"An incandescent meteor tore through space with a scissors sound"
Captain Blood was one of the epics, and back in 1988 it was one of the best reasons for ditching your 8-bit machine and buying an Atari ST or Commodore Amiga instead.
The game was released at a time when the 16-bit machines were still quite new, and there was a sense of boundless possibilities and distant frontiers. As a game Captain Blood has nothing going for it, but it wasn't a game, really; it was an experience. It had a spacey, eccentric atmosphere and it was very stylish, with a moody blue colour scheme and some glowing special effects.
The gameplay boiled down to two elements. Firstly, you flew through a jagged fractal canyon, reminiscent of "Rescue on Fractalus" but with less freedom of motion. It was clear that the designers had come up with a fractal canyon routine but had no idea of how to turn it into a game, but no matter. The canyon run was smooth and fast. It looked stylish, and still looks stylish in 2005. As with Starglider and Battlezone, the vector graphics transcended fashion and still look "futuristic".
The meat of the game was an ELIZA-like conversation simulator, in which you used a long strip of icons to talk with alien beings. You would say things such as ME BLOOD SPACESHIP HOME FRIEND FRIEND CODE and the aliens would say ME IZWAL FEAR SPACESHIP YOU GREAT BLOOD and you would say TELEPORT SPACESHIP ONDOYANTE YES and they would say BIG FRIEND TORKA HA HA HA and you would say DIE EVIL NO PLANET BIG FRIEND PRISON and they would say HA HA HA and eventually you would get bored with this and enter random characters until the alien gave you a pair of co-ordinates, at which point you would consult a tips guide in a magazine or just fly somewhere randomly. The conversation engine was imaginative and surprisingly easy to pick up, but as with the fractal canyon run it seemed as if the designers had been unable to turn a set of good ideas into an actual game.
But it was beautiful. There was a novella which made no sense. Games don't have novellas nowadays; at most there is some blurb on a website. In 1988 this game had a mystique.
There were several other visionary, ahead-of-their-time projects which came out in the years before and after Captain Blood. Midwinter, Damocles, Hunter and so forth were stylish and had gameplay, and although they are lost to everyone except historians they were just generally better and more influential than Captain Blood.
Captain Blood resembles Elite, which came out on the BBC Micro and other 8-bit systems several years before, but it is not even as complex as that; although you are free to explore several thousand planets, only a dozen or so are inhabited. The rest are barren and of no interest. There is no space combat or trading, indeed there is no real test of skill, as the flying sequence is no challenge at all (to dodge the missiles, you just have to stop and fly low). Captain Blood will live forever, just like classic old silent films, but even in 1988 it seemed shallow and image-obsessed. Nowadays the style is still impressive, even though the technology is old-hat, but after a few minutes the spell wears off and you're left with a nice impression but no game.
The Bottom Line
Really, there wasn't much of a game. I have said this. People have finished it, written playing guides, and it makes a certain twisted sense, but it's basically a fractal flying simulator bolted onto an ELIZA program, albeit that it was haunting and special - and it had nudity, which was unusual in 1988 and probably had a powerful impression on the target demographic. On the Atari ST the aliens would talk with individual, recognisable sampled phonemes, and the sonic environment is still impressive today; on the ZX Spectrum the aliens beeped, although the gameplay was essentially the same. It's best to play this with an ST emulator, however, as I doubt you would get the PC version to work nowadays.