Into the Deep in Steel Coffins: ‘Red Storm Rising’ & ‘Cold Waters’

The Soviet nuclear-powered battle cruiser Kirov maneuvers in a bid to escape after being struck by a Tomahawk anti-ship missile (TASM) launched from USS Seawolf (SSN-21) in the South China Sea on June 6, 2000. Photo Credit: Actual gameplay screenshot. Game design and (C) 2017 Killerfish Games.

Running Silent, Running Deep

Back in the late Eighties and even into the early 1990s – even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I loved to spend much of my downtime playing Cold War era military-themed computer games. At the time, I had two different computers: an Apple IIe, which was a gift from my late paternal uncle Sixto, and one of several inexpensive and built-from-parts Pentium-CPU based “IBM-clones” that I bought between 1993 and 1999. (All of the computers I’ve owned since 2001 have been “brand-name” models from e-Machines, Hewlett-Packard/Compaq, or Lenovo.)

(C) 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

The military-themed games I played in my late 20s and early 30s usually fell into four categories:

  • Accelerated real time strategy games (NATO Commander, Battalion Commander, Gulf Strike)
  • Flight simulators (F-117A Nighthawk: Stealth Fighter 2.0, F-15 Strike Eagle II and III, Jane’s F-15 Strike Eagle)
  • Armored combat simulators (M-1 Tank Platoon)
  • Naval warfare simulations (Harpoon: Admiral’s Edition, Strike Fleet, Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy’s SSN.)

Though some of the games were for my Apple IIe computer – especially the real time map-and-symbols strategy ones, most of them were programmed for the MS-DOS or Windows operating systems.  Some, like M-1 Tank Platoon and Red Storm Rising, were playable on various PCs until 1998 or so. Others, including a few of my flight sims, were installable on newer Windows- based PCs but didn’t run well on them; in one case, I bought Fleet Defender: The F-14 Tomcat Simulation in 1995 – when it was still relatively new – but never got it to run on an equally new “home-built” generic PC, perhaps because the hardware included inexpensive components or didn’t quite have enough RAM to run Fleet Defender.

Naval combat, and especially submarine warfare – has long been a topic of interest. I guess it started when I first started watching such old World War II-set movies as Destination: Tokyo, Operation Pacific, or the U.S. destroyer-vs.-German U-boat classic The Enemy Below.[1] Later, when I was in high school, I read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985 and was fascinated and terrified by the possibility that if the Cold War turned into a “hot” one, the survival of the West depended on a NATO victory in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.[2]

In the late stages of the Cold War, I bought many reference books about modern warfare – especially titles about Soviet military power, current land combat, naval and aerial hardware, and potential conflicts (among them, two editions of James F. Dunnigan’s How to Make War and A Quick and Dirty Guide to Modern War). I couldn’t join the military due to my physical disability, but I was a Ronald Reagan supporter – at least when it came to national defense policy – and I needed to keep informed about the balance of power between NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

(C) 1986 G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Naturally, when Putnam published Tom Clancy’s second novel, Red Storm Rising, in 1986, I rushed to the Waldenbooks store close to my house near what is now the city of Doral, Florida. Co-written by Clancy with former naval officer (and designer of the game Harpoon) Larry Bond, Red Storm Rising is the story of a Third World War that takes place in what was then the near-future (the year is never explicitly mentioned, but judging by the weapons used by both sides in the novel, Red Storm Rising is probably set in 1988 or 1989).

Though the novel has many subplots that delve into the land battles in West Germany and the skies above Central Europe (one of the main stories in the novel takes place in Soviet-occupied Iceland), Clancy and Bond want the reader to understand how vital the Atlantic sea lanes would have been in a strictly conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and why the U.S. and Great Britain need strong navies to defend and keep those lanes open to shipping from North America. Thus, much of Red Storm Rising is about Soviet efforts to cut those sea lanes of communication – or SLOCs, in military parlance – and the West’s counterefforts to prevent that from happening.

Red Storm Rising

(C) 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Red Storm Rising was my favorite novel during my college years and for some time thereafter. So naturally, when the original iteration of MicroProse released a game based on Clancy’s uber-best-seller, I wanted to get a copy. However, that endeavor took longer than I thought.

When MicroProse released the Sid Meier-released game in December 1988, I was in no position to rush to the nearest software retailer (Babbage’s, in my case) to buy my copy. At the time, I didn’t own an IBM, Commodore, or Amiga PC, the three platforms for which Red Storm Rising was released. I had a late model Apple IIe with a color monitor and a joystick, but it was not compatible with MS-DOS games nor did it have the hardware/memory required to run such programs. And per my MicroProse catalog – I was on the mailing list because I always registered my games after purchasing –  there wasn’t going to be an Apple version.

