Retro Rated: Worse Things Happen At Sea

Factfile
Developed by: Mind’s Eye Software
Released: 1984
Format played: Spectrum

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Ruminations

The main purpose of my review writing has been to revisit my enormous back catalogue of boxed games to try and derive some value from the hundreds of pounds spent on unplayed titles down the years. But sometimes I just like to delve into the videogame archives and sample some of what our glorious hobby has to offer.

With this in mind, I recently reached out to my fellow gamers on Twitter for inspiration on what to play next. There were some good suggestions of many games I have either heard of, played or in some cases already reviewed. But one game in particular caught my eye because I had never even heard of it before.

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What Is It?

It’s strange but when I started reading up about this game I was a little intimidated. Retrogaming, especially 8-bit era, should to my mind be straight forward and simple and yet this seemed complicated. It is a legacy of my mental health issues that I built up a wall of resistance that I had to punch through before I felt able to get going with the game.

The good news is that it comes with a set of instructions that type themselves onto the screen when you load up, giving you an overview of the basic controls and objectives. The bad news is that in doing so, it sounds like a particularly angry pelican has got into an argument with the old BBC Grandstand vidiprinter as your speakers start to emit a wretched set of tapped out bleeps for each letter.

But what of the game itself? In a rather conflicting set of developments, it appears that mankind has developed a ship sophisticated enough to be able to sail across the sea with only a single robot on board to navigate. But alas! In spite of this wonder of technological innovation, apparently the ship is part of a barely seaworthy flotilla of despair, springing a leak almost as soon as you leave the dock. Cue a mad dash as your super droid tears around the ship trying to plug the leaks and keep the tub afloat until you reach the safety of dry land.

The display looks a little overwhelming to start with but everything serves a purpose. Along the top of the screen you can track your ship’s progress along it’s route. Just below is a graphical overview of the ship with a little bar to represent how much water is getting in to each area. Aside from an indication of your score, you also have gauges to show the ship’s temperature, overall water levels and your robot’s power level, the little sucker needing to be recharged periodically if he is to complete his task.

The main portion of the screen though is given over to the playing area. Each section of the ship is a single screen and you traverse the different sections by opening hatches or ascending / descending in the lift. As the water comes in the screen turns from white to black, the rising sea level matched by your rising sense of panic. But how to stop the flood? Let’s take a walk through a typical play through.

Emerging from the materialisation chamber, I guide my robot into one of the leaky sections to inspect the damage. Shutting the hatch behind me I reach for a patch to place over the leak, then head back through the hatch to pick up the pump handle I noticed back there. Darting back over to the drenched section, I go for the pump but, oh no! My robot has run out of power. And so it’s back to the start and a life lost.

A quick recharge later and its back into the thick of the action. Rooms are filling up fast now. I dash along to the left then follow the lift shaft down to the lower deck. Drat! Not one, not two but three leaks all in a row. I quickly grab a patch to place over one but I’ll have to go back up the lift shaft and find some more to plug the other gaps, then I’ll need to find a pump handle to get rid of the water. But wait! The water has affected my robot’s circuits, reducing his lifespan and I’m out of power again. Another life lost.

Back to the start and I’m really up against it now. Quick, through that hatch, then down the lift, then back up the lift because I forgot to shut the hatch, then back down the lift, then back up the lift because I forgot to find a patch or a handle, then through another hatch and then…game over. My robot has powered down for the last time and the ship has sunk to a watery grave.

It’s actually an incredibly simple idea but tremendously well executed. Once you get to grips with what you need to do you can tear around the ship at a rate of knots but as water sets in to multiple areas of the ship and your power gauge reaches its limit, the tension ratchets up. With only a limited number of pump handles for the various pumps throughout the ship, plus a need to keep the ship on course as you battle the rising water, you will need to work hard to keep up with the various leaks that spring up.

Graphically it is pretty basic of course but it works superbly, the layout of the screen drawing just the right balance between giving you information to assist you versus a spacious playing area. Aside from the horrendous noise during the instructions sound is good throughout, especially when your ship inevitably sinks to the ocean floor and a charming nautical melody plays you out. Movement meanwhile is simple and responsive.

And it’s tough! I am admittedly fairly useless at it but your fingers really need to dance deftly across the keyboard to get you into position. It can be a little frustrating having to keep returning to the recharge pods, especially if you get caught in water and your power drain doubles in speed. But it all adds to the tension and is another strategy element to be managed. Plus you are not unduly punished for allowing a particular section to flood. As long as you shut hatches as you go, reducing the ability for the water to spread, you can focus on one issue at a time, plugging and pumping out a room, then darting back to the recharge pod before tackling the next leak.

Should you manage to reach your destination you achieve the ‘victory’ condition but the value of your cargo takes a hit depending on how much water remains on board when you arrive. Then you get to do it all again, the difficulty ramping up as the game asks you to not only manage leaks but steer the ship and look after the engine. Phew, being a robot is hard work.

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Worth Playing?

In this era of AAA games and sequels, it’s difficult to find a truly original idea but I can honestly think of no other game quite like this. Quirky, challenging and fun, this is an experience worth setting sail for.

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