Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lunatic Fringe for Macintosh

Screen savers are strange, ephemeral things. They show up to guard your monitor from the heartbreak of burn-in while you're away, and then disappear the moment you return. They often provide a little passive amusement too, in the form of fish swimming, stars shooting, toasters flying, or dogs peeing, but some could be coaxed to stick around a bit and provide a little more interactive diversion. Lunatic Fringe is one such diversion. It's a screen saver module bundled with Mac versions of After Dark released in the early 90s. When it starts, it presents a title screen and a high score table. Like any good screensaver, moving the mouse or pressing most keys on the keyboard immediately dismisses it. But hit the caps lock and you're transported to an incredibly adorable battle for galactic dominance.

In Lunatic Fringe, you play a tiny, cutesy, retro-futuristic rocketship tasked with defending the Galactic Fringe from evil purple blobs, mace-wielding alien ships, four-way beach ball launchers and the like. In a bit of departure from similar overhead space shooters, your view remains fixed on your spaceship as objects whiz past. Each game starts you at your home base, which you can frequent to refuel and repair battle damage. As you suffer hits, your ships' weapons, RADAR, engines, turn jets, and such become damaged and eventually rendered inoperable. After a couple of hits, you may find yourself spinning helplessly out of control as your ship is mercilessly pounded by enemy fire. If you manage to escape, your ship will slowly repair itself as long as you have parts to spare. Eliminate every enemy in RADAR range and the next level will begin, repopulating the Fringe with a load of new enemies. Even so, your spaceship inhabits a very sparsely populated universe. The Fringe is a very big place, and enemies and obstructions are so few and far between that for most part, the only indications of motion are the dim, single-pixel stars that pass by in the background. Power-ups, like invincibility and weapon boosts are scattered throughout the vastness of Lunatic Fringe, but they're too few and far between to be particularly reliable. Your only real advantage in the game is the fact that your enemies aren't too bright. Most of them won't bother to pursue you for very long, and their weapons fire can be dodged fairly easily if you keep moving. Marathon session of Lunatic Fringe can last a very long time, so long as the enemies don't score a lucky hit on your engines.

Lunatic Fringe's simple, pre-rendered sprites are colorful and smoothly-animated, with a glossy, plasticky look common to CGI of the era. The sound effects are canned cheers, scream, pops, zaps, thumps, and the like, and they lack any real rhyme or reason. They're aural non-sequiturs which give Lunatic Fringe a whimsical, who-gives-a-shit vibe perfectly in keeping with the tone of After Dark.

Admittedly, there's not much depth to Lunatic Fringe. As you progress through the levels, enemies get only slightly less stupid and more numerous. There's no real objective to meet either, beyond the almighty high score, and you might find yourself losing interest in its repetitive gameplay long before you lose all your lives. Still, it always brought a smile to my face when it would pop up after hours spent banging away at whatever school paper I happened to be working on. Spending a little time each night on the Fringe probably helped me graduate high school.

After Dark may be dead and gone, but Lunatic Fringe lives on in the Lunatic Fringe Player available here for Mac OS X. A web-based version is under development here, but it's a work in progress and it's missing most of the original game's features.