The medium of video gaming has arguably witnessed some of the most ridiculous story lines in the history of humankind. Let’s face it, if you went to a literary agent with the concept of a portly Italian plumber giving up hunting giant apes and travelling to a land filled with talking mushrooms to save a princess from the clutches of a crown-wearing dinosaur, they’d be leading you out of the office in a straight-jacket (or, if by chance you'd stumbled into the premises of J.K. Rowling’s agent, handing you a massive pay-cheque). However, when it comes to truly insane plots, you simply cannot beat the French.
For some reason, French video games always seem to have the most unhinged stories, and the king of them all is Didier Bouchon and Philippe Ulrich’s wacky sci-fi adventure Captain Blood. Unless you’re a seasoned retro gamer, chances are you’ve never ever heard of this unique adventure title, but trust us — it’s a real gem, and has one of the most incomprehensible back stories imaginable.
You assume the role of the title character, who in reality is actually a video game designer called Bob Morlock who is unwittingly transported into the very game he has created. Understandably confused by the incident and forced to make a hyperspace jump, Morlock — now in the guise of Captain Blood — is accidentally cloned thirty times. It then takes him 800 years to hunt down each of these clones in his spaceship The Ark and kill them in order to retrieve some of his stolen "vital fluid". All of this occurs before you’ve even loaded up the game — your involvement happens just as Blood has successfully found and killed twenty-five of the clones, and is about to set off to locate the remaining five to become complete again — otherwise, he will lose his already-slender connection with humanity.
What follows is a game which quite frankly defies accurate description; it’s part adventure, part space simulation and part puzzler. To find the coordinates of the remaining five clones, you have to converse with a wide range of bizarre alien lifeforms. Before you can do this, you must find a suitable planet and successfully navigate your OORXX probe through a fractal trench. Once safely down on the planet's surface, the real meat of Captain Blood begins: the cosy chats with the aliens themselves.
In a move which was revolutionary for its time (Captain Blood was released in 1988, fact fans), the game employs a conversational interface called UPCOM. Using a series of 150 different icons, UPCOM serves as a translator and allows you to create crude and often nonsensical sentences in an attempt to coax each alien into coughing up the whereabouts of one of the five missing clones.
It’s possible to spend hours using the UPCOM, as each alien species reacts differently to the icons you use. Some of the responses you get are hilarious, and the accompanying sound effects add immeasurably to the overall experience. Sometimes you’ll need to convince the alien in question to come aboard your ship — something which often takes a lot of sweet talking and patience.
The Atari ST version of Captain Blood remains the definitive edition, as it's the only edition which includes all of the alien speech sounds. Aside from the unique bio-mechanical visuals and distinctive gameplay, Captain Blood is also famous among gamers of the period thanks to its use of Jean Michel Jarre’s eerie track Ethnicolor during the introduction sequence. The strange sampled voices seem to fit the game’s alien aesthetic perfectly.
UPCOM plays a big part in Captain Blood’s enduring appeal, and it’s a real wonder that other developers haven’t enhanced the idea over the years. A sequel for PCs called Commander Blood tried to update the concept, but foolishly did away with UPCOM entirely and replaced the iconic 2D visuals with relatively crude CGI renderings. A third game — Big Big Bang — was also released, but has so far remained exclusive to France. Perhaps it was just too weird to localise for other regions, which is really saying something.
Captain Blood is typical of the kind of unbridled creativity which made the European computer gaming scene so exciting in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Many would argue that with the advent of indie publishing on digital services such as iTunes, Xbox Live Arcade and — of course — the Wii U eShop, we’re about to enter another period of similar excitement, with game designers unafraid to produce totally off-the-wall experiences. Hopefully that means that a title as innovative as Captain Blood could once again appear on a modern system; we’d dearly love to see a new version which makes use of the Wii U GamePad for UPCOM conversations and employs the controller's screen for probe-based trench runs.
As always, our fingers are firmly crossed.