From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, the most boring window-washing game ever made. At least, unless you have a knack for stumbling into alien trouble...
Over the years, videogame storytelling has improved beyond all recognition, from simple words like "It is dark. You may be eaten by a grue" to epic tales of love and heroism capable of putting Hollywood to shame. But it wasn't an easy road, and the games that took us down it often... uh... let's just say, stumbled. Meet Future Wars: Adventures in Time, a sci-fi epic where heroism is just another way of saying "a sociopath saved the day".
Well, maybe that's a bit strong, but Future Wars certainly offers one of the oddest first steps I've ever seen in a game. There's no real backstory and no character details to play with. All you know when you start the game is that you're a window cleaner on the side of a huge skyscraper; a little like Roger Wilco over in the Space Quest world, you're due to prove that janitorial services can clean up any mess. Any.
First though, your day is interrupted when the boss some three floors up opens a window in a way that very few skyscrapers allow people to do due to what's known in architecture circles as the "OOOOOOOOOOOOHBUGGERAAARGHSPLAT!" problem. This is after you knock over your water with a foot and thus nominate anyone unfortunate to be at street level for the Complete Arse Bucket Challenge.
Here the game starts, with no objective and no hint as to what you're supposed to do next. The only clue is that the window the boss leaned out of is still ajar, and crawling through it you see a bathroom. OK! Fill the bucket with water, get back to work. The plot will no doubt be along soon, possibly to admire the really lovely artistic touch of that mirrored surface showing you the city behind you, in the kind of visual flourish you'd expect from Eric Chahi, creator of Another World, who was in charge of the art on this game too (and you'll, spoiler, occasionally see direct demonstrations of in things like how laser gun shots are animated, though overall this has a totally different style)
Head back outside and there's no apparent way to do your job. Hmm. No tools, no ability to just slosh the bucket at the wall, just a straight up "Nope" when you try and a sense of confusion.
What could you possibly be expected to do?
Even the game points out how dumb this is, saying "You place the bucket of water on the half-open door, giggling to yourself in advance of the great joke you are playing (little things please little minds)." But that's it, that's what you're meant to do? Why?
Oh, dear adventure game neonate, because that distracts him long enough for you to run into the next room where you find a map on the wall that unlocks a secret passage into a James Bond (or indeed, John Glames) crushing-ceiling deathtrap, which demands a code to save the day and open a door into a brand new room full of apparently lightning powered machinery where you get jumped by a guy with a futuristic zap-gun and leap into a portal that teleports you back to medieval times. The historical period, not the crappy dinner show.
Well, that escalated quickly.
"It's a swamp. You ask yourself how you managed to get to this gloomy, damp place. The muddy ground sinks slightly under your feet. The few rays of sunlight which filter, with difficulty, through the lush vegetation suffuse it with a dim light which produces a strange and suffocating feeling. You take a deep breath and decide to forget for the moment what's on your mind."
DECIDE TO FORGET?! I think if I went from washing windows to having a non-zero chance of getting Robin Hood's autograph, I'd be a tiny bit more shaken. But no, our hero just shrugs it off as just one of those things that can happen. What a pain, especially with a new episode of Boardwalk Empire on.
I guess you can say that Future Wars puts its cards on the table pretty quickly. Deep plot is not going to happen here, and every puzzle is incredibly annoying. Just to do this little sequence requires finding a tiny flag hidden in a toilet and a key under a carpet that unlocks a cupboard with a typewriter inside it with a code written on it that you need to use to stop the crushing ceiling trap, which in turn has to be done insanely quickly by clicking *OPERATE* 4 *OPERATE* 3 *OPERATE* 5 and so on rather than just clicking the numbers.
There are also items you need right now that you'll die without later on, though that wasn't too unusual for games of this vintage, and never really is it explained what was going on with the boss and why he had a time machine hidden in his office. Not very well, anyway. Your part in this is literally "guy who just falls into the middle of stuff", being glad that at least you won't randomly get the plague or something as one final screw you. I wouldn't put it past Future Wars, but no. Of that, you are safe.
