One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea. She lived in a phosphorescent palace of many terraces, with gardens of strange leprous corals and grotesque brachiate efflorescences, and welcomed me with a warmth that may have been sardonic. She had changed – as those who take to the water change – and told me she had never died. Instead, she had gone to a spot her dead son had learned about, and had leaped to a realm whose wonders – destined for him as well – he had spurned with a smoking pistol. This was to be my realm, too – I could not escape it. I would never die, but would live with those who had lived since before man ever walked the earth.
One of the great joys of retro gaming is making little personal discoveries. Long after the hype and flash of launching titles and platforms, games, like nearly everything else under the sun, fade into obscurity. Some do better than others, of course. The majority? They slink into the shadows of history to be forgotten by the next generation.
When I played Deep Ones by BURP! Games, published by Sometimes You, I was not only introduced to an indie game that had just appeared on the Nintendo Switch but I was also indirectly introduced to a British relic: the ZX Spectrum. Let’s talk about both, shall we? Maybe you can share in the joy of discovery with me.
Deep Ones itself is an action-adventure that combines a patchwork of genres including platforming and shoot ’em up. It’s intentionally archaic in presentation, both visually and in terms of its gameplay, for almost the entire game. Its original Steam page from 2017 cites both BioShock and H.P. Lovecraft as inspirations and its easy to see those influences, even superficially.
The journey toward the depths begins with a lone mariner exploring the sea in their submersible. While doing some maintenance on the exterior hull, their vessel is snatched out from under them by a massive, tentacled horror not unlike a red-tinted Cthulhu (pronounced octopus). There’s my Lovecraft reference but well-read readers probably already caught the reference in this game’s title to Lovecraft’s merfolk. Anyway, the mariner finds that they’re stranded underwater but rather than make the humiliating trek back to dry land, they instead decide to plumb the depths for the submarine and take back what is theirs.
This takes the mariner on an excursion through an alien world made all the more bizarre by the distinct retro visuals. Shoals of multicolored fish swim through the pitch black water. Yawning caverns teem with hostile lifeforms and shimmering biochemical light. Deep Ones does an excellent job of portraying the loneliness and solitude of the mariner beneath the sea. Of course, they aren’t truly alone. There are ghost pirates in sunken ships, repulsive creatures crawling along the abyssal plain, and the red octopus waiting for the mariner at the end of the road.
Armed only with a harpoon-gun and later a rapier, the road is long indeed. I was surprised in encountering Deep Ones’ many challenges, including some truly grueling boss fights. The mariner does not handle like an action hero. Moving through the water seems to slow down every movement, every jump. Further, their harpoon-gun is not a SOCOM pistol or Mega Buster… It’s low rate of fire means the mariner can only depend on it so much, and that’s not even mentioning the slow swing of the rapier; avoiding dangerous situations is a must. Easier said than done in these unsettling environs.
I cannot personally attest to whether this is true or not, but I suspect that a lot of the sluggishness and even the occasional non-responsiveness of the way that Deep Ones plays is due to its nature as a throwback to a specific system and era of technology.
The ZX Spectrum is a British 8-bit home computer, one of the first of its kind, that came out in 1982 courtesy of the developers at Sinclair Research. It was the UK counterpart to the popular Commodore 64 in the US and the Spectrum has been credited with sparking the UK IT industry as well as tremendous sales (for the time) in software and hardware. The Spectrum had such a cultural impact that Sir Clive Marles Sinclair, the inventor behind the Spectrum, was knighted for services to the British industry. Though the machine was discontinued in 1992, new games are still being made for the ZX Spectrum!
The original ZX Spectrum was a small, rubber keyboard that connected to a television set with an RF modulator, and the computer was available either with 16KB or 48KB of RAM. Wow, things have come a long way, huh?
The most notable element of the Spectrum’s design has to be that rainbow strip in the bottom right corner. Set against its dark black frame, this colorful motif gave it a unique sense of style among ’80s computer systems that tended toward the drab. This motif also highlighted the title of the Spectrum which was chosen to inform the consumer about the bright colors that the computer could display.
Looking at the crisp lines and acid-colored neon above, its clear that colors (I guess in this case it would be “colours”) were the Spectrum’s selling point. Games, as well as word processors, spreadsheets, illustration and programming tools, were a novelty I’m sure when they popped off the TV set in those vivid colors. By modern standards, they’re not all that pretty, the palette was limited, and the novelty surely has worn off. However, it’s been said that the limitations of the device, such as a lack of joysticks, meant that video game developers for the system had to show some real creativity and cleverness in their designs.
Coming back to Deep Ones, it’s easier to understand the appeal of the game as an homage to a specific historical landmark device. It seems to me that they got their tribute down pat.
The 8-bit Review
The most impressive things about Deep Ones’ graphics are the soft lighting effects in the darkest areas of this underwater world. The huge red octopus is a visual monstrosity, as are some of the game’s more fantastical denizens in the depths.