I eventually found a workaround solution for this problem when I met my friend Raciel De Armas, who was then in his late 20s and going to college at Miami-Dade Community College’s South (now Kendall) Campus. At first. Raci – which is how friends and family call him – was my English tutoring client, but later we became fast friends, and eventually he taught me to get over my “IBM PC anxiety” and taught me how to use his MS-DOS-based PC at his house.

I don’t remember how the topic came up, but one day I mentioned how frustrating it was that MicroProse wasn’t making Apple II versions of its new games, and I mentioned a few new titles (Silent Service II, F-15 Strike Eagle II, and Red Storm Rising were among them). Raci listened, then, after a moment’s thought, came up with an idea.

“Why don’t we,” Raci suggested, “buy games together – you pay half, I pay half – and we can play them here on my computer till you get your own PC?  Obviously not on a daily basis, I have work and school, and you have your own things to do. But, say,  every two weeks or so?”    

That seemed fair, so I agreed. So over the next few months, we bought Silent Service II, F-15 Strike Eagle II, Gunship (which for some reason I never did play), M-1 Tank Platoon, and Red Storm Rising.

Because I had more of an interest in playing Red Storm Rising than Raci, I got to take the manual home so I could learn how to play it, as well as the principles of submarine warfare. And, boy, was there a lot to learn about both the game and the basics of commanding a modern nuclear attack sub. Not only were there several classes of U.S. Navy subs you could choose from – depending on what Year you wanted to set the game in[3]– but you also had to learn about Red Navy warships and subs (both diesel and nuclear), their weapons, and even about Ka-25 (Hormone) and Ka-27 (Helix) anti-submarine helicopters.

(C) 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Thus, by the time I played Red Storm Rising for the first time, I already knew how to “drive” my subs, even though MicroProse included helpful keyboard overlays to help you identify which key did what in the game. I also knew what the “baffles” on a sub are, why it’s not a good idea to sprint at flank speed all the time in battle, “cones of acquisition,” the pros and cons of wire-guided torpedoes, when to fire anti-ship missiles – and when not to – and all that good stuff that sub skippers must know in order to live and thrive in a target reach environment.

For its time, Red Storm Rising was an impressive game that gave players a good introduction to the Silent Service without (a) putting anyone in real danger or (b) depicting blood and gore. It also didn’t violate any Department of the Navy security clearance rules or reveal classified information; designer Sid Meier and his team of programmers and artists based Red Storm Rising not just on Tom Clancy and Larry Bond’s novel, but also on open-source data about U.S. and Soviet naval tech of the times.

(C) 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Because, as Clancy himself once pointed out in Tom Clancy’s SSN, another sub simulation that his Red Storm Entertainment company co-produced with another game developer for Simon & Schuster Interactive, there are no windows on submarines, Red Storm Rising only shows you several display screens that represents specific battle stations in your boat’s control room. I’m not going to list them all here, but they included Tactical Display, Weapons Control, Torpedo Defense, Sea Conditions (where you could see the location of surface ducts and the thermocline (or “layer”), both of which affect sonar performance – both active and passive – for your boat and the enemy.

 Those screens were your “windows” to the cruel, cold sea and the Soviet ships and subs that are out there, so you had to know how to use them in the heat of battle.  They weren’t difficult to learn and the data was easy to interpret – the manual even had illustrated pages showing what the symbols on the screens were – because it was simplified for us civilians to understand. The only time you would see in-game renditions of your sub or enemy vessels was when you watched little cutscenes or animations when either (a) your weapons acquired the target and made their terminal runs or (b) your sub was about to be hit by an enemy weapon – usually a torpedo but sometimes it could be a barrage of Soviet RBU anti-sub rockets.

The graphics, granted, were not great even when Red Storm Rising was published in 1988; the computing power simply wasn’t there for realistic visuals, at least not for home computers. Everything – from the title sequence that paid dutiful homages to Lawrence Ratzkin’s dust jacket artwork for the source novel, including the same black letters-against-red background title design to the cutscenes and “news reports” that let players know how World War III was progressing – was designed and programmed with PCs with 64K of random access memory and CPUs with Intel 386 and 486 chips.

A YouTube video showing a gameplay session of Red Storm Rising.

The cutscenes, especially the prologue based on the first chapters of the novel, look cartoony, and the sound effects in them are limited to a few battle sounds (tanks rumbling on the ground, jets streaking overhead to drop bombs, subs puttering out to sea and submerging, etc.) and some environmental ones – the ping of active sonars, for instance, or the sound of the sub’s propeller going swish-swish-swish.

