Tuesday, 18 March 2014


I polished off all of the Spellcasting games in a wham, bam, no more please ma'am, style. They get progressively better as the series goes on and technology improves. The goods - they are pretty funny in parts. Steve Meretzky is a text adventure legend (hence the name of the company), and some of the best lines are his little throw-away quips that had me chuckling. The majority of the puzzle humour where he tries a bit too hard is more at the groan level, and some of the cultural humour just went right over my head. The bads? We'll get to them. The series is set in Sorcerer Uni, and you play Ernie Eaglebeak making your way through three terms (each game is usually set over a week) and foiling the dastardly plans of your evil stepfather, Joey Rottenwood. Being an apprentice wizard, you travel about the place finding new (crazily named) spells and using them in imaginative ways to progress through the story. The first difficulty I had with it is a cultural one, and is no fault of the game's. Starting just with the title, we don't (or at least didn't in my day) have this n01 naming for courses, and the whole US university system (fraternities, hazing, etc.) is totally alien to us in the UK. Sure, I know about it from numerous film's and TV shows, but I'm not familiar with the system in any detail. That hurts with the humour and it hurts with some of the puzzles. Meretzky really embraced the university theme, especially in the first two games, so you have to make sure that your character sits through a certain number of lessons or you'll fail...and it really does mean sitting through them - typing 'wait' 30 or 40 times as an endless stream of nonsense scrolls past you. Some of it is key to the puzzles, so you have to pay attention lest you miss something, but it's just sooooo boring. Yes, a lot like real uni in that respect, but I'm not sure it was really a good gameplay decision. The game is also set on a strict timer, which is something that I abhor, especially when you have to spend literally hours of your day sat in lectures. In a game like this I want to be able to explore my surroundings and try things out, but you just don't get the chance. Some days are a bit kinder with the actions you need to perform, but others have you running around like crazy and restoring every 5 minutes because you've run out of time to get everything done. Yes, a bit of tension does help some games, but I'm not really convinced it helps adventure games like this where half of the fun is talking to random people and trying random things and laughing at the ridiculous lines you get. Another example of game mechanics gone awry is the island of lost soles in the first game. Your mission on this island is to travel around restoring the souls of the inhabitants. This is all done by guessing the person's name from the objects you can see on each screen and casting a spell on said object. For example, you might see a coarse rug for cleaning boots by a door so you'd then restore 'Matt', and he'd appear. No problem with that, it's a fun little puzzle that fits the game...but there aren't just 2 or 3 people you need to restore, there are... 80. Why? Why is that ever a good idea? It just smacks of Meretzky showing off that he can do this sort of thing. And some of the names are so obscure that I'd never heard of them (I had to use a walkthrough in the end). Again, some of that is definitely a cultural thing, but it's still inexcusable. I will give the games one plus point here, though, in that some of the puzzles did have multiple solutions to them, which was quite surprising. For example, there are multiple ways to get out of the first room in the game, and on the island of lost soles one of the screens had a couple of lavatories together - I guessed the name was Toulouse, which was accepted (even with a nice riff on what a French guy was doing on the British part of the island), but in the walkthrough I noticed that they'd gone with Lulu. There were probably many other examples of this, and it's a nice touch. I seem to have written quite a lot here, so I'll wrap it up now. I can't finish without mentioning the lewdness of the game, though, as it's one of its biggest selling points. The games can be set to nice mode or naughty mode, and the naughty mode has much ruder language and imagery (though nothing *that* rude...though it is the game I've taken the most screenshots of so far!). There was some stuff that prudish old me was quite shocked to find in a game, such as the infamous elephant scene which is pivotal to the game (and still appears in the nice version), and even causes one of the main characters to die from shock when he sees it. They're good adventure games, but overall I think I preferred Eric, and that's probably mostly because the humour wasn't so US-centric and I laughed more often. There was a planned fourth game in the series, but it never saw the light of day.

The next games on the series list are Excelsior: Phase One and Two. I'd never heard of them before running into them in my backlog. They're a couple of shareware RPGs from the early 90s. I loaded up the first game for a quick go last night and got totally sucked in. It's very much based on the early Ultimas, both in technology and feel, and I'm really enjoying it. Lots of travelling round a large world map visiting towns and fighting badly animated foes. I've explored about half of the main map so far, and I've found the first of the three amulets that I've been tasked with recovering. I've been taking tons of notes this time from conversations with various folk, so I've got a bunch of stuff I need to do. It's a great break from the Spellcasting series, just what I was looking for. As for Black & White, the longer I'm away from it, the less I want to go back to it. I'll force myself to one day. Oh, and I foolishly bought an indie game bundle containing 30-odd titles (with more being added), so the numbers have shot up a bit...d'oh!

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