It’s remarkable to think Captain Blood managed to stand out from the crowd in the late eighties, a time when alien menaces with laser cannons and planet hopping space adventures were considered such very ordinary gaming fodder it was actually quite refreshing to play anything that wasn’t “inspired by” Space Invaders, Star Wars, or Aliens. The overuse of the genre was also in part down to practical considerations – the vast depths of space can be easily represented by a black screen with a few randomly flickering pixels and with the limited colours and resolutions available to early programmer-artists creating a believable extraterrestrial form was far easier than drawing anything resembling a human being – but even so the theme was still in real danger of becoming wearily overfamiliar, like a too-friendly neighbour who insists on buying presents for your dog.
Captain Blood was different. Captain Blood was determined to carve it’s own path through the stars, eschewing both the exciting arcade styles of Defender as well as the more serious simming of Elite (and it’s sequel) in favour of… well, in favour of being Captain Blood: A game that opens with an arresting piece of music by none other than Jean Michel Jarre and flips back and forth between the title graphic and a Giger-esque image of what can only be described as grey space babies.
Your aim here is to hunt down and then harvest the bodies of five of the titular captain’s clones for their vital fluid to regenerate Blood’s increasingly shaky body before it degenerates beyond all repair (a novella was included with some versions of the game which may – or may not – explain all of this better than the standard reference sheet my copy came with), although finding them when they don’t want to be found within a literal galaxy of stars is exactly as difficult a task as you think it’d be. The good news is Blood’s vessel – the Ark – is an extraordinary living ship capable of hyperspacing to any point in the galaxy on a whim and effortlessly obliterating entire planets at the push of a button, with most actions from accessing orbital scans of the planet’s surface to accessing the galactic map accompanied by crisp speech samples just to make sure you know how futuristic the technology at Blood’s elongated blue fingertip is. Although Giger’s work has clearly left its indelible mark on the game – the Ark’s ridged blues and organic user interface couldn’t have come from anyone else – Captain Blood cares enough about the artistry of its influences to ensure these similarities are more than skin deep: This ship doesn’t release a shuttle from a docking bay to investigate the planet you’re orbiting above, it births an Oorxx in the sterile pram area (the included manual makes a point of mentioning this is a stress-free birth, although it doesn’t state for whom), and this living space baby is then sent down the birth ramp to the planet below, scouring the surface for someone to communicate with.
This first-person flight over the planet is visually represented by what’s best described as horizontal “slices” of terrain generated at random before each visit, every single piece smoothly adjusting its size and position as you alter your speed and height. I may be returning to this decades after Captain Blood’s initial release but honestly it’s still astonishing to see the jagged landscape below seamlessly flow into peaks and valleys or undulating hills as you steer the Oorxx in the direction of the guidance system’s small flashing arrow to your destination, some planets encouraging you to keep low (running the risk of colliding with the terrain – too many hits will kill the baby Oorxx) to avoid the attention of their defense systems. These journeys always end in a tense canyon run, forcing you to fly through narrow twisting terrain until you either reach an alien at the end or the Oorxx collapses, exhausted. It’s in these moments you really appreciate just how silky-smooth and responsive Captain Blood’s flying is, your organic craft navigating the craggy contours at speed with ease. It’s true to say the aggressive funnelling in these segments doesn’t give you anything like the level of control or freedom found within Rescue on Fractalus‘ canyons filled with downed pilots and cunning enemy forces but even so it still evokes the feeling of skimming the surface of an alien world – and this happened in 1988, the same year Altered Beast was a new arcade game, Dizzy was exploring a treasure island, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a big cinema hit.
Incredibly this isn’t the only graphical trick Captain Blood has up its sleeve: Pressing the spacebar at any moment during your travels will cause the Oorxx to stop and send a fractal photo of the topography ahead to Blood on the Ark. Strictly speaking these images serve no purpose other than to create hauntingly beautiful artwork but it’s well worth your time to pause for a moment to see the sharp ridges and cold flats brought to life, the detail always starting closest to you before creeping over more distant features as if it’s performing a geographical scan, transmitting new information back to the Ark in real-time. All you’ll ever see out there are variations on blue canyons and plains (or sometimes a neon orange… sea, maybe?) against a pitch black sky but the effect is never anything less than truly alien no matter how many times you do it, and knowing there’s going to be nothing out there but dust and rocks only makes your search for Blood’s clones seem all the more impossible.
There may be over thirty thousand planets in the Hydra galaxy but as most of them are completely uninhabited it’s important to communicate effectively with anyone you do happen to meet so you’ve got some good possible leads on where to head next rather than doom yourself to blindly stumbling around the cold expanse of space. Thankfully you’re always given a fair start as the world you begin the game orbiting may be random but it will always be populated by something, which means you will always have a chance to extract useful information from them – if only you can work out how to do it…
Instead of using a text parser (the classic “SAY>HELLO” “TAKE>COIN” interaction hand-typed within old text adventures) or preset multiple choice questions Captain Blood offers players and the alien they’re speaking to a unique universal language composed of over sixty icons that can be strung together into anything from a rather stilted attempt at an interplanetary joke to an expletive riddled threat to murder the other person. These glyphs generally represent concepts rather than specific words, meaning the resulting exchange often ends up translating into something like “ME = GREAT WARRIOR (LAUGH)” or “WANT KNOW YOU IDENTITY ?” – they won’t win any literary awards but you can grasp the general gist of the sentence with a little thought. It’s a system that always feels as bewildering as first contact with an alien on the other side of the galaxy should do but weirdly enough it does actually start to feel quite natural with practise and you’ll soon find yourself only referring to the in-game translator when a new or rarely used term pops up in conversation – the name of a specific alien race for example – rather than for every last word. The real magic of this remarkably free form system is how this extra layer of abstraction makes it easy to assume that any nonsensical or repeating dialogue isn’t a mood-breaking issue but either a cultural misunderstanding or some technical trouble with the machine translation itself, accidentally preempting a very modern problem by over thirty years. And once all of that’s out of the way you begin to realise the tone of these conversations is… well it’s probably more honest than the usual science-fiction tropes of two noble civilisations reaching out to each other across the stars or humans desperately trying to communicate with an alien force that won’t even deign to tell them why it’s enthusiastically obliterating them. Captain Blood’s aliens, whether they’re wearing what appears to be a space shirt and tie combo or exist as some kind of floating fleshy centipede-like creature, are in an odd sort of way so very ordinary. The aliens you meet here might be small-time bullies who crumble as soon as you tell them you’re going to destroy their planet and get upset if you abandon them on an empty rock, maybe they’re sexist horny idiots who open conversations with “Howdy”, or perhaps you’ll encounter jovial warriors happy to pass on several sets of useful galactic coordinates if only you can work out how to ask them for it. As you only have your own communication skills to rely on here – you have nothing to barter or bribe them with, and while you can destroy them and the planet they’re standing on at any moment doing so won’t help you get any answers – your mastery of this dialogue system is without a doubt the key to your success, Blood’s life relying not on you being able to shoot or fly well but knowing how to talk to potentially uncooperative strangers.
For a game that looks as unapologetically serious-face science-fiction as this does realising that for all the weirdness the game throws your way – the clone hunt, the living tech, the deliberate barrier created by a simplistic yet convoluted concept-icons – ultimately it all comes down to learning how to reach out to other people, to find some common ground and have a joke about that three-headed guy in the other star system or compliment someone on how strong or smart they are, to work out what you can do for them and how to ask for help yourself.
You didn’t expect that from a game with a perpetually pregnant spaceship, did you?