Reviews by Wade Clarke
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Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.
"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
While all of these flourishes are inseparable from the game's intense atmosphere, they aren't the primary elements of what, it must be remembered, is an adaptation of a classic novel. The game puts the player into the shoes of two of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker and Doctor Edward Seward, and presents puzzles across a wide range of contexts: Good old-fashioned obstacle removal by useful object, observation and exploration, warding off Dracula and his minions and, perhaps bizarrely, the testing of social and domestic common sense.
The game is frequently unfair, with an inconsistent approach towards what the player knows versus what his/her character knows, lengthy and attractive room descriptions which are nevertheless quite misdirective, plenty of unheralded and undoable deaths, and countless incidences of time-based sequences in which you have to start typing WAIT repeatedly to achieve crucial aims. Considering all these difficulties, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found Dracula, and I realised that the game's mitigating circumstance is that for two thirds of its length, it is almost entirely linear and episodic.
If you've been dropped off by coach at Dracula's Castle, and you're standing in front of a locked door and there are no other exits, what else is there to do but assault your current location with every verb and noun you can think of? I discovered in playing Dracula that I don't mind brute forcing a game so long as the story is exciting and the process isn't querulous. Many stretches of this game involve just getting through one or two rooms at a time using only observational skills or objects that are immediately at hand (okay, and at times, desperate illogic). What you don't have to worry about at such times is whether you failed to pick up some important item twenty rooms earlier. On the other hand, what you do have to worry about are the game's assumptions about your character's knowledge, abilities and inventory, as these change without warning throughout the adventure.
A tiny first room (Spoiler - click to show)spoiler: In the game's first location, your path into the inn is blocked by a drunk coachman. Checking your inventory shows that you are carrying nothing, not even money, but the solution you must dredge up is PAY COACHMAN. You might say to yourself, 'Fair enough, I can now assume I carry money around with me,' and the assumption holds true for awhile as you lavish various Transylvanian yokels with your Earth dollars. But in a later chapter of the game, your money starts off in a coat which you aren't wearing, and you won't be able to pay people until you have noticed this, taken your coat from your chair and rummaged through it.
A less nitpicky observation is that despite the fact that you get to play two very intelligent men in this game or at least one very intelligent man plus Jonathan Harker there will be times when both men are capable of acting like imbeciles if they do not receive your explicit directions to the contrary. The game's wavering treatment of the entity that is 'me' certainly caused me to reflect on what what actions I expect should be automatically taken for me during a text adventure, based on the qualities of my character in such games where I am playing a character with a pre-existing background and disposition (like Dracula) as opposed to games where my character is entirely a cipher for action (like Zork.)
The silliest incident along these lines in Dracula occurs when you are playing Doctor Seward and need to catch a train to Stratford. (Spoiler - click to show)Having purchased a ticket, you then step south onto the platform. As often happens in this game, the room description does not mention any of the exits. Most of the time you can only find these by trying to move in every direction in turn. So you dutifully wait for a train to arrive, then board it. To paraphrase what happens next
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled. It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.
The game's prose is often uncharacteristically rich and lengthy for a text adventure from this period, even if the author misuses apostrophes. His punctuation mistakes don't matter because the perilous tone and content are well delivered, and the compelling writing places you thoroughly in the shoes of each character. The prose is also delivered in a gothic red font which definitely helps to create the game's particular atmosphere, at least for those whose eyes can stand it. Even in the game's heyday, hackers released patches which allowed players to use a more basic font. Different kinds of text are colour-coded, marking out objective description, your own thoughts, other characters' dialogue, etc., and this feature provides visual interest and clarification. The game's parser comes across as fairly opaque, simply because the game is so episodic that all the vocab you might struggle to guess is only relevant for a screen or three at a time.
