From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, another chance to enter a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but one that soon turned into a mere Bidet of Nightmares. Drink of it at your own risk.
Wasteland eventually got its long-awaited sequel, and luckily it was good. Some might even say very good. Depending on who you ask though, there already was a sequel to Wasteland, only a year or so after the first one came out. Now, to be clear, the list of people who will tell you that is very small indeed. Not the original Wasteland team, which didn't work on it, not Wasteland fans, who generally try to forget it, and not even publisher EA, who originally did tried to hold it up as a proper sequel, but were apparently convinced of their folly after three ghosts showed up to slap some goddamn sense into them.
Despite that, the lineage is obvious, and you'd think the thirst for a new Wasteland game would make anything even inspired by it worth a little hardcore fan fondness. How bad could it be that it was politely carved out of history almost as soon as it landed? Well, let's find out! Though I think we can assume the answer is "Very, very bad."
Fountain of Dreams takes place in post-apocalyptic Florida, so that's at least a bit different, some 50 years after nuclear strikes carved it off from the mainland. Nobody knows if life still exists on the mainland or beyond, but all attempts to find out lead to quick death from the contaminated sea all around or the vicious monsters that pick off what radiation can't immediately destroy. Over the last 50 years, that's meant the major cities withdrawing into themselves and becoming city states, people increasingly mutating due to exposure to all the nasty stuff in the air and underfoot, and vicious gangs rising up in the wilderness to threaten adventurers and give everyone a damn good reason to stay home.
Or, as the manual put it, "This world is crazy. Too bad you're sane."
As a starting point, that all seems pretty solid. It's a world like Wasteland, but with its own distinct area and theme, tapping into much the same ideas but with more of a focus on human threats than wandering monsters given a radiation-powered kick up the food chain. I don't see what could possibly go—
Huh. I was expecting a goofy screenshot to appear there. A kind of ironic cut-in of sorts, taking that obvious feed line and presenting a big picture summing up the stupidity of the game in one easily digested collection of pixels, as if—
Killer Clowns. Yes, there's about a 90% shot that having created a party and set out on your quest, the first thing that you'll see is a gang of murderous clowns popping up and pretty much killing you dead with no more effort than throwing a custard pie. It's not like Wasteland played things straight, but there's a difference between having a tongue-in-cheek apocalypse where occasionally you face off against giant rabbits or murder children for their BB guns and outright making an army of killer clowns your equivalent of the NCR or Caesar's Legion—not a goofy gag monster, but a major power base whose ground troops are no laughing matter, and which controls much of the known world.
"Other than radiation and nature itself, the only force to be reckoned with throughout the island is the Killer Clowns. The Clowns have perverted the slapstick humor of their forefathers, taking its feigned violence literally, and expanding it into the martial art Slap-Fu. These predatory Pierrots roam the island, extending the power of their ancient but still dangerous founder, Kermit Eli, and his demented family. The Clowns are extremely secretive, and their pantomime communication with each other is impenetrable to outsiders. They are highly skilled in the use any kind of weapon, and unusually fond of the bizarre, such as steel-toed flap shoes, rubber chickens stuffed with ball bearings, spike-studded brickbats, and seltzer bottles filled with acid. The Killer Clowns have fallen strangely silent lately, but it is generally believed that this is a momentary lull."
Ugh, is this game dumb. And while the Killer Clowns are probably the single dumbest thing in it, they're by no means the only thing so dumb that even thinking about it is to deliver yourself a hard enough facepalm to get concussion. The Miami Police is controlled by two cops called "Tockett" and "Crubbs". Another criminal faction is called the Obeah Orders, or OhOhs for short, which use voodoo magic. And just as Wasteland's other cousin Escape From Hell immediately decided to have a serious problem with women, Fountain Of Dreams doesn't waste much time squeezing in... well... guess.
It's a more advanced game than Wasteland in some ways though, including having more flavour text and conversations (without the need to put them in the manual and give look-up codes to compensate for the lack of game data), with animated portraits and a bit more sense of life to a lot of areas. Annoy local witch Lupe Garoo and you only have yourself to blame when she sets werewolves on you. Hang around at your farm where the game starts though and you've got a couple of friends who would love to go with you, but aren't that crazy. There's a reason why it has so much more space to play with that it can have such luxuries, but we'll get to that in about five or six paragraphs.
