So let’s discuss a hypothetical quandary. You like submarines, but hate the complicated controls found in most every modern simulation game (I refer you to Flightgear for a modern example). Graphics are irrelevant to your enjoyment, right? I mean if they were that important to you I don’t think you’d be reading my column, would you? So what is a modern day Admiral Nelson to do? I refer you to the first commercial PC submarine simulator: GATO. One of the first releases from Spectrum Holobyte, initially for the PC in 1984, GATO puts you in control of a United States Navy submarine during World War II in the Pacific theater. The game features several different types of missions, but most all revolve around sinking enemy ships. You may need to go to a certain spot on the map to rescue a crashed fighter pilot, all while avoiding enemy patrols, or destroy an entire convoy before it escapes the game map.
The game starts with a mission sent to you as if it were top secret, being broadcast from your sub base to you. Set the game to the highest difficulty level and the mission is relayed to you in Morse code. BEEP BEEP BEEP…. BEEP…. BEEP…. BEEP BEEP BEEP. That’s the extent of my Morse Code ability. A log is kept as you sink ships keeping track of your
points tonnage of ships sank, which by the way, are all named using real ship names from the Japanese Navy. With the help of your subtender refueling you, it’s possible to play indefinitely, or until you get bored. Stealth is the name of the game here, not brute strength. The game is played from a cockpit screen with various gauges and readouts in front of you, with additional maps and damage control screens view-able as needed.
GATO’s graphics are primitive, presented in the 4 color CGA graphics mode. Yeah it seems every PC game in the early 80’s used that horrid four color scheme. It was either that or monochrome, so take your pick. The game was actually programmed in BASIC, and the graphics show that. The Apple II and Atari XE releases look similar, while the Macintosh release features a different screen layout, with several screens displayed simultaneously. Your main enemies consist of wire drawn ships that vary in size as you approach them. A seven year old kid could probably draw these ships in MS Paint today. The radar screen looks like what I imagine a radar screen would look like.
Speaking of these not-at-all-TRON-like-enemy ships, they are dumb. ‘Dumb’ as in a destroyer will charge at you once she is aware of you. Derp. Sadly, you can’t force them to crash into an island. But you can! What the crap is that? If I were an Admiral in this game’s world, I’d be capturing enemy ships and making submarines out of them, just like I’d make airplanes out of black boxes, since they never seem to break in a plane crash.
Typical of an early PC game, the sounds are limited to beeps and boops from emitted from the PC speaker. There’s nothing exciting here. Except for the nightmare inducing siren blaring away when you sink… at least it inspired nightmares in my seven year old self, but yeah. Control is all keyboard-based, which number keys controlling engine speed, arrow keys controlling movement, and F keys switching between the damage control, map, periscope, radar and captain’s log screens. The controls are simple enough that you don’t need to read a multi-page quick start guide. One nice feature of the game is a built demo mode which demonstrates what various keys do in-game. Back in 1984, was unheard of. Flight Simulator had a demo mode but nothing like this, but it was more akin to watching someone else play.
Many games in the intervening thirty-ish years have surpassed GATO, such as the Silent Service series and 688 Attack Sub, but sometimes it’s nice to go back to the original and see how it was done. Many modern sim games go a little overboard in the realism department, requiring a multitude of keypresses to do anything. Even with other newer games available, if I am in the mood to run silent and run deep, I’ll fire up Dosbox, dive in and give GATO the Fair Shake.