Thursday, 1 November 2018

Spellcasting 301: Spring Break - Final Rating

By Deimar

And here we are, another game in the bag. In retrospective, I have a good feeling about the game in general, although it is worse than when I started. The first sections of the game, where you are exploring such a vast land, getting to know the different ecosystems and its people, is truly great. But very soon you start to notice some stagnation, exploration becomes sparse and, simply put, there is not that much to do or enjoy.

It doesn’t help that the humour fell completely flat on me. I didn’t find any of the situations the game places you in worth a laugh, at most just a giggle or a smile of complicity. And I am a bit conflicted about the reason for that. The Digital Antiquarian for example simply states that this game is not that fun regarding its style of comedy. Not even as a product of its time. However, reading some reviews and comments in other sites, like for example Adventure Classic Gaming, seems like the game has a fan base. On my part, I tend to agree with the former. Comedy, as most other things, evolves with time and what at some point might have looked hilarious and daring can now be seen as quite plain and boring. But I don’t think this is the case here. I really think this game was not that fun to begin with even on release.


Weiner jokes, that’s a low bar even for 1992
So why am I focusing so much on this aspect? Because the game’s premise doesn’t offer too much more. Exploration and trying new things is fun, but there is a limit to what you can do. If we add to that the oppressive timer that makes you have to continuously save and restore; the inventory limit; and the fact that puzzles are only presented to you at specific timed events giving you little opportunity for preparation and the game really suffers. Even worse, it becomes repetitive after just a few contests, and looks like a lazy effort of a game. Which is a pity, because the rest of the game feels quite well-designed. It is not a bad game, don’t get me wrong, but mostly mediocre in my opinion.

Before getting hands on with the PISSED rating, one last note. As far as my google-fu is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be an alternate or better ending. It simply seems like the ending was designed with the fourth and last part in mind, Spellcasting 401: The Graduation Ball. Sadly, that game was never made, but even if it was this ending would still feel incomplete.

Puzzles and Solvability

My psychologist tells me I have to be more positive, so I will start with a good point. I think the puzzle design is superb with a few caveats that tarnish the experience. What I mean with that is that most of the puzzles in the game feel natural and logical, with enough clues being dropped at the player so you don’t get stuck for too much. They are puzzles that make you feel quite accomplished after solving them. But it is the other ones you will keep remembering, in spite of them being few.


This one made me feel particularly clever, although I don’t know why

One clear example is the wrestlers puzzle, which in my opinion doesn’t have that much of a logic. The ending also suffers from this, as the chain of events coming from amplifying the bull’s cries is absurd. There is no reason whatsoever to think that casting amplify on it will make its cries be heard by its mother, who will eat Joey Rottenwood, have a head fall off… The only reason is a meta reason; that is the only spell you have not used in the whole game, and that doesn’t make for a good design.

Another problem is the over reliance on the UPPSSY spell. From my experience, graphical adventures tend to adhere to the single responsibility principle. Every item serves a single purpose and then can be discarded from other puzzles. That is not that good to be honest, as it can create situations where the game wants you to do something new, but you can think of one or two solutions involving already used items. However, in this case you end up trying to UPPSSY everything and it gets a little repetitive. In the end, it feels lazy even when there is a certain logic to it. Part of the fun is trying to guess what to do, but here you automatically try to UPPSSY, no thinking involved.

Add to that the cultural puzzles. The jellyfish and the stud finder are the main culprits here. Not being American really plays against you in these games, even without considering the language barrier inherent to all parser-based games.

And finally, although I don’t think hold it against the game in this category, allow me to comment on the time based nature of the puzzles. It sucks. Big time. Starting with the very first contest concerning bringing girls to a party. You have zero clues regarding how to successfully solve this puzzle because you are not presented with all the pieces until a few moments before the timed event happens. In other cases, it is not the solution that is hidden from you, but the whole problem, making you play until the next problem and then restore to prepare for it once you know what it is about.

Overall, the bad parts outweigh the good ones, getting the game in a medium point in this category.

Rating: 6

Interface and Inventory


Picture here: The bloated interface you can get rid off as soon as possible

The interface might as well be non-existent. Borderline useless. It is simply more comfy to play using the text parser than using either the list of verbs and items or clicking in the graphic window. At the beginning there was a moment I started to think I might have been missing things because many items can only be discovered by looking at the picture of the scene, as they are not described in text. But that was soon forgotten. The fact that you can choose which parts of the interface to keep goes a long way in the game’s favour, as it allows the player to play as it likes. Granted, I would have liked a “repeat” key shortcut à la Quest for Glory 2, and maybe some evolution from the previous Legend games.

However, inventory management in this game is completely bonkers. The inventory limit seems arbitrary, as it seems to be based on the size of the items. For example, you can carry less things when you have the trunk or the seal. But there is not a visible quantifiable size, it is just based on intuition, which makes planning more difficult. And planning is a big part of this game, as at the beginning you have to play the game as a speedrunner would. It also makes experimenting with new things quite tedious, as that means more trips to gather new items and back to wherever you were thinking of using them.

