Since I’ve recently written at length about Will Wright’s crazy helicopter sim that managed to save Maxis from bankruptcy (at least for a while), I’d say it makes sense to take a look at Raid on Bungeling Bay, not only his first game but another one of the designer’s helicopter titles. Why all these games featuring helicopters? Well, apparently Will took a trip on an helicopter when he was a kid and had been totally fascinated with them since.
Raid on Bungeling Bay is a shoot ‘em up at its core but also, weirdly enough, shares a lot more common ground with Sim City than it might be apparent at first glance, being the original inspiration for the city management title.
Blast off against the evil Bungeling empire
Released in 1984 originally for Commodore 64, later converted to both MSX and NES, Raid on Bungeling Bay sees the player departing from a naval carrier with their precious helicopter, tasked with destroying the evil Bungeling empire’s factories. Apparently, the evil buggers are working to develop a non-specific but still deadly and unstoppable, weapon of mass destruction.
As opposed to other shoot ‘em ups of the era, Raid employs a top-down view and has a whole multitude of original features for the genre. Since the game has no music and very few sound effects, starting it gives off an almost quiet and relaxing vibe. But ’tis only temporary because, pretty soon, the action will boil up and the player will have their plate full, trying to shake off guided missiles and bombs, not to mention having to defend their carrier since it is necessary to replenish ammo for the various weapons.
Wright developed two tools to make the game: Chedid, a character editor and Wedit, a world building editor that let one use the characters from the other. It was Wedit that eventually evolved into Sim City, when Wright started researching urban planning. Thanks to RoBB’s good sales, he had enough economic independence to start working on such a daunting project.
Interestingly enough, the title seems to take place in the same universe as other Broderbund titles of the time, like Choplifter and Lode Runner. Apparently, the American software house was really keen on marketing games featuring the whole history of the evil Bungeling empire, I wonder if the sultan of Bungeling was the one actually featured in Prince of Persia?
Not just shooting at the air, but also strategy
It probably comes as no surprise that the original Commodore 64 version is graphically the crudest out of the three available, which was inevitable since the MSX and NES were technically superior machines. Still, what is missing graphically, it more than makes up with its complex flavours of gameplay. While the core of RoBB is, naturally, shooting and bombing the enemy factories, the player needs to employ a precise strategy in order to bring down the evil empire.
For example, taking out the ships bringing in supplies to the Bungeling factories causes a general slowdown to the bay’s economy and the production of weapons, thus allowing more time to act. Left alone, the factories will continue producing weapons and will soon be too strong for the player to take head-on. Of course, the player could also decide to directly attack the missile factories, which are the main objective, even though running at full power they are quite dangerous and very difficult to defeat. The more time the player allows the evil empire to produce weapons, the higher the difficulty the game will be in the end.
During the gameplay, on a dock on the island in the upper right, a battleship that is slowly being built can be observed. Once the ship is ready, it will sail to destroy the carrier and is going to be almost impossible to destroy. That’s another thing the player will have to keep in check. The radars also play an important role: destroying them means the Bungelings will have a harder time finding and attacking our ‘copter. The handling of the helicopter is pretty realistic, as much as a game like this can allow, it is more suitable to be piloted with the keyboard than a joystick.
Blast off against the vil Bungeling empire
The interface is concise enough to be displayed on a single line on the bottom of the screen, but Wright still wasn’t satisfied and wanted to give the player even more information. Hence the use of colors to inform the player how much damage has the helicopter taken, along with identifying the strength of the various factories to be blown up. A 100% damaged helicopter is basically useless and but can still be usefully employed: for a desperate suicide bombing attempt.
This is, also, probably the first shoot ’em up ever to feature a whole assortment of different endings: the newspaper headlines on the final screen shall change depending on how many crafts were lost in the fight against the evils of Bungeling Bay. If the last helicopter is crashed against the final factory, the newspaper will celebrate the sacrifice of the great hero. Little details like these go a long way in distinguishing forgettable games from passion products, separating good game designers from real talents. The NES version enjoyed a pretty good success in Japan, so much so that an arcade version was also developed, using Nintendo’s own VS. system, like the Super Mario Bros arcade game.
The idea of juxtaposing strategy gameplay and pure action was indeed quite novel for 1984 and we might recognize it as being part of Will Wright’s not great affection for the action genre. As he talked about the game later (and also looking at his portfolio of later games), it becomes pretty clear that the developer never really intended to develop a “true” action game and was not interested in that kind of breakneck, intense action that developers of the genre were trying to replicate on those early systems.
Instead, Wright was clearly more interested in the way each building would connect with each other and what would happen if the player were to destroy one building before another, in the overall scheme of the gameplay. His novel and different approach is indeed the main ingredient that makes Raid on Bungeling Bay still so memorable today, with many people on the internet mentioning its high difficulty (probably because not following the intended strategy does not lead to death), but many remembering it with great affection.
Wright reportedly had more fun designing the buildings in the bay and the various ways in which the industries are connected, rather than the shoot ’em up part. It is also worth nothing that the original C64 version of Sim City graphically looks pretty close to Raid on Bungeling Bay. In his GDC talk from 2011, Wright goes on to describe RoBB as “a mediocre title”, while I see what the designer means, personally I don’t really share his sentiment.
For 1984, the game was nothing short of revolutionary and the fact that it is still one of the few shoot ’em ups – even to this day – that uses unique mechanics from strategic titles, along with a slew of small details like the different endings, is clear evidence of that. Maybe, it can be more of interest more for gaming historians than actual players, but Raid on Bungeling Bay remains a well designed and expertly developed early shoot ’em up and a brilliant C64 title.