Tuesday 31 January 2012

Game 9: Uninvited - Arachnophobic Phantoms

Journal Entry 2: “This detestable house is sucking the life out of me. I fear for my brother as I have been unable to find him, or to see any sign that he is held captive within these walls. As time goes on I discover more and more rooms, all of which contain numerous items that may or may not assist my cause, but the answers seem to lie mostly within the parchments that are hidden around the mansion. They speak of a man called Dracan, who seems to be the one behind the darkness I find all around me. One such parchment directed me to a skeleton key, which allowed me to open some of the cabinets around here, but many of the items held within are of questionable use. I did however discover the box that contained Dracan’s star, and have successfully retrieved it by putting the box in the fire as another parchment cryptically suggested. If only I knew what all these items were for! I’m certain the amulet and the stars I have hold the key to finding my brother, but their purpose evades me. I have still not, despite many attempts, been able to catch the detestable little creature that mocks me constantly, but I know I must soon, as time is running out. Time…is…running…out!”

I’m going to put it out there. Uninvited is a crushingly hard game! I can’t recall another game that has made me fight so hard to achieve anything at all, only to find myself with no idea how to progress again immediately. At the end of my last post, I’d just removed (i.e. melted) the mysterious woman that was blocking my access to the rest of the house. As it turned out, the rest of the house is massive, meaning I’ve now got stacks more questions with very few answers, not to mention endless items that may or may not be useful. It’s daunting to say the least, and while any small successes I have are celebrated with fist pumps and outbursts of elation, the lengthy periods of failure and confusion that separate them are beginning to break my spirit. Am I giving up? No, not yet! But I am beginning to wonder what I’m going to do when I simply can’t complete a game, even if Uninvited is not the game that breaks me. Hopefully you guys will help me out! For now, let me describe to you my recent experiences and attempt to give you an idea as to why Uninvited is so brutally difficult.

Even fluffy, soft towels are deadly in this house

After Zenic made me aware that I’d missed a vital item (a gold amulet) on the first screen of the game (which you can never go back to), I started Uninvited again and set off more determined than ever to figure out its mysteries. It didn’t take me long to get back to where I was previously, since I’d already mapped every location I’d visited and hadn’t actually achieved very much. I then set about mapping the rest of the house and checking out all the items in each room, guessing as to which ones might have a role to play later on. One thing I did come across that I figured I could do something with was a spider on the veranda. I just so happened to have some spider spray in my inventory, which paralysed the arachnid, allowing me to carry it with me in a live state. Once I’d mapped every room I had access to, I set about re-reading the various books and parchments I’d collected to see if I could find some sort of hint about what I needed to do next. At this stage there were three rooms I couldn’t get access to (the Magisterium, the Chapel and a room off the study) and two locked cabinets (one in the rec room, another in the master bedroom), but everything else was accessible.

I did something! I actually did something!!! :) :)

Other than the book in the library that contains magic related definitions, the rest of the notes I had talked about an apprentice called Dracan, who had obviously gained too much power and become dangerous. One particular note mentioned that the house servant had stolen Dracan’s star, which I assume he required to do something with magic, and hidden it in a box that cannot be opened. Since this was the only note that seemed to contain a hint, I decided to follow it up. I looked through every room trying to find a “box that cannot be opened”, but couldn’t find anything other than the locked cabinets, which I couldn’t do anything with. I eventually figured that the small bedroom off the kitchen could belong to a servant and directed my attention there. After finding absolutely nothing of worth, I just happened to turn the light on. Now before I continue, I should mention that I’d already tried to turn the lights on in numerous rooms throughout the game, only to be informed that there doesn’t appear to be any power, so turning the lights on in the servant’s bedroom was done with no belief that anything would come of it. Well it turns out that turning the lights on makes an apparition of the servant appear in the room (don’t ask me why!), demanding to know who let me in there.

There's no power in the house except for the servants room. That makes sense!

This is one of those moments where the game gives you a glimmer of hope that you’re on the right path, and that things will start to become a bit more obvious soon. However, no matter what I tried to do with the servant, he would kill me instantly. I could see that a panel had moved behind him and that there was something in the wall behind where it used to be situated, but if I tried to move it to my inventory or even just examine it, the servant would kill me. Over the next period of time, I tried to figure out what it was that I could give to or use on the servant that might get him to allow me to get whatever the object was, but there was nothing obvious I could think of. I was then forced to use trial and error, otherwise known as click and hope, “operating” all sorts of items on him ranging from knives to axes and even matches, to no avail. Getting desperate, I used the paralysed spider on the servant, and he screamed and dissolved from view, apparently “flustered and frightened”. The game didn’t give me any information to make me think the servant might have arachnophobia, nor does this solution seem any more logical than using any other item in the mansion. It was just luck!

You know he's just as scared of you as you are of him

I’m not going to continue describing the game in this detail, but I hope the above has given you an idea as to why the game is so difficult. It’s hard enough that there are hundreds of items spread out over multitudes of rooms, and that most of these items play no part in solving the game, but it’s made stupendously challenging because the hints given to the player are simply not sufficient. You can’t really apply logic or clever thinking to these puzzles and instead have to rely on luck and an almost inhuman amount of patience. Remember how I mentioned in my last post that one of the notes hints that a chair knows where the missing key is located? Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with all the chairs in the house over the last few days, getting to know them, showering them with gifts and trying to loosen them up with alcohol, in the hope of getting this information out of one of them. The solution was to cut one of them open with a knife, as the key was hidden inside. Now that hardly follows on from the hint and as you can imagine, was figured out through frustration rather than any sort of brilliant intellectual thought. If the rest of the game is filled with these sorts of puzzles and solutions, then at some point my luck is likely to run out and I’m just going to get plain stuck.

"The chair knows where". Does it still know?

On top of all this (yes, I still have more things to whinge about!), just as in Déjà Vu, there is a time limit in which you are required to finish the game. Thankfully it’s much more generous than in Déjà Vu, but given how difficult Uninvited is, and how much time needs to be spent simply exploring, looking for clues, and trying out different possibilities, it seems an unnecessarily cruel element. My most recent save games have my character clinging to his sanity, trying to keep the demons out. I’m pretty much going to have to start again and rush through everything I’ve done to create a save game that will give me a chance of finishing the game, and will likely need to do this again at some point. Once I’ve done that, I just need to figure out how to get past the dogs at the chapel, where the diamond is that will give me access to the Magisterium, what gold and silver items are required to mix with the mercury to create a key (this is one of the hints I’ve found), what these stars actually do, and how to catch the annoying creature that constantly waves a key at me. Oh, and I haven’t found a use for the amulet that Zenic told me about either, or where and when I’m supposed to recite the magic words, if indeed that’s what they are.

