Seafox (Commodore 64) review
"One of my greatest irritations in gaming, right after online cheaters, inexplicable crashes and self-corrupting saved games, is slowdown. Or lag, as we call it on the internet. Whether caused by a slow connection or locally by video issues, there's nothing more effective in breaking a nice gaming experience than the game constantly s-l-o-w-i-n-g down. The music skips, the mouse movements become jerky, the CD drive spins up, and your teeth grit. There's nothing quite like it. Fortunately. "
One of my greatest irritations in gaming, right after online cheaters, inexplicable crashes and self-corrupting saved games, is slowdown. Or lag, as we call it on the internet. Whether caused by a slow connection or locally by video issues, there's nothing more effective in breaking a nice gaming experience than the game constantly s-l-o-w-i-n-g down. The music skips, the mouse movements become jerky, the CD drive spins up, and your teeth grit. There's nothing quite like it. Fortunately.
Now in modern PC games, as often as not the fault is not in the product but in your system specifications, but that's obviously not the case for the Commodore 64. One system is an exact copy of the other, just as in consoles. If an otherwise good game is hampered by slowdown, the game is to blame. Seafox is an excellent example of a game that's fun in many ways, but brought down badly by slowdown in the later levels, when there's just too much moving on the screen for the Commodore to handle. Apparently, the designers felt this wasn't such a serious issue, or they just didn't know what to do about it. Either way, we're left with a game that doesn't live up to its own potential because it's so darn sloooowww... (okay, I'll stop the word butchering now.)
Seafox is a shooter game that puts us in a submarine, and our job is to destroy enemy cargo convoys that slowly drift by at the top of the screen. The majority of the screen, and the area we can move around in, is underwater, with only about a sixth of the screen taken up by the surface. This is where the cargo ships move, and we fire torpedoes at them from the relative safety beneath the waves. Relative, because we're not the only side in the war with submarines. Enemy subs frequently come close, sometimes firing torpedoes or laying mines (depending on the level), and always trying to ram us. Warships come by as well, trying to form a defensive barrier between our torpedoes and the cargo vessels, and any torpedo that hits a warship is miraculously deflected and comes right back down.
This game falls in the category of ''thinking'' shooters rather than ''reflex'' ones. In a game like Defender, or Tempest, or Turmoil, your finger never leaves the fire button, as you fill the screen with shots so nothing can get close enough to harm you. Seafox limits the number of torpedoes you can have on screen to two - one going up at the cargo ships and one to the right to fire at incoming enemy subs (you cannot fire to the left). This puts it more in the category of Galaxian or Centipede, where you must make every shot count. You even have a limited supply of torpedoes and fuel, but fortunately a friendly refueling sub comes by every so often to drop off a package of fuel and torpedoes. You'll have to be quick to catch it, though, because an underwater PacMan (seriously) comes by to snatch the package, and you'll have to beat him to the punch.
Seafox has five levels, each of which has a convoy of ten cargo ships for you to sink. If a cargo ship escapes before you can sink it, it will eventually reappear on the left side of the screen again, until you finally manage to sink them all and advance to the next level. In every level, the opposition is stepped up. Where the first level only has one unarmed enemy sub at a time, later levels feature up to three of them, using either torpedoes or homing mines against you (and in the final level, both). The idea is great, no doubt about it. Your actual targets, the cargo ships, are completely harmless, but you get distracted so much by the subs and their weaponry that you barely have time to shoot at them. You have to maneuver in the right position to sneak your torpedoes past the warships that try to deflect them, but soon the screen gets crowded with subs, torpedoes and mines. 90% of the time you are too busy fighting for your survival to be able to sink any ships. To make things worse, you have to be close to the surface to have any chance of hitting a convoy ship, but the refueling sub that you have to meet up with every minute or so is at the bottom of the screen. Fighting your way through everything to move from one place to another is supposed to be a hectic, nerve wracking affair.
