Saturday, 19 February 2011

New to me: Number 1 - Captain Silver (Sega Master System)

Ahoy me hearties! It's time to set sail for a treasure seeking voyage on the seven seas, so grab a tankard of grog or another rum-based beverage and prepare to swash some buckles, or buckle some swashes, or something. Yarr! It's time to play Captain Silver, a piratey adventure on ye olde Sega Master System.
Title Screen of Captain Silver for the Sega Master System (PAL version)
According to research that I most probably made up, the main reason people play games is to take on the role of a different person, to fulfil one's fantasies and dreams. So, if you want to be a soldier, you are well-served in soldier games. If you want to be a member of a rock group, you can play along to any number of tunes on your plastic instrument of choice (for now, at least). Back in the mid to late eighties, the same was true. Although in most instances you had the choice of being a ninja, or a samurai, or some kind of martial arts expert (should that be a martial artist?), you could also be a bubble-blowing dinosaur, a Brookyln-based plumber or a pill-popping pizza. But, what if you wanted to be a pirate? Unfortunately, you were just about out of luck if piratey antics were your bag. Either, this is because games programmers misinterpreted the news that pirate games are bad for the industry so decided not to make games featuring pirates, or they just didn't like pirates and chose not to represent their kind in video games. Yep, pirate prejudice was alive and kicking in the 1980s. Before Guybrush Threepwood pulled up at Melee Island in 1990, only one other game of note attempted to address the problem of the under-representation in video games that pirates experienced. That game was Captain Silver, an arcade game released in 1987, and, to be honest, it didn't really do much to help the pirates' cause, mostly owing to the fact that it was shit.

The arcade version of Captain Silver was a slash-em-up produced by Data East. It didn't really make it out of Japan, thus sparing most of the world from its horrors. Aye, it was a frustratingly unfair pile of scurveyed bilge rats. Your character, whose name is probably Jim, Jack or John, would last ten seconds before dying when coming into contact with a foe. Unbelievably, despite its general crappiness, Captain Silver was ported to both Nintendo's Famicom and Sega's Master System. It seems that even Nintendo weren't too concerned about letting this game slip through their monopolistic mitts and allowed it to appear on a competitor's machine - quite a rarity in those days. The Famicom version, which didn't really resemble the arcade game at all, still managed to faithfully recreate the arcade original's shitness, so could actually be described as an accurate port in that respect. The Master System port though, again a very different game to the arcade version, and reprogrammed by Sega themselves, is surprisingly good. And it is that version to be reviewed today, which is handy as that's the only version that I've played. Well, I did give the arcade version a go, but gave up after two minutes, by which time I'd got through about 50 lives. This review of Captain Silver is the first in a feature in which I review old games that I've never played before, so, despite it being over 20 years old, it's new to me!

Captain Silver on the Master System opens with a title screen featuring the game's name (always handy), and a scary looking skull and crossbones with a glowing green eye. After staring at this for a few seconds (not too long though - the green eye apparently has hypnotic powers), a demo of the game begins. There are no options in sight, so jumping into the game is as simple as pressing one of the two buttons on the control pad.

Captain Silver's treasure, hidden in a tree
Because of the way I have "acquired" this game, I don't have an instruction manual for it. But, I'm guessing the general story goes that you are young Jim, Jack or John, and you are on a mission to relieve Captain Silver of his treasure. To do so, you must battle a series of dangerous foes in towns, on ships, in caves and jungles, until you eventually come face to face with old Captain Silver himself, who appears to hide his treasure in a tree. Yep, that's pretty much it. No need to complicate it. Always used to hate those instruction manuals with five pages of a story at the beginning of it which had no relation at all to the actual content of the game.

