From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. And you know what this week is? It's the long awaited 100th Crapshoot! (Fires cheap party streamer in air, eats single celebratory biscuit.)
Yes, one hundred Crapshoots. One hundred Saturdays filled with far, far too many words about insane horror, inexplicable edutainment, dreadful porn, random musical interludes, occasional light-hearted blasphemy, and oh, so very, very much more. It's the PC gaming column that spits on your "tl;dr", and about which it has been said "How could anyone drone on so long about Bloodrayne 3?!"
Clearly, this is a very special occasion for fans of both decimals and arbitrary milestones. But how to mark it? How else? Let's dive into one of the PC's most infamous duds, the sucking abyss that is... Hellboy! Hmm. That might have been more dramatic if you hadn't already seen the title.
The legend of Hellboy begins long before its release, and the Guillermo del Toro movie that brought Hellboy to a wider audience back in 2004. In case you don't know, the gist is that he's a demon who was summoned from Hell as a child by Nazi occultists, before being brought up by a nice professor who found an odd parenting middle-ground by raising him as a regular child but still calling him "Hellboy". I haven't read any of the comics, so I may be wrong here, but I'm assuming that this was primarily to stop any awkwardness in the event of another demon having to refer to him by his full title as "World Destroyer, Great Beast, Right Hand of Doom, Son of the Fallen One, and Brian."
Fully grown, Hellboy currently works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which I'm fairly sure is a hastily thrown together backronym created when the Professor accidentally said BPRD in a meeting and had to quickly cover for it. There he fights alongside other friendly freaks, saves the world a lot, and is no doubt proud to be played on screen by Ron Perlman (opens in new tab).
You'd think all this would be perfect for a game. In the right hands, it could be. Unfortunately, the Hellboy licence fell into the hands of a company called Cryo Interactive, which mostly seemed to exist to torture adventure game reviewers. Their eventual demise was attributed to business reasons, but I maintain had to have involved some kind of stake to the heart. A silver one. Forged from the 30 cursed pieces paid to Judas, urinated upon by a virgin unicorn under a full moon and carved into serrated spirals.
What I'm basically saying is I didn't like their games very much. They were not good.
I could try to describe the many ways Hellboy entered PC gaming legend, but I don't have to. Showing the kind of misplaced confidence that normally has people leaping off Niagara Falls while flapping their wings really really hard, Cryo produced a demo that was known to have experienced games editors collapsing into laughter. It was made for a stand at a show called ECTS, but the damned code also made it onto coverdiscs and is still floating around (opens in new tab) like a twisted lump of especially nutty poo.
The demo showed off four bits of the game, and this is the second. The only things I added were the title screen and fade-out. Everything from the voice quality to the vanishing subtitles to the... rest... is exactly as happened on the screen. If you feel any sympathy on the grounds that a lot of games are in a bad state before release, remember while that's true, this was a demo intended to promote Hellboy, and there's a reason companies don't let people see games like this. The reason is "Duh!"
That was two minutes! Two minutes!
Instantly the kind of joke that would take Duke Nukem the best part of a decade to live down to, at this point the game simply vanished. Everyone involved seemed to have awoken in a cold sweat after a night drinking absinthe and raw chicken grease, glanced over to see Hellboy on the next pillow, and screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed. Like nuclear waste being buried deep underground, the game was quietly shelved in the nearest bin, never to be seen or spoken of again.
Well, at least until the movie came out, when someone presumably from Hellboy's homeland decided that it would be a waste of a good asshole to not to plop it onto shelves. Even so, it wasn't exactly a big release, with the name altered from the original "Dogs of the Night" to "Asylum Seeker" and copies—to the best of my recollection—getting pride of place absolutely nowhere.
I remember PC Gamer only got a review copy because an alert reader spotted it on a shelf, on holiday I believe, and alerted the editor to its existence. It walked away from its review scourging with a faintly generous 14%.
The sad thing is that the finished game is nowhere near as funny as the demo. Oh, it's bad. It's shamefully bad, and while I'll cut the people who actually worked on it some slack on the grounds that it's mean to blame the slaves when the galley sinks, anyone responsible for actually releasing it should take five minutes a day to simply stare in a mirror and weep for their childhood dreams.
It's dark, it's dull, it's utterly lacking in fun or character. It is everything a game should avoid, with its only saving grace being that the CD probably won't snap in your hands and blind you out of spite.
But there's a difference between comedy bad and just plain worthless, and Hellboy sits with the dregs rather than the clowns. It's the most uninspired, could-not-give-a-crap kind of game, from an early puzzle where you have to work out which of four rocks should go on three pillars with no apparent clues save trying everything until you finally get it, to voiceover work from a cast who aren't simply phoning it in but burbling lines in their sleep. Not into a microphone, mind. What do you think this is, Daikatana?
The plot is that a couple of BPRD officers have gone missing while exploring a graveyard for some reason, and Hellboy and his partner, Sara Notworthcaringabout are sent to investigate. His voice is slightly less awful. She doesn't simply walk with an exaggerated hip-swing, but an apparently deliberate attempt to use her breasts as siege weapons against any invisible elves who might be around.
Anyway, it takes about five seconds before she's captured, leading Hellboy to a spooky asylum ("Asylum Seeker", geddit?) for pretty much no reason except that it's probably evil. My favourite bit is a section early on where Hellboy faces the most terrifying threat of all... a dark corridor! Try to go down it and he's attacked by what you can quite clearly see is absolutely nothing , making it feel like he's clumsily stubbing his toe and risking death by doing so. Hail Hellboy, the Great Red Wuss.
What really stands out though are the monsters. For starters, they include this guy:
For some reason, Hellboy seems to keep running into them while they're on coffee break, because they absolutely do not give a crap about doing their jobs. In the first two chapters, you bump into several mini-boss level monsters (and a few zombies, but they can be excused being dumb), and in all but one case you can simply walk past them.
That one exception? The silly guy in the last shot, who appears and runs off in the same cut-scene. It's meant to be a preview of horror to come, but no. More a premature ejaculation followed by, "Sorry. Pass my pants and I'll get out of your hair."
Even when you get to the scene from the video above, it's depressing. Everything is essentially the same, though the nurse's face doesn't animate like a crazy nightmare any more and the nonsensical dialogue has at least been slightly cleaned up since being run through Google Translate. Everything else though, that's as standard.
And after that, I gave up playing. This is however roughly 30 minutes more than I suspect any of the testers gave it, or from the looks of it, anyone on the internet short of one guy who wrote a walkthrough, one guy in Poland who endured it for a Let's Play (opens in new tab), and—
Hang on a damn minute. That can't be the boss! That's the tentacle monster from Half-Life! (opens in new tab)
So there it is. One of the PC's greatest failures, in all of its terrible, terrible glory. Is it really as bad as everyone's always said it is? Hell, yes. Is it so-bad-it's-good though? Not in its wildest dreams, even if it does have some unintentionally hilarious moments, and the kind of script that made me genuinely shocked to see that the development team was American rather than European.
I apologise for that Google Translate quip earlier. To Google Translate.
And there we go. One hundred Crapshoots. If you've been reading them from the start—thanks! If not, there's up to 99 more of them to read, and you might even like a few. If you have any favourites, or games you particularly want to see in the next hundred, post 'em in the comments.
Finally, as a special pseudo-treat, here's a second Crapshoot for the week, of a game that gets brought up a lot, but I've always disqualified for being too well-known. Today though, on this most rounded of ultimately meaningless days, it seems only fair to bend the rules for not just the adventure you've been demanding I cover from the start, but one of the best-selling games in PC history.
Special bonus Crapshoot: Myst
Myst is shit.