Hey, who’s the earliest strong female lead character you can think of in video gaming? Okay, yeah, you’re going to say Samus, and fair enough – she was one of the very first, appearing in Metroid in 1985.
But there’s another early example of a badass female protagonist from 1987 that has gone largely forgotten in the annals of gaming history. Not just any protagonist either – a lethal ninja infiltrator that drops into a secret compound via hang-glider, beats the ever-loving crap out of security guards and pumas (yes, pumas), then steals codes and re-programs a nuclear missile before it is launched by a megalomaniac dictator and escapes full throttle on a motorbike through a disabled electric fence.
Yes, that happened. Say hi to Nina, and welcome to Saboteur II: Avenging Angel for the home computer.
I’ll get it straight out of the way – this is one of my all-time favourite games, but I will readily admit it is almost totally for subjective reasons rather than for any objective consideration. If you’ve never played it and try to dip your toes in now in 2017, you will almost certainly hate it – the controls are brutally stiff, the graphics primitive, and the UI and item manipulation system is horrendous. There, that’s the ‘game reviewer’ part out of the way – now I’m going to gush about why I loved this game in the late 80s as a kid, because sod it, it’s a retrospective, eh?
As a kid, I knew it was a female character, but I didn’t care in the slightest. See focus-group obsessed AAA developers, kids aren’t automatically stupid and have to play as an Action Man to have fun! I digress – you can see why I didn’t care, because take a look at that front cover.
Just look. Explosions, motorbikes, black leather, missiles, hang gliders… all I knew is that I wanted some of that!
So, after popping in the cassette and waiting the traditional 15 minutes minimum for the game to load, you set the controls and are greeted to the best part of the game by a country mile, and the one part of the game I can still HIGHLY recommend in 2017 – that god-damn kickass theme music.
I mean really, this is the 80s wrapped up in one tune. Just imagine you’re a kid way back when, you’ve looked at that game cover, and then at the start of the game you are greeted to… this.
Please click that and listen to the glory! I was no older than six when I played this game, yet that tune never left my head growing up, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. It’s now my ringtone!
Now you’re pumped – the game has set the atmosphere totally. You click play.
And then there’s almost complete and utter silence from here on in.
It’s… weird. You expect an ambient soundtrack, but there is absolutely nothing beyond the occasional click of Nina’s footsteps and tiny thumps when you hit or are hit with a kick, punch and so on. Yet I sort of prefer it that way; it almost adds realism. Think about it; you are a ninja infiltrating a compound – you would be silent!
You press the key to drop from the hang-glider, you land noiselessly and off you go. You fight off guards who are either wearing scuba tanks for no reason or are astronauts. You can either avoid them or tactically kill them through your ninja skills or by picking up the various weapons scattered throughout the compound, such as shurikens, sai, pipes and so on. You have to think carefully though, because there are no health potions here – instead there is regenerating health when you stand still. This is a problem, because enemies are on most screens, and you can’t always find a safe spot to rest. Furthermore, you sometimes have to fight them off to get key items. Not only that, from the moment you land in the base, there is a timer counting down.
So, the game creates tension in a very clever way – you’ve got to decide when to fight, when to run and when to rest, because either doing too much or not enough can result in the failure of your mission. This design choice pays off big time – you really do feel like a ninja; stealthy when possible yet deadly when needed. With nine levels of increasing difficulty, these decisions get more and more critical the further you go.
The graphics are obviously primitive, but I have to say they actually nail the neon 80s action thriller vibe it is going for. The futuristic text works, as do the vivid colours to indicate the indoors, which contrast splendidly with the deep night outside and the gloomy tunnels you explore to make your escape later.
This game is hard as nails too, for a few reasons. As said, the controls fight you as much as the enemies do – everything is just so stiff and purposeful, yet because of that the action feels hard-hitting and frantic when it comes to it. But the main difficulty comes from just how much of a maze the complex is; an absolute medley of over 700 screens, each looking just like the last. It’s so daunting and disorientating, yet it almost feels open-world because of it; it doesn’t hold your hand but instead lets you figure out the way through your wits alone. Again, just like what a real infiltration would be like.
Actually, you know what? I said this game didn’t hold up earlier, but… it kind of does. I’d say it holds up in the same way as the original Metal Gear Solid holds up – sure, graphically it’s a mess by today’s standards, but the heart of it and what it aimed for still shines through when you pick it up. Every perceived fault I listed earlier can actually be explained away by the actual theme and atmosphere of the game – so what if I can’t run around freely; it’s a stealth game, isn’t it!?
That’s my subjective take on it, anyway! Give it a blast on an emulator and see how much of a fantastic heroine Nina is for yourself. Or if you don’t want to bother, at the very least give that theme tune a listen!
“BACK IN THE DAY” VERDICT: 95% – It was one of the best titles the home computers had to offer, especially the ZX Spectrum version. The atmosphere was just so incredibly well crafted through the difficulty, complexity and game mechanic design. It was impossible not to love it.
“MODERN DAY” VERDICT: 55% – Look, yes, it has infuriating controls, explains nothing outright to the player and is the antithesis of how modern gaming holds your hand. Chances are you’ll hate it, but if you are of a certain mind, you will find something to absolutely love here.
Release Date: 1987
Developer: Clive Townsend
Publisher: Durell Software
Available: ZX Spectrum (version reviewed), Commodore 64, Amstrad, DOS. Also available on emulator (recommended).