Saboteur arrived slap-bang in the middle of a decade where ninjas were the height of cool. Films like Enter the Ninja, American Ninja, and Ninja Terminator (directed by the irrepressible Godfrey Ho) were must-have rentals at video shops. And in the realm of video games, the stealthy movements and deadly weapons of the shadow warrior soon began to proliferate.
It’s difficult to describe just how startlingly brilliant Saboteur looked back in the 1980s. Released by Durell, which at the time made some of the very best games for 8-bit computers, Saboteur was nothing less than a ninja simulator – a game that gave you all the agility, resourcefulness, and strength of a black-clad shinobi.
Your mission begins at night. Bobbing along silently in a dinghy, you arrive at a jetty with only a vague idea of the dangers ahead (largely because you read the game’s cassette inlay). It’s your mission to infiltrate a labyrinthine lair full of lasers, guard dogs, and bad guys, retrieve a floppy disc containing valuable information, and then make your escape via helicopter.
Perhaps one of the very earliest examples of a stealth game – predating the even more sneak-em-up focused Metal Gear by two years – Saboteur was unusual in its flexibility. If you wanted to wade into combat with the base’s bad guys like Franco Nero, either felling your enemies with expertly-timed flying kicks or maybe assaulting them with a house brick, then that was fine. Alternatively, you could attempt to tiptoe past guards while their backs were turned, thus avoiding messy confrontations and the possibility of a knife to the chest. You could also pick up a variety of weapons dotted around the map, from the aforementioned bricks to bombs and knives (the machine gun depicted on the game’s cover was nowhere to be found).
With unusually large sprites and detailed animation for the time, Saboteur had the kind of drama that most platform games of the time could only dream of. There was something quite satisfying about the agility of the central character. The way he could perform a running jump over guard dogs, and the way he sort of leaned forward as he ran, just like the ninjas in Japanese movies.
Even the game’s technical limitations added something to the experience. The ZX Spectrum, in particular, would have struggled to render a smooth-scrolling map as large as Saboteur’s, so designer Clive Townsend made the game flip-screen instead. The result is that, when you first start picking your way through the subterranean network of ladders, corridors, and high-tech computer rooms (check out those reel-to-reel tapes), you don’t quite know what’s going to jump out at you next. Will moving to the next screen see you come face to face with a gun-wielding bad-guy? Will a dog start snapping at your heels?
Given the humble memory of the ZX Spectrum (my version of choice – Commodore 64 and Amstrad ports were also available), Saboteur’s map was also large and varied. The huge top level, designed by the villains to look like an ordinary warehouse, according to the instructions, sits atop an underground maze of barely-lit passageways. Pick your way down there, and you come to a tram which takes you to a new area, where the disk you’re hunting for awaits in a big, colourful control centre. Saboteur didn’t have quite the same breadth of Nintendo’s classic free-roaming platformer, Metroid, but that game didn’t emerge for another year in Japan – and European NES owners didn’t get their hands on it until 1988.
Interestingly, Saboteur‘s origins didn’t have anything to do with ninjas at all. Townsend had originally made a game called Death Pit, a platform game in which a miner explored an underground maze of corridors and mazes. According to an issue of Crash, the game was canceled “halfway through” because “it didn’t come up to scratch.”
The game was clearly more finished than that report suggested, since a working version of Death Pit later emerged and is now available to download from World of Spectrum. It doesn’t look too bad, either, though the music’s cacophonous and the mining theme makes it a bit too reminiscent of other games out around the mid 80s, like Manic Miner and the Monty Mole series.
Death Pit was clearly near to release, since Durell put out full page adverts for it in several games magazines, and World of Spectrum even has a cassette inlay which boasts about a “fully animated adventure.” Whatever the thinking was behind Death Pit‘s cancellation, Townsend’s efforts were far from wasted – chunks of Death Pit‘s code ultimately found their way into the far better-looking Saboteur.
Saboteur was a polished and engrossing game from a company that seemed unusually adept at getting the most out of the Spectrum. Durell garnered a major hit in 1983 with the side-scrolling shooter, Harrier Attack, created a surprisingly detailed helicopter sim with Combat Lynx in 1984, before making what was perhaps its most innovative game – 1986’s Turbo Esprit.
A sandbox driving action game made before people even used the term ‘sandbox’ in relation to games, Turbo Esprit is often described as the progenitor to the all-conquering Grand Theft Auto series. In fact, I was going to pick Turbo Esprit for this occasional series on half-forgotten games, before I realised that it’s had a quite widespread rediscovery in recent years. It even made an appearance on TV, with Charlie Brooker hailing its achievements on his one-off show, Gameswipe.
Then again, Saboteur isn’t exactly the most obscure game of the 1980s, either. Clive Townsend made a great sequel, Saboteur II: Avenging Angel, which came out in 1987. A second sequel, Saboteur 3D, was also planned, but sadly shelved. All these years later, Townsend’s making a modern version of the original for modern consoles, though when it’s coming out isn’t currently clear.
Saboteur, then, isn’t exactly forgotten. But it is, I’d argue, still underrated, both in terms of its innovative stealth mechanics and the sheer quality of its design. In an era when ninjas were the height of cool, Saboteur was among the first games to give us the vicarious thrill of dressing up in a black outfit, sneaking around in the shadows, and kicking bad guys in the sternum.