In 1987, sometime after my uncle Sixto Diaz-Granados – my dad’s older brother – bought me my first home computer, I bought my first submarine simulation game, MicroProse Software’s Silent Service. This was a game designed by the legendary Sid Meier, who had (along with Lt. Col. William “Wild Bill” Stealey) co-founded MicroProse in 1982 and is best known for creating Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates!.
Silent Service was a simulation of submarine warfare in World War II’s Pacific Theater that put players in command of a U.S. Navy fleet “boat” and sent them on do-or-die missions against Imperial Japan’s merchant fleet and its Imperial Navy escorts. Like many games designed in the early to mid-1980s for IBM, Amiga, Commodore 64, and Apple II personal computers, Silent Service had good “modeling” as far as the in-game physics of ship and sub speeds, torpedo and deck gun shell ranges, and the artificial intelligence (AI) controlled enemy’s tactics were concerned, but it was limited by the computing power available to PCs with 64K RAM and the CPUs of the era. As a result, Silent Service only allowed you to command boats from a few classes that saw service in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945, and players could only attack generic Japanese merchant vessels such as tankers and freighters, and no warship larger than a destroyer.
Silent Service had three basic game modes:
- Torpedo and Deck Gun Training, in which you practiced your torpedo firing procedures – including the use of the boat’s Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) and your two visual devices: the periscope and your target-bearing transmitter (TBT) binoculars – and aiming and firing your deck gun. In this mode, you had to sink four near-stationary hulks at a gunnery range near Midway Island
- Historical Missions, which were single engagements based on real World War II battles waged by famous submariners in the Pacific Theater. There were six or seven of these missions (I can’t recall now how many exactly), and they were sequentially arranged so that players could start with a relatively easy mission involving two or three ships with a light escort and then pick progressively harder missions.
- War Patrols: Here, players would see a transit map of the Pacific Theater, then they’d pick a home port in either the Central or Southwest Pacific and choose an operational patrol area based on their base’s location and the boat’s 60-days-at-sea fuel limit. Then, using the computer’s joystick, players moved to their war patrol area in accelerated time and hit Japanese shipping lanes (which they could “guesstimate” by looking at a reference map on the game manual). If they ran into an enemy convoy, players could choose to engage (or not). Of course, most of the time it was a good idea to accept combat, although every so often you encountered Japanese anti-sub task groups
The game manual listed several different sources, including Clay Blair, Jr.’s Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, for Silent Service’s historical background and the technical/tactical principles used by Meier and the various platform-specific teams in designing and programming the simulation, and even allowing for the rudimentary graphics and other limitations (you could, for instance, fire only four torpedoes or cannon shells within x amount of minutes because the processors of the time could not cope with all the internal calculations involved in the game’s internal workings. There wasn’t much of a color palette in Silent Service, just a mix of green, pink, black, and white to represent the ocean, the sky, ships, the interior of the sub and its gauges, and the tactical/strategic maps. Still, for the modest-performance – compared to today’s computers – PCs of the day, Silent Service was one of the best sub simulations available, and it sold enough copies (and earned enough good reviews) that MicroProse decided to design and release a sequel for the more powerful PCs of 1990.
Silent Service II
In 1990, even as Silent Service’s original designer, Sid Meier, was working on what was to be his best-known game (Civilization), MicroProse’s in-house development division MPS Labs completed work on the sequel, Silent Service II. Coming on the heels of 1988’s Red Storm Rising, Silent Service II’s project leader, Arnold Hendrick, was intent on honoring the legacy of Meier’s original WWII-set simulator while at the same time giving players something worth plunking down $39.99 for.
The 1990 MS-DOS version for IBM PCs and compatibles – which is the one I originally owned back in the 1990s – was published first, and boy, was it ever an enhanced version. In Silent Service II, players still had the basic options of Training, Single Battle, and War Patrol from the older edition, but now they also had the War Career option, which allowed them to fight the entire Pacific War from December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945 (although, if so desired, one could select a later starting date as long as it fell between those two dates).
