Wednesday 9 August 2023

The Pirates of Dark Water for the Super Nintendo

A video game that works better as an allegory than the short-lived allegorical cartoon it was based on? The Pirates of Dark Water was a fantasy series from Hanna-Barbera that aired on Children's BBC at some point in the early 90s. I sometimes occasionally caught it at tea time, though by then my telly of choice was officially Teenage Health Freak and The Word. Because it didn't catch on, Pirates had a very limited run and toddled off into obscurity. But not before it spawned two licensed titles for the Super Nintendo and the Genesis/Mega Drive. The latter was a run-of-the-mill platformer that also got a European release and now goes for silly money on eBay. The SNES version didn't see life outside of North America, and was a completely different game - being a beat 'em up in the Final Fight mode of things. And a fairly good one at that.

The premise of the show was the world of Mer is imperilled by the mysterious and noxious dark water. This substance, said to be leaching from the core of the planet, threatens to envelop the entire world and consume everything. The hero of the piece, Ren, and his doughty band of misfits sail the world seeking 13 treasures that, when brought together, will banish the dark water and make everything good again. As part of a popular cultural effort to raise awareness of climate change, the backdrop of a creeping doom and its link to our travails was more subtle than Captain Planet et al. But having "dark water" as the big bad and it enjoying more than a passing resemblance to oil situated the show well.

The plot of the SNES game is no different. Collect the treasures, save the planet. But as with the cartoon, there are baddies working to thwart Ren's efforts. Namely the crew of pirate captain Bloth who wants the treasures for his own nefarious purposes. This provides an excuse to beat up a roster of enemies, followed by the standard boss guarding the end of each stage. Their defeat reveals a treasure and the completion of Ren's quest is a step closer. On the journey, players can choose one of three characters in solo play or co-op. Ren is the standard character with a balance of speed and strength. Tula, an "ecomancer" and the franchise's token woman is speedy but weak, whereas Ioz is slow but strong. Each have a fairly limited move set that doesn't take advantage of the Super Nintendo controller's extra buttons. They have a standard attack, a desperation attack (which loses your character energy if it connects with an opponent), and a strong attack. Sadly, many an enemy - including some bosses - can be offed simply by spamming this move.

Nevertheless, Pirates is an entertaining beater. The enemies are quite chunky and there is a good variety of them. Despite there not being any more than three opponents on screen at once things can get challenging at times, which makes pulling through with just a sliver of energy left very satisfying. On the whole, the graphics are well drawn and competently animated for a game of this sort, and the sound design is fine. The tunes are appropriate - just don't ask me if they were from the original. There are the unnecessary but SNES signature mode seven interludes, and there is a touch of creativity. Late on the play style flips from brawler to a brief horizontal shooter. Can't say many beat 'em ups do that.

The game is not without problems though. Unlike Streets of Rage 2, it does outstay its welcome. There are too many levels and so the problem attending most beaters - repetition - manifests. This isn't helped by how the roster of enemies are very quickly introduced, so there are no interesting challenges later on. The developers tried getting round this creatively via the shooter encounter, but also relied on old tricks. Such as chasms to jump over, falling boulders/fireballs, and sometimes combining the two. Not especially useful when the jumping mechanics aren't perfect. On my playthroughs this resulted in a few cheap and unnecessary deaths. There are also hazards which can effect enemies as well as you. Because the AI isn't especially intelligent, if you park yourself parallel to on screen flames, spikes, or patches of dark water your opponents will happily run into them until expiration.

Entertaining then, but not exactly a must play. But what is worth revisiting is the allegorical aspect of the game. Back in 1994 it was infused with the climate change zeitgeist, but almost 30 years on the game sums up exactly where we are politically with the environmental crisis. Managing zero carbon and the switch to renewables is a bit of a slog, but as per the game when one batch of opponents are confronted and refuted, the same old names keep coming back with the same old attacks. The "new" just differ in terms of name and image, but their behaviours don't. It's the same enemies, over and over. Despite the global crisis getting worse, there is no putting aside of ambitions, the chance to make money, or interests to tackle the common threat. Indeed, for Captain Bloth the coming disaster is an opportunity for an authoritarian politics. He could be a disaster capitalist. And at the end of the game, with the defeat of the baddies the ship runs aground and the force of the collision catapults the 13 treasures all over the world. They are 'lost' and have to be recovered again, lest Bloth gets them first. This doesn't preface a second compulsory playthrough as per Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, but suggests struggle without end. Thus a firm conclusion is avoided, just as it was abbreviated in the TV cancellation. But it works for our climate change allegory as well. It underlines the necessity to never stop and keep pushing, no matter how repetitive it is. The alternative is something worse than game over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, the alternative sort of is Game Over... but from the perspective of the numbers in the machine RAM, not from the perspective of the player.

The player might have another go, spinning up new numbers in the circuits after the reboot wipe. Or the cartridge might be going straight into a bin fire. You'll never know which.