However, there are several portions of the game where it’s hard to see what’s happening, so detailed are the backgrounds, the stark colors against the blackness. I walked right into projectiles a few times because I could barely see them. This was especially true in the ghost pirate’s fortress. The game still remains playable but you’ll have to tread with caution, distrusting anything and everything. Moving across the screens sometimes causes a disorienting effect as the glowing lines blur, though.
The interesting uniqueness of these graphics prevent them from being truly awful and when they impede the player, that can at least be overcome with patience and attention to detail.
Easily the best part of the game, Deep Ones wields a dark and percussive soundtrack full of electronic brooding. The energetic pace propels the mariner’s journey. This is a case of a game’s music perfectly tailored for the game’s experience. It certainly reminded me of the ’80s.
You can hear at least some of the soundtrack in this trailer:
Deep Ones is marketed as combining different genres. Most of the game is platforming but there are some scenes which require escaping from some danger as in a side-scrolling shmup, some boss fights feel a lot like bullet-hell, and there’s even a moment where you fire a cannon into the background at approaching ghost ships. These are interesting ideas and welcome distractions from the sea slug’s pace platforming. I could wish the game included more of these.
“The winner is the one who can wait” is something the game gives you as a hint toward the end of the game when you have to get past some jellyfish sentries. I immediately thought that the phrase is a great summarizing analogy for the entirety of Deep Ones. There were a few times when I didn’t want to play it any more (and conversely other, rarer times when I was hooked). It’s almost always slow-going in Deep Ones and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I believe the controls are occasionally unresponsive. I missed a few jumps because the mariner wouldn’t leap right away, causing me to practice pressing the jump button a split second before I needed to. The harpoon-gun has a significant delay between the input and firing, though this didn’t seem like a reliably consistent metric of time.
Deep Ones is a linear game so it became a matter of pushing onward past every obstacle, reaching a checkpoint and pushing through the difficult parts, precision or no precision.
Deep Ones can seem like a typical indie brutal platformer but initially that’s because the weight and movements of the mariner take some getting used to. The game certainly has its more challenging moments (the boss fights especially) but it’s only superficially difficult. Consider that upon death you’re immediately transported back to the last checkpoint, and these are never too far away. There are no lives or continues. You get as many attempts as you like. What ends up being the most difficult thing about Deep Ones is overcoming its deliberate limitations, tenuous grasp of gameplay, its physics, its controls that are as fickle as the sea.
One may be tempted to think that a game without too many aspirations beyond fusing a few genres and saluting a few influences would be highly accessible, especially as one of thousands of indie retro throwbacks. Well, the controls of Deep Ones are easy enough to learn, yes, though not the most trustworthy, but there are many frequent instances when you find yourself wanting a guide. I know I did. Further, it’s not always clear how to defeat enemies or even if you can, and that’s even considering the limited array of tools available to you at any one time.
Deep Ones is a linear game and I never found any significant secrets or even detected the opportunity for potentially finding any. The route through the game is straightforward without deviation and without choice. That’s fine for an adventure story. It just doesn’t make for much replay value, beyond a few difficulty levels, that is.
You have to give credit where its due and Deep Ones deserves to be recognized for (apparently) accurately emulating a not too frequently cited area of retro gaming. We’ve seen a billion clones of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Galaga. The NES every year sees hundreds of games still launching off of its influence.
The ZX Spectrum though? I’m certain that there are circles within retro gaming affected by it and there are as I mentioned earlier dedicated fans still making games for the thing. On the whole, though, it’s not something you hear about too often and its even less often that you’ll see an indie game crop up in its spiritual genealogy. Even if not all of Deep One’s design decisions were ultimately for the better, that’s a separate consideration from uniqueness and this was a very distinctive game.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
There’s not a whole lot of information out there regarding this game. When I got stuck a few times, not knowing what I needed to do (an accurate characteristic of many retro games that required you figure things out for yourself), I couldn’t find too many helpful walkthroughs or FAQs to make the journey easier. In this way, playing Deep Ones felt a lot like playing games from the ’80s in the ’80s. Now I should tell you that I only lived through half of the ’80s but the games I remember playing when I was very young were experiences that demanded you try to figure them out yourself. I remember watching my dad playing these games and taking notes on scratch paper, drawing pictures I didn’t understand, folding his arms and thinking.
Deep Ones is game of moments. Overall, it wasn’t that fun to play and I expect that those who owned ZX Spectrums would find more to love in it than I did, bolstered as it must be by a specific brand of nostalgia. However, I did have fun in the moments with Deep Ones: hiding from the abyssal creatures, fleeing from the huge shark on the back of a seahorse, becoming captain of my own ghost pirate ship. Deep Ones has a rambling way of storytelling like the stories of a child; it’s not “compelling and philosophical” as its Steam page purports, but with the imagination of youth it may just be that much more nostalgic, whatever that’s worth to you.
I’d like to thank Sometimes You for furnishing us with this game for review!
Aggregated Score: 5.1
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Categories: Game Review