To take advantage of such new developments in hardware as Intel’s 386 chips, VGA graphics cards, bigger-capacity hard drives, and better sound cards and programs such as Sound Blaster, MicroProse revamped the game, giving it a new look that included a 256-colors palette, improved sound effects, and even limited use of digitized voices to give players a more immersive and believable experience. The team behind the graphics (led by Ken Legace) digitized photos of 14 different classes of Japanese ships (nine warship classes, five merchant or auxiliary vessel types) for the new views of enemy ships.
And if that wasn’t enough to make a grognard happy, Silent Service II now offered prospective captains nine classes of U.S. Navy boats that were in service between Pearl Harbor Day and V-J Day, starting with the “old S-Class” and continuing all the way to the last fleet boats built in wartime, the Tench class.
Each class had its strengths and weaknesses, and their performance in combat depended on their speed, armament, and maximum endurance. The old S-class boats were faster underwater than either the Gatos or Tenches, but they only had five torpedo tubes (four forward and one aft) and could only dive to a maximum depth of 200 feet; you’d have to be foolhardy to try and command one of those throughout the entire Pacific War. Later classes, obviously, were a tad slower underwater but had longer ranges – they began war patrols with 60 days’ worth of fuel in their tanks – and were far better equipped to fight the enemy and dive deeper; the Gato class had a test depth of 350 feet but could tolerate depths of 400 feet in extreme emergencies but only for brief periods.
As in most of MicroProse’s military-themed simulations, players would start a game by selecting the type of mission they wanted to try and create a “character” name for themselves. This was important not just for scorekeeping records and the Hall of Fame screen, but also for realism’s sake. The game included a logbook in which the results of battles were recorded, and the player received orders, commendations, or rebukes from an unseen superior officer whose written remarks would appear as “letters” at either the start or end of a single battle or a war patrol. You could, of course, simply type Player at the prompt when setting up your game, or even your initials, but frankly, that never looked cool in gameplay or on the Hall of Fame.
After that, you would choose either Training – in which you practiced using torpedoes and your deck gun against four nearly-stationary target hulks – Single Engagements, or War Patrols.
Here’s the list of single historical missions available in Silent Service II:
- Whales and Duds
- Mush on the Loose
- Flasher’s Tankers I
- Flasher’s Tankers II
- “Killer” O’Kane
- Sink the Yamato!
- Death of the Shinano
- An Embarrassment of Riches
- Random Encounter
War Patrols consisted of cruising your boat to a specific geographical zone in enemy-controlled areas of the Asia-Pacific Theater and searching for enemy shipping. Ideally, your primary targets were the tankers and cargo ships of Japan’s merchant fleet. If you found any fleet units and were in an optimal position to attack, say, an aircraft carrier or a battleship, then by all means, you could (and should) attack it. But usually fleet units are faster and better armed than your sub, so those were not usually recommended targets as a rule.
Also, in keeping with U.S. Navy command structures of the time, you started the game as a Lieutenant Commander (LCDR). After each mission or war patrol, the game would award you points based on the types of Japanese ships you sank or damaged, whether you achieved or failed the mission in your orders, or if you failed to engage the enemy at all. In War Patrols and War Careers, fuel management was considered. If, for instance, you successfully accomplished a war patrol in Japanese waters but had to be towed into Pearl Harbor (or any other U.S. sub base), you would get a letter letting you know that your commanding officer was not thrilled with you at the moment. If you performed well during the war and your record didn’t reflect any screwups, you could expect a promotion to full Commander, especially if you sank a juicy target (an aircraft carrier, say) and earned a medal higher than a Silver Star, such as the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, or the Medal of Honor. At war’s end, depending on your war record and list of decorations, you could earn promotion to either Captain (CAPT) or even Rear Admiral (RADM).
If your career were a mixed bag of successes, failures, and a bunch of reprimands along with letters of commendation, you could serve “for the duration” as a LCDR and end the war as a full Commander.