You feel frustration. You feel discouraged. You feel a restart approaching.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably getting the impression that I hate Uninvited. The truth is that it’s an intriguing game with a haunting atmosphere, and I really do want to finish it. I was looking forward to the horror themes prior to commencing and I guess it hasn’t really let me down on that front, apart from some inappropriate use of comedy killing the tone on occasion. The illogical solutions to barely perceptible puzzles are just making the whole experience unreasonably challenging. I’ve racked up five hours in total so far and since I committed to playing at least six hours on every game, Uninvited has at least one more hour to prove to me that it’s worth the effort, which brings me back to my earlier comment about what to do if and when I’m unable to get through a game on the list. I have a couple of ideas about how to deal with it, but would be interested to see what the readers think. For now, I’m going back in...

Here we go again...

Monday 30 January 2012

Game 9: Uninvited - Conversing With Chairs

Journal Entry 1: “I’m writing in this journal in an attempt to keep my sanity. Perhaps I’ve lost it already!? My kid brother and I had a car accident in the middle of nowhere. I swear I was just trying to dodge a shadowy figure on the road and ended up hitting a tree...hard! When I woke up, my brother was gone, and then I barely managed to escape the car before it exploded. To make matters worse, I entered the only house I could see to try to get some help, and now I’m trapped here! There’s evil in this place, and whoever lives here has been dabbling in dark arts that no-one should mess around with. Pentagrams, books of magic, voodoo stuff...and I’m...seeing things! Ghostly figures keep appearing out of nowhere and some bizarre creature keeps dashing in and out of my view. I still can’t find my brother, but I can only assume he came in here too. I fear if I don’t find him soon it will be too late, so all I can do is read the various parchments left around this damn place to try to figure out what the hell is going on and where he might be.”

Well I guess it had to happen eventually! A few of you have suggested that Uninvited is a challenging game, and one that I’ll more than likely struggle to get through without a walkthrough. I’ve already played the game for over two hours and I haven’t managed to get anywhere at all, so I fear you’re right. All I’ve done so far is checked out all the rooms I can get into without dying and examined all the items within each of them, picking up the ones that seem like they might be useful. I’ve mapped everything out in Excel along with where I found each item, but I’ve not yet managed to find a use for any of the items I’ve found or come across anything that I can actually solve. The only real hints I have to go off are in the various journals, scrolls and books that I’ve picked up, but they don’t give me a heck of a lot to go off. The large book I found in the library contained definitions such as Instantum – sudden and momentary, Projectum – propulsion of an entity etc., and then was able to apply these definitions to a scroll, but all I ended up with was “talking head abraxas” and “sudden light abraxas”.

I'm afraid deep thought and research isn't working out all that well for me so far

I must have died over thirty times already, like when my car exploded with me still in it, when I was torn to pieces by a ghostly woman, when I got trapped for eternity in a prison cell, when I was poisoned by some unlabelled liquid etc. etc. The most frustrating of these deaths has to be the ghostly woman that appears whenever I open any door on the ground floor of the house. She initially has her back turned to me, but no matter what I try to do next, she turns around and rips my face off. Until I figure out what I’m supposed to do with her, I can’t access any more of the rooms on that floor, but I don’t know whether that’s something I need to do early on in the game or later. As expected, the inventory system is killing me! I put items in it by dragging them into my inventory box and letting go, but unfortunately I can only carry a few items before I get a message telling me the item won’t fit and that I should try removing something from the inventory. This problem is majorly exacerbated by the fact you can pick up just about any item in the game, despite most likely not ever needing the majority of them. I filled my inventory within about three screens, so am constantly having to manage it.

Oh great! My inventory is full and now there's a closet full of stuff!

So where am I at? Well, there’s a little creature that keeps running around waving a key at me, but I can’t see any way to get it from him. One of the journals suggests there’s a star hidden away in a hingeless box, but that they’re locked away and only a chair knows where the key is. That’s right...a chair! Well, I unsurprisingly don’t seem to be able to talk to any of the chairs in the house, so the message is obviously cryptic. Other than that, I have a bunch of masks, an enormous axe, some kerosene, a towel with blood on it and various other bits and pieces. I even have a bottle of No Ghost liquid, but when I tried to use the bottle on the Scarlett O’Hara looking undead chick, nothing happened. Oh...um...well I’ll be damned! While writing that last line, I thought I’d try the No Ghost liquid again to make sure I wasn’t making an idiot of myself. As I was doing it, I realised that the first time I tried it I didn’t open the bottle first. This time I did and she melted away like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. I was about to ask for a hint from you guys, but it seems the game has just opened up to me. I’m not convinced that I won’t be back here asking for help shortly, but for now...

Watching the mysterious woman melt away, screaming in horror, pleased me very much

Sunday 29 January 2012

Game 9: Uninvited - Introduction

Our haunted mansion offers world class diving and sunsets

Uninvited is the second game to be released on ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture engine (known as PCVenture when ported to the PC). It was originally released for Apple in 1986 before being ported to numerous platforms, including DOS in 1987. The first MacVenture game was the noir influenced Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!!, which was the fourth game I played for this blog. That game was a relatively enjoyable adventure game, but was marred by low quality graphics and sound, and an ambitious yet frustrating inventory system. Of particular note when discussing this series of games is the fact that they are the first examples of what would come to be known as point and click adventure games, removing the text parser from the experience (although Déjà Vu did require it in small doses) and allowing the player to control everything with the mouse. This would become the standard for adventure games in years to come.

The original PC box cover

Uninvited moves away from the world of crime and murder, and instead puts the player into a haunted house situation. It’s apparently the only of the four MacVenture games to take place in the present day. I have to admit that the horror theme is much more in line with my personal tastes (while they’re both classics, I’ll watch The Exorcist over The Godfather any day), so I’m looking forward to Uninvited more than I probably should when I consider the low rating I gave Déjà Vu. It may also assist that this time I’m going in having had previous experience with the engine, so I shouldn’t have to spend much time trying to figure out the mechanics of the game or fighting DOSBox, and can instead focus on the puzzles and the story as it unravels. The screenshots I’ve seen look suitably creepy, even in the dodgy CGA colour palette. Speaking of the low quality graphics, it’s worth clarifying that I’m going to be playing the 1987 DOS port and not the 1991 Windows 3.1 remake, as tempting as that is.

People who play in 16 colours are soft!

I’ve found the game, downloaded it and tested it (including the save and load features), and also got my hands on a PDF version of the manual and quick reference guide. A quick skim through both suggests there isn’t anything of note that has changed between games when it comes to the interface, which means that wearisome inventory system is still there. Here’s hoping there isn’t another panic inducing time limit to contend with this time, and perhaps less of a focus on pixel hunting, which is far more challenging when the CGA colour limitations make everything blur together in a swirl of pink and blue. Anyway, there’s no point sitting here worrying about what might or might not be. It’s time to see what Uninvited has to offer. If you don’t hear from me for more than a couple of days, then I guess I didn’t make it out of the house. Whatever you do, don’t come in after me!


