Written by Morpheus Kitami
Unfortunately, it does not look like TBD will be able to play this game as promised. I hope that I will be an acceptable substitute. I hope you will all join me in wishing a swift and beneficial resolution to whatever problems ail him.
|American cover, from Mobygames|
Return of the Phantom is the third adventure game developed and published by Microprose, though the second developed through internal team MPS Labs*. Microprose, if you don't know, was founded by Air Force Reserves member Bill Stealey and some unimportant programmer named Sid Meier. That the developer of some mediocre racing game would somehow turn making the same flight sim three times** into making landmark games and slapping his name on titles he wasn't even primarily responsible for is something impressive.
*However, they also distributed the first three Legend games, no doubt why the manual for Rex Nebular was written by Steve Meretsky.
**Hellcat Ace, Spitfire Ace, and Mig Alley Ace, okay, one is actually written by someone else, but they're practically the same game anyway.
Indeed, some of my fondest early memories of games are playing, or even wishing to play Microprose titles. If not the main man himself, it was one of his friends. For every Pirates! or Covert Action, you had Sword of the Samurai or Darklands. Sometimes they would make a sequel to a game Sid worked on, because they had a great idea on how to improve it, and they usually worked. It's perhaps a romanticism of a time and place I would never be in, the truth probably less impressive. Nevertheless, it remains that Microprose was one of the greatest computer companies of the '80s.
Return of the Phantom comes at the end of the company's great period. Not too long after the company had tried and failed to enter the arcade market, but it was not yet in dire enough straits for their purchase by Spectrum Holobyte. I wonder if this, rather than the direct sales of Legacy - Realm of Terror, was responsible for the lack of any sequels or follow-ups.
Now, while I bring up that this was their third title, this is of course the second of an informal trilogy based around the Microprose Adventure Development System, or MADS. For me personally, I haven't played any of the games in this trilogy and I wasn't even aware that Return of the Phantom existed before coming to this blog, which is a curious thing. There's a lot of evidence that this didn't do well in America. I could find previews for the game in German, but not English, so maybe the company's unfortunate situation contributed to this game's poor presence?
Still, let us talk about some of the individual developers themselves. A significant number of the people responsible for Rex Nebular return, in fact, it looks like the only ones who didn't are mostly writers; Which makes sense, since there is a slight shift in tone between what I assume was a comedy game and what I assume is a straight horror game. Don't really think anyone wants to see "TORTURE SCENES WRITTEN BY STEVE MERETSKY" in the corner. Just a safe assumption.
[image 2, Reynolds, portrait taken from the Alpha Centuari expansion]
Brian Reynolds was the primary coder of the engine, and is returning from Rex Nebular. Reynolds got his start by submitting a RPG to a type-in magazine, at the age of, if my math's right, 14. Reynolds is better known as the lead designer of 4X masterpieces Sid Meier's Civilization 2 and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. I don't know what that means for game design, but I expect a bug-free and smooth experience.
Matt Gruson returns as producer, but he is no longer designing the game, and generally seems like he's in a more limited capacity overall. This is Gruson's fourth adventure, having been involved with Earthrise and some game called Solus. I'm not sure if anyone's made the connection on Earthrise and Rex Nebular before, but here it is.
|A very recent picture of the man, taken from his website|
The lead developer was Raymond Benson, future Bond novel writer. Benson was a bit of a hired gun and moved between mediums freely. Starting off writing a guide to Bond novels, before moving into text adventures. Two Bond games, I'm sensing a theme, and an adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist for a company called Angelsoft. Mobygames mentions their hallmark as having to reload before solving a puzzle because sometimes it just wouldn't work. I like to think I appreciate games being cruel more than most, but JESUS CHRIST WHY!?! Also, The Mist apparently had a typo in some versions which meant if you didn't spell something wrong then the game couldn't be won.
|An appropriate and rational reaction to playing The Mist|
Angelsoft, incidentally, is also responsible for text adventure adaptations of Rambo 2, I am not kidding, and an Indiana Jones text adventure made before Lucasarts was around, which isn't based off a movie. I suspect the only reason why nobody here bothered playing any of those is because they're not fools, its an obvious trap. Rounding out Benson's credits are Ultima 7 and Dark Seed 2.
|Bross, photo taken from Mobygames, which was in turn taken from his website long ago|
Finally, though not the most important figure in the game, we have one Michael Bross, who's work we will be hearing over the next five years at least. I hope this means good things, because he kept getting work, and I have Roland MT-32 emulation, which I believe makes it the first game on TAG to be reviewed with that music option enabled. And if push comes to shove, I will pick the MT-32 over the Microprose employees all mumbling because they couldn't afford any legitimate or "legitimate" actors.
|Advertisement from American magazines, all this sounds like is Microprose describing an adventure game and advertising their previous one|
So, The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most retold Victorian-era...er...Edwardian-era horror stories. There is a famous opera house, and one day a beautiful opera soprano arrives, for an important production. People start dying in mysterious accidents, and it turns out its the fault of the mysterious and disfigured Phantom of the Opera. You know, I say that and I can't really remember any specifics. I remember rats and a sewer in the Hammer Horror production, but nothing of the actual plot. I guess someone abused him or something.
|German ad, though I don't speak it, I don't see any words meaning future here|
It seems like this is the only proper adventure game based on the story. It feels like it should be one of those stories where there are two hundred games all telling about the story. Mobygames mentions a vaguely connected treasure hunt text adventure, a video platformer and a hidden object game. Which, come on, there's something like that for everything. I don't know why I got on this comparison, but for Jack the Ripper, there are like ten games with that name, and that's not getting into games about him...or featuring him as a character.
|The back of the box, as taken from Mobygames|
The back of the game box doesn't really sound...impressive? I realize the Phantom dressed up as the Red Death from the Poe tale once, but, uh...to call him that? Everything else seems to be selling the visual aspect, and yet, they don't really show any good shots of the back of the box. The difficulty slider on the bottom is interesting, because I haven't seen any such thing applied by the developer outside of Infocom. These days we're more concerned with whether or not the game will put you in a dead end or not, rather than whether or not it's just hard. I feel like that's probably an undiscovered niche for a website.
