Waking up in a car hundreds of miles from home, Dark Blue Monkey was soon to realise that he would encounter Captain Blood: a game that would leave an indelible mark on his psyche forever.
Perhaps it was the sound of dull low-frequency rhythmic thumping that finally pushed through the barrier of unconsciousness and woke me up, or it could have been the bright orange light of the sun as it flickered through the passing motorway bridges. Either way, when I sat up, I wasn’t entirely where I had expected to be.
I pushed back the scratchy tartan blanket that served as the back-seat cover of my father’s rusty Ford Cortina Estate and rubbed my eyes.
“Where are we?” I asked, squinting at the blue motorway signs as they went by.
“York,” mum replied, indicating a small blob on the folded AA map on her knee. I’d expected to wake up in Liverpool city centre for our usual weekend shopping trip, not halfway to Scotland. I could have been at home, playing Guild of Thieves – or Willy the Worm, a shareware game I was heavily into making levels for – instead of enduring a long drive to the shops.
It was a further two agonising hours of my dad’s glacial driving before we finally got where we were going: Gateshead’s Metrocentre. Stepping into a giant hall of marble, the walls of glass and shops were on a scale I’d never dreamed of, like a paradise dream sequence from a film.
It was late in the afternoon before we eventually found ourselves in a dark corner passing a raucously noisy shop. Inside, the place was literally jammed with kids of all ages. Games in every size and shape lined its green walls in a staggering display, especially compared to my local shop in Liverpool. I pestered my mum, and she gave me “five minutes” to look around.
Exxos / ERE
End of an era
By that time, the era of the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 was at an end. Games for my Speccy were consigned to the bargain bin, while the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were ruling supreme. A kid was standing up front of the shop, in front of a small portable TV which has been set up on the counter. He was playing something on an ST.
The wall of noise that hit me on entering was almost crushing. It’s hard to describe just how loud it was; like a nightclub, perhaps? The sound of the TV had been turned up over the din of the child hordes, all shouting over each other and the store’s electronic music. A sign next to the TV proclaimed “Captain Blood”, which sounded like a pirate game, so I dismissed it as uninteresting, preferring space games. I moved deeper into the shop.
I slowly pushed my way through, looking at all the wondrous box art, stepping around people reading hint books, or looking at various brightly coloured posters, trying not to let the absolute cacophony and jostling of the crowd distract me from quickly finding at least one Speccy or PC game I could afford.
Slowly, the loudness of Captain Blood on the TV started to break through my focus. I could hear strange words and sounds – sounds not at all like a pirate game – so I pushed back to the front, around the back of the knot of people watching the TV, trying to get a better view.
A whole new world
I peered over the heads of shorter kids, pressing back against the crush of bodies. A boy of about 15 was controlling the ST with the mouse, moving an on-screen skeletal bionic arm with long creepy fingers. He had just opened a purple and blue galaxy map. “My god!” I thought to myself. It utterly blew Elite’s galaxy map out of the water; this actually LOOKED like a real galaxy!
He then clicked a button using the weird alien hand and the speakers suddenly blared in a foreign accent: “HYPERSPACE ACTIVATED!” Speechless, I watched in fascination as the screen exploded with the most amazing sequence of curves and flashing colours I’d ever seen, accompanied by whining of futuristic hyper-engines. If someone invented some kind of nonsense hyperdrive that was powered by psychedelic mushrooms, this is what it’d look like.
Patterns swirled, colours cycled, shapes grew across the screen, and space seemed to ‘tear’ among the rippling colours. The spaceship’s stardrive whined higher and higher as it pulled the player through to the target star system.
After a few seconds, the ship suddenly reverted to a familiar star field, dropping out of hyperspace and rapidly approaching an actual rotating texture-mapped planet. I felt light-headed, exhilarated! The graphics were almost like watching Doctor Who, or Blake’s 7! Captain Blood was light years (pun intended) ahead of anything I’d seen before.
The boy was doing stuff again… “OORX LANDING ACTIVATED!” it yelled in that same curious foreign accent, and suddenly he was flying over a landscape depicted as a series of ‘RADAR’ lines just like in Airwolf. He was no longer in space – he was seamlessly flying in real-time over the mountainous surface of a planet!
