From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. Today, adventuring can be murder. Sometimes it can have murder in it too. This one... is mostly about the former. To the shareware compilation CDs!
Long before the internet gave the world access to every game ever created, most of us had to get the majority of our gaming fixes from two sources: demos and shareware. Shareware was usually the better option, being mostly full games that could be played, enjoyed, and stuffed onto cover-disks and CD compilations.
In the UK, this was the only way to get full games on magazines, due to a publishing agreement not to cover mount them. Generous shareware though? That was deemed fair game.
In the adventuring world, they didn't show up much more regularly than the Hugo trilogy: House of Horrors, Whodunit, and Jungle of Death. Wherever you go, Hugo, as nobody ever actually said at the time.
This was not necessarily great news for players.
To set the scene very quickly, this is the first game in the series—Hugo's House of Horrors—and a screen that I'm pretty sure every shareware section in every magazine in the 90s used at some point. The rest of the game looks nowhere near this good, and in fact, the house itself bears no relationship to the actual rooms inside.
Is this because it's a mysterious location whose rules bend the nature of space and time? Balls no. It's because it's a piece of clip-art in a world of MS Paint. Speaking of which, guess what pops right up if you Google Image Search the words 'haunted house clip-art'...
By shareware standards, Hugo's House Of Horrors wasn't bad for the '90s, but that's the kind of bar that ants would struggle to limbo under. It was incredibly short, with almost no real puzzles, and no plot save a stock 'rescue your kidnapped girlfriend Penelope'.
This would later be re-used for a shooter based remake called Nitemare 3D. If you're curious, the action looked like this. Yes, Doom was still a new game at this point. No, I'm not sure why the part of Hugo is now being being played by a ventriloquist's dummy.
I was going to quickly run through the whole series of games here, each one being incredibly short. Replaying them though, neither this one nor Jungle of Death offers much of real interest. Whodunit though remains endearingly crazy—a murder mystery that only occasionally remembers to be one, where no killer could possibly be as dangerous as a stroll through the world's most lethal garden, featuring some of the laziest design ever committed to the long-suffering adventure genre.
Also, the clip-art has gone, replaced by something far more modern. Now, the imported art and the lovingly hand-drawn original stuff is almost impossible to tell apart without special training.
The plot this time is that Hugo and Penelope have gone to stay with Hugo's Great Uncle Horace, in his house of doors that aren't usually big enough for the people who need to go through them, but then sometimes are on the other side. Hugo follows Penelope upstairs, here she announces that she's tired and lies down for a fully clothed snooze. After all, drawing an alternate character sprite would have taken valuable seconds of time.
Hugo is not invited to join her, but instead to go and check out the bookcase. The bookcase with the incredibly obvious yellow book in the middle.
This turns out to open a secret passage, which Hugo of course disappears straight into. What adventurer wouldn't? Penelope meanwhile sleeps on, waking only at the sound of noise from the next room. She peers through the keyhole to see Great Uncle Horace being stabbed by an unseen assailant, and—
So begins the strangest murder mystery of all time. starting with the fact that you're not allowed to go through the bedroom door. After all, why would you want to go into the main house to tell people, or call the police, or maybe see if anyone is looking suspicious.
It's not even mysteriously locked. No, if you try, you're just told "You really should look around in this room, first!" This is code for 'use the secret passage in the back wall', which leads to Great Uncle Horace's study and the rather pointed question of why he needs a secret passage to the next room. Which is already connected. With a door.
The murder scene manages to offer no real clues, at all. No blood, no murder weapon, no corpse. Just a parrot that squawks "What are you doing with that knife?" and a balloon that instantly pops to give the message "Confucious say: Detective who spend all day catching red herrings might do better to quit job and become fisherman!" Helpful. It's also possible to use the phone, but as soon as you try to dial the police, it goes dead. This will make complete sense when all is revealed later on, and not be a blatant case of a designer making this shit up as he went along. I'm almost positive of that.
Speaking of which, with no way to open the secret passageway again, and this door actually locked, Penelope's only way out is down the dumb waiter. The kitchen door is locked for exactly no good reason, unless you count that a better name for this game would have been Hugo 2: The Garden Of Death. About 80% of the game is spent simply trying to get back into the house, its weird design making it impossible to do the sensible thing and just walk to the front door. Instead, the way is blocked by venus flytraps and killer bees and even, yes, a poisonous snake. Adventure games!
Before any of those obstacles though comes this guy—the sleazy gardener, who has a control panel full of magic buttons that exist where actual puzzles should be, and immediately tries to latch onto Penelope with kissy-kissy demands.
The obvious solution, to kick him or perhaps go get his employer to invite him to seek employment elsewhere, is obviously not the correct one. No, that's to meet him halfway, only chewing a clove of garlic so that he doesn't feel like it any more and runs off. The twist of this game is not that he is a vampire. That would be much better. Anyway, magic buttons!
