Thursday, June 16, 2022

Game 322: GATO

The GATO class submarines, according to Spectrum Holobyte, were the US Navy's workhorse in the pacific campaign of WWII. Fast, durable, quiet, and armed to the metaphorical gills with ten fore-and-aft-firing torpedo tubes, sea minelayers, and anti-aircraft guns, GATOs were tasked with merchant patrols, reconnaissance, combat interception, covert supply runs, rescue missions, and even coastal bombardment. They were among the first naval submarines to earn a reputation as invisible terrors.

Spectrum Holobyte is mainly known war simulations and licensing Sokoban and Tetris (and by extension Pajitnov's subsequent puzzlers). GATO was their first game, originally written in Microsoft BASIC for DOS and ported to Macintosh in a short order, and is a semi-casual sim, too complex to be suitable for arcades, but also simplified to the point of little correspondence to real-world models.

I played the DOS version, though I could only find a manual for the Apple and Atari versions, which are not strictly 100% accurate to the original version.

Your submarine, callsigned GROWLER, holds these equipments and capabilities:

  • Double-hulled construction capable of withstanding pressure up to 300 feet below surface and (usually) indirect hits from depth charges
  • Diesel engines with a maximum speed of 20 knots and operable at up to 20 feet below surface
  • Battery-powered engines with a maximum speed of 10 knots, operable at any depth for short periods, and rechargeable when running on diesel
  • Four forward-firing ordinance tubes (far fewer than the historical ten), self-loading with a full loadout of 24 torpedoes
  • Periscope, rotatable in 90 degree increments
  • Active radar
  • Radio communication
  • Subsystem damage reporting
  • Maps of the operation and its 20 quadrants, which track your own movements, and on the lower difficulty settings, of enemies and friendlies
  • "Rapid Sub Deployment" function which didn't work for me, as it requires a password from the manual which seems to vary from platform to platform
The operational map is incredibly useful on the lower difficulties and make radar unnecessary

GATO may be played at ten difficulty settings, rated from 0 to 9, and certain milestones will add major handicaps.

  • At level 3, the operational map no longer tracks ship movements other than your own, forcing you to reckon the quadrants of enemies based on radio communications. Quadrant maps remain useful for tracking nearby ships.
  • At level 6, quadrant maps cease to track ship movements, forcing you to rely on radar, but I'm honestly not sure how you can, as radar only covers a fraction of a quadrant's area, having about the same range as periscope sighting, and increases your visibility when active.
  • At level 8, radio communication comes in through your PC's beeper in Morse code and must be manually transcribed. No thanks!

More generally, at higher difficulties, ships become more difficult to kill, and are more likely to take multiple torpedo hits before sinking.

I never really got comfortable enough with GATO's controls and play mechanics to raise the difficulty past its default setting of 0. I recorded and uploaded a video of my most successful run, and it felt like luck was more involved than skill; getting spotted or not feels random no matter what I do (and getting spotted by a destroyer is a death sentence that only luck can stay you from), torpedoes can miss at stupidly close ranges or hit at stupidly far ones, and taking a hit usually renders you combat ineffective, but one-shot kills and no-sells can also happen, with about equal frequency.

First thing upon starting a game, your mission orders are received. Most of the time, your mission will be to intercept and destroy a primary target, but you will occasionally receive rescue missions.

Checking the map, my target is close, just one quadrant away. I set the throttle to 12 knots and turned 30° to starboard, leaving the map open to track vectors.

35 seconds of travel

As I reached the target's quadrant, I dove to 40 feet (the deepest at which you remain combat effective), and switched to electric engines.

The chase - first day

The operational map shows multiple boats approaching. Note that radar would not reveal any of them!

Attempting to flank an unidentified vessel at the rearguard

At this point, my battery alert started bleeping madly, and I quickly rose to 20 feet so I could switch back to diesel. Soon, a ship was sighted in the horizon.

Up periscope!

Destroyer! I soon heard its sonar pinging me, and closed in to try to kill it.

