Many Atari 2600 games were fairly content slapping a few sprites on screen, indicating which one belongs to the player, and letting the action unfold from there, but Submarine Commander takes a different approach. Surprisingly, Submarine Commander has a first person perspective, the game presented as if you are viewing the action through a submarine’s periscope. With gauges all around the screen making for some smart visual design despite minimal resources, it does a fairly decent job of making the Atari hardware work with such an idea, even if your unseen submarine moves around a bit too fluidly to truly mimic a more realistic submarine experience.
It does feel like the sacrifice was smart though. Submarine Commander isn’t aiming to be a submarine simulator, it’s an action game about racking up points by blowing apart the ships that race across the water’s surface. Three types of vessels will appear and zoom across the screen, their sizes, speed, and points value changing based on which class they are and which layer of the horizon they happen to be moving across. During a session of Submarine Commander, your goal is to hit as many of these vessels as possible, your torpedoes taking a bit to travel and firing in an alternating sequence. Switching back and forth between left and right torpedo launchers means you can’t fire blindly, but all the ships you’re targeting go down in one or two shots so it’s mostly about landing that first hit, the ones that take two even stopping after the first hit to make sinking them a bit easier. Trying to chase them is a bit of a losing game though. Your submarine moves right to left and can angle its view up and down, but every ship is either faster or just about the same speed, meaning that if you move at the right time you can keep up, but otherwise you have to let a lot go simply because they are too swift. Ultimately, sitting in one spot with a view that shows as much of the ship lanes as possible seems a tactic that’s not really worth deviating much from.
Of course, sitting in place comes with a few dangers. …Except in Game Modes 1 and 2. Like many Atari 2600 games it has an alternating two-player mode, but in the first mode, you’re set up basically to shoot up at the ships with no risk of counterattacks. It’s incredibly dull, especially when coupled with the best tactic being to sit and fire, but it’s perhaps best thought of as a training mode or one best for young children. From Game Modes 3 to 8 though, the ships start striking back, dropping depth charges down towards you in retaliation. The specific mode will determine which type of ship can drop the depth charges, and if you get hit by one, the effects can change depending on the player’s difficulty setting. During all play no matter the difficulty, your play time is determined by a fuel amount. Starting with 3000 units of fuel in your tank, it will gradually drain during a session, with actions like firing a torpedo, moving, or getting hit by a depth charge draining it even faster. Once you run out of fuel completely, that run ends, your high score displayed at the top for you to be proud of or disappointed in. On the harder difficulty though, the depth charges are even more dangerous, with each one that hits eliminating one of the gauges your submarine has to help with its task of sinking ships, with one of the final bits of damage before complete failure even taking an entire torpedo tube offline.
The gauges are probably the most important element of Submarine Commander. To do well, you don’t just need to be pointing your periscope at the right area of the water. Keeping an eye on the helpful information coming in will let you earn bigger scores. The fuel gauge is of course the most important, a combined health counter and time limit that is effected heavily by your actions. There’s a small radar in the bottom left that will tell you where enemy ships will be coming in from, its usefulness both helped and harmed by the incredibly effective “sit in place” tactic. It will let you fire and hope of hitting a ship coming in quick, but moving a lot to chase red dots won’t really benefit you in the long run. Slight movement is a must though, mainly because of the depth charge radar that appears on the right and will begin flashing if one is coming your way. It’s more of a hint where the depth charge will hit, meaning that you will have to get a feel for where it’s moving towards and try to dodge to avoid damage, making enemies always dangerous despite the tools at your disposal. There are green boxes that will tell you which torpedo is firing next based on their position, but the last gauge is a bot of an odd one and one hard to figure out if you don’t look in the manual. At the top of the screen is a mostly white box, but as you move around, red will begin to fill it. This is an engine gauge, and the more red in it, the more fuel you’re burning at the time with your actions. To fill this bar up to be a bother though, you really have to be moving around like mad, something the game doesn’t encourage. During regular play I saw it, at best, get close to a third full. One tactic that did make it a concern is moving entirely left or right to try and catch the slower boats, but fuel management is an important tactic and one that discourages such play for a few reasons, one of the biggest being that you’ll hardly get any points for doing something so wasteful.
The first-person periscope view does take a bit to learn, but once everything falls into place (or can be ignored mostly like the engine gauge), you’ll have a fairly decent shooting gallery on your hands. The hazardless modes are a bit too long and drawn out since your fuel isn’t at risk, but once depth charges get introduced, you will have to more carefully manage your fuel and actions to ensure you can play long enough to get a good point total. The ships aren’t the best targets due to having little time to anticipate most of their approaches, but they aren’t terrible either, the slow tankers easy to peg and the more valuable destroyers and PT boats more like the bonus prize for good gauge use or general good luck.
THE VERDICT: Submarine Commander’s periscope view and gauges manage to take a fairly simple ship shooting gallery and make it a bit more complex. While the random ships are a bit too quick and encourage a somewhat sedentary gameplay style, the depth charges get you moving about a bit and help make the management of your fuel a more engaging activity. Every motion, every shot fired, and every hit taken will push you closer to the end of your session, the balance in earning points and wasting resources to do so helping to hide the issues you’ll see if you play on the simplest game modes. Turn up the difficulty and suddenly things get even more dangerous as your helpful gauges can be put out of commission, ensuring that this shootout in the sea is not totally straightforward and thus not sunk by some of its blander elements.
And so, I give Submarine Commander for the Atari 2600…
An OKAY rating. Submarine Commander has quite a bit going on in it for such a simple game, but its elements don’t gel together perfectly. The periscope view is a fine addition that helps it stand out and makes the aquatic combat visually distinct, but you don’t quite get to see enough of the screen to lead your targets well and the vertical layers mean you can’t view all the action at once. Had the ships been designed around your viewing limitations it wouldn’t be much of an issue, but so many of them aren’t on the screen long enough for you to reply with torpedoes, the alternating firing pattern and little reward for moving limiting the potential of the game’s format. Despite those limits, it still gives you enough to keep track of, the gauges helping make up for the restricted view and your fuel management ensuring it’s not a game about madly firing shots and hoping you luck into the points. Weighing the value of an action on the fly, seeing the results of bad decisions, and bettering your actions to last longer and score higher as you play more Submarine Commander ensure it’s still a decent time, but it’s not hard to imagine how better hardware could rectify so many of the issues caused mostly by a so-so relationship with visibility and reaction time.
Submarine Commander stays afloat thanks to the fuel system and it gauges augmenting some fairly simple shooting, but all the bells and whistles the periscope view adds to play also come with the factor that undermines it the most. Real life submarines are certainly hampered by their visibility as well, but they aren’t shooting galleries made to entertain either. Submarine Commander could have been a more enjoyable title if it continued to adjust the real world limitations it imitated to be better suited for a video game.