Underwater Inspiration

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a beautiful game. The opening chapters flaunt enough heavenly lighting effects and fluttering foliage to reduce a wizened old gamer like me to tears of hi-res delight. And this is on a standard PS4 too, not some $7000 PC with liquid nitrogen cooling and LEDs that can be seen from space.

“Back in my day we played LAN Delta Force on Pentium II’s and sniped any pixel that wasn’t the exact same shade of beige as everything else. And we enjoyed it!” – Ghost of Gamers Past

It was a mere three chapters into the episodic Uncharted 4 that yet another gorgeous environment left me in a state of wonderment. Something about scuba diving this deepening river in search of long lost train cargo had instantly transported me back to a forgotten moment at the local Timezone arcade of my childhood. This magical ability to draw a person back in time and space is something I’ve encountered before in gaming life, and as usual it came completely [bad pun alert] out of the blue. A cursory online search has failed to put a name to the periscope-equipped submarine game Dad and I had been engrossed in on that day in the very early 1990s, but the experience of launching torpedoes at passing divers and enemy subs in an environment heavily reminiscent of this post’s cover image had thoroughly entrenched itself in my formative memory bank.

Uncharted™ 4: A Thief’s End_20160729175638
Uncharted 4’s Photo Mode is awesome, and just a little addictive.

Upon mentally returning to the current day I found myself asking why it is that these particular settings have always left such a lingering impression.

Is existing beneath the waves as inherently powerful a fantasy as flying?

I know that at one point I fully intended to build a house that was only accessible by hidden underwater entry, much in the style of a platypus burrow. Perhaps it is this national aquatic fascination (every Aussie kid answers ‘Marine Biologist’ at some stage, right?) that made the following video game levels the highlight of their respective titles and the source of so many vivid snapshots from a gaming journey now spanning decades.

3. Alex Kidd In Miracle World (Sega Master System)

When I was very young my cousins had cats, ducks, Nutri-Grain cereal and a Sega Master System at their house. There was probably other stuff too – furniture perhaps? – but these were the features that still stick in my mind some 25 years later. The game I remember most clearly from the little time we spent in front of their Master System was Alex Kidd In Miracle World, and in particular the water section you encounter midway through the opening level.

mario underwater
Nintendo’s work a few years later.

If you’ve ever played the older side-scrolling Mario titles then this will be familiar territory; dodge the baddies and their projectiles, collect the collectables and move to the right.

My recollection of Alex Kidd was that it was fiendishly tough to navigate, so for the purposes of research it seemed like a good idea to download an emulator and see if my grown-up dexterity and coordination could see me past the second stage. Sadly, the answer is no. Be it on land or underwater, the title character’s movement reminds me of playing Table Top Racing with drift tires permanently equipped. How anyone ever clocked this game is beyond me, but that first swimming section struck a chord all the same.

2. Spiderman & The X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

Awesome cast, awful game. This arcade-to-SNES port does, however, possess a couple of redeeming features:

  1. It includes Gambit, a perennially underrated X-Man, and
  2. Storm’s underwater levels.

Spiderman’s opening stage is a necessary evil that upon completion unlocks Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops and Gambit as additional playable characters. My understanding is that each superhero has their own set of three levels to complete, but I can’t say this with real confidence as the gameplay is so bad that you’re doing well to make it through the first round. It makes sense from a developer’s standpoint that a game intended for arcade play should be both enticing and next-to-impossible to complete as this promotes short, coin-fueled play sessions. I just wish that Acclaim had provided you with more lives or checkpoints to make the playing console version a little more like having fun.

It’s safe to say that were you to chop away everything from Arcade’s Revenge except Storm’s swimming stages then this would be a far more enjoyable experience. For all we know a trimmed and remastered release may be viable in this modern era of mobile gaming. Recent history suggests that I’m willing to part with a couple of dollars in exchange for another 200 pokèballs that my two-year-old will gleefully expend, so who’s to say I wouldn’t submit to microtransactions that grant me more chances to guide Storm safely to the top of her flooding power station?

Navigating that rising tide and zapping anything that got in your way was the unlikely highlight of Arcade’s Revenge in the mid-’90s, and based on more than an hour of semi-thorough scientific testing I can confirm that it still is today.

1. Donkey Kong Country Trilogy (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

Now for a title that delivers alliterative aquatic adventures of such an exceptional standard that I can’t settle on a single level – or even a single release – to acknowledge. Would it be the original Coral Capers (seen above and below), Poison Pond or maybe the later Lava Lagoon? Frankly it is impossible to say.

As this franchise has found its way onto these digital pages previously we can skip the usual introductions and get straight to the point: DKC’s water levels exemplify the outstanding quality of graphics, music and gameplay that Rare sustained throughout this groundbreaking series. Whilst all the other stages boil down to exquisitely engineered platforming (run, jump, dodge, collect), the underwater areas require you to master new movement physics and utilise whatever timing skills you’ve honed along the way. The most important feature, however, is the immersive – or should that be submersive? – experience they deliver.

DKC Underwater
The Uncharted 4 of 1994.

Rare’s game design magic really is a combination of Blizzard-like polish and consideration for every aspect of the adventure. From the very outset the world of Donkey Kong is imaginative and vibrant, combining beautiful sprites with colour palettes to die for (remembering that this was the early ‘90s and developers could only dream of the graphical fidelity you see at the top of this page). Control input is crisply responsive, allowing for a range of rewarding move combinations and speed running capabilities. The music of Donkey Kong Country is also a vital ingredient, and its aquatic soundtracks shimmer and swell like a cross between modal Miles Davis and the slow burn of Moby’s Play album. Inspiring stuff indeed, and a game design element I’ve come to appreciate even more as an adult musician.

N.B. If you too have a soft spot for well-crafted game soundtracks then I’d recommend visiting The Well-Red Mage, and this highly relevant post discussing the best ocean themes from their B-Side series.

The Donkey Kong Country trilogy are the only SNES games that still see semi-regular play in our household, which I take as evidence of how gracefully they have aged. It’s great to see the aforementioned two-year-old taking such pleasure in monkeying around, and one day soon he’ll be ready for the classic Co-Op mode that blew me away so long ago.

So after all this reminiscence, does an underwater component guarantee a good gaming experience? Certainly not, but in two of these three cases it provided a positive and lasting memory where positivity may otherwise have been hard to come by.

Now back to the PS4 to find out what other surprises Uncharted 4 has to offer…


3 thoughts on “Underwater Inspiration

  1. Hey there! Thanks for linking to our Ocean themes. I love exploring those video game musical motifs. But you know what I love even more? Water levels! Glad to know someone who can appreciate them enough to blog about them. I grew up in the isles of Hawaii so the sea is a source of fascination for me as well. I really want to play the new release ABZU. By the way, that submarine game you played back in the day… was it Sea Wolf, Sea Raider or that amazing arcade side-scroller In The Hunt?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of ABZU before but it looks amazing! Thanks for the submarine arcade game tips as well, but it wasn’t any of those three. Were it not such a vivid memory I would be wondering whether I’d made it up, but I can still picture the pixellated weeds in the foreground and wetsuit clad scuba divers drifting across the screen as I fired torpedoes at subs approaching head on or from the side. Not a high priority but I’ll figure it out one day…

      Liked by 1 person

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