From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. Today, it's Mortimer. Or, to give it its full no-way-will-that-fit-in-the-title name, Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion.
Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. In the UK at least, it's a strong contender for LucasArts' most obscure PC game. In the US, I think it's a little better known, but still far from being a classic. Partly, that's because it's an edutainment game. It's also because it wasn't very good—though it is very pretty, and has lots of charm and character. Mostly though, I think it's a question of karmic payback. Look at this game. Doesn't it look sweet? Doesn't it look innocent? Wrong! Mortimer is the work of the Devil himself.
Brace yourself. If you keep reading, you will be exposed to ear-worms you will never bleach out of your brain. PC Gamer cannot be held responsible for anything you might still find yourself humming in fifty years time. Uh-huh. Oh yeah. Uh-huh...
The story begins like any other. Two kids, Sid and Sally, are kicking back in the garden one day, when all the world's animals are turned to stone. Luckily, the mad scientist who lives next door has a plan, and introduces them to his greatest creation: Mortimer. (He's not technically described as a mad scientist in the game, but earns the title anyway when we find out that Mortimer is a giant flying snail, armed with a gun that shoots his own slime. Chlorination specialists just don't build that kind of shit.)
For a mid-90s talking animal mascot, Mortimer is surprisingly non-hateful. He doesn't have an obnoxious attitude, he doesn't drop puns every five seconds, and he doesn't wear sunglasses. He doesn't even have a catchphrase, though his theme music has a lame stab at one with "Fly the slimy skies". Sid and Sally are both hyper-excited by this freak of nature, so much so that they don't even bother to ask how come snails are exempt from the whole 'all animals in the world turned to stone' problem, but there's a catch: only one of them can fly Mortimer. What does this mean? It means that your first decision in the game is which of these two kids doesn't get to go on the magic adventure to save the world. You're responsible for taking that dream and shattering into a million pieces right there, leaving them standing in the garden as their friend flies off to save the world. They put on a brave face, but it's a lie. You monster.
Anyway! The lucky kid flies off to the Savanna on Mortimer's back, hunting for the first of five magic medallion pieces that will save the world. Technologically, it's not much to write home about. It's Rebel Assault/Microcosm/Every Other Game That Stuck Sprites On FMV action, with a little freedom of movement to dodge obstacles. When enemies appear, you shoot them with Mortimer's special goo (slime) to make them go away. The rest of the time, you're on the hunt for stone animals that you shoot with a different gun to
bring back to life turn purple, because the engine can handle that. Every one you save gives you Glowstones, which you need to pay your way at the end of the level.
There's not a lot more to the action than that. It's cheery. It's easy. There's not even a hint that later, you'll be faced with a spin on it that will make you want to take the designers, strap them into a dentist's chair with rusty barbed wire, and pour salt down their throats until they drown in thirst.
Until that part imprisons you in a dimension of infinite pain where all hope is meaningless, the style is pretty refreshing. Despite focusing on animals, there's no preachiness in Mortimer, nor any big environmental message. The villain isn't pollution or the work of man or the usual fare, but a schizophrenic gremlin thing called Lodius, who looks relatively scary for a kids game, but is such an ineffective villain that even his own reflection keeps complaining that he sucks.
It's hard to argue. It's bad enough that your plans are being destroyed by a snail, without having such limited imagination that you can only think to send glorified salt-shakers to kill him. One orc with a bazooka, that's all I'm saying.
After every level comes a Riddle, the answer to which is one of the animals that you've rescued in the course of the level. If you don't have them all, you can head out and complete the set, but you'd have to actually have gotten up and made dinner for this to happen. Here's what the action looks like. Quick disclaimer: Due to compatibility issues far too boring to go into, I was playing with an Xbox 360 controller, which isn't ideal. It makes precision control less than awesome.
Ah. Yes. The songs. The songs, the songs, the songs...
The songs are what always stuck in my head from this game. Each Medallion piece one has a guardian Gate to set the riddle and send you on your way to the next world, but you don't simply have to impress them to get it. You have to indulge them. While they sing. While they sing awful, awful, yet impossibly catchy songs that you will never get out of your skull. It's clear that these were written without much thought for music, they frequently don't scan very well, and... and oh god, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all. They burrow into your skull anyway. I apologise in advance.
