Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Game 17: Gold Rush! - Final Rating

Gold Rush is in the can so to speak and I'm quite curious to see where the PISSED rating system places it in the scheme of things. There are definitely some good things that I plan to take into account, so despite my disappointment with the second half, I don't think it will fare too badly.

Puzzles and Solvability
Gold Rush is a game of two halves really. After the first three hour session I would have given quite a good rating for this category. There was a really good balance between giving the player just enough information to find solutions while not blatantly holding their hand, there were negative consequences to non-ideal solutions, the timer based narrative rewards swift players while still leaving opportunities for slowcoaches (like me), and all the puzzles fit extremely well in the 1800’s setting. Unfortunately, as soon as you begin the long travel from Brooklyn to Sacramento, things take a turn for the worse (and now that I’ve witnessed the two paths I didn’t take, I can confirm this to be the case no matter which path you take).


Looking back at these screenshots now, I can see the Sea Farer in the distance. It was gone by the time I went to the wharf.

There are literally huge sections of the game that feel like educational lectures, with no interaction whatsoever. What little tasks there are during this period are simplistic and feel tacked on and the player can randomly die with absolutely no way of avoiding it. While the puzzles do improve once you reach Sutter’s Fort, this last section of the game is very confusing, particularly if the player approaches it in an unexpected order like I did. You can easily dead end yourself by purchasing an incorrect (yet totally reasonable) item from the trader, the whole mule episode relies on chance rather than logic, and the last two maze puzzles of the game shamelessly take advantage of the AGI engine’s weaknesses. Looking at the ratings I’ve given past games, I probably should give it a 3, but that feels a bit too harsh for the enjoyment I did get out of it.
Rating: 4


The mule puzzle relied on the player doing something that they actually had no logical reason to do.

Interface and Inventory
Inventory is exactly as you would expect for an early Sierra game, so no comments are required there. The interface is another matter, and once again, it’s a mixed bag. On the positive side, there are some slight improvements in general movement, with past issues with climbing stairs suitably fixed. On the negative side, the game often switches the perspective of the player, whether it’s through the use of a top-down view or simply by switching the direction of the camera. While this is used to try to give the player the best view of what is obviously fairly accurate architecture and landmarks, it caught me out a couple of times and caused me to miss screens that were important to the game’s completion. Trying to move the tiny blob on the screen into buildings and interact appropriately in the top-down or pulled back camera sections is also rather difficult. Probably my biggest complaint however is the parser, which is far too limited in understanding, particularly when compared to other recent Sierra games.
Rating: 4


This is not a cut scene. The player controls a tiny little dot to move Jerrod around.

Story and Setting
Credit where credit is due! The MacNeill brothers created a unique setting for an adventure game and it’s one that lends itself well to the genre. They also deserve credit for taking the rather brave approach of giving the player three distinct pathways across America. While I have my issues with the way this was actually handled, the idea is not a bad one and gives the game a replayability the genre isn’t known for. The general plot to find your brother Jake is also quite compelling, despite him leaving stupidly cryptic notes in difficult to find places. Where the story falls down is in the way the creators felt the need to insert every single piece of knowledge they had about the era (which is not insubstantial I’ll add) into the game. Gold Rush is educational and historically accurate to the point of boredom, to the detriment of an otherwise enjoyable yarn.
Rating: 5


A decision that I had no part in making. It's hard to care about the outcome when you have no control over it.

Sound and Graphics
By now you should know what to expect when it comes to sound in the Sierra games of this time. Most of the game is met with silence, with only the most basic effects popping up in low quality. The music on the other hand can be enjoyable, but despite some suitably local tunes kicking in during the travel sections, for the most part it’s forgettable in Gold Rush. The graphics however are pretty impressive, and are probably the best example of visuals using the AGI engine. The MacNeill brothers pulled out all the stops, with larger characters indoors, large amounts of detail, and even some simplistic shadow and lighting effects. They nailed the era, including the architecture of the various buildings and the design of the numerous vehicles. The only downside is the lack of variety once you leave Brooklyn, but I have to admit that’s less of an issue if you take the jungle inclusive Panama path. Overall, I think if the music had been better, Gold Rush would have got the first 6.
Rating: 5


There was clearly a lot of love and effort put into Gold rush and it shows.

Environment and Atmosphere
As mentioned previously, I think the MacNeill brothers did a great job in realising 1848 America. There are probably heaps of inaccuracies, but given I know so little about this time in history, or the locations it took place in, I can only be convinced and impressed by the result. While it unfortunately didn’t entirely click with me until it was too late, the timer based occurrences (such as the ship leaving, the cost of items going up, and the house prices going down) all add to the sense that you’re taking part in something close to what someone of the time might have experienced. I’d like to say that the sudden unavoidable deaths add to the reality of proceedings, but it’s difficult for me to put a positive spin on what is a pretty frustrating facet of the game. That being said, even though I’ve heavily criticised the longwinded journeys by land and sea, they do the game no harm when it comes to making the player feel part of a thriving and refreshing gameworld.
Rating: 7


Previous games hadn't prepared me to take this notification literally

Dialogue and Acting
Gold Rush has a lot of dialogue! For the most part it does what is necessary without attempting any sort of literary embellishments. It’s low on humour when compared to games by Al Lowe and The Two Guys From Andromeda, but it occasionally raises a smile. Something that did catch my attention was the way it switches randomly into uneducated yankee mode, even in the descriptive narrative. I wonder whether they originally intended it all to be like that, but simply couldn’t keep it going. I’ve already criticised the over-educational approach of the game, so I won’t consider that to be a negative in this category. Not much else to say here, good or bad.
Rating: 5


It's like a new commentator just stepped into the box for a session!