(C) 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Nevertheless, once you got into the game (and many Tom Clancy or sub sim fans did), Red Storm Rising was exciting and immersive enough that you overlooked its obvious limitations.[4]  It was a fun game to play, and it was often challenging, especially once you had mastered the Introductory and Normal difficulty levels and tried to survive the Serious and Ultimate levels, where the artificial intelligence-controlled Soviets were wilier and more aggressive and your boats were more susceptible to battle damage or had lower tolerances for water pressure below depths of 800 feet. [5]

(C) 2017 Killerfish Games

Cold Waters

A Chinese PLAN warship burns in the South China Sea after a duel with USS Seawolf. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

Because computer hardware evolves so quickly, even in the 1990s, I found myself having to upgrade PCs frequently between 1993 (when I got my first home-built PC) and 2001 – when I purchased, with my own money, my first brand-name computer since my Uncle Sixto gave me my Apple IIe in 1987.[6] First I found myself needing to get PCs with CD-ROM drives; later it was PCs with DVD-ROM drives and internal modems for Internet connectivity.

And along with advances in hardware, operating systems also change constantly. In the 33 years since I got the Apple from my father’s brother, I have gone from MS-DOS to every iteration of Windows from 3.1 all the way to Windows 10. And what tech giveth, tech also taketh away when computers and operating systems become obsolete.  

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Red Storm Rising worked well with my first two non-Apple computers because those two machines still were fully compatible with MS-DOS even though their main OS was Windows 3.1. But when I moved on to faster PCs with Windows 95 and 98, Red Storm Rising was not compatible with them. For many years I kept the installation discs in hopes that they would work with new PCs that still came with floppy drives. I eventually got rid of all my floppy discs in 2016; their storage bins took up shelf space I badly-needed for other things, so…bye-bye discs, so long game manuals!

Before I bought Cold Waters a week or so ago, I owned three other sub sims: the aforementioned Tom Clancy SSN, as well as 688 Attack Sub and Seawolf SSN-21. I liked SSN the most, even though it was vastly oversimplified and had a locked-in story mode. To wit, you were the skipper of USS Cheyenne, an Improved Los Angeles-class boat tasked to fight a limited war against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (weird name for China’s navy, but yes, that’s the official name) over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

SSN had great graphics for a 1996 game, and it had in-game video news reports filmed with real actors portraying TV reporters and anchors for the fictional TCN cable news network. I enjoyed it because even though it wasn’t as realistic – gameplay-wise – as Red Storm Rising, it was extremely cinematic and had an intriguing scenario. (Tom Clancy, in fact, wrote a companion novel titled, naturally enough, SSN. It was one of only three novels the late author wrote outside of the Jack Ryan series or “Ryanverse.”) 

However, SSN was not compatible with Windows 98 or any other Microsoft OS, so I only played it for about a year. I tried getting it to work on several PCs between 1998 and 2000, but I threw away the disc once I realized that it was an exercise in futility to try and install it in computers that didn’t recognize the disc on bootup.

I thought I’d sworn off on sub simulations for my Windows 10 PC until 2018. That’s when I saw that Steam had the Retroism reissue of Silent Service II, the only DOS game in my collection that worked reliably in all the PCs I owned with floppy drives. Retroism, the “old games division” of Tommo (which owns the rights to some “old MicroProse”[7] games) made Silent Service II compatible with newer operating systems, including Windows 10. So now I have that game in my game library and I’ve played it on and off for the past year and a half.

I had hoped Red Storm Rising – even with its pokey 1980s graphics and rudimentary sound effects – was available on Steam, but it somehow became “abandonware” along with a few other games. I found it on ClassicReload.com and can play it on my browser from the site, but I want a legit copy that will run smoothly in offline mode.

I came across Cold Waters late in 2018 when Steam recommended it during my fruitless search for Red Storm Rising. I watched the trailer and read the description, especially  Killerfish Games’ statement that their sub sim was inspired by MicroProse’s Red Storm Rising. I almost bought the game right there and then, but it was close to the 2018 Christmas shopping season and it was only available for its retail price of $39.99. I had quite a few presents to buy then, so I put Cold Waters on my Wish List and waited for the price to drop.

My new command. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that the price did, in fact, drop during what Steam called its “Road Trip Sale.” When I bought it eight days ago, it was priced at $19.99, which is a steal when you consider just how awesome it is.

