Before 1990 the platform game genre existed almost exclusively on game consoles like the NES. It was thought that the PC didn’t have the capability to produce scrolling graphics quickly. This of course is debatable as the technology existed much earlier in the form of the 286 processor, EGA and VGA graphics cards. I’d argue that it could have been possible by around 1985-7, as the 286 had become more powerful, and the graphics cards of the time had the capability.
Today’s game, Captain Comic, was released in 1988, two years before Commander Keen and the rise of the platform game on the PC. It was created by an individual, Michael A. Denio and was self published under the shareware model. It has historical significance as the first side-scrolling platform game on the PC.
The game uses EGA graphics, which I think are designed well. The sprites are colourful, easy to identify, and animate nicely. The levels have unique backgrounds which give the context for the levels and are quite attractive. I thought the author had done quite a nice job with the pixel art in general.
Although playable and quite an achievement at the time, the engine doesn’t seem capable of either smooth scrolling or a higher frame rate. This is hardly surprising, smooth scrolling on EGA requires specialised knowledge of the cards registers and memory map and using them cleverly to reduce the drawing load on the card. Impressively there is absolutely no flicker, which was a common problem on consoles and many old PC games. I’m guessing he used EGA page flipping or a double buffer to achieve this.
The game supports PC speaker sound, which is fairly basic and is ok for what it is. The Adlib came out the same year, and as the game was made by one guy it’s understandable he didn’t include support for it. There weren’t any other sound devices he could have used.
I used the keyboard controls for playing and found they were pretty good. The only problem being that you can end up moving about half a tile more than you thought depending on when you released the key. I suspect this is because of the games lower frame rate, you could release the key during the screen redraw, but after you’ve actually moved. Otherwise the controls for movement and jumping are accurate and responsive.
The game itself is fun and challenging, and it isn’t overly punishing of mistakes. Enemies can hit you 7 times before you die, and they are destroyed when they make contact with you. Every Screen edge and door is effectively a check point as you return to the last one used when you die. The only thing that does punish you really is running out of lives, although you get extra lives if you pick up a shield when at full health or for every 50,000 points.
I didn’t get as far as I would have liked, but I found Captain Comic a charming, fun and challenging game. I didn’t get frustrated with it when I died, because it was usually my own fault. Each time I started again I got a little better, and a little further in. I even managed to find some of the items such as the cork screw and gems.
Unfortunately it wasn’t a commercial success when it was released, but it seems to be fondly remembered by others on the internet. I’m rather impressed with what was achieved by a single guy. Whilst not smooth scrolling, the graphics are technically impressive, the game play is solid and the levels are challenging and fun. If you have a chance and like old DOS games give it a go.