The last bastion for socially unacceptable behavior is when the perpetuator is an animal. They attack us, and destroy our property, and it’s hilarious. If they were capable of speech, perhaps we’d even allow them to make racist jokes and misgender trans people.
It’s not that they lack the intelligence to understand their actions, it’s that their systems of values are fundamentally unrelatable to ours. A human looks upon a carefully laid table and sees effort and organisation; a housecat sees fun shiny objects to bat and knock around. You get the sense that even if you could explain to a housecat what it’s doing, it wouldn’t care. Misbehaving animals are funny, but also disquietening: as though we’re getting a taste of what an alien invasion might be like.
Untitled Goose Game is an indie puzzle/adventure game where you play as a goose, wandering around one of those insufferably whimsical British towns that have names like Toddlefold or Nippleshire. You have a checklist of tasks to complete, which basically reduce to “annoy as many people as possible.”
You steal laundry, destroy gardens, ruin picnics, and honk at people, The game bears some resemblance to Pulse Entertainment’s notorious 1996 adventure game Bad Mojo, where you are a cockroach, and your objectives are to basically…be a cockroach. Here, as there, you are invited to reject your own species, and view them as the Other. Most humans (with the exception of two women who find the goose hilarious) are enemies, to be avoided or navigated around.
It will take you a couple of hours to beat. When the game is on the verge of overstaying its welcome, it ends.
The graphics are cell shaded or flat shaded (or whatever the fuck the trendy term for it is now), . Environments are clean, while retaining enough detail to have verisimilitude. The human models walk with a jerky, odd gait, but I believe this is intentional: from a goose’s perspective, humans are ridiculous. The music is dynamic, changing to reflect the in-game action, and the sound design is nicely detailed (the acoustics of the goose’s honks change when its beak is inside a glass bottle, for instance).
I grew weary of debates about games vs art a long time ago. Most of the games praised as “artistic” are in fact regurgitations of cinematic tropes. They only seem profound because you’re comparing them with Candy Crush. In a 2010 Cracked column, Robert Brockway praised the “artistry” of a scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare where you crawl around and die of radiation burns. Is this the groundbreaking artistry of videogaming? Cultural commentary about how war is hell?
Untitled Goose Game is a clearer statement of videogaming as an art form. It has no story, no “point”, and ludonarrative interaction drives the game. Even title seems more suggestive of a painting (where it’s common for work) than something from Hollywood.
Untitled Goose Game is now in the inevitable backlash stage of its hype cycle, but it’s perfectly good at being what it is, even if it’s something that’s confusing and meaningless to a lot of people. It has an unusual premise, and it’s even a little philosophical. When William Wallace was arrested and charged with treason, he retorted. “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Animals are not our subjects. They exist outside our world.
Radio personality Ron Bennington described comedy as a game of “tell a joke, or become the joke”. Audiences view their interest as an investment; if you fail to reward that investment, become afraid. Your silent crowd came to have fun, and one way or another, they’re going to get it.
Id software co-founder John Romero was an extremely hot property in 1996. Heavily promoted as gaming’s bad boy, he’d just left id software and had launched a new company, Ion Storm, under the mantra “design is law”. The company’s first title, Daikatana, was supposed to revolutionize 3D gaming. Instead, it became a joke. Daikatana was planned to ship with the 1997 holiday season, but instead it came out in 2000 in a plague field of negative publicity, having gone through two engine upgrades, a full dev team, and thirty million dollars in funding.
What went wrong is a fascinating story (told here by Gamespot’s Geoff Keighley) which has become an industry cautionary tale. It ended Romero’s career as a Triple-A game dev, and he’s spent twenty years bouncing from company to company, leaving a shallow strew of indie and mobile shovelware. Assuming you’re immune to the charms of Gunman Taco Truck and Pettington Park, Daikatana will likely remain Romero’s last hurrah as a game dev.
Was it any good? That depends on what you want. If you’re eager to play four badly designed half-a-games at once, with a graphical engine years out of date, it’s quite good.
It’s a first person shooter featuring “RPG” “elements” (LEVEL UP flashes on the screen occasionally, and this apparently does something.) Unlike Doom the game attempts to establish a rich universe filled with lore, not very successfully.