Saturday 28 January 2012

Game 8: Tass Times in Tonetown - Final Rating

Tass Times in Tonetown is for the most part an enjoyable adventure game, but I feel it’s my duty to highlight its flaws as much as it is to praise its highlights. My gut feeling is that it’s PISSED rating is going to be on the lower end of the spectrum, but we’ll see what happens…

Puzzles and Solvability
As I’ve already mentioned, the puzzles in Tass Times in Tonetown are actually pretty logical and enjoyable. When you enter an area and are killed because it's too dark to see, it’s logical to take a glo-burger with you next time. When the Daglets inform you that they originally wanted to play a concert at the tower but that their zagtone instruments disrupted the equipment there, it’s logical to take a zagtone with you when you try to free Gramps in the tower. As you can see, the items in the game are fairly ridiculous, but their use is in most cases obvious. It’s therefore unfortunate that the solvability of the game is made drastically more difficult by the many possible dead ends. It’s really very difficult to know when the game has become unfinishable, so I’m sure I’m not the first player to waste hours aimlessly looking for a solution that just isn’t there. For that reason I’ll have to give it a 4.

Having a glo-burger with you stops this from happening, but it wouldn't be the last time I'd see those teeth

Interface and Inventory
The game successfully mixes both an interactive fiction text parser and a graphical interface, allowing the player to utilise whichever one suits their purposes at the time. I personally found the graphical interface too unruly to use properly, but that had more to do with the way I was forced to use it (mapping joystick movements to unused keys) than any issue with the game itself. I found the text parser to be adequate, but faced the same issues that I always do with games based on this technology. Ask the wrong question and you’ll get the wrong answer, meaning you can find yourself rejecting an idea that was actually correct, just because you didn’t use the right language. That being said, the ability to use the graphical interface takes this problem away, as language doesn’t come into it. The limited inventory is annoying however, particularly in those early stages of the game where you don’t know what you need and when you’re going to need it. I carried around items for nearly the whole game that I didn’t need until the very end, meaning one of my eight inventory slots was taken up permanently. When you consider that the picks (Tonetown’s form of currency) and the clothes you’re wearing take up three slots, it doesn’t leave much room for anything else. It’s a generous 5 for this category.

Oh now you want the book! Thankfully it's not one of the items I purposely dropped this time.

Story and Setting
The storyline of Tass Times in Tonetown was initially quite intriguing. Gramps is missing and the evidence suggests that he’s used a strange device to transport himself to another time or dimension. Going in after him really does give the player a sense of excitement, with a strange new world to explore on arrival. As the game goes on however, the story becomes thinner and thinner, with very little explanation as to why things are the way they are and what the player’s motivations are for their current task. Once you save Gramps, he tells you he has an important task to complete and that the player is welcome to assist, but he never explains what that task is or how to go about it. If you then try to talk to him again, he basically dismisses you and just tells you we need to deal with Snarl. Its times like this that just a few more lines of text would give the player more awareness of what they’re trying to achieve and give some direction. The ending is also very sudden, with everything wrapped up in an unsatisfactory way, leaving numerous unanswered questions such as “why are Gramps and Spot staying in Tonetown?”, “if Snarl is the combination of a pig, a raccoon and a crocodile, how did the mutation occur in the first place and how did Gramps know that sending him through the hoop would separate him?”, and “why did Snarl take Gramps prisoner to begin with instead of just killing him?”. This interesting yet incomplete story gets a 4.

Everyone seems to understand that I'm going home and they're staying...except for me.

Sound and Graphics
Sound and music in the game is minimal, although there are a couple of dodgy tunes that pop up at certain points, such as in Fast Freddie’s. At least whoever created the music knew not to use high pitched notes the way so many other early DOS games seem to, so it’s not too grating on the senses. Sound effects are limited to the occasional gurgle to inform you that a creature is nearby and various blips and blops. As for graphics, well once again PC players got the raw end of the deal, with the CGA palette 1 blues and pinks ruling the screen. It’s not completely out of place in this game, as the psychedelic colours kind of suit the oddities of Tonetown, but there’s no doubt that Amiga and Apple players had a more attractive experience. Animation is used rarely and crudely when it is, but it did give a sense of life to Tonetown, so I’m glad it was there. The game looks and sounds a bit better than Déjà Vu which I gave 2, so a 3 seems fitting.

The game looks so much more tone on the Amiga!

Environment and Atmosphere
This is where Tass Times in Tonetown does make a stand. The world of Tonetown and its inhabitants is truly bizarre and the atmosphere is consistently strange and fascinating. There’s no way that you can predict what you’ll find on the next screen when the world is filled with unusual creatures, floating telephones, burgers that glow in the dark, office corridors that never end and talking journalist canines, not to mention there’s an eye and an ear guarding a gate in the woods. The fact that you die suddenly and horribly at regular intervals gives Tonetown a constant element of threat, which also adds to the atmosphere. It’s probably this intriguing element that drove me to keep playing the game, even when the story started to diminish and the puzzles became unsolvable, so I’ll give this category a 6.

Ok that's just weird!

Dialogue and Acting
The dialogue and description found is Tass Times in Tonetown is certainly colourful (much more colourful than the CGA limited graphics). The unique language that the locals use not only acts as a reminder that you’re a long way from home; it also plays a role in at least one puzzle. When I first tried to talk to Nuyu, he responded with “far too linear – too Jonboi Waltune!” After reading about Jonboi Waltune in the newspaper and how he was made an outcast after his refusal look stylish, I realised Nuyu didn’t want to talk to me because of my appearance. After mimicking their style his response was “you look tone!” and he then hired me on the spot. There’s plenty of humour thrown in and the game’s self-referential tendencies always raise a smile. For all these reasons I’m given the game a 6 for Dialogue and Acting.

Electrolic! Indeed!

47 it is for Tass Times in Tonetown which puts in above The Black Cauldron and Déjà Vu but below the likes of King's Quest and Below the Root. This seems entirely fitting to me, so I'm fairly satisfied with the way the PISSED rating system is working. I kind of wish the scores were more distributed, but I assume that will happen over time. It's time to move onto another ICOM game and I really hope Uninvited shows some improvement over Déjà Vu, which used the same "engine". I may not be invited, but I'm going nonetheless!

Thursday 26 January 2012

Game 8: Tass Times in Tonetown - Won!

Journal Entry 2: “I did it! Well, I should say “we” did it! After much detective work, Ennio and I rescued Gramps from an otherwise empty office block where Snarl had him locked up. The three of us then set about finding Snarl with the intention of putting an end to his villainous ways. It certainly wasn’t easy getting into his house, given the strange creatures that blocked the entrances, but we eventually found a way in and confronted him. Ennio cornered him while Gramps got the hoop working (I’m not sure why Snarl had one but I was sure glad to see it) and then I finished him off with some electrical creatures I’d found in the woods called Red Devils. We then pushed him through the hoop, sending him out of Tonetown and into my normal dimension. I shed a few tears and said goodbye to Gramps and Ennio before I also stepped through the hoop and went home, but I had to chuckle when I found a pig, a raccoon and a little crocodile sitting on the side of the road looking forlorn. Apparently Snarl was a combination of the three, which I guess explains why he was so damn ugly!”

