of Endor for the new movie. But elsewhere within the division, a programmer and musician named Peter Langston had been tasked with establishing a new group to create original video games.

One of Langston’s first hires was David Fox, a programmer and author who in 1977 had co-established the nearby Marin Computer Center with his wife, Annie. Fox soon began work on a game inspired in part by the climactic trench run from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) as well as the popular game from Atari, Star Raiders (1979). The concept allowed the player to fly a starship on daring missions to pick up downed pilots.

Fox worked with Loren Carpenter, a scientist with the Computer Division’s graphics group, to create mountain landscapes for the game’s Atari graphics. Carpenter applied his extensive knowledge with fractal-based images to realize dimensional peaks and crags unlike anything seen before in a game. The terrain would provide a challenging obstacle for players as they navigated their starship. It also informed an important element of the game’s strategy.

A self-described pacificist, Fox had elected not to include a fire button with the ship’s controls, deciding that instead players would attempt to outmaneuver enemy craft and force them to crash into the mountainsides. But when George Lucas was given a demonstration of the game, he asked Fox to include a fire button. He also recommended that when players landed their ship to pick up a downed pilot, it would be exciting if sometimes it was not a fellow pilot, but instead an enemy alien in disguise.

The team created a green-skinned alien – which Fox dubbed the “Jaggi” in reference to the block-like graphics common at the time – that would only appear once players had reached the advanced levels of the game. In earlier phases, they’d land and see the friendly pilot run up to their ship. Only after advancing to the more difficult stages would they find a random surprise when the terrifying Jaggi suddenly appeared in their cockpit windshield, erupting with a menacing scream as it banged on the window.

With the working title Behind Jaggi Lines, the game was released in 1984 as Rescue on Fractalus! The fateful alien surprise became of the first “jump scares” in the history of computer games, creating unforgettable memories for players young and old whose hearts skipped a beat when they encountered the green-skinned enemy. For years to come, David Fox would receive messages from players whose imaginations had been pulled into the story of one of Lucasfilm’s first video game adventures.

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