The Hidden Gems series of posts on this blog will look at some great games that are relatively unknown. First up: Siren City, a 1983 release from Ian Gray and Interceptor Micros.
There are many, many games out there which people claim are the spiritual ancestor of Grand Theft Auto, but for me the game with the strongest (and earliest?) claim has to be Siren City.
Taking the role of a cop in the titular metropolis, you have to drive around the city, completing a series of objectives within a strict time limit. Fail, and the thin blue line falls and criminals will take over your city.
Just look at the evidence. You have to drive a car around a city, just like the original GTA. It has a top-down view, just like the original GTA. The city is formed of a grid-like maze – just like the original GTA. Like GTA, you have to undertake a variety of missions, from the simple (patrolling the streets) to avoiding criminals pursuing you in helicopters (very hard). Best of all, like GTA, it had an early proto-open world structure where you could move off the city’s roads and do things like drive up railway lines. OK, so you couldn’t go anywhere and do anything, but it did make a nod towards breaking free of the usual constraints.
GTA-comparisons aside, Siren City was a fantastic game in its own right. Even by the standards of the day, it never looked like much, with its simple, blocky graphics but it played like a dream. The attention to detail (your mission objectives were given to you in teletype style messages) was brilliant and, for such a simple game, there was a surprisingly immersive atmosphere. On the level where you are being pursued by a helicopter, the tension is palpable. You need to move fast enough to avoid the copter, but if you go too fast, you’ll crash and die. Similarly when taking out the final criminal, the sense of cat-and-mouse drama as you try and track him down and get close enough to shoot him is incredible. Siren City might not have been as graphically impressive as GTA, but it was every bit as immersive, with your imagination filling in the blanks left by the rather crude graphics.
Initially, the sound appears disappointing. There’s no music and the sound effects are pretty basic – the tap-tapping of the teletype machine as it churns out your message and the constant howl of your siren. After a while, though, you appreciate how much it adds to the atmosphere. The lonely wailing of your sailing ratchets up the tension far more than any chip tune ever could and reinforces the sense that you are all alone in this big, bad city.
The one fly in the ointment is the control system which is a little tricky to get to grips with. Siren City was trying to do an awful lot and on a one button joystick that proved tricky to implement. Move the stick Up or Down and you’ll go faster or slower, whilst left and moves your car in that direction, but without turning (effectively changing lanes). If you want to turn, you have to hold fire and press a direction. You also need to get the timing right. Press too early or too late and you might crash into another vehicle or building. On the levels which need a gun, there’s an added complication, since this is fired by pressing a Function key (whilst still battling the joystick controls to steer the car!). I always found the final level almost impossible without someone riding shotgun for me, with their hand paused over the Function key ready to hit it as soon as the bad guy appeared.
Despite these counter-intuitive controls, Siren City was always a lot of fun. With only 9 levels, it wasn’t the toughest game in the world and I could pretty much beat it any time I chose. However, the more expansive feel to the gameplay, the random generation of where objects appeared and the simple but effective AI made it feel alive. The missions might remain the same, but they played out differently each time.
Siren City is a relatively obscure title, but one that deserves to be better known. I was lucky and bought it pretty soon after it was released, yet it was a game I still played occasionally right up to the point where I got rid of my C64 – and there weren’t many games I could say that about.
If you’ve never played it, you really should give it a go. Get past the blocky graphics, simple sound and tricky controls and there’s a great game waiting for you.
GTA eat your heart out!