ST Format Review
For this review I’m running a MiSTer FPGA box with a 1MB STFM, running TOS 1.2 owing to the cracked version not liking the STE or even TOS 1.4 (odd when Future Wars was STE-compatible). There aren’t many pirate options (and too many of them are in French), in fact there’s only Vectronix with disks 836 to 838 (Vectronix are compilations so the original crack is from Medway Boys). I had the original when I had my ST back in the day and that also came on 3 disks.
Before going further into the review I just want to call out the utter turd copy protection, thankfully cracked here. Imagine this image..
..printed on a stupid foil card thing. Now it’s fine for me, it might be fine for you, but imagine if you were colour blind. You’re asked the colour (or not in the cracked version thankfully) and kicked out of the game if you get it wrong. Accessibility really wasn’t something people thought about in the 80s and 90s, and for all the things wrong with the modern era of gaming that’s one thing I’m glad we’ve improved on. In the double-screenshot above you’ll see our first bit of dodgy English. Strange plurals pop up from time to time, some of the translation wasn’t quite there.
We get treated to a glorious animated intro. The ST just gets chip music, while the Amiga is treated to proper sound effects that give it a far more cinematic feel, with the different instruments used conveying different atmospheres in a way that chip music just can’t (I’ll come back later to why I know this). The intro is setting the scene for a suitably Bond-esque affair, albeit one with an odd (dare I say French) sense of humour, as this game’s Q-equivalent discusses the missing Stealth Bomber but a pin-up is accidentally projected on his TV instead. We finally come in to land in the lush tropical South American land of Santa Paragua, a fictional nation that bears no small resemblance to the many tin-pot dictatorships that dotted the continent at the time.
Here we have a screenshot that rather sums the game up. Glorious pixel art, wonderfully stylish, and dodgy plurals in the text.
Arriving at the airport our first task is to get past the customs official, not so simple as showing my passport because Americans are not welcome. It’s wise to check the lay of the land to figure out which nations are actually on friendly terms with the dictator.
This screenshot shows you a couple of things – first that small locations are kept small, keyholed for artistic effect. Second, we get to see the menu system in action. Where SCUMM favours the verbs and inventory remaining in view at the bottom of your screen, Delphine took the approach of having everything in a right click menu. We can examine objects to be told they’re not important (some items have witty lines prepared but many do not). We can speak to people by choosing speak and clicking on the person, though this is seldom used and doesn’t let you control the conversation. Confusingly we have use and operate, where the latter leads to having to ‘operate girl’ at one point. Right-clicking on operate lets you operate something in your inventory (in this case I’m operating my briefcase to open it), while the left lets you click an object on screen to operate that. Use on the other hand is more use x on y. It’s often used where you might find ‘give’ to be a more appropriate verb (eg use coins on florist).
This is where it all gets very James Bond. Having already taken a pen with a few interesting tricks up its sleeve, here I am taking the money out of my American passport. When you look at an object it’s often blown up like this if there’s something you can do, as per this briefcase, and here we’ve further blown up the passport. The calculator is actually the way into the suitcase’s secret compartment.
And this is where our passport forging device lives, which is why we need to know what to forge. Clicking the arrow buttons chooses a country, while the red dot produces a fresh passport. It all feels very cloak and dagger. The game is also smart enough not to let you do that in the airport lounge in front of the guard, you have to do it in a toilet cubicle.
Some clues lead you to steal some baggage you have to be careful to steal the correct one or you’ll end up in jail. Luckily it’s suitably signposted and you’re not left groping in the dark and guessing. Indeed this is a game where puzzles are, for the most part, well thought out. One downer however is that, unlike the LucasArts games, you can die and you can find yourself in a dead-end, though usually the dead ends don’t involve backtracking too far to fix.
I’ll give out a little tip as this is one of the poorly-executed bits. The taxi doesn’t come unless you stand right at the edge of the pavement by the taxi sign. Just walk up to the taxi and click down to get in.