The lines whooshed past beneath as the craft swooped down, then back up into the air high above. Suddenly, a warning sounded, and dangerous red indicators started to close in from each side of the screen, homing in on the crosshair in the middle. Nobody who’d watched TV at that time could misinterpret that red signal: Incoming missile!
The lad playing panicked and dived the ship into a long, sinuous, jagged, V-shaped canyon, curving left and right, holding off the missiles and ultimately slamming into the ground moments before the arrows met in the middle.
The ship emitted a series of pained squawks and gently lowered itself to the valley floor, the klaxons ceased and the red arrows retreated back to the edges: safe! The squawks almost sounded like the ship had been hurt?!
Captain Blood then presented a gorgeous snowy landscape before us, and an alien appeared along with two rows of symbols. Suddenly, the computer started emitting a series of barks and squeaks, accompanied by logos popping up in a typewriter-like fashion at the bottom of the display.
I’d never seen anything like it before; I’d just witnessed an alien “talking” using pictograms! Although nobody knew the term, we’d just witnessed our first emojis.
After much trial and error, it turned out that the alien was asking who we were. The boy made some crude statement with the pictograms in reply. It read something like “ME BIG ALIEN” which elicited a “*LAUGH* *LAUGH* *LAUGH* *SOB* *SOB* *SOB*” in response. He continued to try to annoy the alien with threats or nonsense. I was bursting to rip the mouse from the kid’s hand and take over, as he was getting nowhere.
“A galaxy full of aliens you can talk to!” I mused. “Imagine the possibilities! It would be like Elite, but with the ability to land on planets and talk to people!” I looked over the sign on the countertop and saw Captain Blood’s hefty price tag. My heart sank; there was no way in hell I’d be able to afford it. According to the sign they only stocked it for the ST and Amiga anyway, not the Speccy, or even dad’s PC.
The several-year itch
Soon, mum found me and put her hand on my shoulder – it was time to go home. She let me quickly pick a game and offered to match my meagre pocket money to make sure I got a relatively new one. I found a game called Game Over II for the PC within my budget, handed over my cash and mum’s contribution, and we trudged back to the car, my head still filled with thoughts of exploring a galaxy.
It took over four hours to get home and a little under two hours to complete Game Over II. I’m still bitter about how I’d wasted my mum’s money on it. I never told her how disappointed I was, and I’ve not played it since; it sits right next to my PC even to this day, my first regretful, ill-informed purchase.
It was several years later before I eventually owned an ST. With huge excitement, I immediately ordered Captain Blood through my friend Dave’s game club membership. It arrived a week later, Dave bringing it to me during our break one day. I threw myself into the manual with its weird poems, and Tourette’s-like outpourings of cult-like weirdness which were scattered through the instructional text, making crazy references to things that made no sense.
From what I could gather, it seemed similar to Tron but the digitisation process resulted in you being split into a bunch of weakened clones inside the computer.
The aim seemed to be to try to capture the clones and convince them to be ‘absorbed’ by you, but they were afraid and hiding around the virtual galaxy, requiring detective-work to locate. Suddenly the “talking to aliens” made sense.
After reading the manual several times, getting more confused with each one, I put it back in the box and never read it again.
That night, I got home and booted the game up. I’d never seen the intro before, which features unsettlingly alien bald babies snaking across the screen to the tune of Ethnicolor by Jean-Michel Jarre.
Hours went by, and I came to the conclusion that while the game’s “alien babies” intro screen was just the start of the weirdness, it climbed to far more bizarre heights from there.
The spaceship turned out to be a living entity called the Ark, and it made babies – the Oorx – which were your ambassadors, flying to the surface of planets. You spoke “through” them. When they were destroyed or flew into the ground, it caused the Ark’s babies to be hurt or killed, and it sometimes took a while for a new one to be born!
Now, put yourself in one of the alien’s shoes who’s been ‘contacted’ by an Oorx. Imagine something the size and shape of a flying minibus with a giant angry alien face dropping from the sky and hovering in front of you, barking out emojis and screeching at top volume, threatening electric death if you didn’t give it answers.