So far, I’ve played Cold Waters a grand total of 13 hours.  That’s including going through most of the tutorials and fighting Quick Battles. I’m getting good at commanding Los Angeles, Sturgeon, and Seawolf type boats, but even though I think I have the basics of the games down, I do not think that I’m ready for many of the game’s Single Battles or any of the three campaigns (NATO vs. USSR 1968, NATO vs. USSR 1984, or US vs. PLAN 2000).

(C) 2017 Killerfish Games

(Okay, okay. I tried the first Single Battle, which is a one-on-one duel with a Soviet sub in the North Atlantic. I’ve played it twice; I won the first time, lost the second.)

Boy, Cold Waters is awesome. Yes, it’s hard to learn at first, partly because since it’s a download from Steam, the manual is only available on PDF, which means I’d have to print it or read it on my computer. I actually prefer professionally printed and bound manuals; I can read those in any room in the house and not fret  about how many pages it took to print or have to stay at my desk for more time than necessary. 

The hardest thing for me so far – other than the tactically astute enemy ships or subs that can sink me even on the “Easy” difficulty level –  is the user interface. Like most post-1990s games, the mouse, not the keyboard, is the main UI tool, although there are still lots of use for the keyboard, especially the F- function keys that control various camera views and take screenshots. I am not used to steering a sub with a mouse – I come from a gaming era where you used the keyboard with an optional joystick for certain game play functions. So for me, the learning curve has been steeper than it was with Red Storm Rising.

For the first seven days, I struggled mightily with some of the default settings for the game controls; I especially disliked it when I’d give an unwanted helm or diving command with Mouse Key 0 when I was I accessing the Conditions or the Damage Control window on the Heads Up Display and ended up getting hit by a torpedo I would have evaded had I not done so. I discovered – this morning, in fact – that you can adjust the game settings and customize mouse and keyboard commands to fit your preferences or compensate for dexterity issues.

On the positive end of the scale, Cold Waters is one of the few games that lives up to its developers’ PR claims. In this case, Cold Waters truly is the spiritual follow-up to Red Storm Rising; its look is all 21st Century, of course, but it still has a lot of features in common with the now 32-year-old classic from MicroProse Software.

Various screenshots of actual gameplay taken from various sessions of Cold Waters. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

Like Red Storm Rising, Cold Waters doesn’t limit your choices of time periods or submarine classes. Here, you can fight two hypothetical Cold War-turned-hot scenarios: 1968, which is set at the tail end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration when, after the real-life Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968, tensions between East and West spark a Russian invasion of West Germany. The other NATO vs. Soviets scenario is set in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency – and closer in time to Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel.  

The more modern conflict in Cold Waters,2000, is a riff on Tom Clancy’s SSN and pits the Pacific Fleet’s subs against the weirdly-named Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and a Soviet Union that never collapsed.  I have not read the details of the scenario, but it does look – from the presence of Soviet fleet ships in the game – that China and a smaller but meaner variant of the USSR have become allies against the United States.

As a bonus, Cold Waters lets you play all three scenarios from both sides of the conflict, though I feel uncomfortable with the idea of playing as the enemy against the United States. I always have had an aversion to that sort of roleplaying, so I think I’ll play as the Americans rather than as the Soviets or the Chinese.

I love how immersive Cold Waters is. I loved Red Storm Rising back in the day; it, too was immersive despite the primitive (for 21st Century gamers, anyway) graphics and barebones sound design. I love how you can switch camera views and see the action from various vantage points after you have issued your orders and/or fired your weapons at the enemy. The visuals are simply amazing…they aren’t 100% realistic – you hardly ever see any crewmen on the enemy surface ships except on rare occasions, so you can easily get into the “oh, I’m just shooting at inanimate objects” trap – but Killerfish Games has done its best to render environments and ships as close to life as possible for home computers that are not designed primarily for gaming.

My boat making an emergency surface run to the “roof.” (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

The most impressive achievement that Cold Waters’ creators have made is to give battles at sea realistic weapons effects on screen. Not every weapon you fire will hit its target;  torpedo guidance wires may break unexpectedly even if your sub is cruising at slow speeds and not maneuvering like a porpoise on acid; enemy ships’ close-in anti-missile guns will sometimes get lucky and shoot down your Harpoon or Tomahawk anti-ship missiles; your Mk. 48 ADCAP torpedoes might be fooled by noisemakers so often that they’ll run out of fuel or explode prematurely.

With her midship section on fire, Kirov takes evasive action during a missile attack from USS Seawolf. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

However, when your weapons do work as intended, they can be devasting, and the visuals often look like they’re straight out of a documentary or well-made war film. Ships lose superstructures or blow up spectacularly. Small warships like frigates or destroyers usually do not survive a Mk. 48 torpedo hit; larger capital ships, such as the Soviet battle cruiser Kirov, can absorb several hits, but they’ll suffer damage from fires and lose speed and maneuverability as a result.

