This edition of Memories is going to be a touch on the fuzzy side, because it involves the recollections of an eight year old child. He’s beside me now. I’ve kidnapped him specially for the … no, ok, the eight year old child is me; twenty one years ago.
When Bohemia Interactive releasedfrom their ‘re-envisaging’ of the 1980s classic Carrier Command (unlike some, it deserves that accolade), it stirred up some old feelings. As a regular games player, and games writer in particular, it’s easy to get rather jaded. Sometimes, it can feel like you’ve seen it all. One first-person shooter is much like another, no matter what gimmicks are included or new locations are promised. The more a press release gushes about “REVOLUTIONARY GAMEPLAY” the faster my eyes start to rotate in their sockets. If it says the plot is “epic” they start to spin like a fairground teacups ride for optical nerves.
Sometimes, it’s possible to get too cynical (no, no, but it is). Seeing Carrier Command again reminded me, briefly, how it felt to be presented with a game that seemed to have unprecedented depth. I started to recall what a thrill it was to discover new things in-game, and how figuring out something that would now seem painfully obvious to older-me often felt like a minor triumph. You see, my battles in Carrier Command weren’t just against the enemy Carrier that prowled the seas like some hungry tourist on a lilo chasing a floating hotdog, they were also with my own inability to figure out how to play.
My copy of Carrier Command was part of one of those old compilation sets: Twelve Great Games, Sixty Magical Timewasters, One Million Cassette Tapes In A Box, something like that. These were always terrific value, but because the publisher was already squeezing oodles of gamey-goodness into their retail pie, the instructions tended to be somewhat on the truncated side. Since Carrier Command was one of the more complicated games of that era this lack of clear, written directions had quite an influence on my experience.
There was another barrier to figuring out what was going on, too. The Spectrum’s now-legendary monochrome graphics. Just to remind you, Bohemia’s new Carrier Command will look something like this:
While I was playing something that looked more like this:
It’s not just the wire frames or the preponderance of blue that’s confusing; just look at that monster of an interface. What the hell is that icon in the top left corner (expand to see the full shot) supposed to mean? ‘Have your captain beheaded by a medieval executioner’?
Through a combination of guesswork and puzzling over the pamphlet-sized guidelines, I managed to figure out that the game was about sailing your vehicle carrier around and trying to capture (or possibly ‘liberate’) various intellectually-monikered islands. Actually doing so, however, was a different matter. I now know that the general strategy is to send in a flying vehicle (a Manta) to clear out any defences and then follow it up with a base-deploying ground vehicle (a Walrus). At the time I was too busy struggling with the interface to really pull off this plan with any degree of success. In fact, I can distinctly remember using my Mantas as suicide dive-bombers because I hadn’t yet worked out either how to load them up with missiles or what the command to lock-on and fire those missiles was.
I realise a lot of this will be making me sound a bit dense, but remember that this was a game so old that there weren’t any hotkeys for, say, increasing and decreasing the speed of your craft. Instead, you had to click on the ‘speedometer’ bar instead. With a cursor controlled by joystick rather than mouse. Yes, that’s exactly as clumsy as it sounds. If Bohemia re-release the game with better graphics, hotkeys and no other changes they’ll already be halfway to satisfying me.
In the course of reading about other versions of the game, I’ve also discovered that the dear old Speccy version was lacking a ‘time speed up’ function. Which could explain why a great deal of the game seemed to involve sailing leisurely across the blue ocean, gazing at the gorgeous blue horizon from the blue deck of my blue carrier. This may or may not have been Miyamoto’s primary inspiration for Wind Waker.
But this brings me back to my point about jaded cynicism. With my games writer hat on, the Carrier Command interface is (now) unforgiveable and the extended periods of time spent cruising around are pretty tedious. Yet as a kid, I was more than prepared to stick it out. Partly, I suspect, because this was my early exposure to videogames and I didn’t know any better, but partly because I recognised a great game at work.
Carrier Command was a combined open-world, vehicle combat title. In 1988. Only something as legendary as Elite really came close to offering players that level of choice and non-linear decision making in the 80s. The splendid Battlezone took a similar approach, but that wasn’t released until 1998. Simply being given the ability to choose which island to sail to and the ever-present threat of the enemy Carrier were enough to keep my young mind engaged. That latter feature blew my mind; here was an ‘end boss’ type encounter that could show up within five or ten minutes or play.
I’d love Bohemia’s Carrier Command to grab me in the same way as the original, but I fear that just can’t happen. It may still be a terrific game (although one which I’ll probably need a PC upgrade to run properly, given Bohemia’s track record), but that same feeling of freedom is offered by so many titles now that it’s ceased to be so revolutionary. In a sense this is a triumph for the medium, making it far more likely that someone’s first experience with games will be the same positive, joyous one I had. But in a selfish way, I sometimes wish I could access those unobtainable feelings once again.
I got hours of fun from the original Carrier Command, even though I could barely play it properly. That’s something I’ll never experience again.