Yep, Tass Times in Tonetown sure is a strange game. From start to finish not much of what goes on gets any real explanation and I found myself shaking my head at the sheer wackiness of it all quite often during the five and a half hours it took me to complete it. Before I talk about my more recent experiences with the game, I wanted to overturn a comment I made in my previous post. I was fairly certain at the time that the game required the player to pixel hunt in the graphic window instead of being able to purely rely on the text descriptions to figure out what items are relevant. I came to this conclusion prematurely, after struggling to find the first item I needed in Gramp’s cabin due to it not being mentioned anywhere in the text. After a couple of hours play without any other instances of this happening, I decided to play through that first scene again to see whether I just missed something.  As it turns out, I’d simply failed to notice the hint that was right in front of me all along, which is that Spot was “barking at the kitchen counter”. I hadn’t yet figured out the importance of paying attention to Spot / Ennio, and if I had of simply typed look at kitchen counter, I wouldn’t have had to click on every item in every room trying to find something of use. In summary, there is no pixel hunting required to complete Tass Times in Tonetown!

I can't really blame the game for my lack of observation skills can I!

So what did I think of the game? I’m afraid that’s not an easy question to answer, as it really is a game of negatives and positives. On the positive side, the game is quirkily charming, quite funny at times, and the mystery is generally solved using a logical approach, despite the craziness going on all around you. At the end of my last post, I was thinking that if I can make myself not look like a visitor to Tonetown, then Snarl would stop killing me due to his hatred of tourists, and I was completely right. Lots of times I found that my intuition of what to do was right, which is a good sign that the game’s puzzles are fairly logical. Strangely enough, I went to bed last night after getting a bit stuck, only to wake up in the middle of night knowing exactly how to proceed (I’m sure my wife loved me waking her up to tell her that I just needed to take a Blobpet with me from Snarl’s pet store to the woods where the pile of soil was too hard for me to dig through with my bare hands). Another positive is the useful interaction between Ennio and the character, warning him when he should be careful and hinting when he should take note of something. It’s certainly the first example of companions actually being useful, which is particularly refreshing after playing The Black Cauldron with its “well, they were in the book, so they have to be in the game” characters.

Hired for my good looks! Not surprising I guess (ahem)...

Unfortunately, the game does have its fair share of negatives, not least of all the inventory size limitation. Given there are quite a few items to be found in the game and the non-linear approach means you can pick up any of them at any time, limiting the inventory to eight items is rather irritating. As I was playing the game for the first time, I had no idea whether I would ever need to use an item more than once, but I was quickly forced to drop anything I’d already used to make room for ones I hadn’t. It turns out that in almost every case, the use-it-once-and-drop-it approach was correct, except when I found out at in the finale that the very first item I dropped (the book I found in Gramp’s lab in the first scene which hinted at where he’d disappeared to) was required a second time to finish the game. Items you’ve dropped are easily visible in the graphics window and also mentioned in the text description, but remembering where you dropped a particular item can be quite a strain on the brain. Limiting the inventory in this way really forces the player to either restart a couple of times, using the knowledge you’ve gained to only pick up the items you need early on before disposing of them, or to choose one location to dump all used items into in case you’re later required to go back and get one of them.

Oh yay, some mitts! I'll just leave my camera here on the dancefloor so I can carry them

Undoubtedly the biggest flaw of Tass Times in Tonetown is the dead ends that arise due to doing things in the wrong order. The game is actually really, really short (if I played through it now from start to finish, I reckon I could do it in around twenty minutes), but it took me five and a half hours to complete it because I got stuck in situations where , unbeknownst to me, I was never going to be able to finish it. At around the three hour mark, I’d mapped every screen, was pretty certain I’d collected every item, and had saved Gramps. The only thing left to do was to find Snarl and defeat him some way, and my only two avenues were a locked gate in the woods and a well near the town. Every time I entered the well, I was killed by “mad creatures” immediately, and I simply couldn’t find any way to get through the gate in the woods, despite taking out the guards. After trying every avenue I could think of, I restarted the game, and remembering that I had actually successfully entered the well earlier without being killed, decided to focus on getting through there prior to saving Gramps. This decision eventually lead to victory for me, as saving Gramps prior to entering the well, getting onto Snarl’s property, and unlocking the gate from the inside, results in an unfinishable game. Now that I have finished, I can see several other ways that the game could be made unfinishable, which I avoided through luck alone.

What he should have said is "Don't save me now you idiot! You haven't unlocked Snarl's gate from the inside!"

Taking the above pros and cons into consideration, I think the PISSED rating system is unlikely to be particularly generous when it comes to Tass Times in Tonetown. Strangely enough though, I still quite enjoyed the game, and would recommend it to anyone that finds pleasure in interactive fiction, more so than fans of Sierra or Lucasarts style adventure games. If the dead end I banged my head against futilely all morning hadn’t left such a bad taste in my mouth, I’d probably be pretty positive about the game overall. As it is, I can’t ignore it, and will have to judge the game accordingly, which I’ll do tomorrow.

It seems the game has ended?! That's my reward!?!?

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Game 8: Tass Times in Tonetown - Crocogator Tears

Journal Entry 1: “Well this day couldn’t get any weirder really. It all started when I went over to Gramps’ house to search for any clues that might help figure out where he’s disappeared to. I found the key to his lab hidden in a jar, so I decided to check it out for the first time. What I found was a very unusual hoop shaped device, and as soon as I turned it on, Gramps’ dog Spot jumped through and disappeared! Figuring this device must have something to do with Gramps’ whereabouts, I followed Spot through and was incredibly transported to a strange world called Tonetown! Not only that, but Spot suddenly goes by the name of Ennio, can talk, and is some sort of famous journalist around here! I’ve spent the last few hours walking around, checking out the town and talking to the residents. They all speak in a very strange way (they say Tass and Tone a lot!) and wear psychedelic clothes with sparkles and bright colours. They seem to use guitar picks as currency so it’s extremely fortunate that I picked some up in Gramps’ lab before coming here. Speaking of Gramps, the people here seem to know who he is, but he’s missing in Tonetown too! I guess I have no choice but to look for him here while I try to figure out how to get back home.”