We start off with a cutscene: an old man who is dying of polygon deficiency explains the plot to you. It goes on for quite a while. The developers must have decided they were boring the audience, because they have ninjas jump out of the shadows, beat the shit out of the old man, and run away…after which he continues explaining the plot to you. A mood is created. I don’t think it’s the mood the developers intended.
The story is confusing, and the game lacks thematic direction. What’s the vibe here? Berserk? Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Doom? It’s neither funny or dramatic. It reminds me of a ten year old boy play-acting Spiderman fighting Sonic the Hedgehog while he smashes action figures together. There’s time travel, ancient Greece, a black sidekick called Superfly (note the spelling) and an Asian female sidekick who’s into martial arts, a giant sword…
What about gameplay?
The game technically has “depth”, but so does the Marianas Trench. Eleven thousand meters of water and squid-shit isn’t interesting, nor are Daikatana‘s huge stack of poorly-integrated, half-tested features.
Why did they shove in RPG-like stats when they have no visible impact on gameplay? Why is there an XP system? What does it do, and why do I care? Why design unique enemies for every level when they all feel like variants of either “annoying fast flying enemy” or “annoying slow-moving bullet-sponge”?
None of the weapons obey logic. There’s a double-barrelled shotgun that fires six shots at once (???), a rocket launcher that shoots two twisty rockets that hit everything except the enemy you aimed them at, etc. This is MC Escher with a gun catalog. The titular weapon, the Daikatana, proves to be a gigantic sword that blocks a large portion of your screen when you have it equipped. It slashes everything in half…starting with your own peripheral vision.
But worst part is the sidekicks.
They have the worst AI I have ever seen. They run in front of your gun. They get stuck on corners. They get crushed by elevators. They ignore weapons on the ground and charge heavily-armed enemies using their fists. When they die you lose, and they exist at all times in a state of permanent about-to-die. They are comprehensively broken.
Daikatana is off-the-box unplayable because of the sidekicks. Unplayable. I do not exaggerate. It cannot be played. Don’t even try. Instead, locate and download the patch that deletes the fucking sidekicks from the game, thus rehabbing it to “barely playable”.
The graphics are visually interesting at times (how often do you see the colour purple in FPS titles?), but mostly dull and ugly. There’s no vibrancy. Why did they upgrade from the Quake engine when the colour scheme recreates most of Quake’s excesses?
What else was happening in 2000? What did the market look like? System Shock 2, Perfect Dark, Deus Ex, Half Life, Unreal Tournament, NOLF, and two Quake games. Next to these titles, Daikatana looks like a game from 1997, with inferior playability. It isn’t as bad as people say: it’s worse.
I don’t know if the third Quake is a better game than I and II, but it’s certainly less of a game. They cut away any story mode, focusing it a laser on its deathmatch experience. You run in circles, trying to kill enemies more times than they kill you. The sarcastic way people described Doom and Quake is now a literal reality.
The result is a first person shooter of incredible purity. Playing Quake III Arena is like breathing pure oxygen – liberating, and destructive to your health. As soon as a stage loads, your mind enters a trance state, and your body falls away. Only three things remain: a left hand on the WASD keys, a right hand clicking the mouse, and an eye orchestrating the violence. The circuit sparks and crackles, the connections fusing together, and when the match ends, it takes a few seconds for the hands-eye unity to remember it has a body.
The game was meant to be played with other people. It has a single player mode, but it’s not a good one and you sense the game is laughing at you for picking it. You play against “bots”, which aren’t smart but are difficult in an abusive fashion. Turning up the difficulty means they gain split-second reflexes and superhuman accuracy – they simply never miss with the railgun, which isn’t fun.
As with past Quake games, there’s a game-inside-the-game, and mastery of competitive online play requires exploiting oddities in the code like rocketjumping (surfing the blast of an exploding rocket), plasma climbing (scaling walls with blowback from the plasma cannon), circle-jumping (pirouetting to add massive velocity to your next jump), and more. The developers would probably spit out their Adderall-laced coffee if they saw what modern players do with Quake III.
