Ballyhoo

by Jeff O'Neill

Mystery
1985

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Number of Reviews: 7
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A lot loafer doing some Johnny Tin Plate-cherry pie on the side., May 7, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Comedy

Yes. That's just one of the great things about Ballyhoo: you get to learn circus-lingo.

After overhearing the circus boss talking to an obviously incompetent private detective about the disappearance of his daughter, you decide to do some investigating yourself. No other motivation than your protagonist's whim. Works for me...

So you start the game and soon find that...

Ballyhoo is pure puzzle and comedy gold.

The comedy comes from many different sources.
There is the persistent atmosphere of a somewhat run-down circus. There are mislaid props and animal odours and filthy rags for banners. One of the trailers is off kilter, an old and warped attraction front serves as part of the fence, one of the lions is skinny and shaggy... This atmosphere doesn't get depressing because it's offset by detailed and colourful descriptions.

The prose is really good. The room and action descriptions are clear but also playful, and there are some hilarious cutscenes (I include deathscenes in the "hilarious cutscene"-category...) A lot of the comedy comes from the protagonist winding up in awkward situations and uncomfortable circumstances ((Spoiler - click to show)trying to navigate a tightrope 20 feet up in the air, finding your way through the crowd searching for your cotton-candy). Many times I laughed at the almost slapstick shenanigans needed to complete one or other task.

During your investigation, you'll meet many outlandish characters. When you (the player) stop and think about it, these NPCs are no more interactive or conversational than a cardboard cutout, but they are so well drawn that their stand-offish behavior and reluctance to answer your questions seems perfectly natural in-game. And they are marvelous just as they are. A collection of wonderful circus-artistes to gawk at.

Other funny features were the many, many instances of wordplay and punnery in the responses to "wrong" commands. My favorite was GET OUT OF LINE when exiting the line in front of a food stand ((Spoiler - click to show)the game describes your character raving and ranting and jumping up and down in anger, i.e. behaving "out of line"...)

As I said above, the puzzles in Ballyhoo are really top shelf. Beautifully hinted and clued. Very rewarding, in the searching for clues as well as in the discoveries after solving them.
When I came across a puzzle, I always could picture a vague general plan to tackle it. And it always turned out that I had missed a necessary step or forgot to bring an important object, throwing me off-balance again. Wonderful! And it always made sense in hindsight.

A small criticism: although I loved solving the puzzles for their own sake, and a joy to solve they were, I rarely had any idea why I was jumping through these hoops.
Of course I'm going to try to get in the lion's cage if I find out it's locked. Why? Because I'm playing an Infocom game. Apart from that, there is little to no motivation in-game to do the weird things that you do. Not even the occasional "You think you see a silvery glint behind the grating"...

This is in keeping with the characterization of the PC. Sure, the game-world is a late 1800s circus setting, but if you look at the bare bones of Ballyhoo, you're still a nameless cleptomaniac adventurer solving puzzles because they're there. There are a lot of instances where you find the solution before you see the puzzle. So you wind up taking everything with you "just in case". To be clear, I don't mind that. I actually like it. Just pointing out that we're not far removed from ZORK-gameplay.

There is however a bigger and more compelling story woven around the puzzle-solving hoop-jumping. This becomes evident int the finale. Excellent building of tension, beautifully tying together the narrative strands (in a hilariously off-kilter way, but hey...). The player's expectations are abruptly shaken a few times before finally solving the bigger puzzle that is the disappearance of the boss's daughter.

Really, play Ballyhoo. It's a hoot.


5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Didn't enjoy it, September 29, 2020
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: 10+ hours

I'm surprised this has gotten the good reviews that it has. I didn't enjoy this one at all. In fairness to the game I think that I'm still a little rusty on thinking (and using verbs) the way Infocom thought when designing these games. However, I managed to get through most of Zork and Deadline alright. In those games I think I figured out 80% of the puzzles without hints, but with Ballyhoo I think I only got 20% without hints. Even finishing it with a walkthrough as I did, I still don't understand some of what was going on or how I would have ever figured it out on my own. The ending in particular is crazy.

So having to use a walkthrough for 80% of the game is a big strike against it, but even beyond that I didn't care much for the story or characters. Most of the characters are unlikable and the story feels thin. I think I finished the last 30% of the game by strictly following a walkthrough because I just wanted it to be over.

Oh well, they can't all be winners.