Rating: 3

Story and Setting


This is what passes for story in this game

So, let’s start with story. This game has none. Really, think about it. You spend 90% of the game trying to win a tournament that in the end doesn’t matter at all. I wonder if you really need to win any contest, as you could potentially just get to the final day being a level 6 sorcerer without having won a single one and call it a day. The game feels pointless, and the end section just completely disconnected from the rest of the game. And there are way too many contests, the last ones feel quite rushed and not very thoughtful.

Having said that, let’s talk about setting. Fort Naughtytail feels like a cohesive and interesting setting. It all makes a sort of sense, and there is nothing too out of context. Except for the last part, that is. Exploration of the island is the best part of the game. If anything, I would say that the island feels a little empty and lifeless once you get out of the main tourist section of the island, although the weirdness of each new screen balances it a little.

Rating: 4

Sound and graphics


Pretty, but not on par with its peers

This game came out the same year as King's Quest VI or The Dagger of Amon Ra. Let that sink in and make the comparison yourself. Both graphics and sound feel dated. Even considering there is a considerable upgrade from Spellcasting 201 in the graphic part, it is simply not very impressive, except for the title cards. Those are very good quality, but being just that, title cards, and not the meat of the game, I don’t think they should matter that much. Hell, at the second half of the game, they didn’t even bother to draw new pictures for some of the contests.

On the other hand, sound is the worst offender of the two by far. There are only few repetitive tunes and there was a point I considered turning sound off. Not really a selling point. And there are not that many sound effects through the game. I can’t actually tell you when was the last time I heard a sound effect. They are that unremarkable.

Rating: 3

Environment and Atmosphere


I really liked this scene. It is not very interactive but it’s fun

This is the category the game shines in. Each area has its own unique atmosphere and the game knows how to make you feel like being at a crowded beach or the loneliness of an abandoned mining town. From the gorgeousness of the merfolk city to the eccentricity of the local rich man’s mansion. All of them worth visiting, with a lot of charm, even if I can’t explain exactly why. Except for the last section of the game. Have I mentioned how much it sucks?

And it even gets better, as there are environmental changes. For example, when the “wreck the city” contest is taking place, wherever you go you see descriptions of either the YUs or the Pharts causing havoc. Or you can see the judge moving from her seat at the beach to go to the next contest, followed by a cohort of people. It is little details like that that make you appreciate the atmosphere.

The only drawback I can think of is how out of place some of the pictures are with the descriptions. For example, the area outside the arena is described as full of people, but there are more people shown in the fishing town than in that drawing, even though that area is described as mostly empty.

Rating: 7

Dialogue and acting


Ernie, please, say something, anything, even that you are pissing yourself...

There is not a single conversation worth of that name and not a single character I care about. Not even Ernie, who is more of a blank slate than a fully fledged character. I don’t know if this game relies too much on previous installments so you can know about your brothers or if it is simply laziness in describing them. For the most part, they are completely interchangeable to me, with the possible exception of Moe, because he is the one who talks to you. And no, I don’t count a character dropping information to your character as a conversation. There is not even a response from Ernie in any of those talks.

And don’t get me started on the other characters. The YUs might very well be a single entity, as they are all described as idiot jocks. The judge is just a plot device. Hell, I would say the only memorable character is the sheriff, and he just spends the game saying “I hate spring breakers!!”. The other characters in the game might very well be decoration or inventory items as far as our interactions with them are concerned.

Rating: 3

6+3+4+3+7+3 divided by 0.6 is 43.33, so 44. I am going to add a discretionary point because I don’t really think it is a bad game nor as flawed as other games with the same amount of points such as Operation Stealth or King Quest I.




45 is a number I can stand behind and so does Aperama, who played through the first two games of the trilogy, so it seems like we have reached a consensus. Congratulations Aperama! Another noteworthy achievement is that Ilmari nailed the fifth Straight of the year, correctly determining the order of games from Inspector Gadget to King's Quest VI.

CAP Distribution:

