As I browsed the art assets the publisher placed on the Steam page for this game I had a sinking feeling someone had taken a 90s era PC game and uploaded it to Valve’s storefront. Boy was I ever wrong. Not only was my fear unfounded I was also delighted when I got the chance to play it for myself. In Captain Kaon you play as the titular heroine. Or should I say Anti-heroine? As an ex-con with a checkered past and a commuted sentence Kaon comes fully equipped with an attitude, a lot to prove and an itchy trigger finger. As one of the few remaining gunship pilots she’s been given command over the Argus. The flagship of the defense fleet. A fleet left to guard the homeworlds while the more up-to-date cruisers of the INS armada hunt down the perpetrators of the attack shown in a cutscene before starting the game proper. Like many games of the 90s the controls feel like they straddle the space between intuitive and experimental. With what looks like 1950s scifi and anime fusion inspired character design and convincingly dated looking pixel art assets throughout… the game feels like a genuine retro experience. A remnant of a time when BBS distributed Apogee shareware and the 3.5 inch diskettes were kings. For an alternative perspective: the game plays like a cross between the NES games Balloon Fight and Metroid.
Imagine the gravity of your situation:
As you maneuver your gunship through the tightly designed and hotly contested levels you are always aware of the gentle drift your ship has towards the ground. Combine this with a well buffered inertia and the vectored thrusting characteristics of the gunships you’ll find yourself keeping hostiles at bay, staying airborne and trying to look good at it. The crew of the Argus stay in contact and inform you of changes to your situation. This is often more distracting than useful but that lends to the retro aesthetic. The interface and control layouts for menus and HUD lend to this as well. When you grapple on to an object a trigger like mechanism slides down into view in the upper left hand corner and looks like it was a borrowed asset from a 1950s scifi thriller. Objects you can lift include Armored Personnel Carriers, power packs and cargo containers. The APCs have to be dropped in specific areas to help capture objectives. Power packs are used to power on systems like doors to aid your progress. Cargo containers are vulnerable to damage so you have to be careful they don’t get hit by stray fire or whacked on the walls or structures. They game is also rather forgiving on normal mode. Simply centering the gunship onto a landing pad with the grappler retracted will allow the armor to be repaired and heavy munitions to be replenished.
Egads, man, those EYES:
I’m a big fan of the antiquated 256 color VGA graphics that were ubiquitous with games in the mid to late 90s. It was a leap away from the 8bit consoles and on par if not superior to 16bit systems. The PC’s VESA standards even made early 32bit consoles graphics look like bad rain soaked origami assembled by someone who would have been easily distracted by Teletubbies. The graphics in Captain Kaon bring back that feel. When games were trying to decide if on screen objects were merely pixels or full polygons. I can look back now at what we called “CD” graphics and recognized how cheeky we were for associating graphical fidelity with storage media. It was a marketing ploy and most PC users knew it. That said the fidelity of the assets in this game are excellent for their retro style. For those who played Retro-City Rampage or Mercenary Kings and enjoyed those game’s artistic quirks have a lot to look forward to in Captain Kaon. My only gripe was the HUGE eyes on the characters. Although I find the mismatch between the ‘Boxart’ and in game version of Kaon herself charming. As an example: (there’s even some duplicity in attendance) you’ll notice in game we see Kaon with a pony tail while her boxart has none. In game if you look at the handle above the mission select map screen you’ll notice a lock of hair tied to the bar. It’s touches like this that give a game polish. The game also has some unexpected mechanics. A twinstick style for aiming and flight isn’t that new but in most games of similar genre I expect my shots to go where ever the nose is pointing. But AHA! gunships use TURRETS! Everyone knows turrets can shoot in all directions… sometimes. The one that got me was the persistence of dead pods. A defeated pod slowly falls and can, not only, impede your flight but also block your shots. I really tried to feed one into a piston to see if it’d crush it but alas it was not to be.
Repetition is the sincerest form of flattery:
The game’s music is a throw back to Yamaha OPL styled midi BGM mixed with a bit of the Amiga demo scene’s use of modtracks. The music does get repetitious but it’s only in those lulls when you have to backtrack, deliver some cargo or participate in some other mundane task when you notice it. Most of the time you are too busy adjusting your thrust and trying to get some good shots at a hardened target while you wait for a missile to load. The explosions and gunfire sound effects are well tuned to the genre and atmosphere. When you hear a pod spinning up a buzz saw it’s hard not to panic. The same is true if the gunship comes in contact with anything exposed and electrified. You can hear the crack and hissed promise of electric death. There’s also the ker-whoosh *WHOMP* you get from the hydraulic pistons. Hearing the Argus’ main laser battery open up and roast a column of pods is very satisfying. Some hostiles have sensors and alert others to your position. Those moments require a calm hand and resolve as the warning tones go off telling you to take out that pod before more of them show up. As a tip you can take advantage of their consternation when they lose sight of you. Many pods stay still for a moment in confusion. This leaves them open to a sneak attack and (if successful) no way to warn others you are there.
Drum roll, please:
4/5 – Because I reduce my fractions dammit.
I forgot I was playing an indie game.
This game would have gotten a very solid 6 on a 10 scale. But it earned the higher mark by bucking a few tropes AND being a great game even if you are not some nostalgia addict like some of us are. First and foremost Kaon actually has dialog. She’s not a silent protagonist. In similar games the lead character often only has an inner monologue if anything at all. While our anti-hero like protag has the final say in most subjects within the game she is aware she is a part of a larger crew. She might be alone in that gunship but there’s a fleet depending on her efforts. She’s also on the other side of a revolution against Earth government rule. In the Ceres scenario you are quelling a rebellion. Not because it’s right or honorable but because at her core Kaon is a soldier. Something she seems to be adamant to prove after her conviction and imprisonment. At the end of the day the freedom she’s fighting for is her own. To that end I’d have enjoyed the idea of letting Kaon leave her gunship to hijack another or to do some marine work inside a building. But no one is getting points deducted for not having something like that. Maybe next time Engage Pixel? ;3