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. This week, it's not just one game under the microscope, but our first random grab-bag of stuff that's fun, but not necessarily enough to justify a full write-up of their own.
Writing this column every week, it's not hard to find obscure and interesting games. Often though, things get put on the back-burner for various reasons—usually because while there's something neat about the game, the interesting bit is fairly simple. Weird action games especially tend to be pretty easily summed up, at least unless you're planning to make one of those angry review shows on YouTube and need to complain about things that wouldn't be a problem if you'd actually read the manual. Ahem.
This week then, we're going to speed through some of the games that didn't make it, quickfire-style—a few one-shot oddities, with no connection save them all being amusing. Let's dive in!
Heimdall for example, was a rare example of a game whose character creation was much more iconic and interesting than the actual game, even at the time. The actual game was a badly designed isometric RPG with a penchant for deathtraps—and while there was a sequel that followed it up, neither particularly warrant any lingering nostalgia these days.
If you're going to play an old game using these characters, try God Of Thunder (opens in new tab)—a cute little Zelda-style shareware game that never got much attention back in the day, but is much more memorable than anything in Heimdall. Except perhaps for this bit!
This is actually part of the character creation system: three minigames you played that determined your starting situation. Many games have experimented with random chance, point buy, and Ultima asking morality questions. Heimdall opted for the oddly never-again-used 'throw axes at an understandably nervous girl's hair' approach. Beats rolling dice for charisma points.
Now, obviously, you'd never even dream of hurling one straight into her face to see what happened. In the interests of Science though, the answer is that she ducks out of the way—not quite as trapped in that pillory as she looks. Also, those braids are falsies, presumably because there are only so many Viking maidens around willing to risk not being fast enough at getting out of the way.
From there, you went on to two more sub-games (catching a greased pig and fighting aboard a boat), but it was this first one that stuck in the mind for fairly obvious reasons. With stats set, it was then time to head off for adventure. We however are not following that journey, because it's dull.
Instead, here's the old RPG Eye of the Beholder 3 inventing the Goatse.
What could be less sexy than that? Well, let's try an experiment. Imagine you were writing a text adventure about a trip to a brothel, but wanted to kill the erection—this being 1983, we can take it as read that no lady-equivalent was under consideration—of anyone who came across it. Can you think of a better way than calling it Granny's Place? Rhetorical question. The answer is no.
"You are about to visit Granny's Place, a pleasant little house where a man with time on his hands and a pair of tight balls can go to loosen up," says the intro, before dropping you off in front of a small white house that, like its Zork equivalent, wastes little time having you head down a tight passage into a mysterious cave. Ha. No, seriously. This was 1983. This game is milder than milk. It's probably even milder than the Strip Poker game that casual gaming superstars PopCap were making before changing their name from "Sexy Action Cool" and making a fortune with Bejeweled instead.
What's that? You think I'm joking? Nope.
But I digress, which beats having to undress.
What's strange about Granny's Place that it actually is a Zork rip-off, only with the promise of hookers instead of just frotzing yourself into a frenzy. As you step up to the house, you find a flashlight—which seems a little odd. Going inside explains everything. As you probably know, the Zork games had a monster called a grue—as in "it is dark, you are likely to be eaten by a grue (opens in new tab)." In Granny's Place, that becomes "It is now pitch dark. If you go on, a hitman may find you."
I've never been to a brothel, so maybe people who visit them like the danger of knowing they can be killed at any second, but this seems like a somewhat short-sighted way to build repeat custom. And it's not just a joke. Go wandering around in the dark, and:
"A pair of gloved hands suddenly grab you by the throat! You struggle, but can't get free..."
If you turn on the flashlight though, inside you meet a bouncer with a walrus moustache, who doesn't murder you, but does just shrug off the whole point of the game with, "The girls is all busy, Mac. Where d'you want to go?" Exploring, you won't find much in the way of sexual bliss, but you will find a little old lady knitting upstairs with a sawed-off shotgun ready to shoot at your head, and a man with a fire axe randomly yelling "I'll get you, you sun of a bitch!" before hurling it at your face.
It's at this point that even the horniest sane man will simply take himself elsewhere, and take matters into—ahem—his own hands. There is some sex available in the game though. If you find the maid for example, Fifi, you can type something rude into the parser, and in return, get a moment of sheer eroticism that retroactively demotes Lady Chatterley's Lover back to just Lady Chatterley's Gardener.