A game like this isn’t about content, but about balance. While Doom’s juice came from “yay, cool weapon” and “yay, cool map”, Quake III’s design requires an analytical approach: “are the weapons equally strong, or does one dominate? Are the maps laid out in a way that leads to fair gameplay, or can you just camp a spawn spot and fight off all comers?” Single player is about indulging orgiastic power fantasies, while multiplayer is about fair play and rules. It’s hard to get both right with the same game engine, and maybe it was for the best to ditch a story mode.
The graphics were great, almost to the point of undercutting the game’s minimalist ethos. This game reduced your Riva TNT to sludge, and that’s not watch. But the lighting, shadows, and all looked very good for the time, with the only competitor being Unreal Tournament.
Thomas Aquinas once said “I fear the man of a single book.” The idea is that you can be unstoppable by doing one thing very well, and Quake III Arena does indeed do one thing very well. “It’s just mindless violence!” – some developers tried to dignify their games away from that, but id Software was apparently taking notes for their next design document.
Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final burn-it-to-the-ground moments, where everyone was flailing around and trying to find something that would attract their audience back from Myst. A lot of risky experiments date to this period, including this one, an adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.
The story is much the same. Fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race has engineered its own coffin. A godlike supercomputer called AM controls the earth, and for its amusement it keeps alive the last five humans for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and will engage its captives in a final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, and their own repressed traumas.
Gorrister, a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen, who relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny, a hapless pawn who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted, a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok, a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.
Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason for what it tells them about their backstories to be completely accurate.
At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It takes away most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “AM gave us canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds a ton of psychological depth. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason the adventure game genre died, and IHNMAIMS doesn’t break the trend too much.
It’s full of pixel hunts, full of “puzzles” that amount to blind guesses, and the lack of direction means that you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but poisons the gameplay. A large part of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on stuff.
One particular point grates: you have to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode that only Nimdok knows (meaning that there’s an 80% chance you’ll select a character that has no way of getting through that particular point). There’s no way to figure out the passcode, and no way to get past that point. You’ve either made the correct choice previously in the game, or you haven’t. Thanks, guys. Throw a shovelfull of rotting haddock on my desk while you’re at it, to really make my day.
The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (and you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS writ small: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way? Oh, questions, questions!
Grognards spit upon “The 7th Guest” as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do!
So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.
Notorious rip of Wolfenstein 3D with a family-friendly Christian theme. Instead of shooting Nazis, you’re feeding animals. Hitler is a monkey.
If the creators had been more self aware, they would have made it exactly five minutes long, because that’s the point where everyone stops playing. You fire up the game, laugh at its kitschness, and then get bored and play the actual Wolfenstein 3D. It has episodes? And boss fights? What were they thinking? Who the hell cares? It’s like rubbernecking a crash. Fun for a few seconds, but these guys assume you want to spent your whole damned day gawking at a t-boned car.
The game actually plays okay. It has the same mechanics Wolfenstein 3D, and it’s about as enjoyable as Blake Stone or any other clone games that were rushed to market. You’re not chewing your face off while playing it.
But it exposes the problem at the heart of 99% of “ironic” clone games – it’s a setting brutally forced upon a gameplay concept that it has nothing to do with. The Wolfenstein 3D engine was designed for violent first person shooters. You can’t turn it into a religious family friendly game by giving the main character a food pellet gun instead of a pistol. The mismatch between concept and game is stark, and ultimately impossible to ignore. It’s like one of Richard Cheese’s “death metal lounge music” songs, except it was made in deadly seriousness.
The graphics are okay for 1992, not so much for 1994. In a touching nod to the rising grunge genre, the music blows. The slingshot makes an irritating *BOING* sound that drove me to killing my audio altogether. I don’t understand why all the animals have hitscan attacks. I keep dying from across the room for no apparent reason. Goat spit is apparently fatal. Wolfenstein 3D tended to have an overdose of mazes, and so does this one.
There’s little scrolls you pick up that force you to answer Bible trivia questions, the game’s only nod to the dismal “edutainment” genre. Remember the days when you could play the most mindless games possible, but so long as you had to answer a question every now and then your parents thought you were learning?