It's hard for me to think of any other text adventure which trespasses so often against sense, logic and fairness, but which has remained engrossing to me. Dracula benefits from the qualities of Bram Stoker's novel, maintains the book's fearful tone in its prose and recreates some of its most memorable sequences, such as Harker's imprisonment and escape. The game presents mostly as sequences rather than as an open environment, and this seems to be the key to making its often inscrutable puzzles work. The player must doggedly persist with minimal cues to claw his/her way from one dangerous scene to the next, bashing against the walls to find the exits and turning to features in the environment which even the game itself suggests are useless, like a cupboard described as 'totally empty' which, predictably for Dracula, isn't.
Dracula demonstrates that there can be unexpected benefits to having a linear structure in a text adventure, and its decided confusion towards the ideas of character and agency is at least thought-provoking. It knows scary and is reverent to its source material. It is also highly irrational, probably impossible for any modern player to complete without the walk-through, and not a place a newcomer to older adventure games should start, fans of Stoker's book excepted. I believe, however, that anyone who does play Dracula today will be able to perceive why the game is well remembered.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.
Vlad the Impaler is a grim and incredibly bloody choice-based adventure set in Istanbul in 1452. After choosing to play as the explorer, soldier or mage, the player is tasked by an old friend one who seals his letters with a big red V with saving the city from a blight of natural and supernatural corruption.
With its character classes, small array of stats and its karma meter, the game aims for replayability over linear depth. Concentrated initial plays may last from 45 to 90 minutes, and there are considerably more encounters available across the finite map of locations than are accessible in any one session. The presentation is lush, with a fixed colour palette of black and white with red highlights, an inventory of expressive pencil drawings of the characters and locations and brooding loops of string music in the background.
The PC is written as a major force in this world of atrocious crime and madness. In almost anything you try to do, you will succeed, or have a solid chance of succeeding at least for a good part of each game. This may sound like a recipe for boredom, but the high volatility of the encounters and the oppressive atmosphere of Vlad ensure quite the opposite. There is a sense that no matter how many amazing things you do in the city, no matter how many individuals you save from being violated, sold into slavery, murdered or torn apart by monsters (and you tend to tear the bad guys apart yourself) that you're up against too much evil for one person. This feeling is reinforced by the great despair evinced by most of the NPCs about their situation. They also regard you with an awe that inspires heroism, or at least perseverance.
The writing is mostly pointed and effective. It's also especially vivid in a lot of cruel scenes, but this content is balanced by a moral weight. The PC isn't heedless, nor are the citizenry of the cursed city. The characters discuss what's happening, why it may be happening, where does evil come from without or within? The sense of these ideas is well conveyed through the whole dark aesthetic of the game.
The prose does suffer from bizarre technical variability, though. The strong focus and flow of the majority of it makes me wonder how it could also flop sometimes into great spates of overpunctuation (!!!?) and why there are phases where commas or semicolons just vanish, leaving a bunch of run-on sentences. It's as if half of it was proofread and half wasn't, or different people wrote different stretches in isolation. This didn't hamper my enjoyment overall, but did make me wonder how it happened.
What a greater number of players have been concerned about is the lack of continuity written into a lot of the encounters. You might see an option to 'Ask someone to translate the runes you found earlier' when you don't remember finding any runes. It becomes apparent from the prose that the scope of the actions you're taking in the city is assumed to be greater than just what you read during the course of a playthrough; you're a powerful figure achieving a lot off-screen as well as on. So if you take this attitude that a richer sense of all your character's doings will build up over repeat plays, you'll be okay, but I can appreciate this as a valid point of criticism against the game for many players, given how attentive Vlad is to mechanics in other areas, and that some players will just never accept being given so many shorthanded summaries of things they've 'done'. I personally felt the positive value of the game's approach in that it gives the PC's doings a breadth and depth that would be hard to effect if every single part of them had to be explicitly played through in a game of this length.
The trick of Vlad is working out what your stats are for and how they're affected by your handling of encounters. You can see your stat values and you can see when they go up and down, but 'die rolls' are not displayed at times when they're relevant, nor is it indicated when those times are. The game's structure is that of a broadening fan of encounters you can visit in almost any order you choose, followed by a narrowing into a gauntlet of situations in which deadliness to the PC increases significantly.
