Until I bought Saboteur, my collection of Spectrum games were all copies on C15 cassette tapes from my dad’s workmates, the name of the game scribbled on the inlay in biro. I knew nothing about these games – whether they had been reviewed well, what the controls were, what the plot was or even what the aim of the game was. To try and make my games collection look somewhat more professional I used to make my own inlays by cutting out the adverts from computer magazines (sad, I know!), but it wasn’t quite the same! I desired real box art!
And probably more than anything it was the box art that drew me to my early purchases. Back then, I didn’t have a regular subscription to a computer magazine (unless you count trying to read Crash cover to cover in the newsagents) and it was hit and miss whether the guy behind the counter in the computer shop would let you load a game before you bought it. So as my eyes scanned the shelves for what was to be my first ever purchase, I looked for something that spoke to me, aged ten in 1985. And there it was – a game called “Saboteur!” featuring a black clad ninja, doing a flying kick on a security guard, while simultaneously firing a sub machine gun, framed by an explosion! And this wasn’t Ultimate-style box art, this looked like one of those 18-rated VHS tapes in the video shop that you longed to rent!
For the first time in my game-owning history, I now knew what the purpose of the game was: “You are a highly skilled mercenary trained in the martial arts. You are employed to infiltrate a central security building which is disguised as a warehouse. You must steal a disk that contains the names of all the rebel leaders before its information is sent to the outlying security stations. You are working against the clock, both in getting to the disk, and in making your escape. You must enter the building from the sea by rubber dinghy, and will then only be able to leave by the helicopter on the roof. You will have to find your way around the warehouse, making use of the guards’ own weapons supplies in your struggle through overwhelming odds.” So now, instead of running around screens endlessly fighting enemies and not knowing there was actually something else I had to do to complete the game (Sabre Wulf, Atic Atac…), I knew exactly what my mission was – find the disk, set the bomb, escape!
More often than not, this would now be the bit in the story where the excited ten year old goes home and finds they’ve been duped by some expert marketing and some screenshots from a different system. But the loading screen continued that promise of playing an ass-kicking ninja, featuring our hero brandishing a throwing star and flamethrower! And while the title music was limited to a simple beeper tune (Saboteur! is a 48k only title, coming out the year before the 128k machine was available), it’s a memorable one that seemed, in my mind at least, to fit the ninja theme.
When the game began, ten year old me was blown away! First, I was arriving on a rubber dinghy just as the inlay had promised! How many times did the inlay describe a dramatic event and then actually begin a game with you standing in the middle of the screen with no sign of that event ever having happened? And second, the graphics were incredible! And over thirty years later, I am still as impressed!
The main character sprite is big! About a 1/4 of the screen height. He’s also well drawn and animated, with a nice stealthy run animation and a cool looking jump kick. Colour clash is also smartly avoided with him decked out in all black. The environment that he explores is also beautifully drawn and colourful. On the first screen the dinghy is yellow, the (animated!) water aqua blue and the pier red. There also seems to have been a real effort to give different areas of the map a different identity. The warehouse areas feel, well, warehouse-y with crates and things, while the tunnels below feel suitably dark, deserted and dank. There are nice graphical flourishes throughout too – an inanimate lifting crane, reel to reel computers etc.
All of this would likely fall apart if the game used scrolling, so wisely it opts for a flip-screen approach. This I think actually works better for Saboteur as (until you remember where things are) you don’t know what you’re going to run in to on the next screen. It gives the game a nice feeling of the unknown around each corner.
The aim, as the inlay explains, is to find the disk, plant the bomb and get out using the helicopter, and after that description there’s no more hand-holding. You have to sneak around the map exploring all the rooms trying to find their secrets. Again, the graphics come in to play here as they’re different enough to start helping you memorise paths, but uniform enough that you can still get a bit lost.
On the second screen you encounter your first enemy, a guard dog. Our saboteur can punch and high kick, but his training seems to have been cut short and he’s not yet learned any kind of crouching attack moves to deal with dogs. The artwork also lied when it showed him brandishing a sub-machine gun, or a flamethrower on the loading screen. But I’ll forgive it that. So choices are to jump over energy-sapping dogs when you see them, or if you’re holding a weapon you can perform an angled throw which will despatch them with one hit. It’s a tricky move to perform right every time, and it’s frustrating when you misjudge the distance, but you never feel cheated – if you miss you know it’s because you hit the fire button at the wrong moment or missed the diagonal on the joystick. Our saboteur can only carry one item at a time and once thrown it’s gone. With a finite number of weapons laying around the map you’ll need to choose carefully when to use one.
Moving on from the encounter with the dog you’ll come across the next line of defence in the warehouse, ammo-firing security cameras. These provide a fairly minor challenge on the easier levels and mostly deal out a shot which just smarts rather than causes you any serious problems.
The other kind of enemy the game throws at you are beret-wearing guards. These guys look great! Mostly they’ll just run at you and engage in a bit of hand to hand combat, but occasionally they’ll open fire with a sub-machine gun. A single blow will kill them meaning they’re a far easier enemy to deal with than a dog, but you can still find yourself running low on energy and running in to a guard at just the wrong time.
The health mechanic in the game is excellent. Rather than a frustrating single hit kill, you have a health bar which is gradually depleted when attacked, if you submerge yourself beneath water (nice touch!) or fall from a height. And in a very modern gaming mechanic, your health bar will slowly replenish if you stand still. The health mechanic works well in conjunction with the depleting time limit as you have to carefully judge when to keep going and fight whatever or whoever you run in to, and when you need to stop to catch your breath.
Everything is balanced so well in Saboteur!. The enemies are an obstacle, but one that’s easy to overcome if you’ve got a full health bar. The platform jumps don’t require pixel perfection, but you’ll find yourself falling off one when your health is too low or your time too short. And your health bar is plentiful but often depleted dangerously low just when you don’t need it to be. It feels that Durell put a lot of time in to balancing this game. And that balancing extends to the race against the clock and the size of the map area. The map is small enough and the time long enough to allow you to explore, but also large enough and the time short enough for you to find yourself having taken a wrong turn and having to take risks to get back on track.
Saboteur! is also one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played on the Spectrum. And it manages to do that with limited sound and graphics, but also to keep throwing you a new visual treat as you progress, giving the game scope – the first time I ever found the underground monorail I was blown away! Durell could have just had a tunnel, but they went to the trouble of adding a monorail that you ride in (even if it does look like an old caravan). And if you do reach the helicopter, you’ll probably expect to run up to it and the game end – but no, the roof opens and the helicopter takes off!!!
Saboteur! was a game like no other that I’d played at the time – the way it looked so serious, and the way it actually did all the things the box promised! Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because I owned the box and knew what I was supposed to do, it was one of the few games that I completed as a child. And once you know the route around the warehouse and where to find the disk and the bomb, it’s actually quite easy – as an adult I can still do it usually after only one practise run to refresh my memory. But again, Durell thought of that and the game has several difficultly levels with each changing the configuration and speed of the enemies, the position of the disk and the bomb, the time limit and crucially also means you have to use terminals to open doors which are now locked (you have to figure out which one opens which door through trial and error). The game is hugely re-playable anyway, but when you’ve mastered the basic level, you can crank the difficulty up and try again!
It’s a game that I have coming back to for over thirty years now, and it never gets old!
Version reviewed, 48k.