Q-Bits From my Personal Collection – The Tail of Beta Lyrae, side-scrolling shooter par excellence

Welcome to another Quick Bits article. While working on a more general article on Datamost I thought I’d touch upon some of the games published by the company in the early ’80s. I found a Datamost Christmas ad in the December 1983 issue of Commander Magazine and thought that a few short articles on the advertised games were a great idea for this December (I probably won’t have time to cover all of them before Christmas).

The 1983 Christmas ad from Datamost

In an interview with RePlay magazine in January 1990, Konami founder Kagemasa Kōzuki stated that Scramble was his company’s most important game. The 1981 arcade game would not only become Konami’s first major international hit, launching Konami into world prominence but also came to serve as the foundation for the side-scrolling shooter genre. While Scramble wasn’t ported to any major contemporary home video consoles or computers, its success spawned numerous clones and variants, one being Philip Price‘s excellent The Tail of Beta Lyrae.

Price was in the final stages of finishing Beta Lyrae, a detailed and impressive side-scrolling shooter heavily inspired by Scramble when he met musician Gary Gilbertson at the Hawaiian computer store where he was using one of the Atari 400 computers to program his game. Price had written an Advanced Music Processor allowing him to create state-of-the-art music for his game. While he was a great programmer, ambitious and self-taught, he was no musician. At the time the majority of games were the fruit of a single person’s labor and the use of music was vastly underestimated, not only was the rather crude hardware limited in its capabilities but original music required the skills of an actual musician. Gilbertson, having had one of the most popular bands in Hawaii in the early seventies, now with an interest in computers seemed an excellent match for tipping in on Price’s project.

Price and Gilbertson quickly hit it off both on a personal and professional level and understood by combining forces they could take Beta Lyrae to another level, employing the best in programming, visuals, and audio.
Gilbertson, while only having four square wave voices to work with, was determined to make the musical score as memorable as possible. Games, at the time, often used literally transcribed classical music, using only pure tones for the notes. Price’s Advanced Music Processor allowed for forms of vibrato, time and frequency shifts, random jumps, and greater frequency accuracy, all of which were used to enhance Gilbertson’s one-off music track.

Price wanted his game to be unpredictable, yet contain some degree of order. His scrolling levels had to be somewhat unique every time the game was played but still fit within a threshold defining each stage and difficulty level. By creating a probability scheme, defined by a number of parameters, a seemingly unlimited number of variations to each level’s terrain and object placements could be created. While the difficulty level was intense even at the easiest level, the fact that a level was never the same gave great replay value.

Price and Gilbertson agreed to become equal partners under the name Paradise Programming and when the game was completed now with Gilbertson’s original music score and an impressive copy protection scheme, the duo went to Los Angeles trying to sell The Tail of Beta Lyrae door-to-door to dealers. The rather unique title came from Price’s fondness for binary star systems, Beta Lyrae being a multiple star system in the constellation of Lyra. The Tail came from a play on telling a tale and the setting of a binary star system which only had fragments of rock orbiting it because of the tidal forces brought on by the two stars, these fragments were the tail of the system’s creation and where the game takes place.

Self-distributing the game didn’t prove successful and the duo contracted with Dave Gordon’s Datamost which released the title for the Atari 8-bit line of computers in late 1983.

The Tail of Beta Lyrae, initially sold door-to-door to dealers in Los Angeles by Philip Price and Gary Gilbertson, was picked up by Dave Gordon’s Datamost and published for the Atari 8-bit line of computers in late 1983

Alien forces have occupied the mining colonies in the asteroid fields of the Beta Lyrae binary star system. Fly through the fields and destroy the alien invaders and their installations all while avoiding attacks from laser and missile emplacements.
The game offered quite a challenge even on the easiest difficulty level, play on the hardest and you would only last 30 seconds.
Gilbertson’s excellent music score, unlike anything heard earlier, married with Price’s programming mastery and excellent visuals resulted in a side-scrolling shooter better than most

The Tail of Beta Lyrae was met with a very positive reception. The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software 1984 gave the game a very good rating and concluded that the music deserved an award for originality, and the game was up there with the best of the scrolling shoot-’em-up games on the market. It had great depth, was extremely playable, and offered a challenge even on the easiest level. Electronic Games reviewers found the game distinguished by extensive animation, a charming musical score, and sophisticated programming.
Price and Gilbertson went on to add software copy protection and music to a number of Datamost’s games but allegedly their royalty statement didn’t quite add up and the duo moved on.

Price and Gilbertson’s next game, Alternate Reality: The City, a 3D first-person fantasy roleplaying game became one of the great unfinished epics in computer gaming. When released by Datasoft in 1984 it was far ahead of its time with a cinematic introductory sequence, a superb soundtrack, and an almost unbelievable depth of play. Price started work on the second installment, The Dungeon but left the business before it was finished. His design and some of his code were picked up and brought to completion by employees of Datasoft. The rest of the planned five Alternate Reality games were never written.

Sources: Halcyon Days, Wikipedia, Breakout by Jamie Lendino

One thought on “Q-Bits From my Personal Collection – The Tail of Beta Lyrae, side-scrolling shooter par excellence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.