I'm pretty happy with a 50 for Gold Rush. It's not as good as Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest or even Police Quest, but it's more enjoyable than games like Tass Times in Tonetown or The Black Cauldron. We're 17 games in now and I'm satisfied the PISSED rating system is working adequately. Now...time to check out the first King's Quest game I haven't played previously...King's Quest IV!

14 comments:

  1. Considering it's not one of the best ones out there, I still didn't expect it to come in beneath Below the Root. Can't fault your scores though, so I guess they tried a bit too hard and didn't succeed in all they tried, even though they had some interesting mechanics in it.

    Time to put on the skirt then!

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    1. It's worth remembering that I'm trying to strike a balance between how groundbreaking a game is and how fun it is to play today in 2012. A game rated 50 in 1988 is not necessarily worse than a game rated 52 in 1984.

      I think that will become more and more obvious as time goes on.

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    2. That's true. It's difficult to strike a balance though. For me, the ratings should also reflect which games you can get enjoyment out of playing now, not just when they came out.

      But as I said, it's impossible to get things crystal clear, and we all have different aspects we want from a rating system. I guess it all evens out though as we go along. (and there may also be some residual feelings for specific child hood games. :) )

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  2. Ahhh, a lovely post to read as I walk to work. Now if only there were fewer places I had to stop to cross the street.

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  3. Oh, and the mule puzzle doesn't seem that nonsensical to me; he has trained a mule to show you the way. The brand on a mule is meant to mark it as yours. If you enter with a mule with your brand on it, and leave with one with the same brand, who is to say they are not the same mule?

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  4. I thought the mule thing was totally sensible.. to a point.. when you said the Blacksmith had a brand from your brother I was like "oh, so you need to match up the brand with one of the mules then he will lead you there".. now, I did not get a great feel for the implementation... it seems that might have been a little weird, leading your pony to a stable then switching it with others.. ok, I agree that is a little illogical.. lol.

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    1. Yeah, that would have made more sense. However branding a mule and it magically knowing the way home would have made less sense.

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  5. Isn't it possible to see the brother's mule in the stables before buying the other one? It would make a perfect puzzle then...

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  6. I think the part about getting Jake's mule from the stables by making a "fake mule" with the same brand is quite logical. The real problem is why Jake would make up such a convoluted plan that could go wrong in so many ways. For instance, what if the mule had died before his brother found it?

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  7. I think part of the issue with the mule puzzle is the order that I approached it. If I'd found the mule salesman and the branding iron right at the beginning of my time at Sutter's Fort, then it would probably have become obvious what to do later. As it was though, when I first visited the mule stable, I knew nothing about Jake's branding iron and therefore had no idea what his brand was. I also saw no reason to check out each individual mule, as looking at them as a bunch didn't hint it would be useful (there are a lot of mules in there).

    Once I purchased a mule and had the branding iron, the logical thing was to brand it, and while it might not be logical that this would somehow make this particular mule take me to Jake, the game confused me by giving me the same parser responses with both the mule I bought and the one Jake left. When I typed "follow mule", the game responded with "try that somewhere nearby!" with both mules, even though that command would only be effective with Jake's. Even after going back to the stable to pick up the mule, the description of both mules is something like "this mule bears a special brand and has a special use". The only way to differentiate between them is that one is described as being slow and timid while the other is high spirited and stubborn. This just makes the whole thing unclear in my opinion. I think it's one of those puzzles that seems logical in hindsight, but the way it is implemented makes it very difficult to see the correct way forward without a bit of luck.

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  8. I don't think they approached this game with the attitude "OK, let's do another Sierra game, but set this one in the gold rush". My impression is that it's intended to be more an educational game that is also fun to play, rather than entertainment being the primary goal. That's why the journeys are all so descriptive and the random deaths occur - the realism is part of the authors' aim to let you know what it might really have been like to make the journey. Seen this way, it might be argued that the "gamey" parts of the story (the Panama crossing comes to mind) are more out-of-place. It's fair enough to judge it more harshly from a gameplay perspective, though. I still think this is a better game than King's Quest 3.

    The narration switches to hillbilly when you reach California, by the way (goes with the beard!). I didn't notice if it disappears again after that.

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    1. I thought that too, but plenty of my screenshots in California show narration without the hillbilly "accent". It constantly switches between them.

      I have to admit that I'm not very excited or interested in the setting of Gold Rush, so that certainly would have played a role in my feelings towards the game. If I was interested in the historical aspect, it probably would have rated much higher. Each to their own. :)

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  9. I love what you're doing here, and as such I am really reluctant to critique any aspect of it, however I can't tell whether your graphics/sound score are compared to today, or compared to when they came out. If compared to today, then I can understand why Sierra's AGI scores are all pretty much 5's.

    But when compared to, say, each other, I think Gold Rush's graphics far outrank that of the first King's Quest or even the first Space Quest, in terms of variety and detail. Then again, maybe they're all just hampered by sound issues? Which, to be honest I never even considered until around 1990 when I got my first soundcard.

    Anyway, I *think* I get your criteria, and I can't argue with the final scores, I've just had a hard time watching Sierra get better and better at their graphics engine, and keep getting 5's. =P (I haven't read your KQ4 section yet, however.)

    (It may also be that I've just been bingeing on these entries since I recently found them. I just want to be caught up with everyone else!)

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  10. I played this forgotten Sierra gem a few years back, and on the whole enjoyed it, though like you Trickster I found some of the puzzles a bit obtuse, and had some difficulty with the interface at times, specifically the parser and screen orientation. I took the Panama route, which, sadly, did not have a soundtrack by Van Halen (or maybe that was a good thing...).

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