What do you do when you’ve been given the licence to produce a videogame adaptation of The Hunt For Red October, one of the most highly rated submarine-based movies ever made? Do you make a semi-accurate simulation like 688 Attack Sub that graced the Sega Mega Drive, Amiga and PC? Or do you aim for something slightly less technical and emulate the Silent Service games? Or, and bearing in mind this is the very beginning of the 1990’s, do you just do what countless licenced games have done before and make a side-scrolling shooter? You can probably guess which way Riedel Software Productions went.
The Hunt For Red October was Tom Clancy’s first novel and it put him at the forefront of the “techno-thriller” genre in the mid 1980’s. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come a-calling and the result, the (mostly faithful) 1990 box office success starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, was enough to kickstart a film franchise, albeit with a changing cast over the years. Red October also saw some interest in the games market, with a rather dry simulation hitting the shelves from 1987 onwards for various 8 and 16-bit computer formats. It wasn’t until the movie was released that console gamers were offered a taste of the action. Except, where as the computer title was a decent approximation of the book, the console game is… less so…
So, it’s a side-scrolling shooter with 8 levels divided between Mission One (one level), three Theatres of action (each with two levels) and a Final Mission (one level). You have a number of weapons to get you past the enemy subs, ships and aircraft that are trying to destroy you: torpedoes which can be fired horizontally, surface to air missiles which can handle anything above you (even ships), surface to surface missiles which fire in an arc in front of you, and bombs for taking out anything below you. In addition, your super-secret hi-tech sub also has electronic countermeasures which prevent enemies from firing at you for a short period of time and the famed magnetohydrodynamic drive, or caterpillar, which makes you difficult to track for a similarly short period of time. Except they call it a cavitation drive, which is something completely different and far from silent (if you know about submarines, you’ll know about cavitation). As you can see that pretty much answers any questions about technical accuracy. But what about the story and the missions?
Ha, well, you might not have known it from reading the book or watching the film, but after the first mission where the Red October escapes the USSR, they actually became freelance do-gooders, targeting arms merchants, escorting ocean liners, stopping illegal bio-weapons manufacturing and even helping out in a coup that rescued the people of the USSR from Communism. Yep, they couldn’t even make a whole game out of the set-up and plot of the movie. And don’t get me started on the battle with a giant squid… Even the NES version, developed by Beam Software, just had you avoiding the Soviet Forces sent to stop you and a final mission where you have to disarm bombs in the missile room, which was something at least inspired by the movie. At this point, this game has me wondering why they even bothered. Maybe the game itself is worth playing despite its very loose connection to the film?
Technically, The Hunt For Red October is a by-the-numbers shooter, no more and no less. Graphically, it’s workmanlike, with just enough enemy and environmental variety to avoid complete boredom. Animation is, however, limited and even with the changes in palette, the backgrounds do start to merge into one if you play this enough. The game over screen is quite cool, with a sinking Red October and tiny crew members swimming to the surface. The game completion screen, however, is a bit weak: a view of (based on Sean Connery) Marco Ramius seen from behind doing a wave to happy crowds. Sound wise, it’s the same story, with workable sound effects and music, which seems to be entirely based on classical music though it does throw up the odd choice here and there. If you complete the game, you get a rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Great, it fits in nicely. If you die in the game, you get a melancholic rendition of the same “Ode to Joy”. Like I said, odd.
Gameplay does rescue the situation to a degree. The Red October itself is quite a hefty boat to control and there is a suitable delay and inertia to contend with in manoeuvring. You can turn the sub around but that leaves you vulnerable to attack. There is a touch of unfairness to the shooting – as you move around, enemy subs appear on the edge of the screen and fire immediately, leaving you very little time to react. Fortunately, you can shoot their torpedoes but this brings in the other part of the shooting experience – ammunition count. Each of your weapons have a limited number of rounds and it is pretty easy to run out of torpedoes, especially as each enemy takes at least two hits to kill and they are nimble as well. There are, however, plenty of supplies to pick up, which also have the additional benefit of repairing any damage to the sub to a small degree. Similarly, completing a level will recover some ammunition and health. Overall then, the side scrolling portions are a challenging affair but are enjoyable enough. Then there are the periscope sections…
To be fair, these are not mandatory but each level has a periscope icon that switches the action to a periscope-based first-person viewpoint where you have to shoot down various helicopters and jets plus sink the occasional aircraft carrier. These were designed to be used with the Super Scope and if you have access to that peripheral, I suggest you use it. Playing with the standard pad is not a good idea – the aiming cursor moves extremely slowly, your bullets also take an age to travel to the target and things do slow down when there are lots of items on-screen. These sections do make a change to the bulk of the game but they are not exactly well done. Nor do they fit in with what was supposed to be a tie-in with the film. As noted above, since they chucked the film’s plot out at the beginning, why should they bother now? On the plus side, they make the game last a bit longer, and it needs that. A proficient player will see everything this game has to offer in about an hour.
The Hunt For Red October is an average (at best) shooter, which sounds like I am damning it with faint praise and I am. It’s not terrible, but since it’s supposed to be based on the movie and by pretty much ignoring that (as well as being liberal with reality), it means that it comes across as a cheap throwaway licenced title that does no-one any favours. If you liked the book or movie, you’ll get no joy from this game. If you like shoot-em ups, there are plenty better out there. Very disappointing.
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An distinctly generic shooter hidden behind the façade of a movie tie-in.