Saturday 21 February 2015

Game 47: Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls - Final Rating

By Aperama

Still don't know if Ernie is frightened or aroused...

I've really got the idea that Spellcasting is going to score lower on this than it perhaps should. This comes down to the fact that moreso than anything, it's not a graphical adventure game - it's a text adventure with a graphical interface tacked on. Really, the game would have been just about identical if it had no imagery whatsoever (and in some cases it likely would have benefited more than hindered) and while the point and click verb-noun interface is an interesting touch, I found myself never really tempted to use it. It was just simpler to type in all of the commands the majority of the time. This isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed Spellcasting in its own right – but it's just a hunch that the PISSED rating system might not look too favourably on it. Anyhow, enough conjecture. To the meat and potatoes!

Puzzles and Solvability

Spellcasting certainly has puzzles. Unfortunately, they range from those that are less than obvious and lacking in substance (for instance, the island of KABBULing random names obviously had the 'fairies' tacked on near the end as an effort by the QA team to make it slightly less horrid) and those that are simply far too easy (the island of 'repeating the above command backwards for twenty moves'.) It hits a happy medium a few times, though. I quite enjoyed the maze, which is something definitely worth noting given how much I tend to utterly hate them – in fact, just about everything in the first two chapters was quite fun, with it feeling like they ran out of good ideas as soon as Ernie mounted his surfboard. (Sorry. GOT ON his surfboard. It doesn't like the word 'mount'.) I've also got to give it full credit for the fact that the opening screen has three ways to escape and gives a plentiful amount of time to fiddle around with the interface and work your way out. It's just unfortunate that a game which started so strong finished so weakly. Were the entire game like the opening two chapters, I'd happily give it a 7 or an 8 – but overall, the game doesn't hold true to this.
Rating: 5

This is the style of puzzle I can get behind. It's not incredibly straight forward to a point of being unworthy of my time, but my mind immediately took it in and ran with it

Interface and Inventory

This could very easily be a place where Spellcasting falters. As a graphical adventure game, I found often that were it not for the mixture of both the item list on the side and the room descriptions, I would very easily have missed things. Now, I know what you're all thinking – why isn't this a positive instead of a negative – after all, the interface allowed me to find things? Well, if you list an item and just have a random picture to correspond to it, it's not guaranteed to actually be of any help. So when you have to KABBUL MIKE and the clue given is 'a device for recording sound'? I could be fine with this. All this would be requiring would be a picture of a microphone – plain and simple. Unfortunately, it instead has a random picture of some musical notes as though that were supposed to be enough (see below) – I can only consider this a failing when the interface could give some form of correspondence to clue you in to 'microphone' instead of just depending on either guesswork or for you to wait for a hint. I also have to deduct a point for not being able to scroll back over text in a game clearly designed to be played by mouse. Particularly given the default obscenely small text window, it's nigh inexcusable to have to remember three to four pages of text and simply remember what's there (or work off of the 'SCRIPT' command as I ended up having to). I also had to run through a part of the game twice because of inventory limits that were rather arbitrary (you could have dozens of items on one island, then the next wouldn't allow much more than wearing clothes and holding a lead-plated sword) so I couldn't claim to approve of this. On the plus side, though, certain items do at least exist in the image as something to remove or add or interact with by mouse – and the novel idea of including a mouse-interactive parser that corresponds to things in the small image window is at least worth a nod to, even if in practice it doesn't work very well. (I actually found that the mouse often just caused an error message when used – but that might just be my experience, admittedly.)
Rating: 4

I understand the design decision, maybe – but that doesn't make it a good one. This is by no means the only room where the picture was just of no help, and that means it's 100% down to the text

Story and Setting

Were the interface a worry for me, the story feels like it should definitely be a place where Spellcasting makes its way back... but maybe not. The points I want to give it here are entirely more about the atmosphere surrounding the game than the story that the game follows. It's clich̩d, covered in meaningless MacGuffins and is more of a vehicle for a joke than anything else. My last game was Countdown, where I felt a rich plot was unfolding around me Рin this, I can essentially boil the entire plot down to a single runon sentence. 'You, Ernie Eaglebeak, are a fabled person of prophecy (or something like that, so long as it sounds cooler than it actually is) Рand you must journey to save the Sorcerer's Appliance from Fort Blackwand and kick your evil stepdad's butt!' In some games, a clich̩ will fit well and feel like the intent Рin this, it feels more like this is the best excuse they could find for writing a character who is virtually Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds with a little more social ability and a more successful love life from the getgo. The setting itself feels like it belongs in a Discworld novel, though, so that's definitely a positive Рbut the setting rarely plays into things and where it does it's largely just as a set up to either a joke or a puzzle instead of feeling like being an organic part of Daventry, for instance.
Rating: 4

I'm not saying that they had their main character written for them – Ernie is more of a stand in for most of the game for bad things to happen to him – but the resemblance is uncanny

Sound and Graphics

The games of 1990 are getting to a point that they are no longer just 'alright for their age', but legitimately not too hard on the eyes even from a modern standpoint. You only have to look at the modern obsession behind pixel art to realise that there is a definite style in 'less realistic' styled graphics – and in spite of not looking fantastic, you can look at someone who is supposed to be a 'person' in Elvira and immediately go 'that's a person'. This is true of Spellcasting, too – but nothing actually looks 'good', and I doubt it did back then either. Everything looks as though it were drawn by someone with a minimal knowledge of computerised art to my eye. It's a subjective thing – but I would almost have preferred this be the true text adventure it was put together as. The sound, on the other hand, was pleasant and forgettable at its best – and grating/annoying at its worst. A high-pitched shriek of a 'beep!' comes out every time you misclick on something you shouldn't have, and the music turning into what sounded to be one octave off randomly, particularly on the Amazon island, just made me want to claw my eyeballs out. (This may possibly have been the fact that this game only allows for MT32 or Adlib input. Adlib only gives music in the opening screen, where MT32 gives music throughout the entire game.) Still, I can only rate from my experience – less than appealing but functional graphics and less than pleasant sound. That said? There were animations in the imagery (e.g. blazing fire), so I'll mark it up one from my mental picture of three to four. Not looking good, Mr. Meretzky!
Rating: 4

This is all legible and readable. It's also not very appealing at all to me.

