It was “try before you buy”. Instead of purchasing 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.