It seems that, at any one point of time, there's always a bad guy in the universe. This time, it's Lord Phobos, Master of Fear. He's gone and kidnapped the daughter of the Galactic President and, not surprisingly, it's payback time. (Whether said president's daughter is worth risking the lives of many space pilots, we will never know.)
Of course, Phobos was expecting a retaliation of some kind, and he's smuggled the daughter away to the surface of the Sun. Therefore, our brave pilots must pick up rare elements, found in the core of several planets that orbit said Sun, which will help build a defense system against the heat and radiation of the sun. Nine of these elements will sufficiently shield you.
Phobos has unfortunately pre-empted this move as well, and has built up a rather effective defense system on each planet. Basically, he's looked into the human psyche and built defenses that simulate our worst phobias, like arachnophobia (fear of spiders), aquaphobia (fear of water), phasmophobia (fear of ghosts), and lachanaphobia (fear of vegetables).
The planets, or levels, are arranged in a near-triangular grid on a map, and your job is to get from the leftmost planet (arachnophobia) to the Sun on the right-hand side. To move along, you have to destroy the planet by mining it of it's essential elements.
A mission on each planet has several sub-missions: firstly, there are lots of aliens that don't want you finding the essential element, so they must be destroyed while avoiding their counter-defenses. Secondly, there are special keys found throughout the level, and you must destroy each one to switch off the inpenetrable forcefield at the end of the level - failure to do so will mean sacrificing one of your lives. Thirdly, there is an end-of-level boss which represents the sum of all fears: a massive spider for the arachnophobia level, for instance. If you lose one life while combating this boss, you have to go through the whole level again.
Once you have navigated the level and killed the Boss, you can go into the planet itself to get to the core. This is made up of a maze of corridors that you fly through, while avoiding and destroying yet more aliens and weapons systems. Once you're through to the end, there is a large egg-like structure that you must repeatedly fire at until the element can be seen. Then it's a small matter of collecting the element and the level is finally over.
While you are going through the planet's defense system, some aliens will leave power-up pods that you can collect to increase your firepower. Beware, though - if you lose a life then your ship is powered down. It's pretty much essential to have quite a lot of firepower, especially towards the end levels.
Some planets also have moons, from which you can pick up Space Pods if you successfully liberate the moon. These space pods have two main uses: firstly, once you have collected enough power-ups, these pods will also fire when your ship does.
The second use is in the form of a "sacrifice." Coming from the sun are Phobos's dread Sun Troops, who travel from planet to planet and leave light-barriers. You will lose a life if you travel through these barriers; but if you have a space-pod, then this will be sacrificed instead. It's always best having a space-pod as it's almost impossible to miss the light barriers.
Phobia has a clever simultaneous two-player system, in that one player can shoot at the other's ship, which will cause a charge-up of his current weapons. When he next fires, a large burst of firepower will be unleashed, depending on the amount of firepower that was absorbed via the other player. In a one-player game, he can choose to activate a doppelganger of his ship. This doubles his firepower, but also doubles his chances of losing a life, as there's now two ships on the screen.
Let's get one thing straight: Phobia is difficult. Very, very difficult. Lots of things are happening at the same time, and you have to keep a watch out of bullet, shield keys, power-ups and the like. The key is to try and collect as many power-ups as you can right from the beginning, otherwise you'll be in serious trouble. Getting killed by the end-of-level Boss is also frustrating, as you have to go through the level again.
The game itself though is very compelling and addictive. The graphics are very well defined, and the sprite multiplexing routine copes well when there's lots of action on the screen. I noticed a couple of glitches when there was a little too much going on, but it wasn't anything major and disappeared almost as fast as it began. Sound is adequate; there's no music as such, but the sound effects are responsive and keep you in the know of what's happening on-screen.
Overall, it's an accomplished version of what is essentially a sideways-scrolling shoot'em up. It can be incredibly frustrating at times but there's something compelling about wanting to know what the next phobia will be. You'll pick up the joystick again for "just one more go". A great Commodore game, if rather underrated when it came out in 1989.