The space game that was too good to be true

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Today is probably not going to be a classic year for game industry April Fool's Day tricks and japes, which I suppose is one silver lining to the current global predicament. However, that's not to say there haven't been a few decent prank announcements over the years, one of which I think is worth remembering as it concerned a very ambitious space game that was reportedly in development at a rapidly up-and-coming UK studio headed up by a certain Peter Molyneux.


This was back in 1990, before the birth of the World Wide Web and when Bullfrog was basking in the success of Populous, its first big hit. Clearly recognising early on that Molyneux was no stranger to hyperbole, the editor of The One contacted the media-friendly figurehead to see if he would be in on a little joke that was being planned for the magazine's readers. All that would be required of Bullfrog's founder was a quick interview and a few mocked-up screenshots for a game that was clearly beyond the ability any studio to deliver, but that would fool people through a devious combination of their own wishful thinking and Molyneux's open and infectious enthusiasm.


The fake game that was subsequently revealed in The One's April 1990 issue was CyberAssault 556. Reportedly conceived prior to the development Populous, it was pitched as an epic space combat and strategy game destined solely for the Commodore Amiga, presumably because it was the only platform that could deliver "the fastest, deepest, biggest game of all time" with "the most advanced artificial intelligence ever developed for a home computer".



Tentatively given a release date of March 1991, CyberAssault 556 was to combine the gameplay of Elite with Carrier Command, two of the most acclaimed and expansive games of the era. The scope didn't end there, with a number of strategic elements that would soon become recognisable pillars of the nascent 4X genre, such as being able to manipulate alien worlds through diplomacy, espionage and "culture trading" - a proposed mechanism by which competing civilisations could be ultimately be eliminated without having to face them head-on.


Despite the terrible working title that had been concocted, CyberAssault 556 wasn't just a conveniently overblown genre mash-up; there were actually some interesting concepts that probably had been floating around in Molyneux's mind as genuine, such as the idea that the player was effectively the bad guy, likely outnumbered and outgunned, but able to use terrorism and instigate galactic civil wars between other races and factions. The aim of the game was to trigger universal armageddon so that, as the last race standing, yours could then repopulate the galaxy unencumbered by rivalry.


For his part in the ruse, Molyneux certainly talked a good talk, claiming that he could get the Amiga to outperform itself by a factor of five (which apparently translated to 1,500 3D objects on screen at a time), as well as introducing an AI system called SimNet that would facilitate icon-driven negotiations with planetary leaders with all speech being relayed as phonetic sample segments rather than uneconomical whole sentences. It would be like having conversations with real people, we were told, in service to which an ultrasonic 3D digitiser was being used to covert real faces into vector graphic avatars that would "look as if they're alive".


For me, what probably raised the most suspicion was the claim that CyberAssault would contain 50 billion worlds. Granted, it's a quaint figure now when compared to Elite Dangerous' 400 billion, but 30 years ago even a few thousand procedurally-generated planets would've raised doubts in most people's minds. But, of course, if there is anyone who could get away with gleefully plucking numbers out the air for effect it's Peter Molyneux. And he almost did too, if there was any truth to the subsequent report that a competitor of The One had gotten in touch with EA to try and wrestle exclusive rights to review the finished game.


For the record, I too was totally taken in by the fiction - though I recall not being entirely impressed at having to soon ditch my Atari ST and get an Amiga to be able to play the game. Nevertheless, when The One came clean in the following issue, I felt as much annoyed that I fell for the lie so easily as by the very concept of an April Fool's Day story in a monthly magazine. Thankfully these days the window of opportunity for gaming industry japesters is that much smaller and we can guard ourselves accordingly.


That said, I like to think that as much as Peter Molyneux was in on the joke, he was also ever-so-slightly taken in by the concept of CyberAssault 556 as well. As he himself has admitted and apologised for since, he has tended to get carried away with features that have only existed in his imagination, many of which have been beyond the capabilities of either the technology or his team at the time. In that respect, CyberAssault 556 was no different from any of the games that Molyneux did put into production, except for the fact that work on CyberAssault never got started. Which means that somewhere in an alternative universe there’s a Peter Molyneux that can’t help but follow through on all he's promised - even in jest. In his back catalogue is a game that, while not managing to push the Amiga beyond its limits (on account of being released on PC), thanks to its expansive gameplay, billions of worlds and weird interactions is looked back on with just as much fondness as anything Bullfrog went on to produce - not least by those responsible for its closest spiritual successor, No Man's Sky.


#CyberAssault556 #Bullfrog #EA

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