Before I start talking about the game itself, I just wanted to shout out to HunterZ for helping me to get the game running properly through DOSBox. The game makes use of multiple inputs and while the only one you really need is the keyboard, it was bothering me that I couldn’t get any mouse response to make use of the graphical interface. I still can’t use an actual mouse (apparently you would have to use an old school serial mouse), but with HunterZ’s assistance I’ve managed to map some keys to joystick movements and buttons, allowing me to move around the screen and select the various actions. As it turns out, using these buttons doesn’t really add much benefit and I’ve resorted to typing commands with the text parser alone, but it’s nice to be able to click on things in the graphics window to see what they are rather than guessing with the parser. Unfortunately, the cursor is not very responsive when using the keys and it can be difficult to get it in the exact position you want, but I’ll manage.

Somehow they managed to get the description, inventory, compass, action buttons and graphic window all on one screen.

I have to admit that I struggled for quite a while to get anywhere in the game, stuck in Gramps’ cabin with no picked up items and a locked door blocking my progress. Normally in straight text adventure games, all the objects in the room of relevance will be at least mentioned in the room description (which you get by typing LOOK). That’s not the case with Tass Times in Tonetown, so it’s important that you have a good look at the graphics window and request information on items you can see, not just the ones it describes. Eventually I found the key which was hidden inside a jar in the kitchen, but it took me well over ten minutes of scouring all four rooms in the cabin, trying to find anything of use. Once I got into Gramps’ lab and got used to the interface, I’m made pretty decent progress both getting into Tonetown and making my way to various locations. I’ve been mapping my progress in Excel, writing down things of note and items I’ve discovered / purchased on the way.

If you think Spot wearing a hat is weird, wait till you get to Tonetown and he starts talking to you

As you can tell from the screenshots, the graphics are ugly due to the limited palette, but they’re certainly of a better quality than Déjà Vu. Also, while I stated in my introduction post that the graphics were entirely static, there is actually some animation on a fair few screens. It’s not all that impressive, but it’s a nice touch that makes the world feel a bit more real and tass (did I just say that?!). The Tonetown Times newspaper that comes with the game has been indispensable, not only because it’s given me an overall feel for the goings on in Tonetown, but mostly because it’s given me the names of its inhabitants that are required to talk to people. If you try a command such as TALK TO WOMAN in the game, you are informed that “we use first names in Tonetown” and therefore get no response. This form of copy protection is much more acceptable than King’s Quest III, where I was forced to spend a fair portion of the game copying down magic spells word for word and gaining stacks of points for it.

I guess it's not that unusual for the cute chick at the rock concert to refuse to talk to me

By far the biggest annoyance in Tass Times in Tonetown so far is how regularly my character is killed. I’ve been forced to save my game nearly every screen as I find myself randomly “thrown to Crocogators” or “tortured to death” by local business magnate Franklin Snarl. Often these attacks are preceded by warnings that my character hears someone muttering “I hate tourists”, so I’m starting to think I’m being punished for either spending too much time in each area or not fitting in with the general population of Tonetown. At the end of my first session on the game, I’d just purchased a typical Tonetown outfit from Tique, including a jumpsuit and hooplet, and I also noticed that I can get my hair done at Jamac Salon, so I’m wondering whether making myself look like a local will stop the constant death screens. I hope so, as being killed off every couple of minutes is really starting to get on my nerves, and makes progressing in the game a struggle.

That's a little harsh isn't it?!

Despite this annoyance, I’m very much enjoying Tass Times in Tonetown so far. It’s definitely an intriguing little mystery and I feel like I haven’t even touched the surface of this bizarre world I’ve been thrust into. Having Ennio the Legend along for the ride is a cool little touch and his warnings and background information that’s available on certain screens makes what would otherwise be a daunting environment a little less intimidating. One final word of warning for anyone that wants to give the game a shot! I highly recommend using the actual save game slots rather than just using quicksave every time. I’m going to have to start the game again this evening (not a big deal at this point) because every time a reload my quicksave, I’m confronted and killed by Franklin Snarl as soon as the screen comes up. It’s a lesson I’m glad I’ve learned this early in the game as losing the only save you’ve got a couple of hours in would be far from ideal. Have a tass and tone day and Ennio and I will report back when we’ve uncovered more secrets of Tonetown.

Don't you hate it when the game gets so big you have to sell your Flo Rink!

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Game 8: Tass Times in Tonetown - Introduction

Tass Times in CGA Palette 1 Tone Town

Tass Times in Tonetown was written by Infocom designer Michael Berlyn and his collaborator Muffy McClung Berlyn. Michael had already played a role in the creation of many well-known Infocom interactive fiction games including Suspended, Cutthroats, Infidel and Zork: The Undiscovered Underground. The programming for Tass Times in Tonetown was done by Bill Heineman, one of the founding members of Interplay Productions, who also programmed the classic RPGs The Bard’s Tale III and Dragon Wars. While it has very little to do with the topic I’m covering, my research into Heineman has unveiled some very interesting information that I simply had to share. You see Bill is not only a video game programmer, he’s also the first person to ever win a national video game contest (he won the National Space Invaders Championship in 1980), an author of novels including quite a few based on The Terminator and Independence Day, and most interestingly, a woman. After he was diagnosed with gender identity disorder in 2003, Bill transitioned into a woman, and is now known as Rebecca Heineman.

Veteran programmer Bill / Rebecca Heineman

Anyway, back on topic, Tass Times in Tonetown is a graphical text adventure. That means the game is really a text parser based adventure game that includes a static graphical interface window. You can “interact” with things in the graphics window by selecting from icons representing actions such as pick up, drop, talk to etc. and then clicking the object you want the interaction to occur with. This form of intuitive GUI is combined with a text parser, but I’m yet to fully understand how the two work alongside each other. The working title of the game was Ennio: The Legend Begins, referring to the dog that appears in the game, but this was changed to the very strange Tass Times in Tonetown prior to release. The explanation behind the name is that Michael and Muffy were employed at Harvard University, which has the motto Veritas (meaning truth). The two of them had started using the phrase “very tass” to mean very true, and eventually they used the word extensively in the game, where it’s used as a replacement for words like “cool” and “hip”.

Everything about this game looks truly bizarre, including the box cover

Before I go load the game up, I should mention that I’ve found myself a PDF version of the manual and also the newspaper that came with it. I believe the newspaper acts as a form of copy protection, by making the player look up various things while playing, so it’s fortunate I’ve got my hands on it. There isn’t really a backstory to speak of in the manual, so I still have no idea what the game is actually about. There is however a song that doesn’t alleviate the feeling that I’m about to plunge into a very strange world. I’ve copied it below so you too can experience the wonder that is Are You Tass? Are You Tone? Anyway, it’s time to enter Tonetown and I’ve got a feeling I could be there a while. This sort of game can take quite a bit of time, not to mention mapping, to complete, so I don’t expect to rip through it in the sort of time the last few games have taken. Here’s hoping I get far enough into the game to report back in the next day or two.

Breaking News: Activision Makes Copy Protection Entertaining

Are You Tass? Are You Tone?

Are You Tass? Are You Tone?
Somebody's vanished -- through a hoop -- into the unknown.
Or have you been here before, under a triangular moon?
Do you wear a Troppo look or is it Jonboi Waltune?