But despite some endearing qualities, the game’s nonsensical premise deep-sixes it. It’s the same logic that gave us “well, Miley Cyrus is cooler than a bird, so if we make a Flappy Bird clone with Miley Cyrus, it will make the game cooler!” Except Miley Cyrus has zero natural context in the world of Flappy Bird, so congratulations, you’ve made a contradictory clusterfuck. Games and their concepts must actually match.
I call this a “joke game” even though the creators were apparently deadly serious. All the world’s a stage and all the world’s a joke, just some people are just one level deeper than the others. A marriage of form and concept might be possible. I’m thinking of a game where Noah massacres helpless animals with high-powered automatic weapons. Or maybe where BJ Blazkowicz gives snacks to Nazis. Modders of the world, get on this!
I strongly unhate this game. I played it for roughly 2 or 3 childhoods, and it’s still a blast today, whether you have the original CD, the Battle.net edition, or a cracked release (I have all three). Blizzard really got their shit together with this one. Warcraft I belongs in a display case, this one belongs on a hard drive. My excessive bitching is a testament to my obsessive playing, as all the game’s weaknesses (which it has in abundance) have had a long time to chafe.
The core of the game is the same as the first one. You harvest resources, build a city, train soldiers, and make the rivers run red with blood. The game is essentially a choice between an early rush, and arms race to acquire the later, more powerful units. The mechanics basically worked then, and they basically work now. There’s something visceral and satisfying about the way Warcraft II battles go down, bloody and chaotic, with every single unit being important. I can’t think of any other game that captures its dynamic.
They eliminated some of Warcraft’s more enraging features (such as how buildings must be connected to a road) and added new features, such as water and aerial combat, walls, and games with up to eight players. Even simple touches like the “fog of war” (you can see explored terrain, but can’t actually see the enemies there unless you have a unit nearby) were revolutionary for the time.
In a genre that can feel mechanical and sterile (hey, did you realise level 3 Murderdeathbots get a .15% attack multiplier against Stabfuckdroids?), Warcraft 2 is overflowing with human touches. Landscapes are bright and colorful. The way your units argue with you when you click on them is endearing. The story in the manual was fantastic, and I was disappointed that the actual game didn’t do it justice. Glen Stafford’s music is great. The thing Blizzard really did right was put together a game full of lavish, attractive content.
As Warcraft 2’s terrible AI makes the single player experience fairly lackluster, I recommend learning a few builds, and then playing multiplayer as soon and as frequently as you can. This is where the game sparkles. You’ll learn that a lot of the the maps shipped with the game are broken or unbalanced. You’ll learn that the orc bloodlust spell makes the human race noncompetitive. You’ll learn that half the players are walking abortions who insist on terrible custom maps like Chop Chop and Laser Tag. You’ll learn that water combat is poorly implemented and micro intensive. But you’ll also have the time of your life. Again, Warcraft II has a quality that no other game has.
An expansion came out to this in 1996: Beyond the Dark Portal. More crappy single player maps, and a new tileset that’s nearly indistinguishable from one that was already in the game. I can’t imagine playing Age of Empires I or II without their respective expansions installed, but Warcraft II’s I can take or leave. The fact remains that version 1.0 of the game is still probably the apex of the Warcraft series, and my own favourite Blizzard game. They really did a superb job with this one.
If you sacrifice a baby, everyone will call you a satanist, regardless of what god you actually did it for.
Remember the Columbine school shootings? They were blamed on the 1993 videogame Doom. It was theorised that Eric “RebDoomer” Harris had played the game for so long that his CRT monitor had become reality (or reality had become his CRT monitor) and that he was as shocked as anyone that his victims in Jefferson County didn’t bleed red pixels.
But in reality, Eric Harris no longer played Doom – he had moved on to Quake. But nobody accused him of being inspired by Quake, because Quake was far less of a cultural sensation than Doom and fewer people had heard of it. Just as every random smart-sounding quote gets attributed to Einstein, truth was sacrificed here for maximal memetic transmission. The Quake-Columbine connection was never made, simply because fewer people had heard of Quake. There’s no outrage to be generated from a game nobody in Middle America has heard of.
