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30Mar/10100

Sub Rosa, Surfer Trixie

This guest-post is by Drinky of "Backup Control Room". Perfect!

If you've more than a passing interest in video games, you've likely heard of Steel Battalion, a 2002 mech combat game for the Xbox; the game was infamous for both its $200 price point (which, to be fair, bought you both the game and what was and is perhaps the most complex game-specific set of controls ever sold at retail) and for the fact that, if a player failed to eject from a critically damaged mech, the fictional player-character's "death" would be mirrored in that the real-world player's save file would be erased. Video games are, almost across the board, understood to be "try, try again" sort of affairs—indeed, someone playing through the recently released indie title VVVVVV may expect to "die" literally hundreds of times before completing the story—and player death generally has little lasting consequence. The real price of death, generally speaking, is repetition, is irritation: having to spend the time and effort running through points X and Y and Z again to return to the state of play immediately preceding that last death, so as to have another crack at whatever beast or chasm laid one low.

Steel Battalion's save-file deletion—a consequence with a potential price tag of dozens of hours, rather than a handful of minutes here or there—is positively coddling of the player, however, compared to 1986's Sub Mission, a game published for the Apple II and IBM PCjr by Mindscape. Here's the basic gist: an otherwise unnamed extraterrestrial Warlord has trapped two human beings, Signourny (sic) and Peter, and is forcing you to play submarine wargames for their lives. The object, of course, is to load them onto these submarines and find an escape route, and the catch is that if either Sigourny or Peter die, they—such as "they" ever were or could be—are erased from the game diskette.

A little history's important here: this was back before installing games to a hard drive was common practice. Games were usually played off the original disks and whatever changes were made—deaths, high scores, etc.—were made directly to the original. This explains, for example, the now-infamous (again, this assumes membership in and/or knowledge of certain subcultural circles, but bear with me) epitaph "Here lies andy / peperony and chease", a child's joking reference to an old frozen pizza commercial saved to an Oregon Trail disk that was eventually imaged and distributed widely online: if you've played an "abandonware" copy of Oregon Trail, you've probably seen "andy"'s grave, which means you're playing a copy of the disk that that kid, now more or less lost to history, played with way back in 198X.

Sub Mission allowed the player to pilot her submarines with robot drones instead of her precious and limited human personnel, which was a thoughtful concession to what appears to be—I've skimmed through the manual and this appears to be, especially for its time, an involved little game—a formidable learning curve. However, the player's not going to be able to find the escape route using robots alone, and eventually she's going to have to bite the bullet and actually send Sigourny and Peter to and through that escape route, once it's been found, so the inevitable high stakes gamble can only be delayed for so long. However...

"If Sigourny or Peter dies during a war game, you can resurrect each of them one time only. The “Emergency Instructions” envelope included with this package contains a special command that allows you to bring each of them back to life once"—Sub Mission manual, pg. 7

The manual goes on to say that if either or both of them die yet again, the player may submit "the special petition at the end of this manual" along with her disk to "the Space Commissioner" for another shot at things. Presumably, "the Space Commissioner" was in the employ of Mindscape, and the petition may well have involved more than a politely-worded request and the appropriate supplication: Wikipedia claims that Sub Mission "required gamers to purchase a replacement disk if they lost the mission three times". Comparatively speaking, "horse armor" looks like the ticket redemption counter at Chuck E. Cheese; a publisher attempting such a gimmick in this day and age would likely be flensed.

It's unknown, of course, if Sub Mission's title is an intentional pun on its unforgiving handling of risk and death. It's worth noting, though, that the game was developed by an outfit called Tom Snyder Productions; they're still around, making educational software for Scholastic these days, but Tom Snyder himself went on to become the executive producer of both Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies. Take from that what you will.

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