Remakes and re-releases of retro console games are ten a penny these days; there are countless old-school titles from the likes of Nintendo, Sega, SNK and Namco available for newer audiences to discover on modern platforms like the Switch. It’s uncommon, though, for home computer games – specifically those from the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 – to get the same treatment, which is why Saboteur! is such an interesting release.
Created way back in 1985 by British programmer Clive Townsend, it was critically praised at the time, earning its fair share of high scores and accolades including ZX Spectrum magazine Crash’s prestigious 'Crash Smash' award. Now, a mere 33 years later, Townsend has released this remastered version, offering a longer adventure than before.
Not everything that was great three decades ago holds up over time, though – Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red is perfect proof of that – and Townsend’s decision to go for historical accuracy rather than a modern revamp means Saboteur! is a bit of a hard sell for gamers who didn’t experience it the first time around. Compared to the current day Metroidvanias, this is very much a cave painting; albeit a charming one that still has its fans.
The concept is simple, at least at first. Playing as a highly skilled mercenary dressed as a ninja, you’ve been hired to infiltrate an enemy security building disguised as a warehouse and steal a disk containing the names of all the rebel leaders. You start off in the sea, approaching the building on a rubber dinghy – as is the ninja way – and must get in, steal the disk and leave via a helicopter on the roof before time runs out.
There were three different ‘endings’ to Saboteur! back in the day and it’s the same situation here: you can either leave in the helicopter without retrieving the disk (which is basically failure), you can leave with the disk or you can go for the best ending: replacing the disk with a bomb hidden elsewhere in the building, and escaping before it blows the warehouse to matchsticks.
It’s a basic idea, then, and the game is similarly simplistic as a result. Exploring the warehouse for the first few times will be an exercise in trial and error; there’s no in-game mapping system so unless you sit there with a pen and paper you’re going to have to just learn and memorise where each room is. Everything stays in the same place with each playthrough, though, meaning once you know the location of the bomb, the disk and the helicopter, you can have the game beaten in a couple of minutes. Well, sort of.
You see, Townsend has added a new section onto the end of this version of Saboteur!, increasing the game’s map by what he states is around seven times (and that seems to be pretty much spot on). In the original game you’d fly off in your helicopter and that would be it, but this time you’re informed that there’s still a signal coming from the building and so the helicopter hilariously slowly lowers down again so you can hop back out. A quick dash to the right and a hop down and you’ll find a new elevator screen, which takes you out of the warehouse and into an entirely original area with various new buildings to explore.
This new section of the game is handled well: it removes the countdown and gives you more time to explore, while also maintaining the feel of the original gameplay. There’s a lot more dialogue, too; you’re constantly chatting back and forth with another agent on a Metal Gear-style radio, although a lot of the chat consists of ‘clever’ 80s references that start to get a bit tenuous. Samantha Fox, Gremlins and Caramac bars are all given the nod, as is an arcade area with 8-bit renditions of Pac-Man and Space Invaders machines (which aren’t playable, before you get your hopes up).
It isn’t perfect; some of the exploration can get a little repetitive and there’s one section made up of a number of laboratories that’s painfully tedious. Above all else, though, is one major issue that hangs over the entire experience like an oversized ‘80s perm: it still looks, plays and most importantly feels like a 33-year-old game. Saboteur! may have been a pioneering adventure game in 1985, but today its single-button control system and incredibly clunky movement only serve to frustrate.
Back in the day, most joysticks only had one fire button, which was used here to punch. Moving the joystick up pulled off a jump kick, but that meant doing it in front of a ladder would have you climbing it instead. Similarly, when you were being chased by a guard dog and needed to get up a ladder quickly, you would often jump instead, landing on the dog and taking damage. Despite the Switch controllers having significantly more than one button, jump-kicks and ladder climbing are still mapped to one input.
Combat is horrendous too: punching and jump-kicking enemies while they try to do the same feels like fighting underwater until you realise that standing in just the right place and pulling off the right move (jump kicks for guards, punches for other ninjas) generally gets the job done right away. Meanwhile, picking up objects is immensely frustrating: they’re all invisible so you don’t know there’s one there unless you’re standing on more or less the exact pixel where it’s located, meaning most of the time you’ll run past it, run back to see what it was, then inch yourself back and forth to try and pick it up.
One very nice touch, however, is the addition of special graphics filters designed to imitate how Saboteur! would have looked on other systems it wasn’t originally released for. When the game originally boots you get to choose between Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum graphics – since those were the two systems most people played the game on – but as you explore the warehouse and new areas you’ll come across pairs of goggles which unlock new filters.
Some of these seem to just be there for comic effect: the incredibly basic ZX81 filter with its ASCII art and the Atari 2600 filter with its blocky sprites will get a laugh, but they're practically unplayable. Others are just fun: the Game Boy and NES filters are impressively accurate and look just how you would have expected ports of the game to look on those systems back in the day (minus things like flicker and slowdown). By far the best, however, is the Amiga 500 filter, which really feels like a proper visual upgrade and adds loads of new details to the character sprites and backgrounds.
What this feature gives with one hand, though, it takes away with the other. Not only do you apparently have to unlock these by finding the goggles dotted around (we say ‘apparently’ because they were all unlocked from the start when we played, which we assume is a bug), but they only work in the opening warehouse section - i.e. the first five minutes of gameplay. Once you descend in the helicopter again and take on the new, much larger part of the game, you’re stuck choosing between ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 graphics again. This is massively disappointing and can presumably only be explained by a lack of effort to create backgrounds in the new styles. We’d have loved to play through the entire game with Amiga graphics, not just the bit that now essentially acts like a prologue.
Saboteur! has charm to an extent. If you’re old enough to remember the microcomputer era that dominated the UK in the early ‘80s, this will sweep waves of nostalgia over you with its authentically rubbish graphics. Anyone open-minded enough to appreciate that most older games aren’t as intuitive or control as well as modern titles will also get some enjoyment out of it. For the most part, though it’s a disappointment; a game that revisits a once-classic title and expands on it in some ways (the game map), but remains stubbornly insistent on not improving it in others (the controls) or doesn’t go far enough (the graphics filters).
Anyone who fondly remembers the original Saboteur! will get enough out of this Switch release to scratch a nostalgic itch. Everyone else will be frustrated by its archaic controls, the half-hearted way it offers it graphical filters and the general clunkiness that comes with a 33-year-old Spectrum game. That it costs £6.29 / $8.00 on Switch but only £2.39 on Android and 99p on iOS merely adds insult to irritation.