Captain Comic Revisited

I’ve spoken about hard games before… well… mostly I’ve spoken about Dark Souls. I love that game, I love it so much. It turns out I love Captain Comic too, for pretty much the same reasons. They are both notoriously difficult games, but so entirely playable. While being completely different in tone and setting, both of them were the source of many loud cuss words, and glorious satisfaction. As I played the game, my housemate kept telling stop, telling me that I was raging too hard – the funny thing was that even though I was swearing profusely at my monitor, I was enjoying every minute of it.

A couple of weeks back, I spoke about the classic PC platformer “Captain Comic” on Eight and a Half Bit. Captain Comic is a game from 1988, and was one of my favourite games growing up. It’s a mostly straight forward platformer with very little inertia, but  with one small catch – no saving. But, unlike The Fantastic Dizzy, the game is actually better for it. It’s a fantastically designed game.

I wanted to prove to myself I still have the gaming chops of 8 year old James, so I loaded up DosBox, started Captain Comic, and have so far resisted the urge to use a single save state. I’m not through it yet, but I’m getting close. Cap’ needs to get back his lost treasures, and I’m going to help him out.

I’ve gotten very good at playing the first 75% of the Captain Comic, and I can clock it out in about 15 minutes. This is not a very long game, and you get very good at the early areas, and tension slowly builds the further you get. The length of the game is what makes it so enjoyable. If this was a 5 hour game, the missing save system would be unforgivable, but given you can run through this game in roughly 30 minutes, it puts it more in line with a Shmup. Learn the content, learn the patterns, and complete the endurance run.

There is health in this game, and you can take a few hits before you die, which is lucky because one of the most unfair parts in the game is the spawning mechanics. As far as I can tell, spawns are pseudo-random – if you move along the level at a consistent pace, you’ll see the same spawns every time, but slow down and you’re in unfamiliar territory. You can be mid-jump and suddenly – BAM – have some beach balls to the face, mother fucker! On more than one occasion I’ve lost a life because of spawns mid jump. You learn to spam-shoot every jump, hopefully killing most of what might appear mid-flight.

Falling to your death is what will kill you most of the time, and that will burn through the few lives that you have. There are some pretty unforgivable jumping sections in the game, and it’s easy to go from full lives, to just one, in a single area.

There is a good variety of environments in the game, which keeps things feeling fresh. From dark forests, to the moon, Cap’ gets around – then turns around and goes back. It’s a very nonlinear world where you’re required to move back and forth through the game. One of the very early areas you come across is actually the end game. You can go in, but you will get your arse handed to you. There is also the option for minor sequence breaking some items, but it’s mostly a single path of progression, it’s just that you will be going back through areas you’ve already mastered – and going the opposite direction is a fairly different experience.

 The game has a sizeable cast of enemies that try to kill you at every turn: shy birds, brave birds, bug eyed insects, beach balls… and bees. Mother. Fucking. Bees. So, you can kill everything in this game with a single hit, and as I mentioned earlier, you can take a few hits before dying, but there is one enemy type that will hit me 50% of the time. Bees. The only real variation in enemies, apart from the sprite, is the movement pattern, and the bees will move horizontally first, then descend on to your head. This doesn’t sound so bad, but there is no way to shoot up. They can be incredibly difficult to actually hit, the jerks. I hate them. I hate them so much.

I haven’t finished Captain Comic yet, but I’m certainly still trying. Is strikes a near perfect balance of difficulty and length. Almost every death is because I was careless, or even hit the wrong key, so failure never feels cheap, with the exception of those damn bees and the random spawns. I highly recommend hunting it down and giving it a shot.