It’s little wonder that the aliens were afraid of me, and I had to threaten them to get what I wanted! If I remember correctly, some of the aliens thought I was the angry minibus, instead of its controller.
Sometimes you started out by talking to this little rat guy called “Small Yoko”; sometimes, it’d be some armoured dude convinced he was the ultimate warrior. Occasionally you’d fly about and find an Ondoyante: a half-dressed lady who didn’t seem to be much interested in galactic manhunts, but made some very suggestive emojis. Every new person had their own quirks and psychological issues.
The strangest thing of all you could do was to destroy the planet you were in orbit around. While viewing it from orbit you clicked a little pictogram of the planet with a red X through it and “DESTROY PLANET, ACTIVATED!” would boom in a robotic French voice. The planet would start to pulse, fall apart, turn strange colours, and finally burst open with a shower of sparks leaving you hanging above nothing.
Well, I say strange. It was a brilliant special effect with a great build up, fantastic explosion, clearly with a lot of development put into it. But it achieved precisely nothing as far as I could tell: you needed people alive!
Captain Blood was all about talking and following a trail of evidence. Yes, it felt brilliant to blow a planet up, but if you blew it up before you’d got the info from the planet dweller, you lost the clue trail, and if you blew it up after, it was pointless, as you’d already got what you wanted. I still wonder to this day if it was just in the game to tempt the player, a bit like how you have a gun in Postal but you’re supposed to not use it.
Finding the clones required bribery, doing courier jobs, making threats, or sometimes outright lying. Each step required a different psychological approach, and an understanding of how you could persuade the alien to do or say what you wanted. But sooner or later the trail would run cold, frustration would mount, and kaboom! Someone would end up being blown up, and the game was suddenly unwinnable.
I played Captain Blood to the exclusion of everything else for months, searching for the clones as I sent my disfigured alien minibus hurtling around, murderously yelling emojis and terrifying an unsuspecting galaxy’s populace.
A new take on fear
One thing which really played on my mind was that the clones were scared. They wanted to live, and when this angry flying space bus found them and started yelling threatening emojis, they would get more scared, visibly shaking. I had to bully or lie to persuade them to throw their lives away: to step into basically a giant Star Trek teleporter/mincing machine to be boiled up and absorbed, to save ME while killing THEM.
The moral implications of cajoling living beings into sacrificing themselves is something grown men have wartime PTSD from. As a young kid with a vivid imagination, it made me anxious and I soon began to dread meeting the clones.
After a very long Captain Blood session where I managed to get just two of the clones into the meat grinder, I calculated how long it would take to explore the galaxy using brute force search (>32,000 stars), hung up my hat, and declared the game unwinnable, partly to the relief of my conscience. I’ve heard it said that nobody ever won it, or very few, which I can believe; it was a seriously hard game.
Everyone has “that” game – the one that made you sit up and realise the world was suddenly different. That day at the Metrocentre, where I first saw Captain Blood and got truly excited by it, is burned into my mind. The visuals, plot and moral implications have absolutely captivated me since that first look in 1988 and to this day, the game sits on my shelf calling to me to pick up where we left off in 1990.
It knows that next time we play, I’ve got 30 more years of experience, the patience of adulthood and an internet full of walkthroughs to help me track those tasty clones down…
- Stunning graphics
- Brilliant presentation and interface
- Weird, captivating story that emulated Tron-like man-machine interaction
- Very hard to know what to say or do with each alien
- Impossible to use brute force; you just have to work it out
- Easy to make a wrong move and make the game unwinnable
Dark Blue Monkey’s take
French computer games have a reputation for being strange, and the output from ERE Informatique (aka Exxos) was no exception.
Captain Blood’s living galaxy full of intelligent, likeable aliens who could be tricked, threatened or destroyed – with the ultimate goal of sweet-talking identical copies of yourself into committing suicide – was deeply unsettling at a moral level.
Captain Blood was a bizarre game of space flight, conversation, sleuthing and survival, with a HR Geiger style that left its mark on anyone who played it.