Sleuth out the cabin. The clues may unjar you.
Where the Dogwonder leads leaping -- will you follow?
The mystery unravels in a different dimension,
But your guide by your side is none other than "The Legend."

Tonetown is hometown if you're ultra plus chic.
In need of some styling? Just visit the 'Tique.
Bangle up some hooplets, lay down some picks,
Jump on a jumpsuit, then to Freddie's for kicks.

But wait -- read the Times -- enigma on enigma.
The truth? Wrapped in darkness. Something to dig for.
And evil lurks -- snarly, underworldly-wise,
Three ways times three ways he plots your demise.

So get to unriddling, stop fiddling around.
If you're here as a tourist, Tonetown's not your town --
If you loop through the hoop, you must loop it alone.
Are You Tass? Are You Tone?

Monday 23 January 2012

Mouse support for Tass Times in Tonetown

Does anyone know if a mouse is actually required to play Tass Times in Tonetown? I've managed to get the game to run in DOSBox, but my mouse has no effect, meaning I can't click any of the action buttons. A quick Google suggests that the game only supports an old school serial mouse, even when played through DOSBox. I don't have one and my laptop doesn't even have a port for one. I'm thinking I might be able to play the game using only the text parser if I have to, but obviously it would be much better to get the mouse working.

The below link is the best info I've found so far.


Any ideas would be much appreciated.

Game 7: The Black Cauldron - Final Rating

Well I can’t start this post without mentioning the news that Chet from the CRPG Addict blog has decided to call it quits, at least for the time being. I won’t talk about this too much now, but I will come back to it shortly. All I’ll say for now is that I’m feeling a bit empty and disappointed (not with Chet, I totally understand and respect his decision). I obviously owe a great debt to his work and have thoroughly enjoyed every single post he's written since I started following around twelve months ago. As for The Adventure Gamer, it doesn’t change anything. It’s all systems go and I still have every intention of seeing this monumental project through to completion. It’s time to apply the PISSED rating system to The Black Cauldron.

Puzzles and Solvability:
If you’ve read my previous posts on this game, you will probably have guessed the categories I’m going to give low scores, and this is one of them. It’s not really that there’s much I can label illogical throughout the game, it’s more that the lack of explanation for what’s going on and what character’s roles are makes knowing what to do next and how to do it very difficult. When Disney told Al Lowe that the game should closely follow the movie, I don’t think anyone was aware of how isolating and confusing the result would be for players that haven’t seen it. Things happen all the time that would normally make the player restore and try again (ie. Hen Wen gets captured when your only quest is to protect her and the cauldron gets stolen away by a gwythaint as soon as you get your hands on it), but since these things happen in the movie, they had to occur. As Zenic commented on one of my posts, the better way for these events to occur would be to remove player control temporarily (therefore making it clear that you are supposed to let it happen), but that wouldn’t allow for the branching storyline to occur in many instances, so I do understand why the developers didn’t do that. I still don’t really understand what several items were supposed to be used for and I assume this is because I didn’t partake in the storyline where they would be utilised. The result of this is that I wasted ages trying to make use of items that were actually never going to be of benefit to me. I’m giving the game a P rating of 3.

This happy ending makes the whole journey and it's consequences completely meaningless

Interface and Inventory
Al Lowe deserves some credit for creating a graphic adventure computer game that doesn’t require the player to type commands into a text parser. The simplified replacement system means the player only needs to know what four function keys do (INVENTORY SELECT, USE, DO and LOOK) to make their way through the entire game. The downside of this simplification is that the player feels very limited as to what they can do. Unlike text parser based games and future point and click games that allow you to request information about pretty much anything onscreen, the system used for The Black Cauldron means you can only ask for information about (or interact with) an item you are directly next to. This is not a massive issue (there are very few instances where you can’t gain access to whatever it is you want to get info on or interact with), but there’s just something about it that distances the player from the experience. Perhaps it’s just that the amount of possibilities that are available on each screen is drastically reduced, making the game seem less open. If I weigh up the pros and cons of the changed interface (PROS – simplified, text parser flaws removed CONS – less interaction and information available, navigation flaws unchanged), it’s probably on par with the other Sierra games. As for the inventory, well it functions the same way it does in other Sierra games, with one exception. You have to SELECT an item from the inventory before you can USE it. 5.

Most screens have only one thing you can interact with or even look at due to interface restrictions

Story and Setting
Everything I’ve read suggests Lloyd Alexander’s books are really very good. Unfortunately, the nuances of that story were damaged when transferring it to cinema screen, and further damaged when put into the framework of Sierra’s AGI technology. Ignoring everything it’s based on, the story of the Black Cauldron game is bewildering and unsatisfying, no matter which branches you choose along the way. I won’t repeat the issues I’ve had with not knowing what character’s roles are and which events are part of the unravelling plot as I’ve banged on about them already. At the end of the day, the storylines of adventure games are very often set in stone, so players are not really making choices as much as they are solving puzzles to make it progress. I take issue when the choices the game has made for my path are either not the ones that I want to make or are completely unexplained. The setting of this story, Prydain, is represented well enough graphically, although it has to be said it looks and feels a heck of a lot like a King’s Quest game. It also feels very small, making Taran’s big adventure to reach the Horned King and the Fair Folk people seem a bit laughable. The Fair Folk people are around two screens away from his home and the Horned King’s castle around five. I’m going to be unsympathetic here and give the game a 2 for Story and Setting.

I honestly don't think I was ever informed of this request for assistance?! Anyone know when that supposedly happened?

Sound and Graphics
As I’ve mentioned previously, The Black Cauldron looks visually just like King’s Quest, with an added darkness to some screens achieved by nice use of blues and purples. I can’t say I noticed any increase or decrease in quality for the animations and illustrations when compared to the likes of King’s Quest III or Space Quest. Having not watched the movie in decades, I can’t say whether the sparse cases of music have any connection with it (or the visuals for that matter). I can say however that they managed to make the music particularly grating this time around, with high pitched, ear aggravating tones frequently used. It’s used so sparingly that it doesn’t really have a great effect on the enjoyment of the game, and it was probably particularly noticeable for me due to my attempts on every screen at finding a use for the lute I found early in the game. I ended up offering it to the fair folk as a gift, so the abuse my ears suffered during that process was all for nought. I’m sticking with the Sierra 5 that I’ve repeated a few times already.

King's Quest IV: The Black Cauldron

Environment and Atmosphere
The general forests and lakes of Prydain look identical to King’s Quest, so are not really worth talking about, with the exception of the darker forest screens to the west. The trees here contain ghost like faces which when combined with the dark colour tones successfully produce a foreboding atmosphere. The same can be said for the castle scenes, which also benefit from a sense of imminent capture, which as it turns out it’s completely applicable (you’re chased around on nearly every screen). Overall the atmosphere of The Black Cauldron is fairly compelling, which is probably why I continued on to the end despite struggling to understand what was going on and what I was supposed to be doing. 6.