This is the level of humour, it’s not quite Monkey Island side-splitting stuff and perhaps tonally it’s a little odd in a James Bond game, as much as there has tended to be a certain camp humour. It’s not so much that jokes don’t live in the James Bond world, it’s just that these ones don’t.
You might notice that this picture looks a tiny bit different to the others. The text is on a transparent tile rather than a solid one, and the border is a little smaller. That’s because it’s taken on an Amiga (MiSTer FPGA minimig core). The cracked version sadly had some corrupt data which meant that for instance on this screen the top third of the image was quite broken, and popups kept informing me of checksum errors as I moved from screen to screen around the downtown area. Graphically there are no other differences, but sound is improved (most noticeable in the intro) with some nice atmospheric spot effects and decent music.
The Amiga version I used ran from the hard drive, but the ST version’s 3 disks are hardly a chore with disk 1 used for the intro, disk 2 used for the first half of the game and disk 3 used later. Swapping is thankfully minimal, though there is disk access between screens. A hard drive did improve the experience noticeably however.
In a bit of spy intrigue, I’m tasked with wearing a red carnation in a park, when my contact emerges and is shot by a passing car in a drive-by shooting (reasonably well-animated). The ST version is silent while the Amiga has some gunshot sounds to make it a bit clearer what went on.
Should you fail to leg it quickly enough you’ll get one of these game-over screens as the guards walk you into the distance, to jail (having framed you for murder). This is all animated nicely though of course it’s not terribly demanding.
Giving the card to the bank teller I get to the vaults and open my safe, only to be ambushed. There’s a fair number of clones in this game, sprites re-used pretty frequently, so the guards all look the same and the KGB spies (no names comrad Kruschev) are all identical too. It doesn’t particularly spoil the mood and in all honesty it was probably a requirement of getting the thing to run well.
After a vignette I find myself in a cave before one of the more infamous bits of the game. Tied up, with no obvious means of escape (two KGB agents blew up the exit as proved by the pile of rubble on the left) you have to figure out a way out of the ropes and out of the cave.
The game features action sequences. They are not good. The controls to dive underwater are bad enough, the red line at the top showing your oxygen levels, but there’s a particularly egrevious bit of design on the 2nd screen where the middle safe area (where we can see John chilling in the shot) where if you’re too far to the right in the air pocket, for no apparent reason, you can’t surface. Given the EXTREMELY tight margin of time for oxygen supplies that does tend to lead to frustration. On a positive note, you can at least save your game at any time, so at each safe point I’d advise doing so, for your sanity.
On escaping, John Glames does his Ursula Andress impression, emerging from the water up the steps.
A quick stop at the beach and then to the hotel to get another sequence of cut-scenes…
There is a small bit of interaction on the boat and at the bottom of the ocean but otherwise it’s a cut-scene, quite long and perhaps laying the dodgy French comedy on a bit too thick. More dodgy pluralisation in the first frame (“hand ups”), and then we come to…
This is not the end of the game. However, for most people it is where they stopped playing. Certainly it is for me. I’ve never managed to get past this bit because it is an absolute bastard with decidedly dodgy controls. The action sequences in this game were an absolute bastard and this one is the worst. Most irritatingly, if walkthroughs are to be believed, this first one comes as 3 levels and there’s another one later on. What were they thinking?
So is it any good? Well yes it is, it conjures up a wonderful atmosphere and for me is peak Delphine. I enjoyed Another World, but for me, Operation Stealth and Cruise For A Corpse were peak Delphine. Future Wars wasn’t much cop but was a good practice run. Flashback is not for me. But back to the point, this game is one where they’re still learning their craft, but wow they’re good already. The game is an absolute masterpiece with gorgeous pixel art, a fun plot with plenty of spy intrigue, cool gadgets, it’s the perfect James Bond game (and it was sold as a James Bond game in the US), but for the god-awful action sequences. If you were to take those away this game would get the Hari Seldon Gold. As it is, it’s close but no cigar. A beautiful game, and a step towards greatness.