Environment and Atmosphere

Finally, this is where I can give the game some full-blown credit. Spellcasting makes you want to play it – but it doesn't quite make sense that you want to do so. The game doesn't add up in this way. The first two hours of gameplay were by far my favourite – soaking in the rich lore surrounding the game, finding new things – sitting down and watching Ernie's dorm mates play a game of Malls n' Muggers. Sure, there wasn't an incredible amount of it – the 'game' loops after about thirty actions, the sporting events you can watch are pre-scripted affairs that only happen one way, the newspapers are short and sweet – but I am being perfectly honest when I say this was what kept me interested in the game. I was really just hoping that the game would go back to its strength in encouraging more of this out – but in spite of the hugely muddled end where everyone suddenly pops out and everyone is happy at least giving moderate lip service to what had taken place? I can't really fault it. It left me wanting more of the same – and that's really what any good designer should be aiming for.
Rating: 8

The college newspaper was taken over by Mr. Rottenwood's cronies midway through Ernie's education, and it showed upon a reading. Great stuff. 

Dialogue and Acting

I'd like to say otherwise – but it's almost difficult to find many places in which Spellcasting actually allowed for dialogue. There were several instances in which people spoke to Ernie, and several more places in which you could interact with characters.. but only a couple of times did I find an interactive character that would allow me to 'speak' with them over things. This is more a design issue than anything – there are probably a few people you could speak further to were it not for the tight window of opportunity used in puzzles. Text adventure stalwarts and parser lovers alike will understand the sorts of conversations that tend to be had with a character in a game like this – and when I ASKED the Amazonian leader Ursula ABOUT the ATTACHMENT, it worked and gave a response. The majority of other times I tried to speak to people, however, I just received a 'blah, blah, blah...' message to tell me I was barking up the wrong tree. Still, the writing was clearly the star of the show here – and it succeeded quite well. Most of the characters felt fluid. I just can't conscientiously rate it as I would, say, a Monkey Island or King's Quest where several pages of dialogue were put together and were made into an interactive experience – dialogue was clearly a secondary worry here, but where it was it fit well enough.
Rating: 4

The Professor was probably one of the easiest to find conversation topics with. If only more were like him..

As my simple math goes, 5+4+4+4+8+4=29, which when divided by 0.6 gives a score of 48 – and that's probably about where I think Spellcasting sits, honestly. It achieved a touch better than I felt it would after fully thinking it over – at its core it is more IF than adventure game with several IF tropes (continual time-based puzzles and finicky wording taking the place of pixel hunts and awkwardly positioning a character as the primary irritations) taking over. Not having Ernie on screen also makes it quite difficult to relate to him just as good ol' AFGNCAAP from Zork felt.

According to the ol' database, that means that Canageek has guessed right and received both the CAPs reward and a little something I decided to spring for myself. There's a GoG copy of the Zork Anthology waiting for you if you'd like it – it's the closest I could find to anything of the old Legend-styled games for purchase.

CAP Distribution

100 CAPs for Aperama
  • Blogger Award - 100 CAPs - For blogging his way through game for our enjoyment
20 CAPs for Mad Welshman
  • What's Your Story Award - 20 CAPs - For giving his answers to WYS question
15 CAPs for Fry
  • Spelling Bee Award - 5 CAPs - For having the balls to correct spelling errors of Aperama
  • Art and Noel Award - 10 CAPs - For suggesting puns before they were needed
12 CAPs for Kenny
  • Corny Pun Award - 10 CAPs - For winning the caption contest
  • Couple of Gigantic Spoilers Award - 2 CAPs - For failing in his attempt to con Aperama
10 CAPs for Canageek
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - For getting the closest guess for the final rating
10 CAPs for Corey Cole
  • Pizza Award - 10 CAPs - For revealing the story behind fifth element
10 CAPs for Ilmari
  • Helping the Player Award - 10 CAPs - For giving two hints to Aperama
5 CAPs for TBD
  • Genre Support Award - 5 CAPs - For announcing a sale on Steam
I'm quite glad that both Deimar and myself ended at exactly the same time by sheer fortune, as I can now say without a thought of how it might otherwise go to say – on to Rise of the Dragon!


  1. CAP board updated! Aperama is running up in the leaderboard!

  2. I thought Spellcasting might do even worse, but 48 is quite good for a text-based game. If you forget the obvious top games of the year (Monkey Island, Loom and Quest for Glory 2), it has even scored quite high when compared to other 1990 games. Then again, the competition hasn't been that impressive. Considering that in 1989 every other game appears to have scored at least 50, 1990 seems like the dark ages of adventuring with just few shining lights. Oh well, there's still couple more games that might turn the tide...

  3. I don't know why Aperama's not happy with the interface being able to be used primarily with a mouse.

    Don't you get it, man?

    This game is...

    not meant to be played with 2 hands.

    1. It's not that I'm unhappy with it. It's just that in their haste to make the game playable whilst working frantically - er, that is to say - with one hand at the mouse, it just doesn't really work very well and it's not an organic way of playing things. It's a clumsy interface that didn't commit fully to what it had to in order to work better.

    2. Yeah, but the alternative... Geez... I shudder to think about the alternative.


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