Spooky trees! Reminds me of watching Poltergeist when I was too young to be doing so

Dialogue and Acting
I don’t have a heck of a lot to say for this category either. The simple style found in other Sierra adventure games (straightforward location and item descriptions, simplistic story narration, and very sparse NPC interaction) is used for The Black Cauldron. Apart from the one irritating bug in description I found while scaling the castle wall, I can’t say I noticed anything particularly negative or positive to announce for this category, meaning I probably should stick to the 4 I’ve given the majority of past Sierra games.

Since you've already told me the solution, I can go ahead and complete the solution.

That’s a 42 for The Black Cauldron, which appropriately makes it the lowest ranked game I’ve played so far for The Adventure Gamer. It’s a bit disappointing really as I was hoping to find a lost treasure that has been unfairly ignored over the years. Instead, it’s clearly the least successful use of the AGI system I've played to date, and a wasted opportunity to bring Alexander’s world and characters to the screen. Now...what on earth is Tass Times in Tonetown all about!?

Saturday 21 January 2012

Game 7: The Black Cauldron - Won!

Taran Wanderer Journal Entry 2: “What an emotional ride today has been. First I helped Princess Eilonwy escape the prison and found an awesome magic sword, and then I rescued a bard named Fflewddur from another part of the castle. I even managed to save Hen Wen and got her to safety right before the Horned King made her show him where the cauldron was. As if all that wasn’t exciting enough, I then visited a strange underground kingdom where King Eiddileg gave me some magic flying dust. I used it to access a witches’ house across the river and traded my magic sword for the Black Cauldron. Just when I thought I’d finally stopped the Horned King and his wicked scheme, a gwythaint stole the cauldron from me and took it back to the castle. Summoning the little courage I had left, I climbed the mountain back up to the castle, realising that the only way to stop the Horned King was to throw myself into the cauldron, sacrificing myself in the process. Just as I was about to do it, my loyal little furry friend Gurgi jumped into the cauldron instead, destroying the Horned King, his castle, and himself. My devastation at the loss of my friend was short lived, as the witches traded me his life back for the cauldron, meaning everything worked out in the end. Prydain is safe and I’ve got some great new friends!”

If the above rundown sounds convoluted, well you don’t know the half of it (unless you've played it of course). It took me a total of six hours to finish The Black Cauldron and I can’t say I had much idea what was going on half the time. I rescued people who never showed up again, was given items that played no part in the game, was constantly rewarded for counterintuitive decisions, and was left feeling empty during an ending that was supposed to be highly emotional. I don’t think Al Lowe had any idea how challenging it would be to take a movie plot and present it as an adventure game and I think he realised things were not going well when he bailed towards the end of the project. He managed to squeeze in a lot of the characters, items and locations from the movie into the game, but with no controlled plot or linear progression to tie them all together, you end up with a game only really enjoyable by those who already know what happens and can fill in all the gaps on the way.

In other words, the game technology won't allow me to have a companion anymore so you better go

The perfect example of this is the character Gurgi. Gurgi is the little furry creature I met at the beginning of the game. I gave him an apple and he told me he was now my friend. I assume that Gurgi becomes a companion of Taran’s in the books and movie, and that they experience many things together through the course of the story. That would make Gurgi’s presence at the finale make sense and his sacrifice understandable and emotional. In the game, his sudden appearance and sacrifice is completely absurd, and it occurred at a time where the game told me what I was about to do (throw myself into the cauldron), when in fact I had no idea. It’s confusing, forced storytelling, and his sudden reincarnation at the end makes the whole thing meaningless. I was led to believe that the Black Cauldron would be destroyed if a live being got into it, therefore committing suicide in the process. Why then would the three witches bargain his life back (they also offered all sort of other treasures) for a completely non-magical cauldron?

...there was that day I gave him an apple and...um...that other day where I gave him an apple. I miss him so much!

There is one notable positive to come out of The Black Cauldron and that is the use of a branching storyline. There are numerous ways to “complete” the game, with all of them ranging in satisfaction and points. I first completed the game by sacrificing myself into the cauldron as soon as I got it (therefore making it powerless and not allowing the grythaint to steal it), but that resulted in only 173 points, and the game hinting at the fact this was not the ultimate finish. I then restored and let the gwythaint take it (yet another example of the game rewarding me for counterintuitive actions), and was then able to go to the castle for the big finale (where I apparently just try to sacrifice myself anyway!!!). I’ve since read a walkthrough to see what other ways there are to complete the game, but most of them revolve around which of the witches’ offers you accept on the way. There’s no doubt that the branching storyline merely adds to the confusion in the case of The Black Cauldron, but it should be noted that this is the first true example of a technique that would become popular in the genre and eventually used very successfully.

Seemed like the logical thing to do, but it's not what you wanted me to do is it Mr Dungeon Master

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Black Cauldron at all. When I knew what my goal was and could just focus on achieving it, there was much fun to be had. But it has to be said that the game is pretty hard going for someone with no prior knowledge of the story, and the pioneering features (non text parser interface, branching storyline) are not implemented anywhere near as well as they would be down the track. Al Lowe and his crew were on a hiding to nothing with this game. Players who know the story from either the books or the movie would breeze through it. Players who don’t know the story won’t have much idea what’s going on. Either way, it’s not very satisfying, so I now know why it kind of disappeared into obscurity while so many other Sierra games have hung around. I’m happy that I got through it and can move onto something else.

One big happy family of strangers

Friday 20 January 2012

Game 7: The Black Cauldron - Abduction is Progress

Taran Wanderer Journal Entry 1: “Today started like every other day. After a nice walk by the lake, I went back to Caer Dallben to complete my morning Assistant Pig-Keeper duties. Hen Wen started to act very strangely after I fed her and she scurried off to Dallben as soon as she finished her brew. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I went back to the old man’s place, as Hen Wen was in some sort of trance, producing a vision as though through magic! Dallben then proceeded to tell me that Hen Wen is indeed a magical pig, and that there’s some guy out there called The Horned King who’s trying to get his hands on her to use her abilities to find a cauldron. I don’t know exactly what he wants the cauldron for, but I do know that Dallben says I need to get Hen Wen to the Fair Folk to make sure he doesn’t get it. Well some hero I am! I hadn’t walked more than 100 yards before an evil gwythaint attacked us and took Hen Wen away. Since then I’ve spent ages trying to get into the Horned King’s castle to get her back. I’ve climbed a mountain, walked across twisting narrow paths, swum through an alligator infested moat and scaled the walls of the castle, but I’m finally in! Sadly, all I can think about is how hungry and thirsty I am!!!!”

We've sure come a long way since King's Quest haven't we!

