AGH -- The Story Behind Nebulus And Tower Toppler


by Pierre-André

At the time of its publication, Nebulus was considered as a little revolution in the video games area. After Nintendo defined the "ladder-climbing" genre with Donkey Kong in the early eighties, many games that followed were merely derivatives. Occasionally, a smart programmer would add complexity to the recipe and create a masterpiece such as Lode Runner (Doug Smith, Broderbund, 1983), where strategy was just as important as reflexes, something that was hitherto desperatly missing from its competitors.

During the mid-eighties, the climbing games were very frequent, still using the same ideas but with an adventure touch. Impossible Mission and The Goonies asked the player to resolve an enigma before finishing any stage. Pure climbing games still existed and were fun to play but none of them brought any new concept to the table. Then in 1988, Nebulus appeared and was almost immediately considered by the European press as "a major breakthrough." The game was praised for its freshness, humor, imagination and especially its simple but appealing concept.

The story went as follows: On the Nebulus planet, mad investors had struck again. They had built, in open sea, very high towers without obtaining permission. Following this scandal, Destructo Corp. was called to destroy these structures and as their best worker, you've been assigned to this task. You are a Nebulese, a green bipede, who is capable of throwing energy balls. To destroy these towers, you must reach the top of each in a limited time; if the counter reaches zero, you loose a life and you must start again from the beginning of the present tower. On the other side, if you succeed, the time left will be converted to bonus points.

Your submarine drops you on the first floor of each structure, then you start your ascent. While still using a two dimension presentation, the tower rotates (something which had never been done before) during your progression. You will have to walk on pavements which own special powers, some are slippery and some others simply disappear when you reach them. The strategy here is to memorize the locations of each of these pavements and to avoid them by jumping over them.

To ascend the tower, you use stairs and elevators. Unlike many "climbing" games where each level is represented as a static screen, here the tower is going up everytime you reach a new floor, adding a sense of "vertigo" rarely used before. Also, you frequently have to penetrate into the tower, an act that leads you to its other side. Due to the rotation of the structure, the perspective changes and so does your strategy. Now, you have to plan your way up with two sides; since no multiple trajectories are allowed, only one works.

All this would be very simple if these towers weren't populated by many keepers who slow you down in your progression. Flying eyes (that look like bouncing air balls) can be destroyed or frozen by your projectiles but some of them are absolutely indestructible. Usually, the trick here is to simply avoid them or to enter in the tower when they arrive on you. If you fail, at the contact of one of these creatures, you fall one floor. It's usually harmless if another level is under you but if you fall into water, you lose one life.

When you reach your goal, the tower sinks into the sea and your submarine picks you up to take you to the next structure. During your trip, you encounter a bonus stage where you have to shoot fishes with your vehicle. While being a simple shoot-em-up, this stage offers some fun before the next puzzle.

The concept of Nebulus is simple but its representation -- without being spectacular -- was a real innovation at the time. Conceived and programmed by a young English programmer, John Phillips (only 24 years old then), the game was released in Europe in 1988. Published by Hewson, the program became an instant classic and was available on the 16-bits (Atari ST, Amiga), and on the 8-bits (Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC 464) but not on the Atari 8-bit Computers or the 7800.

Announced in the May 1988 issue of Atari User UK directly by Hewson, the XL/XE conversion was planned to be available as a tape, promising to be priced affordably (compared to the cost of a cartridge.) Atari UK, which was hard at work on a new line of cassette software to offer with the new XE Game System package, was amazed by the success of the game and talks suddenly were under way almost immediately between U.S. Gold (the owner/distributor of Hewson) and Atari. In addition to an ATARI 800/XL/XE version, it was decided that a conversion would be made simultaneously for the 7800. Since ATARI UK had already released more than ten games on cassette, nobody knew if the XL/XE version was going to be released by Hewson or Atari UK until Atari US announced Nebulus as a cartridge. What happened here was that a program released on tape in Great Britain was be released in the United States as a cartridge, something that had never been done before for an original game (I am not talking about the Atari licensed games like Archon, One-on-One, Hardball, etc.) As a matter of fact, while we were waiting for the 800/XL/XE Nebulus, Atari US released Thunderfox on cartridge, which was an original Atari UK game previously available on tape so everything seemed to be going according to plan.

Once released, the ATARI 7800 conversion delivered a few surprises. First, the game's title changed from Nebulus to a less poetic Tower Toppler. In addition ATARI US had changed the entire story. Now, the towers were accused of poisoning the water of the Nebulus planet by "maintaining a mysterious, lethal hold over all forms of valuables resources". Since nobody cares about the script (you always play more a game than you read its manual), this change is more a curiosity than anything else (there's even a third story in the manual, this time with a mad scientist trying to control the universe). Like the European versions, the 7800 conversation is sensational in the gameplay area, few games like this one gives you such pleasure. The graphics and animations are as good as the Commodore 64 version and the colors are even better but that's not all. This cartridge even outshines the Atari ST version in the bonus stage (the 7800 is only an 8-bit machine), using beautiful colors and non-linear graphics while the ST uses only lines to represent the sea. The only weak points here are the music and sounds effects which are limited by the 7800 soundchip (this cartridge didn't use the Pokey sound chip that was added onto several 7800 games to enhance the audio capabilities.)

The ATARI 800/XL/XE conversion was announced for an early 1990 release but never saw the light of day due to the stop of support of the Atari 8-bit line from Atari US & UK (among Atari historians, this is what we call the end of "the Atari Advantage Era"). On its own, Hewson did not even release the tape in Great Britain (perhaps the rights purchased by Atari did not revert back to them when Atari cancelled the release). In 1995, Best Electronics (a famous Atari mail order outlet) bought several pallets from Atari and in one of these, found several "finished" prototypes (the games were ready to be released) including the 800/XL/XE conversion of Nebulus/Tower Toppler. Needless to say, many Atarians were extremely excited by such a discovery but there was (and there still is) a little problem: the Atari 8-bit Computer version is entirely monochrome! (black and white.) The game doesn't use a single color except for the bonus stages where the few employed aren't better than the one used in the Sinclair Spectrum version (a successful machine in Europe known for its poverty in color). Despite the lack of color, the ATARI 800/XL/XE conversion is still a very good program. The graphics and animation are as good as the one used in the 7800 cartridge but the music and sounds are still limited.

For those who own an 7800, I cannot recommend this game enough... It's one of the best in the 7800 library. Atari 8-bit owners will surely want to acquire that cartridge too because Nebulus/Tower Toppler is still an incredible game, even in black & white. But if you have both machines, the 7800 version is definitely the one to own.

Tower Toppler Tricks (7800 only)
- taken from The Atarian video game magazine -

  • When starting a new game, you can skip the towers you have already completed and practice on ones you have not yed toppled by moving the right difficulty switch to the left. When you get to the tower you want, move the switch to the right and play.

  • You can get an infinite number of lives by allowing the Nebulese to fall into the water on your last life. As soon as the bubbles disappear, activate the level select by moving the Player 2 difficulty switch left. Move the switch right when you reach the level you want. The life counter will have no marks on it. Let The Nebulese die once before attempting the tower and you will then have an infinite number of lives.

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