As I start writing this at the end of 2020, on a third consective day of freezing temperatures and an inpenetrable fog that Silent Hill would be proud of, I’m thinking about my favourite games of the year. Actually, my favourite game of this year is easy; it’s the supporting cast that needs a bit more thought!
Anyway, In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch hasn’t been in any doubt as not only my game of 2020, but one of my top 25 games of all time since I first played it in around June of this year. You play an artifical intelligence guiding a xenobiologist through an underwater alien landscape, discovering its impossible lifeforms, its secrets, its history, and ultimately yours too. Everything centres around its beautifully refined and descriptive user interface, which almost immediately becomes second nature, and drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. It’s intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric.
And from the minute I started playing In Other Waters, it drew my mind back to a very similar experience I had many, many years ago on the Commodore VIC-20 that could be described using pretty much exactly the same terms… This was everything I loved about Submarine Commander all over again!
By the time Boxing Day 1984 had passed, the mighty 16K RAM expansion I’d been giving for Christmas the day before had passed its first test in The Perils of Willy (more here), and I was seeking out new possibilities that I’d spent the past year disappointedly skipping over on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots and WHSmith when I was unexpanded. Of course, in those days none of them would be open until the following day, so whatever money you might have been given for Christmas was now really burning a hole in your pocket. Actually, even worse was that same 48-hour hold-up when you’d got something that needed exchanging… I still remember the agonising wait the following year when I’d been given a really cool pop-up book on Halley’s Comet (just as it was poised to become a phenomena in 1986), but the working pop-up telescope had a tear in it which obviously ruined everything!
Anyway, back on Friday the 27th December 1984 and I like to think that once David Icke and Frank Bough had finished doing their thing on Breakfast Time, I watched Charlie Brown then by the time Inch High Private Eye had been and gone I was just about ready to leave for the shops before the dreadful Lassie started at 9.50am. And that’s where I made a beeline to Submarine Commander in the VIC-20 section in Boots, because to 12-year old me there was no greater use of 16K of RAM than piloting a World War II submarine, and having spent months staring longingly at this box more than any other on display, there was absolutely no hesitation that this was where my Christmas money was finally going!
Submarine Commander was originally developed right back in the dark ages of 1982 for Atari 8-bit, then appeared on the VIC-20 the following year. Publisher Thorn EMI went heavy on the advertising, with an equally heavy message that like their Jumbo Jet Pilot, this was more real-life simulator than game… “They’re designed for players who expect more of a challenge from a video game than creatures from outer-space can provide.” That’s all fine, but the advert itself still mystifies me, with its very serious and a little bit sterile almost double page spanning submariner artwork and three tiny screenshots on one side, where in reality in 1983 and for the next two years at least, those screenshots sold the game to anyone that was likely to buy it by themselves!
Which is why there being no screenshots on the box was also a mystery, especially when it referred to the nerve tingling action being spread over 3 screens. The front cover and wordy reverse was clearly enough to suck me in though, and seeing “FOR VIC-20 + 16K” at the top was always an indication that there was something special going on here! It also tells us that as the commander of a Mediterranean-based submiarine, your job is to sink as much enemy shipping as possible. Then you’ve got the killer sell, where it brilliantly encapsulates the action from every great black and white submarine film you’d see on TV on weekend afternoons at the time, like Run Silent, Run Deep or We Dive At Dawn… “Using your skills and cunning you must identify the enemy shipping, close in undetected using sonar, take aim through your periscope, fire your torpedoes and get out fast. You will have to evade the shadowing warships which are armed with depth charges. This is a highly addictive game of skill and strategy and your aim is to sink enemy shipping without being sunk yourself.”
That bit about depth charges sinking you is so powerful, because this was always the most tense part of those war movies, where the crew would all be stood in complete, terrified silence, dripping sweat and probably smoking Marlborough Reds in this suddenly fragile, claustrophobic metal tube as all hell rained down on them from the surface, with these vast underwater explosions waiting to tear them apart if the barrels fell close enough. And what wonderful shots of that you’d get from outside of the submarine too, with all the special effects they could muster in the Forties and Fifties still having precisely the desired effect all those decades later. Of course, this would all end up with a a bit of ominous creaking and a few pipes bursting before the ships passed by and they could carry on about their business, but the tension in those moments was always heart-in-mouth as you watched, and screenshots or not, those words combined with the imagination of a 12-year old that loved his war films worked brilliantly to convey exactly what you were in for… And just in case, it did say it had “amazing sound and graphics” on the box too!