I have to admit that I assumed The Black Cauldron would be a fairly leisurely adventure game, especially given it was targeted at children and so much effort went into making sure the interface was clean and simple. Well, either I’ve just got used to ripping through games I’ve already played before, or this game is really quite challenging. I’ve played for two hours and have racked up 70 points out of the possible 230, but it certainly hasn’t been easy going. I’m actually beginning to wonder whether reading the books or watching the movie prior to playing would result in the game making more sense. There are a few unexplained things happening and I’m being forced to take options that I otherwise wouldn’t, just to fit in with the way the game wants me to play. Linearity is fine for story driven adventure games, but The Black Cauldron is confusing in that the at times counterintuitive path it wants you to take is not forced, and certainly not very clear. I’ll give you a rundown of my first session of play to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

I would be such a Great Hero that it would demand capital letters

The beginning is all pretty straight forward. Talk to Dallben, pick up all the food and water and feed Hen Wen. From there I was given the quest and sent on my way with Hen Wen in tow. I was then attacked by flying creatures called gwythaint’s on almost every screen. If I let one catch us, it takes Hen Wen away, leaving me wondering whether or not I was supposed to let that happen. If I leave the screen and come back, as I was required to do in numerous similar instances during all the other Sierra games, the creature would no longer be there, and I’d be free to explore with Hen Wen safe next to me. I decided to hang on to Hen Wen as long as I could, in case there was something I was supposed to do with her, staying close to the edge of screens for safety. Pretty quickly I’d covered every screen I could get to and had very little to show for it. I’d pulled a dagger out of a tree and a lute out of a hole, but was already at the point where there wasn’t much else to try. It didn’t help that the game doesn’t seem to award you for finding items the way Sierra games normally do, so I was stuck on a very depressing 5 points which I got for feeding Hen Wen.

Oh wow! It's an evil gwythaint! Hey there, the pig is over here! Come fetch! I didn't want her anyway!

At this point there were three things I was left wondering about. Firstly, it appeared that I could climb up the mountains, but kept being told that Hen Wen wasn’t able to. Secondly, on a particular screen I was continually informed that there was something small moving around just out of view, but no matter what I did I couldn’t find anything. Finally, I could see on the map that there was a house in the south west, but I could not find any way of getting to it. I had no choice but to let Hen Wen be captured to see whether that opened up any further game options to me, despite how counter-intuitive that seemed to my quest of protecting the pig. Well waddaya know, as soon as Hen Wen was out of the way, the small creature that had been scurrying about came into view demanding food. I gave him an apple and was informed that “Gurgi now Taran’s friend for life”. Unfortunately, as nice as it is to have Gurgi’s friendship, I don’t seem to be able to get any information out of him and he doesn’t follow me when I leave the screen. He does appear from time to time on other screens, but I’ve not yet found a use for him. As an aside, I’ve been playing a tune on the lute on every screen I enter to see whether that does anything, but so far it’s achieved nothing.

I'll be your friend to the end!

So, with nothing else to do and still not being able to find a way to get to the hidden house, I set about trying to climb the mountain, which I was eventually able to do after struggling to find a path through the rocks. I have to tell you I was pretty shocked to find the Horned King’s castle perched at the top of the mountain. I figured I was setting off on some big adventure that would take me through various locations before I reached the big bad dude, but he was in actuality around six screens away from my house! There I was confronted with a moat filled with alligators and no option but to try to cross it. I eventually made it but not before dying around half a dozen times as they all made a rapid beeline towards me. It’s at this point that I found a bug in the game that hindered my progress. While scaling the wall I was told that “since you’ve removed the vines covering the window, you could climb in the window.” After spending a few minutes attempting to enter the window that I’d apparently made accessible, I tried using my knife on it and was told “this dagger easily cuts through these vines”. It was only then that I was able to enter, so I can only think this is a bug.

You're kidding! The Horned King is my nextdoor neighbour!?

I’ve only spent five minutes in the castle, but already I’ve run into the same confusing counterintuitive plot progression. I entered a room, only to be chased by some sort of guard. Instead of running out of the room the way I normally would, I decided to let him catch me to see what would happen. He dumped me in a cell where I uncovered “a beautiful young girl” called Princess Eilonwy. So once again the game rewards me for doing what in every other Sierra game would result in instant death and the plot progresses only after I choose to be captured. Going back to my comment about the game making more sense to a fan of the books or movie, I assume Hen Wen gets stolen away by a gwythaint and Taran finds Princess Eilonwy in the castle prison cell in the actual story, so these decisions would most likely seem pretty obvious. To me, they go against my instincts and adventure game experience, making the game feel very forced and unsatisfying at this point. Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the thing that has really frustrated me about The Black Cauldron.

If you show me your magic bauble, I'll show you mine.

Just as I had to do for my character in Below the Root, I have to manage Taran’s consumption throughout The Black Cauldron. Every time he’s thirsty, I have to give him water and every time he’s hungry, I have to give him food. You pick up a loaf of bread and a bottle of water when you set off on your journey and this is probably enough to get you by long enough to find more, but given I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring screens and trying to figure out what to do next, I’m running out pretty quickly, resulting in death. I’m now at the point where I’m in the Horned King’s castle with Princess Eilonwy, trying to find a way out of the tunnels beneath the prison cell, but I keep dying of starvation. I don’t think I have any choice but to start the game again and get back to where I am as quickly as possible now I know what to do. Food management in Below the Root wasn’t that bad because there were stacks of places you could procure more, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in The Black Cauldron unless I’m missing something (which is very possible). I still have a bad taste in my mouth after having to restart Déjà Vu over and over again (hence the name I guess) due to the harsh time limit (and nearly had to do the same thing for money management reasons), so I’d hate to think that I’ll be doing that again for The Black Cauldron.

Thanks for the tip. Maybe next time you can let me drink the water that I'm standing next to!

I guess the final thing to mention before I start over and get back into it is the interface. As I’ve mentioned previously, The Black Cauldron does away with the text parser found in games like King’s Quest and Space Quest. Instead the player uses function keys to USE something (F4), DO something (F6) or LOOK at something (F8). To USE something, you first need to select it from the inventory by pressing F3 and then ENTER on the specific item. As an example, you fill the water flask by pressing F3, scrolling down to Water Flask and pressing ENTER, then pressing F4 to use it. You drink from the Water Flask by pressing F3, scrolling down to Water and pressing ENTER, then pressing F4. That probably makes it seem confusing but it’s really quite simple. I guess there are positives and negatives to having such a limited interface. On the positive side, you don’t have to figure out what command you’re supposed to type or what it actually is you’re looking at. You simply enter a screen, walk around to anything that looks notable and press F8 to look at it or F6 to do something with it. On the negative side, if there’s something on the other side of the screen that you can’t get to, you have no way of requesting information about it. You just can’t say “look at candle”, so you just have to trust that the candle is not relevant. I wish I could trust the game that much!

You want me to do what?! After what happened to King Graham?