ADDENDUM: I bumped up my rating on this one star after listening to the Eaten By A Grue podcast episode about the game. I wrote the above review right after finishing the game and while I still hold to it, I think my frustration at the ending in particular made me forget about all the humor earlier in the game. This game is legitimately funny at points, in ways that not many pieces of IF are, and so I think that is worth an extra star.


3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Hello cruel world, I don't want to join this circus, April 30, 2019
by deathbytroggles (Minneapolis, MN)

Jeff OíNeillís first game with Infocom pits the player in a circus mystery involving a kidnapping and a cast of crazy characters. OíNeill certainly brings forth his vision of the shady underbelly of circus life, and there are several puzzles apropos to the atmosphere (e.g. getting across a tightrope, taming some lions, etc.). However, the mystery itself is highly convoluted and not all that interesting.

It becomes very difficult, even early, to determine exactly whatís going on, and several puzzles related to the mystery are barely clued and can be solved with only limited understanding of the situation at hand. Worse yet, there are bugs that require practically restarting the game. Despite several sprinkles of humor and ingenuity, Ballyhoo is simply too frustrating and not worthy of play unless you must complete your Infocom collection.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Wonderful, intricate, intimidating story and puzzles. Better than Sorceror., February 3, 2016

I rushed through Ballyhoo, but even so the story was marvelous and stunning. This is a mystery game set in a dreary circus. The feel is a lot like Not Just and Ordinary Ballerina. You investigate the disappearance of the owner's daughter after hours.

This game could have been played without hints for a month. The puzzle solutions are intricate and the world is detailed.

I relied on hints out of fear that there was way too much I could do wrong. In fact, almost everything is reversible, once you reach an area, you get unlimited chances to return. If not, you don't need to return. The game was shockingly forgiving.

Unfortunately, the walkthrough may have been necessary simply because of guess-the-verb problems, especially with conversations.

The much-feared dream sequence is very easy to map and overcome (the lines situation was harder for me).

This is a fantastic game, the name and blurb really turned me off, but this game was more fun than the Lurking Horror or Sorceror.

**Edit:** I've been asked to clarify what I mean by better than Sorceror (or Lurking Horror). As I considered why I used that comparison, I realized that there are many parallels between Ballyhoo and Sorceror: both contain a dark carnival, both are centered on searching for a missing person, both have a pair of gatekeeper puzzles, many wild animals etc. In both, you slowly develop into an expert in the skills that surround you (magic or circus abilities), and the humor and writing are similar.

Why do I prefer Ballyhoo? It condenses the map of Sorceror, and has far more NPCs and interesting, scripted events, as well as far less red herrings. It has more feeling, too. In Ballyhoo, when you are in (Spoiler - click to show)Eddie's trailer and he realises you aren't a clown, I felt real anxiety for my character, and when (Spoiler - click to show)you break through Tina's shell and she solemnly shakes your hand, I felt a tug on my heartstrings. Contrast this to Sorceror's over the top 'scary moments' like (Spoiler - click to show)burning in flame forever or its few moments of pathos (Spoiler - click to show)which I can't even think of; perhaps giving up your spellbook?.

As for lurking horror, I'm just still mad about the Chinese food puzzle. It's actually a great game.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A hidden gem in the Infocom collection, January 19, 2014

I love Infocom. You really can't NOT love Infocom.

Everybody knows about Zork. Everybody knows about Enchanter. Everybody knows about Deadline. Nobody, however, really talks about Ballyhoo. I decided to check it out, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. I'm now 100% convinced that Infocom is incapable of making a bad game.

Ballyhoo is challenging, but not too challenging. It does make you think, but there aren't all that many rooms, so it's fairly easy to wrap your head around navigation. There is one part, though, that is ridiculously difficult and takes a while. If you really want to know what I'm referring to, (Spoiler - click to show)it's the rather infamous part where you are hypnotized. This includes a maze of sorts and a lot of methodical planning, because if you make one wrong move, you have no chance of winning anymore.

As long as you save often (as you can't undo moves), this is a very enjoyable game.


8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Flawed, but very entertaining, June 4, 2008
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)

I played Ballyhoo with a friend of mine, and it was a great way to experience it. I'm sort of a fan of the circus, and I think this game did the atmosphere very well, despite the typical Infocom in-jokes. The game takes great pains to time events so you never miss anything, which has some mimesis-crushing side effects. The puzzles were not ridiculously hard, though I think we used hints once or twice. There a brilliant dream sequence marred by maddeningly tedious puzzles. We had a lot of fun with it, even while we cursed the puzzles that just don't make sense.



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