Gathering all the Medallion pieces doesn't take long. Not only is the game very easy anyway, you have unlimited lives. You wouldn't expect much in the way of challenge though, would you? Not in a kids game? Not in a cheery, friendly, totally non-Satan touched edutainment thing? Pffft. As if.
Here, try this. Stand up. Find something pointy. Place it carefully in the middle of your chair. Fall down upon as hard as you can. That is the difficulty spike we're talking about here. The final level set in Lodius' Castle is like bobbing for apples in a septic tank. It's finding out that someone's put pepper in your eye-drops and filled all your house's taps with chilli sauce. It's sadistic.
As soon as you arrive, Mortimer is kidnapped by Lodius, and the Chosen Kid ends up flying solo through the corridors on a hunt for the Medallion's central piece. It's much the same as before, thanks to them having a jet-pack, but with a couple of differences. The big one is that instead of the huge sweeping terrain of the Savanna, Timberlands and so on, you're now trapped in incredibly tight, trap-lined corridors, and everything drains your healthbar.
It constantly pulls cruel tricks on you like sweeping one way towards giant spike only to pull the other way a second later, or making you fly through Beelzebub's cancerous colon, where you have no idea what the hell you're meant to be avoiding or which direction you're about to go. It drops things on you out of nowhere, makes you slalom through spikes even when the other side of the screen is completely clear and... oh god, it's agonising. Best of all, you have to get through five levels of this, your health bar isn't even fully recharged between stages, and if you lose too often on a map, you're kicked right back to the start to do the whole thing over from scratch.
We're not at the evil bit yet, incidentally.
Just to add a little pain, you don't just have to get through all this in one piece. Between every area, you have to solve a puzzle. Two animals are shown, and you have to pick the next in the sequence, based on a clue that the game doesn't give you. If you get it wrong, you find yourself kicked right back to do the obstacle course again, or if you're especially unlucky, back to the start of the castle, where you get a different puzzle to work out. These aren't simply "Animals that live in the Savannah" or "Animals that are Mammals" either. No, you're expected to work out that you're looking at "Animals that dive, either in the air or in water" and similar. Yaaargh! Of all the times to be stuck with an Xbox controller!
But surely that's the evil bit over, right?
No. That comes here, in the room of the final riddle. Of course, there's a song (embedded in a bit, don't worry), then is the final challenge. As you watch, you're given a riddle, and three buttons appear with possible animals to choose from. Here's what you've got to answer.
Hmm. Well, snakes don't have ears. A moose? Moose don't set traps. Monkey doesn't really fit either, but when the other two options are out, it's has to be right, doesn't it?
No. In the words of the great Admiral Ackbar: IT'S A TRAP. Choose any of the buttons and you're mocked for it, then kicked back... to the start of the whole castle... to do... the... whole... thing... again!
What's the answer? Lodius himself, standing on the side. Come on! That's just cruel!
At least you get two rocking songs out of it.
"Lodius dude" / "fondued?" Oh lordie. Most tenuous rhyme in the universe, right there. Still, with the Medallion complete, the Chosen Kid heads off to face Lodius, who has very patiently been sitting on his throne instead of actually killing Mortimer. The Medallion proves to be useless. Lodius takes a shot with magic, which bounces right off it and around the other mirrors in his room, before hitting him and turning him into stone. All this time, a simple hand-mirror would have done? Oh, god. Still, Lodius turns out to be one of those load-bearing bosses, and with him gone, his castle of hatred self-destructs.
But what of the greatest threat of all?
Since I'd been playing Sid all this time, he returns on Mortimer's back to find Sally and the Professor waiting. I couldn't help but notice that the very first thing she did was snatch the magic Medallion right out of his hands, supposedly for 'protection'. I have my doubts. I'm not saying that the disappointment and anger festering in her heart continued to simmer over the next few years, every time Sid casually mentioned the time he saved the entire world single-handedly. I'm not saying this experience drove her to grow up nursing plans to use its power to crush everything under vengeful boots of calcified malice. I'm just saying we shouldn't rule out the possibility that she will one day become our supreme overlord.
At least our deaths will probably come with a catchy song.