Luckily, having played this before, I know exactly what they do. Unfortunately, the first thing they have to do is open the path to a garden maze. Mazes are the lazy designer's friend, and this one appears about (checks watch) five minutes in. Not the greatest start. Still, it does feature possibly the game's best clash between edited imagery and hand-drawn scenery.
The maze is entirely too big, and you have no idea what you're looking for in it—though it turns out to be a gun, which is just lying around for some reason, a bell, and a bottle. A piece of graph paper helps, as does a noose. The gun contains a shot that can be easily wasted, the bottle is simply marked 'serum'. As for the bell, it's just a bell. It rings. At least something here makes a degree of sense.
Bad as the maze is though, and it's very, very bad, it's nothing compared to the next obstacle.
What's that? Just a bridge? Oh, no. No, no, no. It's true that it poses no physical danger to Penelope, unlike everything else in the garden. It's also the hardest part of the game. You see, in the office earlier on, you pick up a book of matches, and the use for them is on the other side. For some reason though, touching the edge of the bridge... an edge requiring pixel perfect precision to avoid... makes Penelope drop them in the water, soaking them too much to use. Can she throw them across? Put them in her bra or something? Nope. The only way is painstaking manoeuvres, with the emphasis firmly on pain.
What makes it worse is that this is only a puzzle because of the perspective and bad art. In reality, Penelope could dance across the damn bridge without risking losing anything but her dignity. Here though, every step leaves her a potential dead woman walking. Even saving the game doesn't help that much.
And the use for those matches? Obviously, you use them to light a stick of dynamite.
A stick of dynamite found in a dog house.
It's just common sense.
Before that though, there's... uh... this. Penelope bumps into an old man, who showed up out of nowhere in the original Hugo's House Of Horrors to force Hugo to solve trivia puzzles. He's back for this one, with the specialist subject "plants and ferns of the Silurian period of the Paleozoic era".
Penelope, however, who has after all just been through the maze and the bridge puzzle and also narrowly avoided being stung by bees on the previous screen, is in no mood for that shit, grabbing his wand and—
Ouch. Cold. Which is not to say that I don't approve.
Anyway, on the next screen...
Yep. A cobra. Just hanging out, minding its own business. Luckily for Penelope, that bottle from the maze simply labelled 'Serum' is magically the exact antidote that she needs to stave off death, and the snake concedes defeat without trying another bite.
It's probably not worth mentioning that a cobra would have no reason to attack her without provocation, since it wouldn't be able to eat her, with its natural response being to flee. Or that Whodunit is set in England, and we do not in fact have cobras infesting our towns. Branches of Wetherspoons, yes, but they're easy to outrun.
So I won't mention any of that. Besides, why waste time, with the weirdest bit of the game coming up?
What? No, that's nothing. I mean this:
Penelope's first use for the phone booth is to call the police. "A murder, eh?" comes the reply from one Officer Higgins. "Very well. Listen, I can't come over right now since I'm rather busy on a case. I'll meet you in the living room at the house at 6 o'clock, OK?"
Still more realistic than anything that's ever happened in Bones.
There's something else that needs to be done here though, and I mean actually needs to be. It's not an Easter Egg, it's not a cute little aside. It's an actual puzzle that you can't win the game without doing. You phone a number that's written down in some nearby graffiti and...
This is where the gun from the maze comes in. A bullet takes out the Dalek, and in gratitude the Doctor gives you his sonic screwdriver. Wait. Does that mean that Penelope is one of River Song's regenerations? That casts whole new light on this game. It all makes total sense now, except for the bit about the giant Weeping Angel casually wandering around New York. Also, that we're two-thirds of the way through this game now, and still haven't even managed to get back into the house to begin investigating that whole 'murder' thing.
At least it's time to change that, by climbing down a well that only leads to a cave, the designer having apparently been a bit unclear on what wells are for, and blowing a hole in some debris using the sodding but not sodden matches and the dynamite from the dog house. And speaking of utter bullshit..
Ignoring that you could easily jump over that chasm, since that's not how this game works, guess how to get that banana that you need for some reason. If you type "Look", you get the message "You are in an underground cavern. There is a chasm over to the right. It appears to be impassable." Any ideas? Probably not, because the answer is that there's a ledge obscured by those rocks in the foreground that Penelope would be able to see, but the game can't be bothered to mention. You also have to be precisely far enough down, or it's an instant death. Adventure gaming! And remember, all of this was to collect a mouldy banana with absolutely no reason to be sitting in a cave, behind a freaking rockslide.
What do you need the banana for? Obviously, it's because there's a magic lamp elsewhere in the cave. You need the help of the genie inside... I am not making this up... to open a trap door in another cave that conveniently goes back into the house. But when you rub it, he just says "Greetings, mistress! I am the genie of the lamp! Don't get too excited, I don't do any of those 3 wishes kind of things, however I am decidedly hungry and I'd do almost anything for a banana, especially a mouldy one."
Christ. There's phoning in your game design, and then there's this. Roberta Williams, I apologise for at least four of the mean things I've said about your work in the past. Nothing involving Cedric though. I still want that owl's face carved onto your gravestone. And Phantasmagoria really sucked.