I found the whole game tremendously engaging for several playthroughs, but paradoxically, once I'd worked out how the stats figure into major events, the replayability factor the game pushes for weakens a lot. Too many critical moments in the game are either predictably easy, or so hard that it feels pointless trying to reach them again just to have another chance to roll a really high number on an invisible die. If you're killed, your saved games within the current play session die as well. So the weakness is that every game eventually becomes a stat test against the 'gauntlet' section, and you have to replay the whole game to get back there.
There are a lot of other tricks and secrets I can't elaborate on without spoiling, as well as a pile of Steam achievements to be had for people who like that sort of thing. It's just that these elements don't add up to the solid replay model the game seems to promise at the outset. However, by the time I'd come to these conclusions, I was already more than satisfied with my experiences in this dark and bloody world.
Voodoo Castle (1979) was the fourth game from Adventure International (AI). It was written by Scott Adams's then wife, Alexis, who had previously assisted on Pirate Adventure, and its opening enthusiastically proclaims that it is "DEDICATED TO MOMS EVERYWHERE!".
The goal of Voodoo Castle is to lift the curse that afflicts Count Cristo, a goal established after the player has opened the coffin in the game's first location and examined the man therein. In the context of the Adams game engine, this is a fairly abstract goal; recall that all of the prose must be extremely minimal (room descriptions generally come in at under 40 characters in length), the parser only accepts two words, and the whole affair has to fit into 16KB of RAM. Doing something like finding treasures and dropping them in a target room, ala Adventureland, is an easy-to-grasp concept in the context of these limitations, but accomplishing a goal as broad as lifting a curse is harder to think about in a vacuum, and potentially a little more intimidating to contemplate when you first fire up this game.
The game's castle isn't actually called "Voodoo Castle", but it is the castle where the action takes place, and Voodoo is clearly afoot. Fascinating paraphernalia can be found lying around in its corridors, including a voodoo doll, a Ju-Ju bag, a witch's brew and a room full of exploding chemicals. With no more to go on than the game's initial exhortation that the player lift a curse, he or she must experiment with these interesting props and advance through the solving of a succession of puzzles, and ultimately of the game. The experience is a lot of fun, and while Voodoo Castle's official difficulty label is Moderate, I find it to be one of the easier AI games. However, I should point out that this was not one of the AI games I had the opportunity to play back in the day. By the time I came to it in the 2000s, I was (a) way older and wiser, (b) had solved a lot of adventure games in general, and (c) had solved a decent number of AI games and acquired a strong sense of their workings.
What is interesting about Voodoo Castle is that there are no antagonists in it. While there are still lots of ways to die or wreck your game, including inescapable rooms and destructible crucial items, there are no people, monsters or other entities that are out to get you. In fact, a theme of Voodoo Castle (if 'theme' isn't too lofty a word in the circumstances) is that people who might seem scary at first are probably not threats, but sources of potential help. Except for the maid, who chases you downstairs if you happen to track soot through the castle. Back in the realm of objects, the cause and effect relationships between a lot of the game's artifacts and things that might happen to you during play are often unintuitive (E.G. "I've recently stopped being blown up by exploding test tubes. Why?") and require much trial and error and game saving to discern.
It would be a struggle to qualify any observations I might be tempted to make about the nature of games Alexis authored or influenced in this series versus the ones her husband authored, but it's certainly fun to speculate. My sense is that when Alexis was involved, the games were a little kinder in tone, though not necessarily in content. The absence of antagonistic characters in Voodoo Castle speaks to this idea, as does its altruistic goal for the player, and the very positive image with which the game ends. Scott of course gave us several games featuring instant death by bear mauling, and he gave us Savage Island Parts I and II, two of the most difficult and masochistic jaunts to ever grace adventuredom. But Adams also opposed the idea of the player having to commit any acts of violence against other creatures to advance in his games. The attitude of the AI games is that violent acts may be visited upon you, usually by nature, if you are stupid or unlucky enough - and we have to take the AI concept of player stupidity with a grain of salt.