Somehow it never spotted me, even as I let loose with four fish at point blank. Somehow none of my torps hit either. But as it zipped out of sight, my main target came into visual range.

Miss! A patrol boat is seen in the distance.

My salvos eventually down the freighter

At any time in GATO, you may request a new mission (provided the radio is not damaged), and doing so will abort the current one if active, and reset all enemy ships to their initial state and position for the mission selected. Given that there was a destroyer trying to ping out my position, this suited me fine. There is no penalty for aborting an in-progress mission in this manner, though your own state and position will not be changed.

The new mission was to intercept and destroy patrol boats around the island perimeters.

Don't know what I'd do without this viewing mode.

Patrol boats are less deadly than destroyers but are fast and nimble, making them annoying targets to pursue should they take evasive maneuvers.

I set a course southeast and found my first target.

It took five torps but I got it without detection.

The next target I encountered, on the island to the north, evaded my salvos and returned fire, forcing me to take evasive action of my own.

Combat ineffective with a busted torpedo room

100 feet under the sea and dangerously close to the shoals. All I can do is back up and pray that active sonar won't find me before I place enough distance to do a 180 and scram.


Luck was on my side and I was able to get out of visual range, surface, and cruise back to the subtender on diesel to repair and reload.

Cruising back to the subtender. This takes about two minutes at full speed.

Returning to the fray, a patrol boat knocked out my torpedo launchers again before I could fire a shot, forcing me to retreat and repair yet again. But my third run bagged the rest of them, completing the mission.

The next mission given was to sink supply ships en route to two islands in the north half of the map. And I was already on the perfect interception course.

These ships traveled in groups, and the manual recommends doing underwater recon before engaging groups so you can better prioritize your targets, but prior experience had taught me this was suicide. I may just be doing it completely wrong, but even at 40 feet deep and moving at the slowest speed on electric engines, if you can see them closely enough to identify their type, they can detect and sink you. So I engaged the top two boats head-on, taking out both in just a few shots, and pursued the other five to their destination, where I could pick them off one-by-one after they set anchor.

I'll start by doing a torpedo run on the closest two dots.


That left three anchored ducks in a vertical row, and I managed to sink one more with my remaining ammo. A surviving PT boat crippled me as I dove and moved out of its range.

Hunter hunted. This is as exciting as it gets, folks.

The survivors give up the chase and return to anchor as I evade their sonar.

At this point I had to quit and do some real work. GATO has no way to save, so my mission progress was lost, but I'm sure I could have made it back to the subtender and made one last run at the last two boats to finish it.

In any event, I'm done playing this, even though I never made an attempt at the higher difficulty settings. To be honest I have no idea how you would begin to play them, especially as they remove your map trackers. Combat successes and failures already feel too random; perhaps experience teaches you things like optimal depth, speed, and distance to maximize your chances of coming out alive from a sortie, but making the effort doesn't feel worth it. What puzzles me more is how you manage to locate your targets without seeing them on a map; the radar is so short range it seems useless, and using it makes you more visible, which is something you obviously do not want.

GAB rating: Below average. Maybe it's not fair for me to evaluate a game like this when it's meant to appeal to a niche, but as a sim GATO feels overly simplistic, and as a game feels slow, unexciting, and repetitive. At least, unlike Flight Simulator, I found it playable, just not particularly rewarding.

Speaking of flight simulators, there's a big retrospective of MicroProse's early sims coming up soonish. My track record for enjoying such sims hasn't been great so far, and I wonder, will I like them any better?


  1. Heresy!!! GATO is the greatest sub game evah!!!

    Hahaha... well... obviously not so much, but man I used to love to play this one. Of course, we'd usually devolve into a contest to see how deep we could dive before our sub randomly imploded and sank.

    Good memories though! Thanks for this one.

  2. Cool game. Seems less a sandbox and more of a sand table. It's got its little operational area and generates missions for you. I can see how people liked it back in the day.

  3. I can't think of this without thinking of the first boss in Chrono Trigger. Obv that game is a surefire for the Ivory Deck


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