Quake 2 was even less of a cultural phenomenon than Quake. Nobody has ever attributed any act of violence to it at all. I wonder if John Carmack feels any regret that this is the case, and if I ever plan a spree shooting, I intend to give Quake 2 a shout-out in my shaky-cam Youtube manifesto. You’re welcome, John. Please pay it forward.
Truthfully, Quake 2 deserves a bit more fame, because it’s actually a better game than Quake. It’s not a brilliant shooter. It just takes the strong points of Quake, sticks bandaids over the weak points of Quake, and hopes you don’t notice. Often, you don’t.
The story’s a paragraph in the manual, as usual. Aliens have invaded, ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT, et cetera. But effort has been made to make the gameworld feel like a real place. Spaceships swoop overhead like steel-winged birds. You explore areas with a recognisable purpose (a factory, a mine, a waste processing facility). Environments are somewhat responsive to your actions (you can blow holes in walls and smash panes of glass). Little touches like how enemies duck your shots and switch weapons on the fly are nice. 3D graphics are useless if you still feel like a rat in a maze, and Quake 2 goes a long way towards immersing the player in a believable world.
The weapons and enemies are fun (although there’s nothing as visually striking as the Shambler or the Cyberdemon), and the graphics aren’t that far behind Unreal’s. The game flows well, eschewing obvious “level breaks” for a more unified feel (instead of finishing a level, you walk to a door, experience a brief load screen, and then pick up where you left off.) The soundtrack is excellent. Apparently Sonic Mayhem had no idea how to write metal while he was recording it, and this strangely works. He avoids most of metal’s cliches, just because he’s not aware of them.
The only bad thing you can say about Quake 2 is that it’s a koala bear.
Evolution proceeds stage by stage. If you want C, you first must have B, and if you want B, you first must have A. This approach means there’s not much scope for a wildly novel trait to emerge. You cannot go from A all the way to Z in a single step. If a mutant koala was born with wings, it would be maladapted. Its body shape is not designed for flying. It’s not energetic enough for the rigors of powered flight. Maybe in a few million years a nearly unrecognisable descendant of the koala bear would have wings, but nearly every single one of the animal’s traits would have to change before wings, as a design, makes sense. Which gets bad, considering that the world doesn’t always give you a few million years. Right now, we’re razing the bush. The koala bear’s habitat is disappearing. It’s in a place where it needs an A-Z change, it needs wings, and it needs to modify very quickly or else it will die. But it won’t, because it can’t. Such is the way of evolution. Every strata level of the fossil record is littered with the calcified bones of the ones who died.
Games don’t exactly “evolve” in the way animals do. It is, in principle, possible for a new game with wildly novel traits to emerge. But the majority of games made are basically designed along the principle of “something that sold last season – with a few small tweaks.” Quake 2 fits this description. No drastic steps or changes, just gentle refinement of ideas presented in Quake. And just like real life, sometimes this takes you to an evolutionary dead end. The videogame industry (famously) crashed in 1983, as gamers wearied of generic, low-quality, nearly identical games. They were getting wise to the fact that Ms Pacman was just Pacman with a ribbon and lipstick. Incremental changes don’t work if the entire phenotype can no longer survive.
Quake 2 did not crash the industry. But it’s now very dated, and represents a style of FPS gaming that is no longer in fashion. The commercially viable FPS games are big, cinematic experiences, with Hans Zimmer scores and 3 hours of cutscenes. Quake has a tiny amount of that, but it baby-steps where Half-Life and Deus Ex pole vault.
I’ve played Quake 2’s single player mode a few times, along with some custom levels (the game never inspired the same level of interest in the modding community that the original did, either). It has yielded up most of its secrets. It’s a good game. It’s also a time capsule, and a look into a fossilized past.
In 1996, an amazing first person shooter came out and changed gaming forever. Regrettably, this is not a review of Duke Nukem 3D.
Quake isn’t a game. That’s the big misconception people have about it. It was an advanced 3D demo, intended to show off John Carmack’s latest tricks so he could sell his engine to licensees. It’s a product for modders and hackers and people who knew what “IPX tunneling” and “strafe jumping” meant. If you picked it up expecting to install it and have a good time, then the joke’s on you.