Voodoo Castle features a couple of AI's most loveable/hateable guess-the-action and guess-the-verb moments (you won't believe what you have to do with the Ju-Ju bag, and I mean that in a banal way) but fortunately the AI clue sheet cyphers make getting help fun in these games. And I always particularly liked Voodoo Castle's clue sheet. It was the first AI clue sheet I ever encountered, and I encountered it as a kid well before I played the game, back in the Adventurers Corner column of a 1986 issue of Australian Apple Review.
If you haven't tried an AI game before, I wouldn't recommend this one to start with due to the abstract nature of its goal. It's probably best to familiarise yourself with the nature of these very early adventures by first playing a straightforward treasure hunt like Adventureland. But in the scheme of the AI series, Voodoo Castle sports some distinctive features, a castle stocked with lots of interesting objects, and a good dose of that elemental, imminent style of puzzle-solving which is the hallmark of the AI games.
Strange Odyssey, released in 1979, was the sixth of Scott Adams's games in the series today referred to as the Scott Adams Classic Adventures. This game was a childhood favourite of mine and remains a favourite in adulthood. In plain mechanical terms, it's a treasure hunt in space, but its use of multiple alien settings gives it a sense of exploratory danger which feels unique in the series. This isn't to say that the perils in the likes of Adventureland or Pyramid of Doom aren't exciting it is to say that those games are about exploring one dangerous world, while Strange Odyssey involves visiting a series of unrelated dangerous worlds, never knowing what to expect as you step into each one.
This is a dense game even for Adams, whose Classic series entries each had to fit into 16kb of RAM. Many objects have multiple uses and need to be carted back and forth between different worlds. Time pressure comes in the form of the finite air supply in your spacesuit, and working out how and where you can refill it is a significant puzzle. Odyssey also has more locations than most of its siblings, but the reason it feels more expansive than them is because of its intergalactic nature. Its little text strings have to act as seeds to help the player imagine whole environments at a time, rather than just one room or a corridor.
The fundamental puzzle in Strange Odyssey, the one which is most likely to cause players to stand around for awhile going "Hm," is the one involving working out how to move between worlds. It is quite an abstract puzzle (dare I say Zorkian) in a game canon that rarely supported abstract puzzles due to the simplicity of the game engine and the necessary briefness of all the prose. Another interesting element of this puzzle is the way it mobilises split-second glimpses of text. Unfortunately, this special effect only exists in the original Apple II, Atari and TRS-80 versions of the game. I recommend against playing versions of the game which are missing it (C64, Inform, Spectrum) since the game's quality and sense are hurt by its absence.
Dying and dead-ending are frequent occurrences in Odyssey, so it's wise to save frequently. Just stepping through a door can kill you if the gravity or air happen to be unfavourable on the other side. Several objects can run out of gas or power, it's possible to destroy crucial items with your phaser and most of the wildlife is aggressive. When I was a kid, I loved all of this unheralded danger because I always liked stories in which you never knew what bizarre thing might be on the other side of a door or teleporter. This quality of the game still speaks to me today, and while Adams's games have come in for a lot of criticism over the years, Strange Odyssey's alien dangerousness seems to coincide perfectly with the relatively hostile nature of adventure games from this era. A major reason that a lot of old school adventures are disliked today is that players find it too aggravating that they can mess up by taking actions they might reasonably expect to have inoffensive consequences within the world of a particular game if that game had much logic about itself. In Strange Odyssey, all of the hardships make sense and thus does the form of the whole. Space is dangerous, the worlds you visit aren't explained and alien hardware doesn't come with instructions. In retrospect, I think Strange Odyssey was one of the designs which best fit Adams's minimalist game system.