The manual presents the cast and crew of the game in like a faux theatre programme, including a completely fabricated backstory for everyone. It's funny, or at least supposed to be funny, since the jokes missed for me more often than not. Is this supposed to be serious or not...? Dragonsphere was well into production by this point, because they are constantly mentioning it.
Return of the Phantom is the story of a French Surete agent by the name of Raoul Montand who attends an opera when the famed chandelier falls into the audience. As is so often the case in fiction, it falls upon him to discover why. I am sure that the main character shares a name with one from the original story is completely coincidence, much like everything else. This "Animated Graphic Adventure" or AGA is intended for novices. Once the game is over, you will be experienced enough for Dragonsphere. Please buy Dragonsphere.
There, as usual, are a few notes from the lead developer in the back. This time he's mostly just discussing the filmed adaptations up until this point, ending with the Webber opera. (Note, this is before it was a film) It's mostly just describing the existence of most outside of the 1925 version. The game itself is supposed to focus more on story and action than puzzles. Perhaps it really is true that this was the future of adventure games. He finishes by describing the Phantom himself as a more straight-forward version rather than sympathetic one, and that the design of the Opera House is not like the real building and is intended to be more dreamlike. I wasn't planning on complaining...wait, that's a real place...?
There is also a booklet in the manual describing the Phantom's backstory and may spoil parts of the game. I'm not reading it if I don't have to.
|present day, 1993, not today|
After installing the game, I am greeted by the lovely music of the MT-32 and a bunch of logos. So far, so good Mr. Bross. The game begins with a shot outside the opera house, of which I am still not convinced is real. Cars drive by and people slowly enter the building. Since there is no intro on Youtube with the MT-32, I decided to fix that. I will of course, still be writing over screenshots.
|We get a shot of the opera people are paying to see. I have many questions about the advertised author...|
|Oh, good, sewers, my favorite|
The phantom sulks underneathe the opera house...
|a couple walks up the stairs, very smooth btw|
|the phantom sneaks upwards|
|Oh, thank you!|
|Uh, that's probably because it was over 100 years ago...|
|Yes, thank you, as the chandelier shakes|
|the actress acts before an audience member screams|
|and the chandelier falls on this poor lady|
|we get an animated title intro, while someone laughs maniacally|
If nothing else, I thought that was a very nice intro, hopefully a good sign.
...And I also made one for the first couple minutes of gameplay, because...uh...it's something special. The voice acting is very amateurish, but on the other hand the animation is really nice. It's really smooth and you even seem to get 8 directions of it. That's something I very rarely see, even today. On the other hand the interface is questionable. F1 opens the menu, which is otherwise unnotable. I chose the standard control scheme which makes me hold down the left click button to see whatever is under my cursor. Release it to perform an action. Right click looks instead of whatever action the game wants. There is a Lucasarts style action bar which I suspect more often than not I will be using. Otherwise it seems find.
|M. Brie is supposed to be sitting, but seems to be awkwardly squatting to catch his breathe|
So my near and dear friend Monsieur Brie...uh...is this a joke? I'm not sure. I mean, sharing a name with some type of cheese is entirely possible, the lead vocalist of the band Dream Theater, which I've been recently listening to again, is named James LaBrie. It just feels unimaginative. What's next, my dear friend Leipäjuusto? I do apologize to those of you who are blessed and cursed with such a name, because that cannot be easy.
|Are we sure I'm not playing Fraiser Crane?|
Anyway, it seems that in the aftermath of the horrific destruction caused by the chandelier, I was a big help. He wants me to investigate, as opposed to the actual French police*.
*I believe the Surete was described as the French FBI in some material for this game. If it is anything like American FBI, federal agents don't do anything for local murders, even famous ones. Also, I'll probably shoot a dog and flashbang someone before the game is over.
|Uhm...that's some interesting prose|
I for one am glad they removed the bodies before I was employed to investigate it. I don't know what happens to a body hit with a giant chandelier and I don't want to know.
|Famous? Does this word mean something I didn't know? Why haven't I heard of it before? I've heard of the catacombs...|
I decide to do a little looking around. My dear friend M. Brie wants me to talk to Charles, the stage manager. I don't ask him where he is, because I like to live life on the edge. I'm mostly just messing around to make sure the game works. I go down into the band pit, where there isn't anything, and then into the area under the stage. There's a locked door here, which will no doubt be important later. The game even rebuffs the usual method of taking anything that looks useful by taking a box, and Raoul says he won't do that, because it's useless. Curious.
|I don't have anything witty to add here, I just like this screenshot|
This is where I shall end for now, as it seems like as good a place as any. While it is a good-looking game, I can't help but feel like there's something slightly off about the way the digitized sprites look. This seems to be consistent with Rex Nebular though. Also, in case you don't remember, this game has portraits for the dialog, whereas the last game did not.
While you're guessing scores, keep in mind that Rex Nebular got 45, and while I haven't played that, my previous experiences with Microprose's adventure/RPGs are not very favorable. It seems to me that for some reason this is the least played out of these games. I wonder if I shall find a reason for that or if its just bad luck?
This Session: 10 minutes
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.