Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NES Month: Silent Service

Silent Service
  • Publisher: Ultra
  • Developer: Microprose/Rare
  • Platform/Release: NES, December 1989
  • Genre: Simulation
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Another brand that I have to mention when discussing the history of the NES is Ultra Games, which was merely a shadow brand created by Konami. See, back in the day, Nintendo of America limited each publisher to releasing only five different games per year for the NES, in an attempt to stave off an over-saturated market of junk games that plagued the Atari age. It worked, but these and other practices left publishers with a bad taste in their mouths. Konami was hit hard by this limitation, since they were already releasing twice that limit for the Famicom in Japan. So to get around this restriction, they created the Ultra label, effectively doubling their quota. Franchises handled by the Ultra brand include Metal Gear and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... and then there's this.

Silent Service was the one of the earlier games designed by Sid Meier of Civilization fame, and started out as a computer game for the PC in 1985. It was ported to many platforms, including the Amiga, Apple II, and Commodore 64 before, almost inevitably, in 1989 it was picked up for an NES version, ported by (here we go again) Rare. The game is set in the Pacific Front of World War II, where you control various US submarines and attack Japanese convoys and destroyers.

You get to choose from one of three modes when you start up the game. Torpedo/Gun Practice lets you fool around as you sink four unarmed ships. Combat Tactics puts you in one of six scenarios against a number of enemy ships. Once you sink them all or they sink you, the game ends and your score, measured in tons of ships sunk, is tallied. Finally, there is the War Patrols mode, which alternates between a free-roaming patrol of the western Pacific and random battles like those from Combat Tactics. Here, the only way to end the game manually (barring a watery grave) is to go back to one of the Allied ports in-between combat.
The scope view is where the action is. [1]
Most of your time will be spent in a scope view, where you'll use your weapons, the torpedoes and deck gun, to attack enemy ships. When you center your view over an enemy ship, you'll see its stats like speed and trajectory automatically. You can also look up the ship type and tonnage, but the only way to do that is to click in the target ID box over to the right. Forgive me for not understanding matters from the development side, but why you have to do this manually is just beyond me. There is also a limitation here not present in the computer versions: you're limited to four torpedoes on the field at any one time. Sure, you can only hold six torpedoes in the bow (front) and four in the aft (back) before reloading, but if you forget about this limitation, you might find yourself frustrated.

Be warned: since this is a port of a computer game, it is very complex to play. Instead of pressing buttons to do individual actions, most of what you'll be doing involves moving a cursor and "clicking" with the A button. Since the pointer only moves in eight directions, it's nowhere near as fluid or precise as using a mouse, an option that is sadly unavailable for the NES. Start does nothing, whereas Select brings you back to the pause menu, from where you can move to the other screens (maps, gauges, and damage reports). Have they even played Super Mario Bros.? Even worse, you can't access some of the advanced functions (changing deck gun deflection, releasing depth charges, etc.) without having a controller plugged into Port 2; there's no workaround without one. I hate when games do that. On the other hand, there is complexity in a good way, since you are able to dive and surface at will, opening the possibility of all manner of tactics. All the advanced AI in the world would probably go over the heads of casual players, however, who might prefer to stay surfaced in order to use the deck gun.
There's a lot to pay attention to in this game. [1]
There's nothing in the visual department that pops out memorably, but the graphics get the job done. I do admire how the ships zoom in as they get closer to you, blocky as they may be, if only because the NES wasn't known for 3D graphics. And yet it's weird how your captain is decked out in jeans and a white sweater; is he piloting an armed US Navy submarine or a yacht? There's no music to speak of, except on the title screen, so get used to the sounds of your engine, munitions explosions, and sonar pings.

I would never go so far as to say this game is totally boring, or that it is a realistic and engaging re-creation of historic battles. To say one would be unfair to the other camp. What this game does, it does reasonably well, I'll give it that. But let me just say this: know your interests before giving this title a try. If you have little to no interest in World War II, then this game will bore you before you can say Iwo Jima. History buffs will find a lot to love here, but I really can't recommend this to anyone else.

Control: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Design: 4 torpedoes out of 5
Graphics: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Audio: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Value: 3 torpedoes out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

1"Silent Service Box Shots and Screenshots for NES". GameFAQs. http://www.gamefaqs.com/nes/587616-silent-service/images.

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