86 CAPs for Deimar
  • Special Guest Blogger Award - 86 CAPs - For assisting an adventurer in need and blogging through this game for our enjoyment
100 CAPs for Joe Pranevich
  • Completing Another Year Award - 25 CAPs - For reading through Infocom manuals for our enjoyment
  • Database Addict Award - 25 CAPs - For playing testing Cornerstone for our enjoyment
  • Classic Blogger Award - 50 CAPs - For playing and blogging through Adventure in 5th Dimension for our enjoyment
80 CAPs for Will Moczarski
  • Good Effort Award - 10 CAPs - For trying to play, but failing to complete a Level 9 game with Ilmari
  • That's My Story Award - 20 CAPs - For submitting his answers to What's Your Story -questions
  • Classic Blogger Award - 50 CAPs - For playing and blogging through Deathmaze 5000 for our enjoyment
70 CAPs for Ilmari
  • Hedwig award - 10 CAPs - For providing assistance all through the game and being a trusty companion
  • Classic Blogger Award - 50 CAPs - For blogging through The Worm in Paradise for our enjoyment
  • Straight Up Award - 10 CAPs - For a completely correct guess in the fifth Straight of 1992
20 CAPs for Aperama
  • Triwizard cup award - 20 CAPs - For guessing the game’s score after having played through the other two games
14 CAPs for Voltgloss
  • Blogger Award - 14 CAPs - for paving the way to this game for our enjoyment
10 CAPs for TBD
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - For the closest guess for the score of The Worm in Paradise 
15 CAPs for Michael
  • Krum award - 5 CAPs - For shining some light into the small cultural differences
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - For the closest guess for the score of Deathmaze 5000
5 CAPs for Jon Lapak
  • The Worse Scifi Show - 5 CAPs - For correcting Ilmari's error about the source of daggit
5 CAPs for Laertes
  • Leviosa award - 5 CAPs - For correcting an embarrassing spelling error
5 CAPs for ShaddamIVth
  • Diagon Alley award - 5 CAPs - For providing information regarding the best deals to buy Spellcasting
5 CAPs for Lisa H.
  • Cruciatus award - 5 CAPs - For detecting the suffering of a poor woman cursed by a nerdy wizard. And we even got to learn about bras.

10 comments:

  1. Well done, well done.

    Just my American input:
    It doesn’t help that the humour fell completely flat on me. ...

    This game (and series) was very obviously written for a specific American audience, one that watched movies like Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds when they were just barely pre-teens. If you judge it based on that premise, the game did what it needed to very well. Remember also that in 1992, text adventures were already starting to be a dead art, and the fans (at least stateside) tended to be older than the fans of the graphical adventures. One again -- aiming for people who would have been the audience of those early 80's raunchy teen comedies, even the older ones.

    When I played this game sometime after its release (perhaps 1993-4 or so, when I got a copy) I was 15-16 or so, and the humor of the game was just right for me. I was the kid who skipped Boy Scout meetings to watch the latest Simpsons and Married with Children episodes. It's a very specific American audience this was written for.

    Looking back -- I loved the humor, and hated the text adventure interface. I also hated their pretend graphical interface, and preferred to remove it as well.

    One of the upcoming games on the calendar (#104) is also a nod in this direction of sophomoric sexual humor, and should resonate better with the overseas players on this blog, if I recall correctly, but still might miss a few shots with references to things that us oafish, clumsy Americans find funnier than others. ;)

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    1. Yeah, there's definitely a Revenge of the Nerds kind of feel here. Animal House comes to mind too.

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    2. I get the whole college frat house party feel to it, and in a good way (outside the US the first big one was obviously the American Pie series, and you get a lot of that vibe)...

      Which really makes the ending so much more baffling. It turns from fun summer romp to contrived nemesis plot very quickly. It feels like they tried to change the direction too much in the middle, and if they had stuck to the "frat-party on the beach" vibe it could have been a much better story.

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    3. That's a good description of some of the films here. Lisa mentioned Animal House -- which starts off with a frat always having a good time, and then with them all banding together in the face of adversity to battle an arch nemesis (the dean of the school).

      Side trivia note: Animal House is what makes Siz Degrees of Kevin Bacon possible.

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    4. Don't get me wrong. I also grew up with those movies (and enjoying them). Even worse, as in Spain there was this cultural movement in cinema called "el destape" (the undressing, I guess). It was born in opposition to the strict moral censorship imposed by the religious dictatorship that ended in 1975, so most of the movies created here had a lot of female actresses showing pretty much everything. Most of those movies were comedies in the same vein as those you cited and were more than 50% of the total of spanish releases during those years. And on top of that we also imported some italian movies (I especially recall those starred by Alvaro Vitali as the character of "Jaimito", which was usually the butt of the jokes in Spain) which were raunchier than the american ones (or the spanish for that matter).

      Growing in the eighties in Spain made literally impossible not to have some kind of contact with this kind of movies. In my case, I liked them and I've watched plenty. So it is not a foreign concept to me. I simply think this game is not that funny even by the eighties/nineties standards.

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  2. I probably missed something...but why does Deimar only get 86 CAPs for covering this game? That's an oddly specific number.

    Also, I'm clearly not the target audience for this game. I like text adventures, but not the Spellcasting series.

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    Replies
    1. Because Voltgloss, who started the game, got 14 CAPs. And dividing the CAPs in this manner was Deimar's suggestion, si I guess he didn't want to take full credit for himself.

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    2. If you are interested, the logic behind the number is that we wrote a total of 7 posts about Spellcasting 301. Voltgloss wrote one, I wrote six, 100/7 is aproximately 14 and the rest is history :p

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