Naturally though, the past remains a terrible, dangerous place, as best seen on the first screen where you get beaten up by mosquitoes. Yes, not infected with anything nasty. A cloud of them simply doesn't like your face, thinks they can take you, and totally can, unless you're on pretty much the exact pixel where you can introduce them to insecticide from the future and give chaos theory a kick right in the fundamentals. And speaking of pixels, taking a misstep, accidentally walking in front of a key item when you need to access it, and all kinds of similar things can be instant death, which wouldn't be so bad if you could move by using the cursor keys. Instead you have to click. And some things aren't even discoverable unless you're close enough, so just pixelbitching the screen often isn't enough.
This is the part of the '90s where I decided that humanity was going to lose the war for the future.
I feel I made the right decision.
But this time, onwards! To glory!
And by "glory", I of course mean "more crime". Should you try to get into the nearby town in your future clothes, two monks beat the crap out of you. So, you need a disguise. Luckily, it's about this time that an unfortunate passer-by decides it's time for their yearly bathe and gets undressed for a swim, leaving their clothes where any old time traveller could just swoop in like a greedy magpie and leave them stark naked in the woods without so much as a moment of regret or sympathy.
When you mouse-over the main character, he's called "Hero". Really, by this point he should have been downgraded to just "Guy", or possibly "Douche". And that's being generous.
Still, a chance for Actual Heroism does finally dawn with the discovery that the local... king, lord, something... has lost his daughter. Not behind the sofa, she's gone missing in the woods, with no trace but her pendant. Everyone blames the monks, who have been engaging in most un-Christian activities like, well, there's beating up time-travellers, but nobody knows about that. Being Up To No Good, anyway. Our hero agrees to lend a hand on the grounds that he has nothing better to do.
"And may the force be with you," adds the King, out of absolutely sodding nowhere.
Stealing a monk's habit,
our hero Turbodouche (on reflection, he deserves a promotion) heads down to the Abbey to infiltrate, only to find it guarded by a massive wolf. You can steal a lance, but that doesn't work. There are no doggy treats yet. So how do you beat it?
By filling a leaky plastic bag from the future with lake water and throwing it at him. Oh, because it's a robot. Didn't I mention that? Nor does the game. The only clue is a tiny little blue wibble that's meant to be electricity. This seems like overkill for a guard dog in any century, and also something you'd think the King would have mentioned. He said his guards didn't want to go near the place, not that they were guarded by a robot wolf. Three reasons that should have been mentioned: robot and wolf and goddamn!
Inside, it turns out that you're infiltrating the Holy Brothers of the Clockwise Bullshit; their order doing nothing but walking around a square in one direction. If you try to walk around it in the other direction, then "Infidel!" goes the cry, and the Ceremony of the Cracking of the Skulls begins.
It makes getting around a real nuisance, especially since you have to keep circling around to pick up random crap. That said, you do overhear some unusual conversations that suggest the monks, really, really might not be what they seem... things like "Brother, go and fetch me a cup of Chikapok! I feel my srabyr pricking me!"
The King's daughter is easily rescued, but turns out to be far more dangerous than you'd expect, for two reasons: firstly, a seemingly innate understanding of the technology around her, and secondly, breasts capable of poking out eyes. She teleports Turbodouche back to the castle with her pendant, where the King is relieved, hugs her, and then once again is relieved, this time that he can still see.
And finally, it's infodump time. The two explain they're from the future, where time travel exists, something that gives Turbodouche surprising difficulty for a guy standing in a medieval castle, and is being used in a weapon in a war between humanity and an alien force called the Croughons. And if you're wondering if I'm about to do a lame joke about the evil "Croutons"; no, I am not. Oh, but not because that joke is in any way beneath me. Over 200 Crapshoots should have made that clear.
