There was a time when getting in a boat and sailing toward the horizon was a dangerous thing to do. Storms, disease, mutiny, vitamin deficiency – these were all very real possibilities for the sea-faring explorer. But what about space age explorers? What weird and horrible difficulties would they face?
Some of the finest games of the 80s attempted to simulate what it might be like to be a pioneering space traveller. Elite crammed an entire galaxy, or so it seemed, into a few measly kilobytes. Starflight let you forge your own path as a diplomat, mining tycoon, or hotshot space pilot. And then there was Captain Blood, a flawed, deeply weird game that nevertheless had something indefinably brilliant about it: a kind of X factor that left it lodged in the mind like a splinter.
The role of imagination is often underplayed in video games. The difference between a dull game and a fascinating one can often be defined by what it implies rather than what it shows. This might explain why Captain Blood, with its arcane dashboard of buttons and universe of barren planets, captured my imagination for what felt like weeks back in the late 80s.
Captain Blood was created by Exxos, a French studio whose games were as off-beat as its curious, triangular logo implied. When the team announced its existence to the games industry in 1988, it did so with a press release that read like something penned by HP Lovecraft:
It is Him! Him who has been in our offices for months…He who comes from outside the Universe. He that we reveal today to the world, because the hour has come. I name Exxos. I ask you to say after me some magic sentences which point out his country to him: ATA ATA hoglo hulu, ATA ATA hoglo hulu…
Captain Blood was Exxos’ debut, released shortly after the slab of text above was first set before bemused journalists. Its back story is a decent bit of sci-fi: you play a chap named Morlock (Captain Blood’s merely his nickname), who’s zapped inside his own computer game. Within it, he discovers that his body has been cloned multiple times, and that those clones are now scattered all over the galaxy. Setting off in his bio-mechanical spaceship, Morlock has to find and kill the five clones, thus returning their life force to his body and saving him from a grim death.
The game itself is an icon-based adventure that breaks down into several distinct parts. The first involves warping from planet to planet by clicking on a star map. The second sees you exploring planets for signs of life, which involves flying a probe across the planet’s surface and avoiding the rocky outcroppings and alien defenses. Make it through the flying sequence without destroying your probe (or “OORX baby” as the instructions call it), and you’ll then discover whether or not the planet’s inhabited.
If it is, an alien will appear on the screen, and you’re faced with the task of communicating with it via a series of icons. Should the conversation go well, then the alien might give you some useful information if it has any – including the coordinates of where one of those clones is hidden.
As Captain Blood begins, you’re placed on the doorstep of an inhabited planet, and it’s up to you to pick up this first thread and follow it as far as you can across the game’s galaxy. That thread is easy to misplace: with more than 32,000 planets, almost all of them uninhabited, it’s easy to become hopelessly lost if you don’t stick to Captain Blood‘s central pillar – communication.
At the time, there was nothing else quite like Captain Blood‘s UPCOM (Universal Protocol of Communication). Its wealth of around 150 icons allows you to engage in some surprisingly varied conversations with the game’s exotic aliens. In total, there are 16 races of alien in Captain Blood, some intelligent, others less so, some peaceful, others warlike. Navigating your way from inhabited planet to inhabited planet, the richness of Exxos’ world-building soon becomes clear. You might meet an alien who hates a rival race of aliens on another planet. That alien might only cooperate if you agree to destroy their enemies.
The need to constantly note down coordinates and follow the game’s trail gives it a more rigid feel than, say, Elite, where wandering off the beaten track is positively discouraged. Captain Blood‘s also a frustrating game at the best of times, with its flight segments across rocky fractal planets (which looked stunning in the late 80s) proving difficult and unrewarding, and conversations with aliens sometimes devolving into repetitive word salad (“Crazy go prison you crazy?”, “Fear fear dead dead dead”).
Despite all this, Captain Blood holds a spooky, fascinating power. It’s the case of an awful lot of disparate parts coming together to create something entirely unique. Your H.R. Giger-inspired ship, the Ark, is an unforgettably curvy thing, all fleshy buttons and oval birth canals. The OORX probes, only briefly seen before they go off on their life-form-hunting expeditions, look like big, scowling fish. Electronica composer Jean-Michel Jarre contributed the appropriately alien-sounding track, “Ethnicolor.”
Most of all, Captain Bloodmakes you feel like an alien creature at the helm of a powerful ship. The aliens you meet on your travels can be teleported to a cryogenic chamber on your craft, which means you can take them to different planets or simply disintegrate them – the latter option’s vital when you finally stumble on one of those clones. If you’re feeling really cruel, you can abandon aliens on uninhabited planets, or, worse still, blow up the entire planet with the press of a button. That kind of megalomania comes at a price, though: blow up a world with a useful alien on it, and you’ll almost certainly be unable to complete the game. Fail to find the clones quickly enough, and your emaciated, alien hand – essentially your cursor throughout the adventure – will begin to shake, and you’ll eventually die.
Captain Blood is the very definition of a cult game. It’s bold, inventive, and uses the 16-bit technology of its era in refreshingly unusual ways. The Atari ST remains the very best version of the game, but even the ZX Spectrum port, which has to omit things like the sampled speech, is still highly effective given the limitations of the platform.
Exxos continued to make weird games after the success of Captain Blood. Purple Saturn Day was a series of sports mini-games with a weird sci-fi twist, like Track & Field reprogrammed by L Ron Hubbard. Kult was a graphic adventure with some great visuals and music. Thereafter, Captain Blooddesigner Philippe Ulrich worked on the real-time tactics game Dune and The 7th Guest.
As the 80s gave way to the 90s, a sequel to Captain Bloodemerged – Commander Blood, released in 1994. Employing lots of psychedelic FMV graphics but ditching the UPCOM system from its predecessor, Commander Bloodhas a similarly experimental feel but less of the original’s uneasy, almost sinister atmosphere. The weirdly-titled Big Bug Bang was even more obscure, and only came out in France.
Captain Blood therefore stands alone as a never-to-be-repeated moment in 80s gaming. Sure, it isn’t perfect. But in its best moments, Captain Blood jabs and probes at the imagination. As you’re warped to unfamiliar planets and engage in meandering conversations with plant-like extra-terrestrials, it really makes you feel like a space-age explorer, stepping out into the farthest reaches of a strange and hostile galaxy.