Ah, the halcyon days of early PC gaming. When Intel ruled supreme and hard disk space was measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes. If you had internet access at the time, you were granted wizard status amongst your friends and peers. PC games were sold in huge cardboard boxes, affectionally known as big-box PC games, and often filled to the brim with instructions and lore. The antithesis of gaming today, as the world opts for reduced packaging and the continued proliferation of digital-only.
No “click here to buy”, but a trip into town with friends. An adventure of sorts, as much as children in the ‘90s could adventure. Sure, we weren’t exactly looking for the stolen gold of Yamashita, or for the city of Atlantis, but who knows what we’d find lurking on dusty shelves and bargain bins? There was excitement to be had in the mystery, the prospect, with no consideration of going home empty-handed.
This anticipatory temperament was the product of a life that often felt glacial. TV shows were released on a weekly basis. Gaming magazines monthly. Weekends were for fun after a week of school. Information was only as fast as the friends you travelled with. If you were on the fence about a particular game, you couldn’t exactly pull out your smartphone to check the reviews. Nothing that instantaneous had been invented just yet.
Moments considered quaint by today's standards felt like an event. Maybe I’d find a discounted copy of Doom or Hexen in pristine condition? Not likely. More likely was an abundance of games I had little to no knowledge of. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling.
This was the one time I wished time would stand still.
But I had to make a decision at some point, and even I knew after an hour I was overstaying my welcome. Time to pick something. Time to pony up the money, and take the risk. So I did. “No refunds, no returns”, said the man behind the till. I could just see the faint outline of a smile behind his cigarette smoke. No going back now. I paid for the game and left the shop.
After much deliberation, I settled on a game called Silent Service II. A total gamble, as I had no real way to assess what it would be like. A total gamble, but a worthy one — as it would become one of my most cherished gaming memories. Primitive graphics and all, Silent Service II created, and still creates to this day, a sense of dread and fear that few other titles can instil in me.
Underwater stealth survival
Just off the coast of Hokkaido, at 02:34 — the dead of the night. Already at periscope depth, I swiftly rotate the viewfinder until the enemy is in sight. There they are. Seven ships in total. I move forward at half speed, quietly, like an Orca stalking unsuspecting prey. I classify each boat, becoming all the more anxious as I realise what I’m up against. Destroyers, Heavy Cruisers, Heavy Carriers, and Torpedo boats. This is no job for a kid raised on a diet of Super Mario Bros. and Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
Multiple torpedoes fired, one after another, and I locked on to ships that I found particularly threatening. Switching to grid view, which is a 2D grid with a series of lines representing myself, enemy ships, and fired torpedoes, I crossed my fingers and waited for the sound of impact. It was not going to be that simple, however. The ships had spotted my oncoming attack, they were on to me. I was exposed, and they smelled blood.
Two of my torpedoes hit, but they had little effect.
The lines corralled and pivoted 180 degrees, coming right for me. Stopping all engines, hoping that my silence would discourage any further activity bearing down on me, was not a particularly good tactic. They rotated on my exact position, as angry as lines can rotate, and it was terrifying. At this point, even if I didn’t know it, I was done for. The enemy ships started “pinging” me, using their sonar to get a more accurate feel for my location.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Depth charge, after depth charge. The hunter was now the hunted, and they circled like sharks. The eerie repetitive sound, coming through a rudimentary PC speaker, coupled with the primitive visuals was, and still is, a master class in designing terror on a creative shoestring budget.
I crash-dived, down to 150 feet, but it was too late. The depth charges were relentless, and they rocked my submarine to the brink. The engines were flooded, I couldn’t move, and I was sinking further into the dark. As a last-ditch attempt, I released debris — a diversion tactic to make it look as though my submarine imploded. That failed.
Eventually, on the cusp of annihilation, it wasn’t the depth charges that destroyed my chances — it was hitting the ocean floor. 30 minutes, from start to finish. Ecstasy and agony — but what a thrill. The trip, the adventure, was a success. I’d found a game that wasn’t very well known or spoken fondly of, but that somehow made it all the more special.
You might be thinking that all of this is a bit ridiculous. How on earth can a submarine game, from 1990 no less, be considered one of my most terrifying gaming experiences? Well, firstly, the ocean is scary because it’s the ocean. Thalassophobia is a thing, and I absolutely subscribe to that particular phobia. Secondly, the primitive nature of the game, both in terms of graphics and sound, only added to the experience rather than subtracted.
Show or tell, as it’s referred to in the movie business. A smart director knows when to show the detail, and when to pan the camera away and allow the viewer to take over. Imagination was certainly a requirement to get the most from Silent Service II, and imagination is hugely efficient at thinking of worst-case scenarios and fear. This was the gaming equivalent of hearing a noise in the dark and your mind conjuring up the worst.
A testament then to the less is more ethos in game design, a long-forgotten ethos perhaps, as fidelity only becomes crisper and budgets become further inflated.
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