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Review by
Philippa Irving


Welcome to Game of the Week! Each week there will be a new featured game on this page. The game may be good, average or diabolically bad, it really doesn't matter! Just look at the pics, read the text and enjoy the nostalgia! :-) Game of the Week! is open to contributions so if you would like to contribute a game article for this page you're more than welcome to! Every article we receive will be considered!
1987 Activision
Programmed by Alan Steel
Most text of the present article comes from the review published in the thirty fourth issue of the British C64 magazine ZZAP!64 (street date: January 14th, 1988).

Activision, 9.99 cass, 14.99 disk

Guadalcanal describes itself as 'a comprehensive strategy game'. The end result is interesting and innovative, if not one hundred percent successful.

The invasion of the island of Guadalcanal by the American marines was the first offensive Allied move in the Pacific after the capture of Midway Island. It began with the capture of a single Japanese base with a half-completed airfield, which had been garrisoned only by engineers, who fled leaving their hot rice breakfasts behind. The American invaders completed the airfield, ate the rice -- apparently the Japanese supplies became 'invaluable' -- and called the base Henderson. In the game it's the American player's only definite foothold, and the place where supplies are brought to and distributed from. The battle for control of the rest of the island continued thereafter for months, and was fought on land, at sea, and in the air. Supply runs were vital to both sides, and slowly the American presence expanded enough to resist the customary massive Japanese onslaughts. After a complex war of attrition, lasting from August 1942 to January of the following year, the Japanese retreated in secret and the island was conceded to the Allies.

Given that this is a pretty full recreation of a campaign that lasted six months, it's very surprising to find that the game is set in real-time. I have expressed my dislike of real-time wargames before -- they tend to be shallow and unplayable and lacking in atmosphere -- but Guadalcanal runs at such an extremely slow pace that the time very nearly is real, and issuing orders quickly enough is not a problem. I can see some justification for using real-time in this game, because the many different things going on at once are all running at their own pace. The timescale is at least accurate.

There are no difficulty levels, but a 'trainer' game is provided to let the player learn how to control the units without inconvenient Japanese forces getting in the way. The playability of such a peaceful scenario is limited, so there's another introductory battle, short of the full campaign. The rulebook says that this short three-day confrontation is intended to let the player get combat experience. It consistently provided me with a humiliating defeat. Scenario three is the entire Guadalcanal campaign, though whether it lasts for six months of slow-moving real-time or waits for either side to achieve a victory condition is not made clear. Scenario four is the same campaign, giving the player the opportunity to command the Japanese forces instead of the American. All are loaded separately from disk or cassette.

Without further preliminary the game starts with a single well-designed screen subdivided into windows and panels. A bank of ten 'master icons' guide the action. Displays of active units and their condition, weather reports, and naval losses are selected separately and there are icons to pause, save and quit the game. Only two icons relate directly to play and allow the selection of scouts and the distribution of points between espionage and counter espionage.

Most of the controlling action takes place on the map itself, which fills just over a quarter of the whole screen display. It competes for space with a long narrow strategic map of the entire area of play, a large information window, and a well-equipped panel which shows the date and the time in both digital and analogue form, the side that the player is controlling and the current 'phase'. Days cycle through dawn, daylight, dusk and night.

The play area takes in the island of Guadalcanal itself and the surrounding seas. Other landmasses are unidentified and have no part in the game. Units are displayed as very small and sometimes not entirely clear squares, visually divided only into naval, infantry and airforce divisions. This is confusing, because the distinction between the different types of naval groups is important. There are escort groups, carrier groups and transport groups, which perform vital and distinctive roles in running supplies to the island.

The land units on the American side consist mainly of Marine Corps. They have a full range of defining statistics, including their level of arms, ammunition, supply, morale and malaria. Malaria is a major enemy on the island, and is capable of destroying forces quite as efficiently as Japanese guns. The malaria level of a unit increases naturally the longer it is on the island, and can only be kept under control by the issue of medical supplies. Morale affects combat significantly, and can be boosted by general supplies and rest. Arms and ammunition are used up in battle and must be replaced.

In the campaign game, hidden movement is used to a great extent and the player has a stable of six scouts of varying ability to send out one at a time on reconnaissance missions. These intrepid individuals cut through the thick bush in search of Japanese camps and report back with the enemy's location, though they're in constant danger of getting caught and bayonetted to a tree.

Air forces play a full role too. Some of the naval groups have aircraft carriers with their own planes, and Henderson has an air division known as the Cactus Air Force. Aircraft can only be launched during daylight hours, and carry a strictly limited amount of fuel and ammunition -- sending them out too far from base is fatal. They can bomb enemy units and bases, and in the campaign scenario the Japanese are very keen to use their air units against the American navy.

With all these different elements competing for the player's attention, it's fortunate that play itself is not very complex. Units are ordered to move in a particular direction and to attack or withdraw -- and that's it. Giving these orders by means of a command box is reasonably straightforward and painless, and because time advances slowly there's plenty of chance to do everything properly. There's a master icon provided for running the clock forward, and far from being rushed off my fingers I found I often had to speed things up.

Combat is seriously underrepresented. When a fleet is attacked, the 'radio', a strip of scrolling messages, informs the player that ships are either on fire or have sunk. When the sea battles get underway there's a constant stream of 'ship on fire' messages, which are rather frustrating because there's absolutely nothing that can be done about it, short of running away. Fires on ships will eventually be put out if they don't sink first, but the damage remains until the fleet is dragged slowly to one of the supply points.

A lot of care and detail has gone into this game -- perhaps too much. It's irritating having to drop and weigh the ship's anchor every time you go into harbour. It's an interesting experience to play, but I found it difficult to get into the swing of. I may have been doing something stupid, but despite the designer's injunctions that warships were priceless and were not casually thrown en masse against the Japanese fleets, I found that it was impossible to avoid disastrous sea battles. I did my best to be cautious, but the Japanese units made straight for the fray and shot everything in sight. What was particularly infuriating was the fact that they seemed to go down less easily than my highly inflammable fleet!


The victory conditions are not made at all clear in the rulebook, which is slightly worrying. I was unceremoniously turfed out of the game several times, being told that there had been an American withdrawal from Guadalcanal when I still had plenty of ships and land units left.

The rulebook is reasonably well written but lacks an index or contents page. It contains a condensed but detailed description of the historical background, design notes and a complete list of the forces for both sides.

There's enough going on to demand the player's full attention and ingenuity, and it's certainly an interesting and satisfying challenge.


Presentation 85%

Polished, with a slick, easy orders system.

Graphics 70%
Pleasant and attractive, although the units themselves are rather small.

Rules 74%
Comprehensive, but the lack of a contents page and index makes it difficult to find things.

Playability 71%
A lack of tangible excitement, and the slow real-time is a drag.

Overall 72%
Slightly ambitious, but worth trying.



Htmlized by Dimitris Kiminas (6 Mar 2006)
Only the first of the above screenshots existed in the original review.

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