Released by Durell Software, Saboteur (or Saboteur! to give it its Airplane!-esque full title) was a video game for Spectrum, Commodore and Amstrad computers, created by Clive Townsend from the remains of his ill-fated Death Pit. Originally a mining-based platform game in the vein of Manic Miner and Durell’s own Mineshaft, Death Pit was considered so disappointing by testers that it never got released. Instead Townsend remixed its code, swapped the miner for a ninja (1985 being probably the absolute apex of the 80s Ninja Boom) and somehow turned it into one of the most acclaimed, complex and popular games of the era.
[NINFORMATION UPDATE 03/03/16 : There is a whole new, extended version of Saboteur! available from Clive Townsend’s website and it’s awesome. He’s added more levels, achievements to unlock, some new twists and an online community aspect, while preserving the 8-Bit joy of the original. This comes with the Ninjas All The Way Down full seal of approval. Make sure you click it.]
I had Saboteur on the ZX Spectrum when I was a kid. Obviously, I loved ninjas so Saboteur – despite its relentless difficulty – was a firm favourite. It may look silly if you’re judging the 8-bit graphics by 2016 standards but in a six year old kid’s imagination, a game like Saboteur (cutting edge at the time) felt real. Its map seemed so vast (literally endless, as I never stood any chance of completing it) and its goals so arcane, in my head I could pretend I was an actual ninja. I’d spend ages just guiding my character through endless dark corridors, rapt because I was right there in the action, doing ninja things; hurling shuriken at unsuspecting guards, creeping around in the dark, leaping over things, stealing from The Man, doing secret stuff in the shadows. It was incredible. It was as close as you could get to a “Ninja Simulator” and didn’t bring in any magical or supernatural elements like so many ninja games before and after did.
The setup was surprisingly faithful to a lot of the ninja films of the time too. The player is simply called Ninja. He arrives at some kind of top secret warehouse by dinghy, armed only with a throwing star. Ninja’s mission is to steal a floppy disk that’s hidden somewhere in the warehouse, set up a timebomb and get out by helicopter before the whole place explodes. It sounds so simple, right? There’s only one mission so there’s only one level and one map. Ninja is working against a fiendish clock that gives him just a matter of minutes to take care of business so it’s not even like it’s a long game. It is however, a nerve-shreddingly tense game and one that’s still tough to beat.
Using the Online Spectrum Emulator version at Torinak, I was excited to have a crack at Saboteur as an adult. I hadn’t played it for over 25 years so went in convinced I could own it. Even so, I played it safe and set the difficulty level to 1 (out of 9), only to be rewarded by a pair of mocking ninjas telling me my mission would be “EXTREMELY EASY”.
The rush of nostalgia as the game started and Ninja floated towards the warehouse in his wee dinghy was immense. It’s a strange sensation but anyone old enough to remember Spectrum games will know that the opening screens are the ones that burn into your brain forever. Unlike modern games, there was never a save option so when you failed, you’d have to go back to the beginning. As so many of them were so insanely difficult, you failed a lot and the start screens became infuriatingly familiar. Conversely, some of the later screens you may only see once in a lifetime – that rare precious moment where you catch a glimpse of, say, the computer control room before the timer runs out and it’s snatched away forever. You’re back to the dinghy.
Still, I wasn’t going to get myself lost in a reverie of defeat already. The clock was ticking, after all. I leapt out of the dinghy, climbed up from the water and entered the warehouse where I immediately lost my throwing star. The controls for using a weapon are the same as they are for using one of the many computer terminals scattered throughout the warehouse (some of which do nothing, some of which open vital security doors) so while trying to use the computer, I flung my weapon at the ground and it disappeared (once you use a weapon, you can’t get it back). Damn. Particularly not good since I’d also been met by a guard dog who wanted to kill me. The game, with an admirable degree of compassion, doesn’t give you any points for killing dogs and also makes it quite difficult to do this (you have to angle your weapon in a particular way and stand in exactly the right place) so it’s best to just take flying ninja leaps over them…
Leaping past the entrance leads into the building itself which is a labyrinthine nightmare. It’s like it was designed by some kind of brutalist Cold War M.C. Escher. Every corridor looks the same – tiles, bricks and concrete decorated with packing crates, stacked trays, reel-to-reel tape machines and computer terminals. An occasional pile of bricks (which can be used as weapons). There are security cameras that shoot lasers at you and guards with tasers to get in your way and drain your health as you desperately try to find your way around in the dark. Many rooms have no point to them. There’s a chamber of water at the bottom of a very long ladder that serves no purpose beyond somewhere to sit down and drown yourself if it all gets a bit much.
I’ll never forget my joy as a child when I first found the underground tram in Saboteur. It seemed like genuine progress, being the first screen I could be 100% sure I hadn’t seen before and, besides, it was just kinda rad to see a ninja riding a tram. As an adult, I had the same surprise and elation (I’d forgotten it existed) but it just led to more corridors to get lost in until my time ran out.
I played game after game and, even when I thought I’d got somewhere, I found it impossible to get there again the next time. Having a sense of direction is not one of my real life skills (as anyone who’s had the misfortune of getting in a car with me will have learned) and Saboteur left my head spinning. So I cheated. We live in an era where almost everything can be explained online and Saboteur’s no exception. I found a full Walkthrough on Youtube but, unfortunately, this was done on Difficulty Level 9. One of the clever things about Saboteur is that the Difficulty Level changes everything. The warehouse is laid out the same way but the guards, the bombs and the doors are all different so the Walkthrough wasn’t much help. I did have a crack playing on Difficulty Level 9 but this was just an embarrassing set of asskickings from the guards.
I made more sense of the warehouse by finding a map online (worth looking at as a piece of art in itself) and that’s when the true nature of it (and so many other Spectrum games) hit me. It’s not about finding your way around. Even once you know where you’re going and what to do, the difficulty is in doing it within the ultra-tight time limit. It doesn’t leave room for you to fall off a platform, trip over a ladder or stop for a 30 second slap fight with a guard. You have to do it perfectly. So you just repeat over and over again the same game, gaining precious seconds, until you stop making mistakes. In its way, this is similar to actual martial arts training; it also instills a maddening sense of persistence and discipline (who knew computer games could set you up so well for life, eh?).
Full disclosure : I’m lazy. I’ve not actually completed Saboteur yet. I played it for more hours than I’d like to admit to today and the closest I got was retrieving the disk, planting the bomb and getting all the way up to the security door by the helicopter only to realise it was locked. I hadn’t switched the right terminal on at the right time so I blew up in a psychedelic blast of Spectrum colors. All I achieved was a splitting headache. However, the game still stands up as something that’s challenging in a good way and admirably hard to master. If you’re looking for an 80s nostalgia hit (as so many ninjologists are), this is a strong dose; I mean, the game revolves around a floppy disk. You can’t get more 80s than that.
What I liked most about Saboteur however was that it’s still very much a realistic Ninja Simulator, although not in the way I thought it was when I was a kid, running around ninjing like a good’un. No, now I see it very much shows what it would ACTUALLY be like if I were dropped into a real life ninja mission. I’d flail a bit, run around in the dark with no idea where I was or what I had to do, fall down a hole, topple off a platform, miss everything each time I tried to throw a weapon and then probably get eaten alive by dogs, sustaining fatal ninjuries and ending my short-lived career. It’s probably best I stick to blogging.
[NB: Saboteur also has a sequel, Avenging Angel, in which Ninja’s sister Nina (you’ve got to laugh, right?) becomes the protagonist but that’s another blog for another week…]