Once you’ve loaded the game up, you’re presented with one of the most unassuming title screens in the history of gaming, but that means there’s no messing about – choose your skill level, press F3 and you’re instantly dumped somewhere in the Mediterranean, signfied by a flashing dot on your wonderfully detailed map, surrounded by all your instruments and readings and everything you need to start hunting down the enemy. The identity of the enemy isn’t really specified, but – just picking one of the instruments at random – battery charge is represented by a C for charge, which it wouldn’t be in German, so therefore we’ll assume you’re not in charge of a U-boat.
The instrument panel is brilliantly dynamic. On the left side of the screen you’ve got your attitude, dictating depth and direction on the compass below through your keyboard or joystick inputs, then there’s a mission clock, torpedo supply, fuel supply and battery charge. Your speed is controlled by the number keys, and you’re getting that here in knots. On the right side, you’ve got the all-important depth guage, and under that the hydrophone chart, which shows ships as peaks that you use together with the sonar screen to line-up your prey when you get close, and once you’ve taken them out you’ve also got a reading of tonnage sunk that contributes to your post-mission assessment. Then there’s the chart showing depth below the keel, which is my favourite bit of the whole game – it’s showing the bottom relative to your ship, which opens up a whole new dimension to exploring and seeing how deep you can go in different parts of the ocean; it’s also the source of utter panic when you’re manouevering a bit too close to shore! Next, you’ve got your damage indicators for the hull, instruments and engines, and there’s a nice risk-reward element here of chancing carrying on or finding somewhere to surface to get repairs done. Of course, a particularly serious screen-shaking battering from depth charges, or grounding yourself is going to end up in the hull cracking and finding yourself in a watery grave!
Being underwater or on the surface is always on your mind – you’ll be faster on the surface, but if you get caught short by the big guns escorting a convoy you’re going to be crash diving as deep and as silent as possible while those depth charges drop all around you. This is a lovely example of the amazing attention to detail you’re getting in this VIC-20 game from 1983 – if you do end up within visual range of a convoy, you’ll get a bell (kind of!) to warn you to take action. Underwater gives you an advantage, but you do need to keep an eye on air and batteries, and as another great piece of attention to detail, if you switch to your sonar (or fire a torpedo) they’re going to clock that distinctive ping regardless!
Once you’ve worked out where you are at the start of the game, you’ll be looking for shipping movements on your map, and once you’ve swung your sub around in the right direction you’ll be scooting off across the surface. As you approach, you’ll want to dive and switch the main screen from map to sonar, which, together with your hydrophone chart, is going to get you close and pointing your torpedoes at the enemy. Get up to around 25 feet and your periscope is going to come into play so you can accurately line up the enemy and fire your torpedoes; this is where the thrill-ride happens, and you’ll be identifying and prioritising tankers, destroyers and patrol boats across the sea, as occasional clouds pass by in the sky, somehow adding to the sense of space and your vulnerability as the ultimately fragile hunter in this vast open expanse of water. Line everything up right and you’ll see your torpedo trail heading ominously across the surface until it impacts with your target, which will sink it with a bit of luck, though it might take a few direct hits at higher skill levels. What a great feeling, together with a sense of relief, when that happens! Or you might just miss and see one of your precious torpedoes float harmlessly by the now fully alerted enemy!
This game of cat and mouse goes on until you’ve sunk all the enemy convoys at play across the entire map, and is going to take you a good thirty minutes to an hour at higher levels – again, pretty cool for a 1983 VIC-20 game! But that’s if you haven’t used up all your oxygen or fuel or battery in the meantime, and that you havent been taken out by depth charges or run yourself aground because in the heat of the battle you forgot to reduce your speed as you turned into the channel between Italy and Sicily, and out of nowhere the bottom appeared on your chart and you couldn’t blow your ballast tanks in time to do anything about it!
We started by talking about 2020 masterpiece In Other Waters… Intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric. And that’s Submarine Commander too. There’s so much going on, so much to think about, and that’s before you’re presented with this 3D sea-scape where a ship appears on the horizon and you don’t know what it is yet, but as you get closer you realise it’s the high-tonnage prize of a tanker, but hang on, there’s a destroyer right behind it, but you only noticed it after that first torpedo slammed into its escort and now you’re in for a scrap, but first you need to kill your speed and dive, dive, dive!
In the great pantheon of VIC-20 games, for me Submarine Commander sits only behind The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack and Jetpac. But that said, if we’re scoring complexity of game, it beats everything else on the system outright. And the same for atmosphere. And – maybe apart from Jetpac (more here) – how it stands up as a gaming experience in 2021 (which somehow happened in the process of writing this!) too. And I reckon I knew all of that when I had to give up my VIC-20 and all of my games to fund my Spectrum, but somehow this – together with Jump Jet (more here) managed to escape the box of booty we sold!