Our hero and a Cheshire Cat
Upon starting the game and trying out the buttons, the first thing you will notice is that young J,J or J has a mighty powerful weapon with which to slash at anything brave enough to approach him. He can also jump a little bit with the other button, and a bit higher with a power up later on. The second thing you'll notice is that young J is a bit of a weakling and will die as soon as he comes into contact with anything, however unlikely it is that they would actually kill him in real life, including seagulls, rats, Cheshire Cats, pumpkins and water (yes, even though his role in life is to fare the seas, he doesn't tend to respond well to water, unless of course he's standing on the top of a plume of water from a fountain, in which instance he is suddenly able to walk on water). So, it's rather fortunate that J has his mighty powerful sword. The third thing you will notice is that young J's foes are rather bizarre and somewhat out of place. There are of course the typical enemies that you'd expect to find in a pirate game - sailors, pirates, captains and cannibals. And you can even excuse the fact that there are rats and seagulls present, even though they are fatal to the touch. But then, there are the other characters. One of the first that you'll meet appears to be a cross between Bungle out of Rainbow or a dog dressed as a man. Next up, a purple smiling Cheshire Cat. Then come the mutant pumpkins, followed by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose notes, logically, are deadly. After more Bungles and psychotic pumpkins, there is a fountain with the aforementioned deadly water, followed by a rat. Presumably the Pied Piper's music didn't really draw many rats to the island as that's the only one on the first level. Finally, after more encounters with a Cheshire Cat and a couple of bats, comes the first end of level boss. As you'd expect, with this being a game about pirates, the first boss is a witch. Of course! Now, this boss only appears in the European version of the game. If you play the American version, the witch is missing. In fact, there's no boss at all. It's often rumoured that the reason for this is due to the American version being produced on a cartridge with less space than the European version so some stuff had to be cut out (more on this later), but personally I believe it is for artistic reasons. Sega of America presumably felt that including witches in a game about pirates didn't make sense, so rather than having to try to explain the witch's presence, they felt it was easier to cut it out. They still left the Pied Piper in it though but that was apparently due to some sponsorship deal between Sega and The Pied Piper of Hamelin Corporation.
The Pied Piper prances around level one

Young JimJohnJack finds time to go shopping
The game continues in a similar way to the first level as JimJohnJack battles on over 6 levels of action-packed mayhem, or 4 levels of action-staved boredom if you're playing the American version. Upgrades to JJJ's sword are available on collection of fairies (obviously!), which enable it to shoot out stars, therefore allowing JJJ to combat his freaky foes from a relatively safe distant. Collecting multiple fairies causes the sword to fire out multiple stars, which makes JJJ's adventure a little less treacherous. Other power-ups include a bottle which makes young J flash, or at least his shirt flash. This gives him an extra chance if he bumps into something that would usually kill him. A boot will allow Jimjohnjack to jump higher temporarily, and a clock freezes time, which is quite useful as time is very much against you in this game. It's not like the ten minutes you get in Sonic the Hedgehog to complete a two minute level. Power ups can also be bought. Periodically, JJJ will walk into a shop where he can spend some of his cash, although only has about 15 seconds to make up his mind. Those Caribbean shopkeepers don't like being kept waiting. Cash is provided on collecting cards that defeated enemies leave behind. These cards also display letters, with each letter corresponding to the letters of the words "CAPTAIN SILVER" displayed at the top of the screen. When you have collected each letter, you get an extra life. Oh yes, multi-function cards.
Inside the shop. A bit like Tesco, isn't it?

Graphically, the game is quite impressive for the Master System. Levels are colourful and clear, with large bold sprites. The system copes with a relatively large number of enemies on screen at the same time, with no sign of slowdown and not much flicker, with the exception of some moving platform clouds on the last level. Soundwise, the game features jaunty piratey tunes which complement the game well and don't get too annoying. Well, maybe just a little, but that'll be down to the fact that getting through the first level takes a bit of practice, so you'll have to listen to the first level's tune over and over again. And, once you've completed it, you'll start the second level, only to find it uses the same tune! Fortunately the rest have different tunes. Not too sure why they couldn't have mixed up the order of the tunes a little bit.

