Paratrooper

I recall the 1980’s PC arcade game Paratrooper. It begins with the simple splash screen presenting the game title, accompanied by a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor rendered over the squeaky 6-bit PC speaker sound. The single protagonist is a lone, immobile and unprotected gun turret mounted on a square base. You can swivel the turret in a limited range of about 120 degrees and fire. Helicopters fly over in either direction, deploying paratroopers. Occasionally, bomber jets appear over the field, dropping a bomb over your turret with unmistakable precision.

The entire color palette consist of black, white, magenta, and cyan, sufficient to render the paratrooper uniforms, the air artillery and the turret. The similarly limited sound effects consist of the helicopter flight, shell firings, bomb deployment, and the aircraft/paratrooper/turret destruction, the three emitting an identical explosion sound.

You retaliate the air attacks by firing the turret. You can target the helicopters or the paratroopers, once deployed. If, and when four paratroopers safely land on either side, they approach the turret measuring precisely three paratroopers in height, build a three man pyramid, as the fourth scales (more accurately, levitates) above, and instantaneously disintegrates the turret from the fabric of space.

With the paratrooper deployed, somewhere in mid-course (this all takes place over seconds) he opens the parachute. The descent doesn’t much vary in velocity between the initial drop and post parachute opening, but that’s beside the point. Equally beside the point is the air artillery and drop altitude that, if approximated to scale, extends to less than 50 meters over the turret.

You may target the paratrooper directly, or pierce the parachute. In the former case, the trooper instantly disintegrates. In the latter, the trooper plummets to death, although at still the same upright posture and velocity. Upon impact, we see a brief skeleton rendering to indicate that yes, what a gruesome fatality. With fortune, the falling corpse also destroys any paratrooper already at the base directly underneath, who, naturally, never moves a millimeter until four of them gather on the respective side. These paratroopers, considering everything, epitomize fearlessness, stoicism, devotion. It comes of no surprise the game is titled Paratrooper rather than Gun Turret.

The bomber jet appearance marks my favorite moment. And what makes it so exceptional?

Consider the normal setting, presenting a horrific war stage of piercing shells, helicopter raids, fearless paratrooper descent, explosions, decapitations, all to the end of eradicating that one forsaken, unmanned gun turret. Then slowly, the death scorched sky begins to clear. Piece and total silence reign for a handful of seconds, which feels like eternity. How often have we seen silence used to such suspense in storytelling?

Suddenly, a single bomber jet appears in the sky. It makes not a sound. The suspense reaches a moment of extraordinary tension. Momentarily, it drops a single, but flawlessly maneuvered bomb towards our protagonist. The bomb gracefully approaches the turret, as the PC speaker emits that infamous whistle in a gradually diminishing pitch. Our sole recourse in this scenario consists of either preempting the bomber jet prior to the attack, or destroying the bomb already in course with our own turret shells. In case of success, the war campaign regains it’s original momentum until the next such guerilla bomber attack.

This continues on to no particular end. The enemy spares no military resources to take down the gun turret. The turret, in retaliation, disposes of infinite shells. Points accumulate as the turret destroys anything that appears. Points decrease per each shell fired.

I would place the game setting in one of those fictional, undetermined time periods mixing the futuristic with the retroactive, something to the likes of Steam Punk. In presence of earlier 20th century war artillery, we see completely silent bomber jets of millimeter accuracy (similar to computerized missiles in our universe) and unmanned gun turrets. We also see an indicator of a dystopian society as observed in the emotionally suppressed paratrooper behavior and the repressed artistic expression of the dissimulating four-color palette. Now, considering the game’s 1982 release, in midst of the cold war, and close to Orwell’s prophetically portrayed 1984, I can rationalize the design choice.

Overall, I consider this timeless entertainment, provided that you don’t overindulge. Great masterpieces of endless repeat value often require that modest period of meditation between successive experiences to sufficiently digest the content and reengage from a fresh perspective. And Paratrooper leaves much to meditate on, beyond the appearance of the engaging action. Much of the message hides between the lines, drawing a parallel with the battles we wage in our minds, with the not entirely clear concept of a hero and an antagonist, with the fatalism of pursuit, and with the imperfection of our fragile existence. Bravo.