No. Simply because the game already does it.
The not-King explains that normally, this is the point where they'd pull some Men In Black type stuff on you to zap your memory, or put you in a trance, or maybe just lock you in a room with the naked guy whose clothes you stole and give him a baseball bat... something like that. In exchange for your service though, they instead decide to pass it on up the chain of command, sending you on an all-expenses-paid trip to the post-apocalyptic future. You know it's dark, because they're up to "Paris IV"
Oh, and also into making you wear futuristic overalls that make your buttocks pop out like two grapefruits in a thin plastic bag. Yay? It's a future thing. As long as the future never gets past 1969.
"The ruins all around you are eerie. You're thinking to yourself, 'This isn't the kind of place where I'd choose to spend my holidays!'" quips the game, quippily, as you descend into yet another fine product of Sewer Level Inc. Yes, Sewer Level Inc: "Padding Your Stupid Games Since 1986." This one is from the Executive Maze catalogue, only the value end where it looks like a maze but isn't, where the only real thing to do is save a mother and child from a swamp monster. Which can be done in two ways. Either you can zap it with a blowtorch, dealing with it violently. Or you can be eaten by it, at which point it leaves, satiated, with no need for innocent dessert and a doggy-bag for the kid.
Honestly, there are worse ways the Tale of Turbodouche could end.
(Especially when you save them with the blowtorch, they talk about the Croughons, and he again goes "The Croutons?" Tsk. Once was fine, Turbodouche, but you are now officially demoted to Ultradouche for crimes against running gags. I believe in the punishment fitting the crime.)
Sneaking about a plane without a ticket, Ultradouche finally gets a little time to sit back, unwind and wish he was in trousers that weren't trying to invade the back of his throat through his sphincter.
But only a very little time though, because just when it seemed like everything was going so well...
Conveniently disabling the Croughons from inside a cell using a gas grenade from medieval times and a newspaper to prevent it blowing back in his face, Ultradouche is quickly rescued by human agents.
Unfortunately, being picked up surrounded by aliens whose specialist trick is pretending to be human isn't the best way to make a first impression, especially when a DNA test reveals nobody has a clue who he is and a court trial reveals that nobody cares. It goes about as well as you'd expect, really.
Luckily the girl from before, whose name is Lo'Ann, shows up to stop the silliness, and everyone is quick to apologise. They also explain the rest of the story, that Earth is shielded from the Croughons' time machines and chronocarriers, so they had to work around it in a way that honestly everyone should have seen coming: to plant bombs in the past that would explode in the now and take out the defences. Or the little-bit-further-into-the-now. This apparently is a problem given that nobody could figure out when they were planted, though it's not made too clear why that's a problem since the "where" would seem to be "on top of the time shield thingies". Really, let them do their thing, go back, say, five years, and deactivate them. But no, for some reason it has to be done in situ. And, uh, they've won.
Yeah. The bomb from the modern times went off and knocked a whole in the defences. "We have heard nothing from the agents we sent to find and defuse it," explains the Council, which makes me suspect that our hero may have caused that either with some form of bucket of water to the head. Anyway, all now rests on one final mission that Lo'Ann has agreed to undertake, and at hearing that her breasts will be going on it and also probably the rest of her, Epicdouche insists on going too. You'd think the humans would have someone trained and better qualified, like... anyone... but no. They just bang some information into his head and send the two off to the Cretaceous period.
When the Croughons play the long game, they really play the long game.
The humans don't even give Epicdouche a zap-gun for the mission. But it's OK, he's still armed with, uh, a lance. That will be VERY HELPFUL when fighting aliens! Luckily, Lo'Ann is slightly saner and gives him... a compressed air gun.
"COMPRESSED AIR!" screams Epicdouche. "Yes, scientists in my century had begun research into this type of weapon since it was more economical than a laser!"