To give the game some credit, it also has one pretty fun mechanic—mutation. As you fight, your characters get bitten and infected by enemies and begin to change, adding skills like chameleon skin at the expense of things like lowered stats. The more you're exposed to mutagens, the stronger they become and the more the potential advantages have to be weighed up versus going to get treatment, which is possible, but only a temporary fix. Soon, everyone will be scaled horrors.
This is a really good idea, worthy of a much better game. It's also the core of the story—the titular Fountain of Dreams being the Fountain of Youth, cracked open by the apocalypse and now somewhere in Florida and waiting to be discovered—its existence proved by "dream water" that keeps everything in check and provides cures on demand, one criminal faction going so far as to put the stuff into rum. Given the size of the place it's honestly a wonder the Fountain hash't been found some hundred million times over already, but never mind. As a premise, it could definitely be worse.
Just getting started on finding it though is a nightmare. To be fair, Wasteland was pretty brutal itself, but there's "old school hardcore" brutal and there's "oh bullshit" brutal, and Fountain of Dreams is squarely in the lesser camp. Just stepping out into the wild you leave yourself open to instant murder by armies of... urrrgh... Killer Clowns and BigTop Guards wielding futuristic zap-guns, as well as giant spiders and killer rats and werewolves and drug-addled cultists, and some straight up screw-you moments.
If you walk into a tree for instance, it drops deadly coconuts on your head. Walk too close to a location at the top of the opening map and it blasts your whole team with undodgeable missiles that flatten them before you can say "I'm going, I'm going!" An encounter with a single Killer Clown is a potential party-killing moment, with their shots not only doing crazy damage... literally... to whoever it hits, but spreading the pain with splash damage to anyone near. As if the world needed any more reason to hate clowns.
Exploring reveals even more painful idiocy, in both senses of the word. In the DeSoto compound for instance, you find a fountain—not the Fountain of Dreams, just a regular one. Any other game, you'd just bounce off it. But no! This is Fountain of Dreams, and Fountain of Dreams hates you.
So instead... really... you get this message:
Oh no! This fountain is full of savage piranha...
...and then take the kind of damage more usually associated with concentrated machine gun fire to the balls. Oh, and when you die, you're unceremoniously dumped to DOS with a cheery "Florida bids you a fond farewell!" It's like it's defying you not to snap and then eat the disks.
This is very visibly a result of the game being tiny. When you step outside your family home it looks like you're in a tutorial area of sorts, but hah! Hardly! This was an RPG from 1990, such things were but the dreams of babies! The whole map is surrounded by "Mickey's Wall", a giant blocker covered in broken glass that you'd think your first task would be to find a way past. After all, you're trapped in such a tiny space that you can walk across the whole map in a couple of minutes.
But no. That's the map. That's all of the map. It consists of literally three areas—the streets of Miami and a small compound owned by the DeSoto crime family, the... uggggh... Killer Clown College which makes up a couple of levels of idiocy, and then a patch of sawgrass with a guy's hut hidden in it. And also, the Fountain of Dreams. To put this in perspective, because I counted, the world-saving source of all-curing water is literally 20 steps away from your house. You can't simply walk up and get it, no, but still. The bat in Pong goes more out of its way! That's not a quest, it's an errand!
The crazy difficulty though makes it one totally not worth undertaking, from the constant random assaults by enemies to the dumb puzzles, dead ends, and chances to absolutely screw yourself over by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or stealing the local crime boss's beloved Van Gogh painting. OK, so, in fairness, you do that last one and you have it coming. Walking into a fountain only to find it full of piranhas, that's just cruel.
At best, the whole game feels like everyone involved lost interest immediately, and at worst, like a piece of homework started at 5AM on the day it's due to be handed in, after three weeks of doing anything else. You know it's going to suck, but you have no choice. Your teacher knows what you've done, but it's not worth their time to call you on it right then when a big red F for "Fuck off!" will say it all in a few days time. It's probably written in double-spaced, 16-point text to try and hide the fact that you only managed 500 of the 2,000 words requested, and that's only because in this metaphor, there's no way for a Killer Clown to jump up and distract your teacher by hitting them in the face with an acid custard pie.
Certainly, it's very obvious why nobody involved in Wasteland wanted to be even tangentially associated with this, and why even EA ultimately decided to try and pretend it never happened. There was only one Wasteland, and then there was Fallout. Then there was Wasteland 2, and it's the true successor.
Some games are better forgotten. Some wastelands, simply a waste.
Let us never speak of Fountain of Dreams ever again.