In brief, the War Career is a series of War Patrols that begin on Pearl Harbor Day with the player’s sub assigned either to the Pacific Fleet (based in Hawaii) or the Asiatic Fleet (initially based in Manila). Throughout the War Career, the player commands either one sub (from any of the classes available at the start of the game) throughout the war or, if one doesn’t get killed along the way, transfer to a more modern vessel at the end of a war patrol.
Again, a boat skipper is evaluated after each War Patrol upon return to base. Successful patrols earn players letters of commendation and medals. Unsuccessful missions and unproductive war patrols have negative outcomes, ranging from letters of reprimand to removal from command of a boat and assignment to a desk job. Really unlucky skippers in battle get their boat sunk with all hands and earn only a floating wreath on the waters.
Like MicroProse’s other submarine simulations, Silent Service II requires the player to run a boat by looking at various screens that represent the most relevant game-related areas of a submarine. Each of these (Chart, Bridge, Periscope View, TBT (Target Bearing Transmitter), Main Status/”Christmas Tree,” Damage Control, War Log, etc.) is activated by an F- (Functions) button and gives a skipper vital information needed in order to fight – and survive – an engagement with the enemy and operate the boat. Learning how to view and use these views to play the game well is essential and takes some time (and practice). However, after a while, players shift from screen to screen easily – it simply becomes second nature, especially if one plays Silent Service II often.
Although Silent Service II can be played with a joystick, it’s not a required peripheral device. The game can be played by just using a PC’s keyboard; the original game package included a technical supplement that listed the key commands, as well as a keyboard overlay. (Note: The version that is available from Tommo’s Retroism brand on Steam allows you to see the game manual as a PDF file, but one must look online for the Technical Supplement or scanned images of the overlay.)
I originally purchased Silent Service II in the fall of 1990. At the time, most IBM-compatible computers ran on DOS, and Silent Service II came in two 3.5-inch floppy disks, and I had the whole enchilada of supplements: the game manual, the technical supplement, and the overlay, plus a map of the Pacific Theater, with the major U.S. and Japanese ports indicated. It took me a few hours to learn; it was more complicated and detailed than my Apple II version of Silent Service, and the AI-controlled Japanese ships were cannier and deadlier, especially in the Ultimate difficulty level setting.
I loved this game, even though by the early 2000s its sprite-based graphics were no longer state-of-the-art in video game terms. Since Silent Service II is not a large game in terms of required hard-drive space and memory, I was able to install it in various PCs between 1993 and 2001 because they came with floppy drives. As a result, I played Silent Service II until 2004, when a lightning strike hit near my house fried my last floppy-equipped computer; I bought a replacement PC, of course, but by then computer manufacturers had switched over to CD-ROM drives and omitted floppies from new-build machines.
I remember that MicroProse released a CD-ROM version of Silent Service II for Windows in the late 1990s, but by the time I thought about getting a copy, the original iteration of the company had closed down and those CD-ROMs were hard to find and pricey, to boot. (MicroProse recently restarted as a new entity and is creating new military-themed games.) Eventually, the game joined Red Storm Rising and F-15 Strike Eagle III in my brain’s storehouse of fondly-remembered things from the Land of Ago, never to be played again.
Luckily, California-based Tommo bought the rights to many of MicroProse’s classic games, including Silent Service and Silent Service II; its Retroism label sells both games (and others) through various online sellers, including Steam. (You can read the game manual in the Steam site, but to get the technical supplement, you’ll need to look online for downloadable copies.)
I’m a fan of Silent Service II. It is historically accurate, but it’s not one of those computer games that requires either a Ph.D. in Computer Science or a naval officer’s commission to play. Its design is user friendly and the gaming experience is still a good one, especially if you are willing to overlook the dated sprite-based graphics and tinny digitized speech option.
As I told a friend a couple of years ago, “Silent Service II was the best World War II sub sim I ever played.”
It still is, I think.