Yeah, and much more easily found on the shelves of Toys R Us too.
This is one of those arcade sequences that makes old-school adventure gamers cry; a truly terribly, half-arsed arcade sequence in the middle of a game that was already struggling just to be an adventure. You have to shoot an entire army of Croughons, and they can pretty much kill you at will. Technically, the trick is to shoot the ones flashing red, but sometimes they'll just go red and fire anyway and sometimes you just die. At least you can save during the interminable shoot-out, even if you can't, y'know, duck. It ends with everyone dead except you and Lo'Ann, until one last guy pops up to shoot her too. Sending her back to the future, it's then up to Epicdouche to finish the job by boarding and commandeering the ship, and flying it to the main Croughon base.
And what waits in the main Croughon base?
If you guessed "A timed maze, because screw you!", you win a point.
If you designed Future Wars and thought "A timed maze!", you win my eternal hate.
It's a nightmare of a sequence because you don't know where you're going or what you're meant to do when you arrive, and the timer is brutal. But, survive it and you can rig the Croughon ship to blow up, giving humanity its first victory against the evil soup demons.
But wait for it. Wait for it...
You know what happens when you blow up the Croughon ship?
YOU KILL THE DINOSAURS.
I am not kidding. The happy ending of the game is you, personally, killing the dinosaurs.
"It's the late Cretaceous Era, more than sixty five million years ago. This morning, in a world in which man has not yet any place, the sun's rays herald the beginning of a peaceful day. The huge creatures which dominate the planet gradually awake from their lethargy and their gigantic bodies prepare themselves for the daily fight for survival. Yet how could these extraordinary monsters who have dominated the planet for nearly ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY MILLION YEARS imagine that this morning..."
EpicTurboUltradouche, you are the absolute worst!
(And you never even finished cleaning those windows!)
Future Wars was one of the earliest Delphine games, with Operation Stealth their most famous adventure, Another World by far their best-remembered game, and Flashback being a true classic in the "games that people love but if they're honest don't remember anything after the game show bit" genre.
(I never said it was a big genre.)
As adventure designers, Delphine pretty much sucked the bronze off toilet handles. It wasn't a huge surprise then that they soon decided to give up telling stories in favour of making Moto Racer games, but thankfully not without spawning a subsidiary called Adeline that gave us the wonderful Little Big Adventure games (or if you're in the US, the "Relentless" games, no doubt renamed at the hands of the same marketing genius who thought Broken Sword would be much cooler if renamed "Circle of Blood").
What they had (to be more exact, what artist Eric Chahi had) was an early skill for design and graphics. Future Wars was a stunning game, released at a time when the competition still looked like this.
Indoor scenes are a little weak, but outdoor shots of orange vistas and huge animated spaceships using silhouettes to both add scale and detail, and that opening shot of the building, were absolutely fantastic bits of design craft that really make it a shame that plugging through the game itself is such a total pain.
Even with a walkthrough, it's a struggle to get through thanks to overly picky puzzles that demand you be in ludicrously specific points to even carry out the puzzle, and to not smash the screen at one too many orders to get a little closer. This was a common problem with games at the time, but Future Wars really took it to a new level of openly gleeful hatred, not least by making the hero mouse-controlled and often standing in front of or on top of the thing you had to select in the first place. Grrrrrr!
It also doesn't do itself many favours with its translation, with errors firmly of the "You Complete Arse" school of saying no, or its idea of a hero being a dinosaur-genociding Infinidouche. And I dread to think what he might have become had Future Wars become the series it was originally created to be. In the second game, I suspect he'd have ended up accidentally knocking all humanity into a black hole. Third game, the remnants join up with the Croughons just to take him out before he can turn the entire universe into an empty void. Fourth game, adventures in an empty void, alone save for the screaming.
God only knows what horrors he'd have managed to inflict on it.
Though Delphine focusing on that would at least have spared us all Shaq Fu.