Gotta hand it to Carmack, this is one hell of an engine demo. For the first time, we were three fucking D. What does that mean? Better perception of height and depth. Camera angles that lean and sway realistically. Light and shadow maps. More elaborate architecture (remember, in Doom you couldn’t even have a room on top of another room). Network architecture also got a shot in the arm, as Quake ditches Doom’s clumsy ad hoc netplay for a contemporary server/client model, meaning you got to enjoy nice low latency while a thirteen year old calls you a faggot.
But there’s no game, and that can’t be emphasised enough. The storyline could be written on a postcard (using a paintgun as a pen). The weapons are mostly copies of Doom’s. There is exactly one good monster in the game. The bosses are of the “push a button and watch it fall over dead” variety. There was more environmental interaction in Commander Keen.
Quake gets called a horror game, for some reason. Other than a Lovecraftian tilt to some of the artwork, most of the game’s ambience stems from its stark technical limitations.
Quake out of the box uses a range of 256 colors (well, 226, to be exact), meaning lightmaps utterly hog the palette (every single tone needs like 16 lighter/darker versions of itself). The verdict? You’re running around gray castles…but they’re very realistically lit gray castles! In movies, they say that it takes a lot money to make something look shitty. Quake was a game people bought 200Mhz Pentiums to play, but visually it looks like something you’d scrape off your shoes.
The single player mode is six hours of running around brown/grey castles, collecting keys. Multiplayer consists of trying to play the maps that came with the game, realising they suck, and downloading better ones from the internet.
Ditto for everything about Quake. It just feels unfinished. The weapons, the monsters…everything’s a placeholder reading [INSERT MORE COMPELLING CONTENT HERE]. This game begs you to mod it, and reskin it, and make it into something worth playing. You are the variable in Quake’s quality, not the developers. The power is in your hands!
Quake is the stone soup of PC gaming – a non-product that only becomes valuable when you put additional effort into it. It was impressive as an engine demo, but those degrade at exactly the speed of Moore’s Law. The best FPS games lengthen their replay value with great content, but that wasn’t the priority here. By the time you realised Quake was a lemon, you’d already bought it.
I still play Duke Nukem 3D and Blood. And though I don’t exactly hate Quake, I cannot fathom a universe where I play it again. It’s a museum piece now, and you know what happens to those. They put them behind glass, and you’re not supposed to look but not touch.
As the 90s gained integers, you started to hear about “shareware” games. Instead of buying a $60.00 box of air and praying the game was as good as it looked in Nintendo Power, you actually got to play the fucker before you bought it. Imagine that! Next thing, you were up all night, watching a 2mb file called DOOM1_1.zip dribble down your dad’s 2400 baud modem.
My favourite part of gaming’s tidal changes (whether it’s the rise of the internet or the advent of CD drives) is playing all the weird crap that hit the market before the industry got its shit together. Apogee released a lot of oddball titles – you got the sense that they were seeing what would stick with the new shareware business model – and Hocus Pocus fits into that category.
Like many of their games, it was a new IP, made by an outsider with little history in the game business. It’s a side-scrolling platform game about a wizard who must collect crystal balls. You flip switches, ride elevators, fight enemies, and dodge identity theft lawsuits from Mario. The graphics are colorful, glossy and shiny, like someone sprayed the whole game with WD-40. The monsters and environments are visually creative.
Animation is a mixed bag. Some enemies run and move in a lifelike fashion, but your main character is a department store mannequin. Ditto for the audio in general. The music is half good, half unlistenable shit. The omnipresent PEW PEW PEW of Hocus firing his magic spell drove me to muting my audio.
I played the shareware version of this obsessively when I was 5 or so, becoming the intolerable local kid who would watch others play and fly into a rage at their incompetence. I played the nine levels so many times that I could draw a map of them from memory. When I revisit Hocus Pocus, I like it less and less. It’s playable and inoffensive, mostly because it’s hard to screw up platform games, but there’s not much too it.
Various things grate at me. The game has basically three enemies with different graphics. The gameplay never varies. There’s the sense that you’re playing the same level over and over with different graphics. Switch combination puzzles suck. The “jokes” sprinkled throughout probably sounded funnier on the drawing board. Super Mario Bros makes it look as shallow as a kid’s wading pool, and that’s bad. SMB should be the standard that platform games build on, not an insurmountable mile-high yardstick.
