Friday 26 March 2010

Sink or Swim

Because impending death is fun!

Sink or Swim, a 1993 platform-puzzle game developed by Zeppelin Games for the IBM PC. It later drifted into the seas of the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Mega Drive (as "S.S. Lucifer: Man Overboard") and the Super Nintendo, with a watered down version showing up on the Sega Game Gear too. I got the DOS version about a decade and a half a go, and it violently refused to run on anything other than computers released between about 1991 and 1994, making it a fairly pointless purchase. It's taken until 2010 for me to bother to emulate it, but what does the squirrel think?

Sink or Swim is a bit like Lemmings... on a boat. Your task is to guide "dim passengers" to a goal without getting them killed. To do this you need to flick switches, move crates and throw down jetpacks etc. Though there's not as many options as in Lemmings, a large percentage of the levels have rising water levels meaning the clock plays a bigger role in this game. Also, as the player isn't just a mouse cursor, there are things he/she must avoid to stay alive too.

The game was originally released for DOS-based IBM PC compatibles, and this is the version I'll be reviewing today. The Amiga and Atari ST ports have cutbacks and although the console copies benefit from parallax scrolling, by this time they were in the hands of Titus and Codemasters and things deviate a bit too much for my liking. Every version of the game is decent though, so you shouldn't be too concerned about which copy you own, but the DOS copy does seem to be the most "complete".

Sink or Swim is one of Zeppelin Games' better creations, though it's not without its share of problems. The first major issue is found simply by starting up the game - there is a non-existent loading screen but a long loading time, leaving the user to believe the game is actually broken. This doesn't help when the screen appears to glitch during this process. Might just be my copy, but it's still not good news.

Generally, however, the game is quite fun. It isn't quite as well loved or as good as Lemmings, but it's certainly not a bad game. Things get quite challenging and there are loads of levels (with possibly more added in later revisions too).

Despite being programmed for DOS computers in mind, the game manages to neglect the majority of the keyboard keys, instead deciding to assign all actions to the space bar. This is a sensible idea for consoles such as the NES which only have two buttons, but as the IBM PC had over a hundred this isn't a wise move. It could be worse of course (at least the DOS game assigns bombs to "B" - the Amiga only assigns one button to this game), but it does mean you have to come to a complete stop in order to flick a switch, which isn't very appropriate for a game that demands quick reactions. The collision isn't always brilliant either (the rope in the above screenshot can be hard to catch), though these sorts of things would have likely been patched up a bit by the time the game reached the consoles.

Though the graphics aren't too bad, the music is rather poor. It won't give you a headache like some games, but there aren't really any music tracks that "define" this game. They're all just boring (and sometimes out of place) melodies that were often different between ports. The Amiga, known for its excellent sound hardware, didn't even get music in its port, so clearly sound wasn't one of Zeppelin's top priorities when developing this game.

But nevertheless Sink or Swim is an underrated classic. Perhaps not as much of a "classic" when compared to other titles released around this era, but it's still a decent purchase.

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