"Sometimes, when I replay old Commodore 64 classics, I realize that some games are challenging for all the wrong reasons. Instead of simply requiring quick reactions, strategic thinking or simply concentration and nerves of steel, games from my youth have turn out to have been as difficult as they were because of sloppy controls. As I replayed Neptune's Daughters today, I was sorry to notice that this is one of those games where the challenge is not so much a design feature as a design flaw. "
Sometimes, when I replay old Commodore 64 classics, I realize that some games are challenging for all the wrong reasons. Instead of simply requiring quick reactions, strategic thinking or simply concentration and nerves of steel, games from my youth have turn out to have been as difficult as they were because of sloppy controls. As I replayed Neptune's Daughters today, I was sorry to notice that this is one of those games where the challenge is not so much a design feature as a design flaw.
Released in 1983 by the pragmatically named English Software Company, Neptune's Daughters is an underwater action game in which you control a diver on his quest to rescue the captured daughters of Neptune, God of the sea. Toward this end you move through the same sequence of three levels time after time, while avoiding enemies and obstacles and keeping an eye on the oxygen bar which prompts you to finish each level within a certain amount of time. That amount, unsurprisingly, decreases every time the batch of levels is completed, one daughter returns safely to her daddy's sea palace and you set out to rescue the next one.
The level design of Neptune's Daughters is simple, but charming. The first part consists of navigating through a few underwater tunnels, carefully avoiding the sides (contact with a wall is somehow fatal), and shooting at underwater plants to clear them out of the way. This all is accomplished while a purple octopus relentlessly chases you, effortlessly moving through the very walls you are not allowed to touch, and respawning at the edge of the screen every time you kill it. This part of the game consists of three screens that must be navigated through, and even if you die in the second or third one, it's all the way back to the first until you complete all three consecutively.
Once this has been accomplished, the battle against the evil amoebas begins. Stuck in the middle of a completely open screen, you are assaulted by clumps of amoebas from all directions, and all need to be shot down before oxygen runs out. Oh, naturally you're not allowed to touch either them or the sides of the screen, either. What were you thinking?
With a painful thumb from the endless shooting in this level you proceed to the final part, where you find one of Neptune's gorgeous (and more importantly, naked) daughters being held in a glass case by a gigantic sea snake. Fortunately the snake isn't particularly fussed about the kind of dinner it is going to get, and therefore you can appease it by shooting crabs that are randomly swimming about, picking up their bodies and feeding them to him. Upon feeding five crabs to the snake, you suddenly find yourself escorting the now-freed daughter to Neptune's castle. Some bonus points as well as an extra life are added, and the whole cycle begins again with a few changes: oxygen consumption is now increased so each level must be completed more quickly than before, a second octopus is introduced in the first level, and the amoeba attack is intensified.
Apart from that, it's just the same thing over and over again, and herein lies one of the weaknesses of the game. It's okay for a game to constantly repeat the same cycle - if completing the cycle once would take more than five minutes. It doesn't. The game gets repetitive quickly and would be utterly boring if you weren't likely to lose your last life during the third or fourth cycle or so. And here lies the main complaint which I already addressed at the beginning of this review: the levels in themselves are not hard. Even with the time pressure in the later cycles, completing them would still be easy to do - if the controls were just a little more responsive.
What exactly is wrong with the controls? First off, your character moves across the screen very fast. It is hard to move just a little bit - even if you give the joystick a slight tap, you tend to go farther than you intended to. In the final part of the first level where you need to round a few sharp corners, this becomes painfully obvious as it is very easy to slam into the far wall and waste another life, as well as having to go through the entire level again.
The problem is even worse during the amoeba fight, however - the amoebas are small and pretty hard to hit, and it is very common to shoot, just miss, adjust your position, shoot again and just miss on the other side - and be hit by the rapidly approaching amoeba before you can line up for a third shot. This would be less frustrating if it felt like it was the amoeba that made it hard, but they just move in a dumb straight line. It's the tendency of the joystick to either not react to a light tap or overreact that's causing this, and once you lose your last life and you realize none of the losses was really your fault, that gets pretty frustrating. The gameplay is therefore inherently weak; if the controls had been smooth, it would have been more obvious that Neptune's Daughters is lacking in challenge.
Visually, Neptune's Daughters is fairly colorful, but made up of very simple sprites. The diver in particular is a rushed graphic, hastily pasted together with a few black and white lines and dots. His legs are amusing to watch, though: both are small black lines, and one is constantly moving up and down to simulate a swimming motion. You don't notice at first, but if you just park yourself in a safe corner for a bit and look at it you'll find it actually looks quite ridiculous. The backgrounds on the first two levels are an uninspiring blue with yellow walls - nothing too impressive there either.
It is the last level, the one in which you free one of Neptune's daughters from the snake with your devious crab feeding scheme, that deserves special mention at this point. The background in this level is far more detailed, the snake looks fairly imposing, and overall it looks like all the graphics effort went in this level. It's a shame, then, that it is by far the easiest of the three levels and I really fail to see the point of it. Dying is accomplished only by touching the snake (foolish as it doesn't even move!) or the crabs while they're still alive (they're slow and out in the open), or an occasional bar that falls from the top of the screen to the bottom (you seem them coming from miles away). Running out of oxygen is not going to happen to you either here, as whenever you feed a crab to the snake and go hunting for another one, your oxygen supply is miraculously refilled.
The game's sound effects are an interesting, if sometimes irritating addition. Some good sounds include firing your harpoon gun (''SWISH''), shooting down an octopus (''YEEEEEEEEK!'') or feeding a crab to the giant snake (''SLURP''). Some annoying sounds include shooting an amoeba (''FLUUUUUUU'') and dying (a nasty buzzing sound which I will not attempt to spell phonetically). Those last two are the kinds that make your skin crawl, and which make me wonder if they were added just for that purpose.
Neptune's Daughters can entertain for a while, and some effort has definitely gone into its creation, but due to its problems it can only be classified as a game that just didn't make it, and for valid reasons. If a game is challenging, it has to be due to good level design, decently intelligent opponents or a quick pace requiring good reflexes. It is inexcusable for most or all of the challenge to be generated by poor controls. Combine that with the fact that the game really doesn't have much depth and going through the entire cycle takes mere minutes, and it is easy to see why this game won't capture a gamer's heart for long. Therefore, unless you decide to play this game just to gaze at Neptune's gorgeous daughters, do not expect more than a pleasant (part of an) afternoon out of this title. It doesn't offer more than that.
Featured community review by sashanan (January 25, 2008)
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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