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About the Story
Now, for the first time on a Home Computer, Enid Blyton's greatest creation "The Famous Five" star in their own computer game. Faithfully recreating the world of Julian, Anne, Dick, George and Timmy the dog you can control any of the children as they solve the mystery of the "Treasure Island".
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DISCLAIMER : This is my first review so please excuse me if I'm not very good at this.
I've never been good with text adventures. Smuggler's Cove beat me. The Hobbit beat me. Gremlins beat me. Robin of Sherwood beat me. Colossal Cave beat me. Behind Closed Doors beat me. Dracula beat me. Jekyll and Hyde beat me.
And yet still, I would look forward to that one game that I could actually entertain the idea of beating. An adventure where I wasn't fighting the parser or the game vocabulary. A game where puzzles made logical sense. A game without too many timed elements or hidden choices that made the game unwinnable.
The Famous Five was the first adventure, after 7 years of adventuring that I actually beat.
Back in 1990, the Sam Coupe (computer) was struggling to gain traction. There was precious little software available, and most software titles were published by a UK company called "Enigma Variations". I had owned a ZX Spectrum for the past 7 years, an ageing UK computer with limited palette but an amazing community around it. But the ZX Spectrum was dying fast. It was an old 8-bit computer in a 16-bit world.
ZX Spectrum gaming magazines were thinning out as software releases started to dry up but speccy (nickname of the ZX Spectrum) lovers had an irrational love of the machine. We were enamoured with the idea of a next-gen spectrum. Eventually the Spectrum magazines presented the Same Coupe as the spiritual successor to the Speccy, and without thinking, my 12 year old self desired a Sam Coupe more than anything else in the world.
Logically, it was time to jump to the Amiga or Atari ST, but they were expensive and the Sam Coupe had backwards compatibility (or so they promised) to the Speccy. There were hundreds of colours to choose from and a massive 256K/512K of memory onboard. A huge step up from 48K/128K.
The Coupe was to be a commercial failure, but in 1990, I was so young that I didn't even entertain the idea. I understood that everyone loved the Speccy, so of course the successor was going to be successful. I think the Sam's failure helped my young self to be more sceptical in future.
Back to the game though .... I coveted the game. It had 16 colour graphics, a quality parser, and much more descriptive text than could be expected with the spectrum.
I understand that adventure purists find the idea of graphics in a text adventure to be a distraction and that the text alone is better suited to set the stage, but personally speaking, graphics really immersed me into the world - even if in the most abstract of senses. Text has never presented itself to me in a visual way, and no matter how old I get, even in literature, I can't convert written words into a visual image in my mind. I'm a visual person, but I can't make the visuals in my head. I need a frame of reference.
Well, The Famous Five is a text adventure with certain locations having static graphical illustrations. The Sam version had some primitive pixel art in certain locations, and the Amiga/ST versions have slightly better versions of the same artwork.
The story starts on a train, and the player is presented with an image of a train carriage. Julian, Dick and Anne are travelling to the coast to stay with their uncle, aunt and cousin (and her dog) in the summertime. Their cousins family has been living in a cottage by the sea for many generations, and they have a claim to a small island offshore. Who has never had the fantasy of owning their own island? For children, surely there is no greater adventure than being their own masters on their own island.
The book on which the game is based was published in 1942, and is set in the England of that era. Boys were meant to be masculine stereotypes and girls were meant to be meek and mild. But cousin George hates gender stereotypes. She hates being a girl, and would much rather be a boy. She cuts her hair short, and refuses to be referred to as Georgina. I like the way the story acknowledges the sexist attitudes of the era and yet refuses to conform to the stereotypes of the era. The original book contains a lot of values of the era, but I love the way that the book and the adventure supports the idea that anyone can be who they want to be, as long as they are strong enough to stand up for themselves. George is strong. Uncle Quentin is a stern patriarch, a good father, which I also find to be an accurate representation of the gender roles of the time.
Anne is very different to George. She is perfectly happy to conform to what society expects of her; that doesn't mean that she doesn't enjoy adventure too but she has no reservations in admitting she is scared from time to time - something that George or the boys would never admit to. Dick is probably the least well developed character. Basically as far as this game goes, he acts as extra inventory space for Julian.
The adventure allows the player to switch between the different characters using "become xxxx". You start the game with Julian, Dick and Anne. The characters automatically follow each other around, but you can detach characters by issuing commands from the first person of your current vantage. "dick, go north" will detach dick from the group for example, then you can switch to dick and move around independently. Some puzzles require different characters to be in different locations at the same time. Some actions can only be performed by certain characters so it is good to know each character well. The fifth member of the famous five is Timmy the Dog, but you'll have to solve a puzzle to get access to Timmy.
In the game, your first challenge is to befriend George. The book suggests as to how to achieve this, but there are hints in the game itself.
(Spoiler - click to show)A gift perhaps? Something cold.
Each character has their own inventory. You can view all the characters inventories (in the same room) by use of the standard "look" command. The parser also supports RAMLOAD and RAMSAVE for storing the current game state into memory. For saving the game proper, (if using an emulator)it depends on the emulator used. The game on disk-based platforms supports the use of a data disk, which you will have to format from the emulated game. I find it easier to simply save the emulator state (on Amiga/ST versions). The adventure loads itself entirely into RAM, so you can simply use the memory map of the game to save the game if you wish. It's an annoyance, but a trivial one.
The parser is excellent, and the adventure system is very flexible. The parser on the ZX Spectrum / C64 versions is slightly slow - which is to be expected really.
I love that I can ask characters about different subjects, and that I can issue commands to other characters. I enjoy little touches such as that the background to the text window becomes black when I am in a dark room. I enjoy that other characters move about by themselves. Their racetracks are not too complex but it really adds to the sense of immersion.
Later in the game, you travel to the island. The island isn't particularly very large. The game makes up for that with several context sensitive puzzles based on rough events that happen in the book. As different scenarios are entered into, locations can change context slightly. The game is generally linear. You trigger events and the world state changes.
To say more would be to spoil the story - and this is a story driven game. It is not a game where you collect objects then deliver objects to a location, then collect another object and so on. It is an adventure where you feel like you are on an adventure. It is a childhood that you wish you might have experienced for yourself. It has a parser that doesn't get in the way, it has characters that you care for, and puzzles that make sense.
I would advise playing the Amiga or Atari ST versions of the game if you get the opportunity. They have the fastest parser response time and the best graphics. There are also C64, Amstrad and ZX Spectrum (128K) versions that have much more primitive graphics. I believe the spectrum version has slightly less text in overall. I love the pixel art in these graphics. I like that each platform gets its own style of graphics too. The Spectrum graphics match the limitations of the platfrom and are unique to the platform. The Amiga and ST graphics are very similar - but the ST seems to have more dithering. Commodore 64 graphics are typically blocky. I love them. So much love has gone into every port to make the games the best they could be on the platforms.
Much respect to Colin Jordan for his excellent Worldscape adventure system. I believe he created a utility for creating adventures later (in 1991) for the Sam Adventure System. I truly wish he could have ported this tool to other platforms as his game engine is one of the best I have ever used.
I think perhaps that I enjoy this adventure more than any other, which I suppose is why I decided to post a "review". I'm not sure I did a good job here; perhaps I have really bad taste in adventures. All I can say is that for someone that tried to love text adventures for many years before playing this game - this is the game that made me love text adventures. If you like simple story driven adventures, you could do a lot worse. My rating (5 stars) is based on my own enjoyment of the title and nothing else.