At least all this nonsense gets Penelope back on track, ready to start investigating. If it seems like I skip over most of this, it's because I'm totally doing that. The puzzles are ridiculous, but rarely funny ridiculous, with the basic gist being that everyone is doing something suspicious. There's a will showing that Great Uncle Horace planned to leave everything to Hugo. When Penelope brings up the murder with cousin Harry, he just starts laughing. In the kitchen, the chef is cooking a bloody pot roast. At one point, you need to distract the French maid by rubbing a bell with catnip and giving it to the cat, years before Gabriel Knight 3's infamous moustache puzzle. You get the idea, if not the logic.
None of the results exactly count as clues though, just... well... 'stuff', which presents a bit of a problem when 6PM rolls round, and Officer Higgins finally arrives. Presumably not after questing his way through venus flytraps and killer bees and all manner of other insanely dangerous rubbish.
"Well, now, since we can't find Great Uncle Horace, we really can't prove that what you say is true," Officer Higgins declares, a credit to the force. "Since there are apparently no other witnesses, we really don't have much to go on."
Luckily, Penelope cuts in to announce that she knows who the killer is. The room goes silent. Higgins' eyes open wide, as everyone waits to hear our super-sleuth's verdict... the identity of the guilty party... the traitor in their midsts...
Yes, it's all a big shaggy dog story. Cut to Hugo on his adventures while Penelope was asleep, somehow having taken the same secret passage to the laundry room. A laundry room... with a locked door... a newspaper... and a key... on the other side... of the... lock.
Excuse me for a second. (clears throat)
I HATE THIS PUZZLE I HATE THIS PUZZLE I HATE THIS PUZZLE! IT HASN'T BEEN CLEVER FOR LITERALLY DECADES—TOO MANY FOR THIS GAME TO GET AWAY WITH IT! IT NEVER WORKS, BECAUSE DOORS WITH LOCKS THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO USE IT ON INVARIABLY GO ALL THE WAY TO THE GROUND TO LEAVE NO ROOM TO RETRIEVE THE KEY! ANY DESIGNER WHO DOES THIS SHOULD BE LOCKED IN A ROOM WITH NOTHING BUT THE ITEMS UNTIL THEY REALISE THAT THE ONE VAGUELY GOOD CHANCE YOU HAVE IS TO KICK THE DOOR DOWN, AND ALSO THAT IT TAKES MORE THAN JUST PICKING UP A PIN TO PICK A LOCK, BUT THAT'S ANOTHER MATTER FOR ANOTHER DAY! EVERY TIME AN ADVENTURE DESIGNER USES THIS PUZZLE, AN ANGEL LOSES ITS WINGS! BECAUSE I TRACK ONE DOWN SPECIALLY AND I CUT THEM OFF WITH A CHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINSAAAAAW!
Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes, frothing. Well, anyway. Newspaper goes under door, pencil goes under hole, angel goes to get a really big bandage, and Hugo is free. On the other side is Great Uncle Horace, just ambling around. "Oh, there you are, my boy!" he says, oblivious to all the fuss elsewhere. "Where on earth have you been hiding, eh? I've been searching high and low for you! I've a favor to ask. I've been rehearsing my new play up in the study with your cousin Harry, trouble is, Hugo, we're a bit stuck on the murder scene. I play the victim and Harry plays the murderer, but we need someone to play the part of the investigator. I was rather hoping you'd help!"
And that's it. The End. Not so much a shaggy dog story as a rabid naked mole rat.
What a terrible, terrible excuse for an adventure.
It's not like adventures had never actually done murder mysteries before. Sierra's The Colonel's Bequest stands out as an example that actually pulled it off, despite some dreadful puzzles and logical gaps. Whodunit is far, far too lazy for that though, preferring instead to waste time and pull whatever it feels like out of its increasingly chafed ass. A genie who wants a mouldy banana, indeed...
The worst part though is when you look back on it from Penelope's point of view. Not only does she just end up looking like a fool for calling the police out for a murder that didn't actually happen—something Harry could just have told her, but opted to let herself completely humiliate herself over—getting to that point involves being nearly stung to death, eaten by killer plants, sexually assaulted by the gardener, exterminated by a Dalek, and actually being bitten by a king cobra. She also risked murdering an old man herself in pursuit of justice, so could very easily end up spending the next decade of her life in Holloway.
This is not a good day! And to find that the entire thing was all for nothing? Somehow I suspect that the only reason we cut to a The End is that she spent the next few hours in a pair of steel-capped boots, ensuring none of Hugo's hideous family could ever breed again. Especially Hugo.
Anyway, here's the full adventure, mostly to prove I didn't make anything up.
If you're wondering how the story ends though, here's a longplay of the third and final part of the series, Jungle of Doom. It offered much better graphics than its predecessors, but not a lot of actual fun.
As you can see by the runtime, it's short, mostly because this time it loses interest in itself almost immediately rather than waiting ten minutes or so. After this and Nitemare 3D, Hugo's designer gave up on the series entirely, opting to make jigsaw games instead.