Additionally, when ships sink, you hear the groan of stressed metal and the booms of internal explosions as they make that final plunge into the deep. It’s not a pretty sound, to be sure, and it’s not a sound that you want to hear aboard your boat if the enemy hits you with torpedoes or anti-submarine rockets.

I also like the fact that your crew might be “off screen,” but your specialists at sonar, engineering, weapons, and damage control speak to you, either to acknowledge your helm and diving commands (“Conn, Helm: Course set to zero-one-zero, aye.”) or to let you know something is wrong (“Conn, Sonar: Torpedo in the water! Torpedo in the water! Bearing one-six-two!”) in the heat of battle.

The last dive of the Xia, (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

I’ve enjoyed playing Cold Waters so far; I’ve sunk the dreaded Kirov and the USSR’s anti-sub carriers Moskva and Kiev a few times, and this afternoon I bagged a Chinese PLAN Xia-class ballistic missile sub (or “boomer,” in Navy parlance). I still have a long way to go before I dare try a campaign, but Cold Waters might just become one of my favorite 21st Century computer games.  

The Kiev goes to her watery grave in the Battle of the South China Sea, 4 June 2000. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games.

[1] Which was the basis for Star Trek: The Original Series’ first season episode, Balance of Terror.

[2] The first Battle of the Atlantic was waged during World War I by Imperial Germany against Great Britain and her Allies and had two distinct stages. The first took place between August of 1914 and June of 1915 and consisted mostly of German efforts to use its submarine fleet to interdict British merchant shipping and prevent food, raw materials, and war supplies from reaching the United Kingdom. Germany suspended use of its U-boats after the sinking of the Cunard line Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May of 1915 caused a storm of outrage in the U.S., which was officially a neutral nation in the conflict. The second phase began in early 1917 after Germany, which was suffering from the effects of a successful British-led blockade that stifled most trade with the Wilhelmine Reich, decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to establish a counter-blockade against Britain. This was one of several contributing factors for U.S. entry into World War I, although by no means the only one.

The second Battle of the Atlantic turned out to be the longest engagement of World War II. Again, It pitted Germany’s navy –  especially her submarine force – against the then-mightiest fleet in the world: the Royal Navy and its Allied counterparts. It started within hours of the Anglo-French declaration of war against Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939 (two days after Adolf Hitler’s mighty Wehrmacht invaded Poland) and lasted until Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, although the German Kriegsmarine had effectively lost the Battle by early 1943.  

[3] Red Storm Rising allowed players to choose from four specific time periods:

1984, for instance, only gave you three classes of U.S. subs (the Permit, the Sturgeon, and “Flight I” Los Angeles-class boats), plus it gave Soviet submarines a few advantages due to the Toshiba espionage scandal which allowed Russia to acquire tech to make Red Navy subs quieter.

1988 was “today’s” status quo and reflected the setting of Clancy’s novel. Russia had more subs in the fleet, but America had Flight II or Improved Los Angeles-class boats with Vertical Launch Systems for Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (T-LAMs)

1992: Soviet submarines are now quieter, but American subs now field the Mk.-50 Sealance rocket-launched anti-sub torpedo

1996: The Soviet Union (the game did not predict the fall of the Communist Party, at least not the way it happened in real life) now has a large navy, including her first true carrier, but the U.S. has the new SSN-21 Seawolf class.

[4] These included the way that your boat or Soviet ships and subs “sank” in the cutscenes. Shipboard fires, for instance, were always small and unimpressive even if the weapons that caused them were powerful enough to blow a destroyer in half in real-world situations. And when vessels sank, they would do in one piece and simply settle under the animated surface with a cartoony “glub, glub, glub” sound. As I recall, you could turn off the animations during battles.   

[5] I can’t remember if I ever beat the game at Ultimate. Maybe in the Training or Single Battle mode, but possibly not in Red Storm Rising: World War III in the Atlantic. I mean, I might have done so in the four or so years that I could play the game before it was no longer compatible with newer home PCs that I owned after 1995. But I don’t recall doing so.

[6] That Apple IIe, by the way, worked well for slightly over a decade. Even after I no longer used it for work, I kept it in a corner of my room, where I played some of my favorite games, including MicroProse’s Crusade in Europe and Lucasfilm Games’ Strike Fleet. I was forced to recycle it when the monitor finally gave out in the summer of 1997.

[7] The original MicroProse’s name and indicia, including the logo, were bought by another game developer and is now publishing all-new games, most of them strategy or military-themed ones.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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