Kukulcan (1984) is an educational graphic adventure game set in 1519. The player takes the role of an Aztec scribe summoned by Montezuma to seek knowledge of the Feathered Serpent, in hopes that this knowledge may stave off the arrival of evils portended by recent omens. The Aztecs were right to have been worried around this time; the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez was soon to invade Tenochtitlan (the future site of Mexico City), arrest Montezuma and bring an end to the Aztec Empire. Thus Kukulcan is a game which allows you to experience some of the events, atmospheres and customs of the end days of that empire from the perspective of a man on the ground.
I spent a decent amount of time trying to work out Kukulcan when I was a kid, playing a copy a friend had made for me, and I probably progressed about three quarters of the way through the first of two floppy disks. This was with the friend telling me explicitly what to do at certain points, and also after I had listed part of the program to try to cheat. The game seemed pretty inscrutable. I would go around doing things like wearing slave clothes, peering at temple columns and sacrificing butterflies atop pyramids without any true understanding of why I was doing them. Admittedly I had already got the idea that you sacrificed people in this kind of game by hearing about another Apple II adventure called 'Mask of the Sun', in which you could SACRIFICE RAOUL. Kukulcan's game parser was of the two word verb-noun school LOOK PRIEST SACRIFICE BUTTERFLY CLIMB ROOF and within that school it was of the simplest incarnation possible. There was no real database of vocabulary, just code explicitly checking if you had typed something relevant to the location you were in.
In spite of its opaque qualities, Kukulcan had a distinct style, and numerous flourishes that other adventure games of the time weren't giving me. The opening sequence of the sun rising with some flickery birds flying overhead was semi-animated, and played a few notes of music too. The optional introductory sequence felt dangerous, as you had to enter Montezuma's presence and perform several actions exactly as instructed so as not to insult him ENTER BOW AND ADVANCE and say MY GREAT LORD though I was annoyed that actually typing 'SAY MY GREAT LORD' resulted in death. The graphics were clear, bright and extremely attractive, and offered additional close ups of certain items and architectural features, like beans that had fallen into a crack in the causeway, or a butterfly hidden in the eye of a skull. There was mystery and a bit of awe involved in wandering the game's majestic temples beneath its blue skies, and wondering what it was all about.
In retrospect I can see that the impact Kukulcan had on me was one that it would have been pleased to have had as an educational game it provided my first encounter with Mesoamerican history, and I did not forget what it showed me. Even with nothing to compare it to, my younger self was able to instinctively feel the authenticity of what was being presented. I had never before seen words that looked like the ones I saw in this game, words so long or with such interesting spellings - Tenochtitlan, Quetzalcotl, Tzompantli (the 'skull rack'). The game also included captions and titles atop the graphics, describing where you were or what you were looking at. And the way that people and places came across in Kukulcan had that sense of alien but unremarkable conviction about it that is attendant upon most people's first encounter with a foreign culture.
More than twenty years after Kukulcan's heyday, I discovered that my chances of completing the game as a kid, using my pirated copy, had been zero. The game shipped with extra hardcopy historical notes that provided completely unguessable information vital to completing it. I also found out that you could type 'H' at many of the game's locations to glean additional historic information in-game. Today, you can use a walkthrough to reach the conclusion of Kukulcan in a quarter of an hour or so, but the unfurling of the game in response to the commands you will issue in the process remains amusingly baffling. The original documentation, which would undoubtedly fill in all the gaps, remains unavailable. Between this fact and the game's tiny parser, Kukulcan's solveability worth for a retro gaming passer-by is, frankly, nil. But the game's inherent worth is great. It is novel and attractive, and educational in the best possible way, the way in which learning isn't even a conscious issue. The game fascinates the player with its world, and after that, any learning tends to be automatic. I find I am able to recall various sights and words from Kukulcan to this day without any prompting. Especially the fact that a Tzompantli is a skull rack, which I've wormed into more than one game of Balderdash.
* Further information about Kukulcan is available online at the Gallery of Undiscovered Entitites.
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