Time sinks. We’ve all got our favourites. Games that grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and chained us to our respective machines for hours on end. Games that even now make us reminisce and hark back to days long gone. For me, one of those games is Harpoon.
Brief history lesson first (sorry!): Harpoon began life as a board game designed to simulate modern naval warfare at a tactical level. I say modern, think early 1980’s. Its designer, Larry Bond, is a former US Navy officer and wanted to simulate accurate naval tactics and strategy at home. The board game was used by Bond and a little known would be author, Tom Clancy, to play out scenarios for Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October. It was further used for scenario planning for the Clancy/Bond collaborative work, Red Storm Rising (though Bond insists that he only wrote 1% of that novel). Naturally, a computer version followed in 1989.
Taking two and a half years of development time, Harpoon the computer game was initially released for the PC, with Apple Mac and Amiga versions following. It was the latter version that I played as a teenager and I have rather vivid memories of tucking myself away in my grandparent’s dining room with my trusty Amiga 500 and a 14 inch portable TV and spending most, if not all, of a Saturday engrossed in the game.
Given its genesis, the game offers at best EGA graphics, though those of you with CGA or Tandy were equally well catered for. I still have the original manual and the minimum specs page is quite fun to read now. Also note the typo in the EGA medium resolution comment! Full disclosure: whilst I have the original manual and played this game on the Amiga, the screenshots are from the PC package “Larry Bond’s Harpoon: Ultimate Collection”, more specifically version 1.00 and it is this version that is being reviewed.
Typical of the genre, it is advisable that you read the manual first, especially if you are not familiar with the period of warfare detailed in the game. In fact, your enjoyment of Harpoon will very probably be linked to your knowledge of the period, being a niche (naval warfare) within a niche (modern conflict) within a genre (strategy games). However, don’t let that put you off as even fore-armed with knowledge, this game can still give you a kicking and that is part of the fun. No scenario ever plays out the same way, though with enough replays, you’ll start to see a pattern. Not that you are limited for choice. True, the initial battleset is the just the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap, but there are twelve scenarios and you can play as either Blue (NATO) or Red (Soviet Union). A later Mediterranean battleset was released that added its own unique challenges.
The graphics are basic but functional and I think that their very lack of frivolity adds to the style of the game. You don’t need flourishes that might obscure what is going on and whilst later versions offered basic 3D graphics, I think the simple 2D icons suit this type of game better. There are some images in there, usually staff officers telling you of important events (a picture and a text report), a burning or sinking vessel when you get a kill and a celebratory image when you beat the enemy. Animations are likewise limited to very basic 2D ships firing missiles or receiving incoming strikes. What is rather impressive for the time is the window-based interface. It’s very clean and simple to navigate.
Sound-wise, it a similar tale. You get the basic alarms for urgent reports, some missile launches, fixed and rotary wing launches and explosions. Ah, and some neat little sampled tunes when you sink an enemy or achieve a victory condition. On the Amiga version, you always knew something was about to happen as the floppy drive started up to source the forthcoming sound effect. It added somewhat to the tension as you never knew what was coming up.
As I said at the beginning, this game, for me, was a time sink, and that was completely down to the gameplay. This is where Harpoon comes into its own. I was (and still am) a modern naval warfare nut, and losing myself to the scenarios was/is extremely easy for me. Plotting unit moves, anticipating enemy actions, getting everything into place to deliver a crushing blow, only to find out the opposition had already initiated their blow which would leave me reeling, then reacting to rescue the situation, that is the joy of Harpoon, much like many other strategy games. Some may find the politics dated, the hardware and technology antiquated, but to me, that is part of the charm of the period and delivers something missing from more modern titles.
The Amiga version was well suited to mouse control and the same can be said of the PC version, though with many keyboard shortcuts available, it is often quicker to leave the mouse to one side. Another bonus to point out is the platform database that is included in the game. Knowledgeable for the time, it’s the closest you’ll get to a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships for the period.
Truth be told, I don’t expect Harpoon to have much of a following these days. As noted, its niche is tiny, but for its period and time of release, it offered (and still offers) an excellent window into naval wargaming of the time. The presentation is workmanlike and it has dated badly (even at the time of the Amiga release, the Cold War was over), but it is that important gameplay element that keeps this title as fresh as it is today.
Despite basic graphics and sound, Harpoon remains a stellar strategy game due to its compelling and absorbing gameplay.