Taito Essentials: Lunar Rescue

When someone mentions Taito arcade games from the 1970s, the first one that doubtless immediately springs to mind is the genre-defining Space Invaders.

However, this is far from the only game Taito put out in these early years of the games business — and moreover, it’s far from the only good one, too.

Today, we’re taking a look at a game that, while simple, built on the basic formula of Space Invaders with additional mechanics — and likely played a role in defining subsequent games with “rescue” mechanics such as Williams’ Defender and Dan Gorlin’s Choplifter.

Lunar Rescue was released in 1979, shortly after Atari’s well-regarded (but extremely challenging) Lunar Lander. While it would be tempting to dismiss the former as little more than a clone of the latter, the game experience is actually rather different, adopting a simpler style of gameplay with much more immediacy and accessibility than Atari’s simulation-like mechanics.

Lunar Rescue is also sometimes regarded as a spin-off title to Taito’s 1978 Space Invaders — a theory helped somewhat by the fact that the Invaders themselves appear as mascots on the title screen — but, again, this is no straight clone; Lunar Rescue certainly incorporates elements of Space Invaders’ gameplay, for sure, but combines them with new mechanics to create a very distinct experience.

In Lunar Rescue, you take on the role of a pilot flying a ship that, much like in Lunar Lander, bears something of a resemblance to the real-life Apollo Lunar Module used in the Moon landings. And much like the real-life LM, it can only hold two people — in this case, you and someone you’ve rescued. It’s your job to descend to the surface of the moon, land on some conveniently positioned landing pads, rescue a ragtag collection of stranded astronauts, then make it safely back to your mothership while under fire from flying saucers. Easy, right?

There are two phases of gameplay to Lunar Rescue. The first sees you descending to the lunar surface and is a timing and dodging challenge. Beginning from the mothership moving back and forth across the top of the screen, you can release and begin your descent at any time, but it’s important to time this in such a way to make it easy to avoid the asteroids floating across the screen in both directions. It pays to plan out a “route” before you start your descent, but on the way down you can adapt to a certain degree by firing your thrusters to slow yourself, as well as moving left and right.

Unlike Lunar Lander, you don’t need to ensure your descent is slow enough when hitting a landing pad — you just need to make sure you hit it. The larger, higher landing pads are worth fewer points, but in order to complete each level you’ll need to land on them all anyway, so assuming you survive that long it makes little difference.

Once you’ve landed, an astronaut runs into your ship and you begin your ascent, at which point the asteroids are replaced by various flying saucers that bear something of a resemblance to the bonus craft in Space Invaders. At this point, your ability to thrust is disabled, replaced by the ability to shoot. Your shots can be used to either block bombs the enemy is trying to drop on your head, or to destroy them outright. Once again, it pays to plan a route beforehand, though unlike your descent you don’t have the grace period before you start to do this, so it’s somewhat more intense.

Repeat the process for the remaining astronauts on the stage and you’ve completed it, at which point you’ll receive a bonus for all the astronauts you successfully rescued without being destroyed on the way up (or missing the mothership at the top of the screen) and then the whole thing starts over again, but harder. Increased difficulty is provided by denser formations of enemies and asteroids, as well as falling meteors in the ascent phase.

Lunar Rescue has the distinctive appearance of Taito’s late-’70s arcade games, with large chunky pixels and clear, all-caps text, but a sense that everything has been designed with a sense of character and personality to it — a bit of a contrast to the vector graphics of Lunar Lander, which look rather drab today. Like Space Invaders, the actual graphics are rendered in just two colours, but different areas of the screen use a different “highlight” colour to provide variety. This effect can clearly be seen during the ascent and descent sequences, where your spacecraft obviously passes through the “boundaries” of these colour fields, gradually changing colour as it does so.

Early versions of the Taito 8080 hardware on which the machine was based could only render black and white across the whole screen, with some variants of Space Invaders in particular obscuring this with coloured gel overlays on the screen. Lunar Rescue, however, makes use of the hardware colour capabilities of the later 8080 revisions — later “CV” versions of Space Invaders also incorporated these capabilities, making for a much more vibrant-looking game — and helping to define the distinctive look and feel of Taito games in the early years.

While some of Taito’s games from this early period are quite hard to go back to as they were clearly experiments with different game styles and ways of controlling things, Lunar Rescue is one worth playing — especially as it’s one of the lesser-known games from the era that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as its more famous, genre-defining stablemate, perhaps due to the fact it didn’t get any official home ports until much later retro compilations such as Taito Legends 2 on PS2, Xbox and PC.

It’s an interesting early example of attempting to combine multiple gameplay styles in a single title, and is pretty successful at what it does. Yes, it’s simple, yes, it’s repetitive — but it’s also highly addictive and just plain fun!

More about Lunar Rescue

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