Mutant pumpkins and Bungle make appearances in this game
As for playability, the game is initially quite frustrating. Once you've got past the discovery that almost everything you come into contact with kills you, and you've learned how the enemies attack (I guarantee that the first Cheshire Cat and pumpkins will kill you!), it becomes much more pleasurable. The is largely down to the game's tight controls and responsiveness which prevent the game from becoming the unplayable mess that is its arcade parent. You'll be needing to make split-second decisions, and the game accommodates this well. The game goes along at some pace and requires you to be constantly on your toes. With only a small number of lives, not much chance of getting additional ones, and no continues (unless you cheat - apparently pressing up and both keypad buttons allows you to continue), the game is no pushover. Once you've mastered it, it is a game that you'll come back to as it offers quite a challenge over a relatively short length of time and is genuinely fun to play.
One thing worth adding, which has already been touched upon, is that if you are intending on playing this game, you need to play the European/Canadian/PAL version. The Master System had a tough time in America, and it's no surprise to see why when quality games like this were butchered for the US market. Whereas the PAL version contains 6 levels, the American NTSC version contains 4. Also, a number of enemies were removed for the American version, and their attacks were simplified, making those that were left in easier to combat. For instance, the Cheshire Cats pounce slower and the pirates shooting at you don't tend to bother, unless you decide to stand in front of them for a few seconds. Even the American ending is a cut down version of the European ending. This "dumbing down" was apparently done because the game, which originally fitted on a 2 megabit cartridge for PAL markets, had to be cut down in size to fit onto a 1 megabit cartridge for NTSC territories, so several elements of it, including a third of the entire game, were removed. I still think it's for artistic reasons though. You can tell which version you're playing from the game's title screen. The PAL version is copyrighted 1988 whereas the NTSC version is 1989. Keep to 1988 and you'll be fine.

This witch is one of a number of missing enemies in the NTSC version of Captain Silver

So, all in all, Captain Silver is a fine little Master System game. Despite a few strange design decisions, such as level two repeating the same music as level one, and some of the enemies seeming a little out of place (although that's largely due to them featuring in the arcade original), the game feels professionally programmed and polished. Some say that you can't polish a turd, and Sega were given a real turd of a game to port to their magnificent Master System. Not only did they polish it, they left it quite shiny and gleeming. Once you've got some early frustrations out of your system, Captain Silver is playable, fun and strangely addictive. The important question to answer though is, if it was now 1988, would I be prepared to spend £25 on it? Quite possibly, yes. There is a certain amount of satisfaction in completing the game, and it's something that doesn't take too long to do once you're used to it. This is both a good and a bad thing. There isn't really any incentive to better your previous score, as it gets depleted quite heavily when purchasing power-ups, but the game has an odd way of drawing you back to it, largely owing to the fact it provides a bout of fast-paced fun and that you know that you're not going to have to give up hours of your time to get anywhere in it. It gets the grand old score of 7.5 out of 10 and the Classic Gaming blog rate-o-meter.

Here are some other screenshots from the game:
Level 2: A seagull and a couple of pirates. Things are beginning to get tough for our hero. How will he get out of this pickle?
Level Two: This mean looking nastie throws knives at you. Play the US version and he isn't there!

Level Two's boss resembles somebody familar. He's the easiest boss in the game to beat.
Level Three: JimJohnJack's boat isn't the biggest on the Seven Seas, but it gets him around. Somehow
A one-eyed creature with man boobs guards the end of Level Three
Level Four: The skeletons from Golden Axe make a special guest appearance here.
Level Four: Young Jim stops to examine a nudey statue. Perv.
The boss on Level Four is also easy to beat. Once defeated, his head comes off. The rest of him just stands there.
Level Five: On a tropical island, an arrow-throwing native guards the cococuts.
Level Five: As water is fatal to Jim, he has to step on turtles to cross it.
Level Six: Just a couple of pansies.
Level Six: Finally, the encounter with Captain Silver that we've been waiting for. He fires fire arrows. And it looks like one is heading right for Jim.
Part of the ending. The US ending features the same story, but without pictures and any background at all.
 * Earlier in the review, I mentioned that the main character's name is either Jim, John or Jack. It turns out that I was very almost right. In the description of the game on the back of the box for the European version, our hero is called Jim. In the description on the back of the box for the American version, he is named Jack (Avery). However, in the ending for both versions, he is called Jim. Now, if only he was known as John in some other territory.

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