Every week, Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week... there's an island, and you can probably work out the rest of the plot for yourself. But you'll never predict its true horror.
Isle of the Dead, no relation to Isle Of Lucy, the home of a small tribe whose development inexplicably mirrored a popular '50s comedy show, somehow manages to avoid most worst games ever lists. The only real explanations are that everyone who played it died when their eyes popped for the fourth time in as many minutes, or every copy has a Ring-style curse on it. Actually, scratch that. Death would be sweet release. You don't play this shooter for fun. You play for penitence.
C'mon, I hear you say, as I watch you through your screen. How bad can it be?
At the risk of needing a spoiler warning here, the answer isn't simply bad, but 'very bad indeed,' and I do not say that lightly! The one thing you can say about Isle of the Dead is that it had the good manners to be utterly obscure. Also, it starts on quite a funny joke: the first credit being for, I quote, 'Merit Software'. Hehe. Presumably 'Festering Piece Of Shit Interactive' was already taken. There's more weirdness to deal with though, before we even start the game.
Below, you'll find Isle of the Dead's box art. Note in particular in the bottom left, the quote from Computer Game Review that calls it, "...the best knock-off of WOLFENSTEIN 3-D that anyone has created." When the best box quote you scratch together actually includes the word 'knock-off', it's generally a good hint that it's time to spare the trees. Every little helps in the quest to save the planet!
As far as the Wolfenstein 3D thing goes, this engine is actually pretty similar—bar a few additions that we'll get to in a moment. One thing that id Software has always been pretty good at though, beyond engines, is knowing its limitations. Wolfenstein 3D could only handle the likes of corridors and interiors, so it was set in a big stone castle. Other games also picked their battles. Shadowcaster (opens in new tab) for instance used an upgraded Wolf3D engine to create what, for the time, was a decent fantasy world. It wasn't Ultima Underworld, but then, there's a reason Ultima Underworld was Ultima Underworld.
In Isle of the Dead though, this is pretty much your first sight of this frustrated world.
See the problem? Let me move a little closer.
Yep. That sea... is a wall. Not a subtle 'oh that's a clever trick' kind of wall either. A 'hey, the floor behind your ocean is showing' kind of wall, of the kind the word 'Ooof!' was created to handle.
So. We've got a shooter which is struggling to create a desert island with its technology, and an engine where this crashed plane has to try and convey a sense of scale.
What next? That's right! Let's double-down on failure and make this an adventure game too!
The adventure bits make Isle of the Dead extra torturous, thanks to being staggeringly vague about what you have to do, and later on, making you do it under time pressure.
You're controlling one of those sociopath game characters whose description of a dead body is "Nothing Of Interest." To help him survive, you have to uncover items like wire cutters and a native phrase book for later use, which might not sound so bad, except that Isle of the Dead loves nothing more than springing bullshit traps on you. Some of them involve those inventory items. Other times...
Here's probably the biggest single bullshit moment in the game, and you'll note we haven't actually seen many zombies yet. Patience. Patience. On the Isle of the Dead, you obviously want weapons, and the only one you get at the start of the game is a useless machete. If you hunt around, you'll find a shotgun relatively early on. Before that though, there's a cave with a tempting rifle in the corner.
There's an almost invisible trip-wire, but luckily, some adventuring skills—and wirecutters— should fix this problem and get you the kind of zombie-killing weapon God himself would use if he dug rifles.
Bomb safely defused, you pick up the rifle. It explodes, and you die. Unless you thought to use the nearby can of oil on a rag to clean the rifle first.
Shall we meet some more zombies?
What makes the zombies of Isle of the Dead so annoying is that they, like all of the game mechanics, seem to work by Rule of Whatever. The machete for instance is usually a short-range weapon, but sometimes a swing will decapitate something at the other end of the room. Simply going near the zombies is usually enough to empty the old health-bar, and they swarm in ridiculous numbers in just about every room. A few pick-ups and abusing the fact that time freezes on the inventory can offer a bit of protection, but mostly Isle of the Dead is That Goddamn Scientist Laughs at You: The Game.
Honestly, who does he think he is, I.M. Meen?
What you can't see from all this though is how awful the structure is. Despite being based on an engine more primitive than a spinning triangle, Isle of the Dead can't handle a map more complicated than a guide to points of interest in Milton Keynes.
Every bit of it is tiny, connected via doors—cave entrances, vine covered bits of forest or so—that work when they feel like it. Since it would be astoundingly annoying for all the zombies to respawn when you switch between locations, obviously they do.
Here is an actual example of an in-game map, as helpful as any of them.
At the very least, it could label the doors. But no. That would involve being helpful and competent, and that's just not what Isle of the Dead's thing. Its master Beelzebub, Horror of Flies, Scourge of The Blessed Lands and Executive Producer of Aliens: Colonial Marines, would never approve.
Here's a full Let's Play of the game, showing it off in all its crapulence. To save you some time though, 1) Yes, it really is this bad, 2) Aglets, 3) No, the girl from the box never appears, though a totally different one does, as the prisoner of a mad scientist with entirely too many nurses. It's probably a romantic relationship for the ages, if you read the comic book that was included in the game.
And yes, you can screw yourself by using the flare gun you find at the very start of the game, thus not having access to it at the end when you need it. Isle of the Dead. Start to finish... living right down to its low potential. The best thing about the whole experience is deleting it.