"First you do it to her. Then she does it to you. Then you do it to each other. Man, oh man! Every which way but loose!"
Wow. It's just like being there. With Clint Eastwood. And a monkey.
This is however still sexier than Plumbers Don't Wear Ties, one of the most infamous FMV failures ever. I'm often asked why I've never featured it, and the answer is two-fold: I've never been able to find a copy of the PC version, which scored a frankly generous 3% back in PC Gamer UK Issue 8, and also there's not much to say about it that hasn't already been covered in video reviews like this one (opens in new tab).
What is it? Let me start by saying that I really hate it when critics use the word 'lazy' to describe games. To make even a simple game, the most cack-handed tie-in piece of crap imaginable, takes effort, skill, blood, sweat, and tears, and it's the height of arrogance to dismiss that while sitting in an ivory tower where all you really have to do is play someone else's hard work and then snark at it.
That being said: Christ, this is a lazy pile of shit—a barely interactive photo story that feels like it was written the night before filming, where 'filming' means 'shooting some random pictures of a girl in her bra and a plumber who does in fact wear a tie'. It's so lazy at one point a character fluffs a line and they left it in. Its only redeeming feature (and I've calculated this as the same amount of redemption a serial killer would get for dropping 20p into a charity box) is how surreal it is. The only thing stopping it being in the running for worst commercial game ever created is that it's barely a game.
And also Altered Beast exists.
Hmmm. That's now two games for the guys. Let's balance a little with a rare one for the ladies—an obscure little platformer called The Lost City of Atlantis. What makes it stand out?
Yep, it's one of the only non-pornographic games ever made with a completely naked main character, and a male one with a penchant for casual full-frontals at that. Though not impressive ones, we can agree, and the setting rather stops him blaming that fact on the cold. Shrinkage, perhaps.
What does soon become obvious though is that hero Raghim is surrounded by easily grabbable cloth things, and thus the only reason he's bouncing around platforms with Commander Keen hanging out is that he wants to. Oddly, despite Lara Croft becoming infamous for a nude code that never actually existed, this didn't help Raghim become an international icon. Hell, he didn't even get decent controls.
Here's something completely different though: Gold Rush. It's one of the more forgotten Sierra adventures, and probably for good reason. It's also one of the most confused in design terms, with the first half aiming to be a historical story of a man taking part in the California Gold Rush, and then the second half collapsing into dribbling conspiracy and nonsensical puzzles.
The weirdest bit though is how it handles death. Sierra Online was infamous for death—something known to fans as 'Sierra Sudden Death Syndrome'. These games would kill you at the drop of a hat, and that's when they were being generous. They would kill you for not having bought a hat to drop onto an angry crocodile's head in Paris. They would kill you for putting on the hat, because it would have razor blades or something in it. In one of the most infamous examples, Leisure Suit Larry has a puzzle where you have to buy a snack in an airport, but when you try to eat it, you die because there was a pin in it. The only clue was that when you ate it, you died. Restore, Restart, Quit?
Gold Rush took this a step further, adding random deaths to the mix. What do I mean? A big chunk of the game is non-interactive, with your character buying passage to the second half of the game by sea or land depending on how much you're willing to spend. If you take, say, the land path, sometimes you'll arrive and just drop dead of cholera. Or you'll be walking through a swamp, when a crocodile just appears and murders you. The reason for this sadism? Because sometimes, shit just happens.
Speaking of which, here's the greatest conversation in adventure game history.
I'm also going to bend the rules a little to quickly show this trailer - it's not a PC game, but an adventure for iPad and iPhone. You'll see why I had to link it anyway though, because it's... this.
And I think that'll do it for this first delve into the Quickies pile. Next week, it's back to a single game that warrants the attention, but there's no short of smaller ones that we'll get to later in the year. I don't want to spoil what they are though, so instead, I'll leave you on a classic musical number from the Sierra catalogue. Laura Bow was a Roberta Williams series (technically—it was only two games and she only made the first) about a 1920s girl with a nose for news and a knack for getting caught up in murders.
The second game, The Dagger of Amon Ra, was one of the earliest 'talkies', made at a time when nobody saw a problem with having developers play most of the parts instead of paying for actors to do it. This proved to be a Mistake. In this scene, Laura has found her way into the world's least subtle speakeasy, where she catches a little song I guarantee you will never be able to get out of your head. But oh, how you'll try... try and fail so hard...