I never bothered with the full version. Shareware had a dark side – usually the paid version was just the free version + some more levels + maybe a new weapon or something. Very few Apogee titles were worth getting in full (Raptor being a notable exception). In some ways, Apogee made arcade games for the PC. Remember how Mortal Kombat would always leave you wanting more at the arcades but as soon as you got it for a home console you’d be sick of it, like, yesterday? Same story here. Some games are best confined to small doses.
As far as I know it works on Dosbox if you play without audio (no great loss). As was their policy, Apogee magnanimously allowed developers to retain the copyright on their worthless IPs, and so the developers theoretically could have started a Hocus Pocus burger chain or something. They didn’t.
Films such as The Cabin in the Woods are often described as “a love letter to horror.” Monolith’s 1997 first person shooter Blood is more like a rambling, 50 page Unabomber manifesto stuffed into horror’s mailbox at 2:00am, complete with the final line “ps: nice view thru yr bedroom window ;)”. Conceptually it’s one of most ridiculous and nebbish games ever made: the dialogue consists of groan-worthy riffs on famous horror movies, the levels are themed off places like the Overlook Hotel and Crystal Lake, the game shoves references to Lovecraft and George Romero under your face with such obsessive frequency that you almost want to pat it on the shoulder and say “Relax, I get it. Stop trying so hard.”.
But it’s also one of the most fun shooters ever made. There’s just no cohesive direction to any of it, and strangely, that completely works.
You have 1) a brainless “shoot everything that moves” gameplay, 2) paired with a complicated set of RPG -style damage modifiers (as a simple example, stone gargoyles repel fire attacks). You have 1) a nonsensical throwaway plot about an old west gunfighter (with anachronisms galore), and 2) a very detailed mythos, right down to the fact that the enemy cultists speak a constructed language (there was a dictionary on the now-defunct Blood site, revealing said language to be the product of hurling Sanskrit and Latin at each other in a Participle Accelerator.) You have 1) shitty graphics (the Build engine was dated in 1996, and even more so in 1997), and 2) fairly groundbreaking use of 3D voxel imaging (for tombstones and such). Blood’s an anomaly.
The game’s a mess, in the best way possible. It’s like it was made by two different teams living on two different continents who could only communicate by carrier pidgeon. “Throw a bunch of interesting ideas together” seldom works, but here’s the exception.
I’ve played through it several times, at various difficulty levels, and I still find it capricious, challenging, and occasionally brilliant. The Build Engine isn’t the prettiest whore on the waterfront, but it allows for destructible/deformable environments and the game takes those features and runs like they’re a pair of scissors. E1M3, “The Phantom Express”, takes place on board a moving train – it’s stunning as a visual effect, and the level design perfectly complements it: you have to fight tense gunbattles in narrow train corridors, etc. The only bad thing is that none of the later levels quite match it in creativity.
The weapons are savage and visceral (though I never figured out exactly how the voodoo doll work), and the level design fun, flowing, and filled with endearing human touches. Duke Nukem 3D was the anti-Quake. This is the antier-Quake. This is the final and complete triumph of content over technology, and nobody in gaming realised it, either then or now.
Not even Monolith did – Blood II was an inexplicable attempt at remaking this game with zero character or charm. And of course, the game still has a modding community.
Blood isn’t perfect. The final boss is the easiest one in the game. The weapons aren’t balanced all that well (generally, the cooler a weapon seems, the less useful it is in the game) and some of the enemies are truly ridiculous bullet sponges. It’s bimodal nature means it has daring creativity paired with cloddish FPS cliches – there’s the old “shoot a crack in the wall to reveal a secret area” wheeze…again…and again…
But it’s classic, and the rarest type of game: one that is impervious to time. To preserve a human body, you generally extract all eight litres of blood – and I guess this is where it all ends up. Duke Nukem 3D came out a year before and laid the ground for this type of game (gory violence + campy irreverent humor), but between the two of them, THIS is the one to play first, and perhaps last.