It is supposed to be, yes. And this is where Seafox fails. Because when the game has three enemy subs, their torpedoes, their mines, various cargo ships *and* the blockading warships on it, that's too much for the Commodore to handle. What is already a fairly slow-paced action game requiring more thinking than quick fingers, suddenly becomes a lagfest that makes Jedi Outcast on 56k look smooth. Frame by frame, your sub painstakingly reacts to your joystick input. Your torpedoes slooooowly (oops, I said I wouldn't do that anymore, didn't I?) home in on the targets. You see a warship coming in close to it, frame by frame. ''Please slip by it, please slip by it'', you mumble. *Bling*, you hear, and the torpedo slowly begins its descent, having been deflected just in time. You cannot fire a new one before this one has left the screen, and at the current framerate, that'll take a minute or two. That's a lot of time to pull hair from your head in frustration, let me tell you. If baldness didn't run in my family already, it's games like this that would have caused it anyway.
And you know what? Despite the frustration caused by the poor framerates in the higher levels, I still keep playing. This is the worst part. If this was a poor title, some ragtag collection of sprites shooting little white lines at each other, requiring no brain, no skill, just a lot of imagination, then I wouldn't care. I would play one of the other good titles on my ''S'' disk, and disregard this one, maybe review it one day and give it a 2 or 3. But I can't, because apart from this massive slowdown problem, Seafox rocks. It's so well thought out, and I love the whole concept of the threat and the target not being the same thing. In Space Invaders, or Galaxian, or Centipede (just to name three very important titles), you shoot at the same guys who shoot at you. Here, the challenge is not in the shooting but in the maneuvering. Can you get in the right position to get the telling shot off? Can you do it ten times? Can you fight your way back to the deep water to refuel at the right time - which is whenever the refueling sub decides to appear? Can you strike a balance between killing enemies that get in the way, or leaving them be so they aren't instantly replaced with a new one that could be in a more dangerous spot? It's a clever idea and it works out perfectly - if it didn't push the Commodore beyond its video capacities. But it does, and so an otherwise great title suffers. Badly.
I haven't said much about graphics or sound yet. Not really an oversight, it's just that there is a little to say. The sound effects are effective, with satisfying explosion sounds - two of them. One for enemy subs, and a more elaborate one for taking down a cargo ship. Since that's quite a feat in the later levels, it's a sound you'll learn to love. Nothing special in the sound effects itself, though, it's just a Pavlov reaction. High pitched explosion means ''got one, got one!''. There a few short midi samples for starting the game or finishing a level. The latter is worth mentioning - if you finish a level your sub will automatically leave the screen to the right while the music plays, right through any enemy torpedoes and mines, which explode harmlessly. In fact, any enemy subs in your way are destroyed as well, and you get the points for destroying them this way. Those few seconds of immortality and payback feel great, I assure you. Not in the last place because the game suddenly moves at normal speed for a few seconds here. No idea how they did that, but that's the speed we wanted all along. Graphically, the game is equally effective, if not impressive. The sprites themselves are nice but not amazing, but the best part is the variety. Instead of making all cargo ships look the same or using palette swapping, they made five different types. Your sub, the enemy subs and the refueling sub are not just different coloured versions of the same sprite as well, they made different ones. The detail is noticeable and adds to the flavour - I just hope it's not the cause of the slowdown that plagues the game, because in that case I'd have settled for palette swaps and a better framerate.
Seafox is fun, and you should definitely give it a try if you're into shooters. But you, too, will come to the conclusion that it could have been so much better if it would always run at the speed it was designed to do. When everything slows down all the time, the game becomes tedious, annoying and in the final level, almost unplayable. And as such, what could have been one of the best shooters on the system has to make do with a generous 7.
Have you ever felt like a game is great fun, but there's just a little thing lacking? Have you ever wanted to just grab a few programming books at the library, break in the code, and fix it yourself, because it just doesn't feel right that such an apparently simple thing brings down a title you'd really like to love? If you know that feeling, you know what to expect from Seafox.
Community review by sashanan (June 19, 2009)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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