In 1997, the movie Titanic was a cultural phenomenon, raking in massive box office numbers, record breaking award nominations, and shedding light on one of the more tragic moments in world history, all under the guise of a fictional love story. It was, at the time, inescapable to see the movie, and the renewed interest in the history of the Titanic and other shipwrecks paved the way for other, similarly styled films based on fictional and non-fictional events. Games about the Titanic were also in abundance at the time, from FMV-based mystery games to more interactive learning experiences, but since that moment in the sun, games with the same theme, a doomed shipwreck and the survival of its sinking, have been incredibly rare.
It is not like it’s not a possibility as a game setting of course. What is interesting, however, is the few times such a game hits the market. The real-life story of the Titanic itself fueled the imaginations of others, the most famous example being the novel The Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico. The tale of a capsized ocean liner and a small group of survivors has seen its own adaptations into media, but for today, we're going to discuss how the book inspired a little-known video game for the Super Nintendo, titled SOS.
SOS, also known as Septentrion in Japan, is a Japanese video game developed by Human Entertainment. First established in 1983, Human Entertainment is well-known for its diverse catalog of titles, most of them Japan or European only releases. The company, before shutting its doors in 2000, would be responsible for the development of most of the early games in the Fire Pro Wrestling franchise on several consoles. In North America, they are perhaps best known as the developer behind the cult classic SNES Horror Game Clock Tower, which was never officially released outside of Japan but numerous fan translations exist. SOS is an anomaly, being one of the few games from Human Entertainment to reach North American shores.
It is an interesting choice too, considering how odd SOS is as a game. Part precision platformer, part time-based survival experience, SOS is a game with a lot of ideas ahead of its time, and it shows in the design. To start, the premise is simple: the player character, one of four guests on a 1920s cruise ship the Lady Crithania, must survive the ship's sinking when the liner capsizes in a storm. The player has an hour to escape the ship, and along the way rescue other survivors if possible, or else succumb to the ocean depths below them.
What makes SOS unique is how the story unfolds between the four characters. Whichever character you pick, a character or two with a direct relationship with you is accompanying on the voyage. That character can die during the game. As do other survivors of the capsize you find, from crewmen to distraught guests. Some of the guests even have mini quests attached to them, mostly in the vein of a fetch quest from finding a precious heirloom, to rescuing another survivor. Up to seven survivors can join the player character, and depending on how many make it out of the game's maze depend on the type of ending the player receives.
When put like this, SOS is a very quiet game when compared to the standard platformers of the day. There is little bombast in the experience you have here; the game plays its scenario straight, giving the player one hour in real-time to escape the ship with as many people as possible. You never see the timer, or really stats of any form, so it is a race against an invisible clock. There is dialogue between characters, played out in large text boxes, leading a sense, at the very least, of characterization between the player and other NPCs. Who you even rescue can lead to more branching pathways, and in turn, how likely you will be able to escape the Lady Crithania. In this respect, SOS is a deeply complex game, a rarity for consoles in 1992 when it was released.
It is also a hard game, but that is mostly due to controls. Much like Prince of Persia, SOS attempts for a more realistic platform mechanics, with running jumps, climbing, and hanging all being part of your repertoire to escape the capsized ship. The jumping is imprecise, however, with narrow platforms being the bane of your existence like any game from the 1990s, especially when the game ramps ups its difficulty with the sinking. One of the best design elements of SOS is the ship slowly going vertical as time goes on, utilizing the Mode 7 graphical capabilities of the SNES, but it in turn makes jumping less precise and much more awkward to deal with.
An added layer of complexity is the ability to call survivors to follow you. Taking a cue from puzzle-based games, the calling mechanic is very hit and miss, and if you are not careful, you can lose survivors quickly due to a bad jump or pathway issue. The A.I is ok but not the best, and while Human Entertainment tries to compensate the player with a few design choices, often players will lose NPCs just by a simple jump or an environmental hazard.
This does boil down the game into one large escort mission, which for some might be a problem, considering the disdain for escort missions in other games. These NPCs also have a “value” attached to them depending on your character and their importance. So close NPCs such as family members of trusted friends are of a higher value compared to others. These values are not meaningless either; to achieve a good ending for the game, the player needs to survive with their “sentimental” NPC and at least 25 other points in survivors, a tough feat considering the hour time limit and the difficult platforming.
A lot of the design elements found in SOS can be seen to greater effect in other games. As pointed out by Hardcore Gaming, the survival aspect and escorting of NPCs to safety has been done in many games since then, most notably perhaps the Dead Rising series, which is similar in many ways to SOS, right down to the time-based mission structures and the escorting of survivors to safety. SOS is often classified as a proto-survival game, before the now booming sub-genre of games has reached its prime with the likes of The Long Dark, Day Z, and Minecraft. Much like Herzog Zwei, SOS was one of the first games to attempt this mix of gameplay elements into something else, and while not perfect, it was an adequate attempt that hinted at something great.
The premise alone, though, carries SOS as a unique experience for the Super Nintendo, and it is one that would play today as a unique experience for a survival game. The length of SOS is essentially an hour a playthrough, but the four different characters, along with the branching pathways, does lead to a lot of replayability despite the short time limit. There are no saved games in SOS: you have one hour to win or die in the process.
The uniqueness of its setting is more than enough for some to check out SOS. Ultimately, a sequel was made in Japan for the PlayStation, but it was considered a poor title that never saw the light of day on North American shores. That fact only highlights the rarity of a game like SOS, a game that for all its faults was a solid concept with great potential to it. Today, SOS is worth a play for those looking for a short, challenging platform experience, and if nothing else, worth remembering because of its unique concept.
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