Search for the Golden Dolphin

Developer/Publisher:  Cinegram Media
Year Released:  1999

Review by Steve Ramsey (March, 2003)
It's 1799 and Nathaniel Thorne is out to make a name and career in the United States Navy. It's the Caribbean, the Navy is in its infancy, and the French are proving a handful. It's a setting tailor-made for pirates, for treachery, and revenge.

The basics
Made with the assistance of Mystic Seaport, a seafaring museum in Connecticut, Search for the Golden Dolphin puts you in the role of Nathaniel Thorne and sends you to sea in a majestic wooden sailing ship. From the moment you first embark, you are literally engaged in a series of battles as you rise through the ranks to captain your own ship, and ultimately end up as naval Commodore.

The game is played in the first person, and utilizes full motion video (FMV) characters superimposed against 3D rendered backgrounds. There are some non-playing rendered characters, but all those with whom you interact are in FMV. Many of the backgrounds are on board ship, and the attention to historically accurate detail is seemingly excellent.

Apart from the FMV characters, there are a small amount of animations. These tend to be puzzle or action related.

The puzzles are all nautical in nature, and assistance can be (and will need to be) obtained from the database. Like all edutainment titles, the database contains a wealth of relevant historical information. Simply move your cursor to the bottom of the game screen and a pop-up menu will give you access.

The puzzles themselves are well integrated into the storyline, and are varied in nature and difficulty. The last one is a timed puzzle. You will need to fly the correct signal flags to win a sea battle, escape from pursuers by setting the sails and rudder to successfully navigate a lagoon, load and fire a cannon and then win a fire fight, provision a ship for a lengthy journey, navigate by the stars, and even win a weevil race.

The ambient sounds are rather good, and the musical accompaniment suitably matched with the mood or scene. The voice acting is generally not too bad, but some is quite ordinary. There are no subtitles. Cursors and hotspots will assist your efforts, as will a small number of inventory items which you will find and use.

As well as the database, there is a timeline of historical events against which the events of the game are set, as well as access to other related information for the enthusiast. You can walk through a rendered replica of an old sailing ship at your leisure, and review what has happened in Nathaniel's journal.

A help menu is also available, and the initial portion of the game will walk you through the mechanics involved in actually playing the game. As such, it should be reasonably accessible to all would-be sailors.

The game is played in self contained chapters, with narrative and predominantly still scenes linking the chapters. It comes on a single CD, and played without bugs (not counting the weevil). If you have a more recent computer system however (mine is a P4 1.2 Gig), you will need a slowdown facility in order to complete the timed puzzle.

The impressions
Unfortunately this wasn't much of a game. The basics were all fairly sound, but the execution affected gameplay too much and overwhelmed what might have otherwise been a reasonable experience. I say unfortunately because sailing ships and pirates would seem to offer a good basis for a somewhat different and satisfying adventure.

One of the biggest problems was the fact that you could not see the FMV characters until you were standing directly in front of them. This meant a lot of time was spent needlessly pirouetting in every spot in case a character popped into view. Standing beside or behind them was no good. In fact, you could walk right through the spot in which they would appear once you turned round. It was not terribly satisfactory.

Somewhat similarly, you could walk right through some of the rendered objects. Many times I would walk from one side of the deck to the other, passing through a lifeboat hanging in front of me. On one occasion I also seemed to walk straight through a wall.

Compounding the lack of subtitles was the fact that the voice acting seems to be recorded at varying volume levels. Further, none of those levels is anywhere near as loud as the music. I had to turn the music volume down until it could almost not be heard in order to listen to much of the dialogue, and at times still had to significantly turn up the speaker volume to hear what was being said. The odd mumbling character didn't help.

With the exception of the timed puzzle, on the whole the puzzles weren't too bad, although I thought the weevil race left a bit to be desired. There also seemed to be a bit more luck than there should have been in the gun battle. The timed puzzle though was not good, and being the last puzzle it may put some players off finishing. I am not opposed to timed puzzles per se, but this one was badly constructed. A leaky bucket conundrum within the timed element only exacerbated the whole thing.

The plot was fairly good, probably a strong point of the game. Though It does come together in a rush.

I played the whole game with my 14 year old daughter, Emily.

What did she think?
"I didn't find it particularly interesting, and wouldn't have kept playing if I hadn't been playing with Dad. The man dying at the start who is telling you about how to play the game on your computer was a bit strange. I didn't like hunting for people to talk to".

All up, I think it is one primarily for the true historical and/or sailing aficionados. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98 (played on XP), IBM compatible 166MHz, 32MB RAM. 150 MB disc space, 16 bit graphics card with 2MB RAM. 4x CD ROM. Soundblaster compatible card.
Macintosh System 7.1 or higher, Power PC 120 MHz, 32MB RAM, 150 MB disc space, 16 bit graphics card, 4x CD ROM, 16 bit soundcard.