Menzoberranzan, PC

An RPG with a funny name, based on the AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting, Menzoberranzan is a 1994, first-person, party-based adventure game developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc.

You can have up to four characters in your party, but start with two, which you create at the beginning (via some fairly dodgy pre-rendered graphical screens). More characters can be recruited as you go along, including some unique monster race characters, which is somewhat refreshing.

Starting in a village you realise that you must first put out a fire in a nearby building to continue the introduction to the story, which then leads into open fields populated by monsters. Combat is by frantically clicking the mouse cursor on opponents and hoping they die before you do. By fighting off enemies and gradually exploring you will eventually find better weapons, armour, and magic spells.

The way you memorise and learn magic is identical to all the other AD&D adventures published by SSI at the time – you Memorize wizard (offensive) spells and Pray for priest (healing and defensive) spells.

Moving around and manipulating objects is easy enough and playing Menzoberranzan is reasonable fun. It doesn’t take long to reach the tougher monsters and to lose your first life, but – like any good RPG – gaining a foothold is possible with careful play. There’s a good automap, which helps. Ultimately your quest is to find the underground city of Menzoberranzan itself. The place where the Drow live.

Graphically, Menzoberranzan does look a bit dated in places – especially with regard to the 3D sections (the 2D graphics are beautifully drawn), but then so do many of the classic SSI RPGs from the ’90s, but most are still good to play today. I remember reviewing this for PC Player magazine when it first came out through US Gold in 1994. And I recently bought it again on GOG.com. It’s still an interesting and playable game. Not a classic by any means, but decent enough on its own terms.

More: Menzoberranzan on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Menzoberranzan on GOG.com

Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession, PC

Released in 1994, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession was developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc. and was distributed by US Gold in the UK.

I remember it well because I reviewed it for PC Player magazine back in the day.

Even back in 1994 I thought Strahd’s Possession looked a bit basic. But don’t let that put you off – it’s not a bad game at all. In fact it’s quite absorbing.

Strahd’s Possession is based on the AD&D Ravenloft campaign setting, set in the land of Barovia – a place full of vampires, undead, wargs, brigands, and cads, and one that you must explore in order to escape. Unfortunately a poison mist surrounds you, forcing you to seek counsel from the ruler of the land – the titular Count Strahd.

If you can get over the very basic 3D graphics and the ridiculous-looking monsters (the 2D graphics are excellent though) you’ll find an interesting game underneath.

Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession is still available to buy on GOG.com now, which – considering that it’s 25 years old – is something of a feat.

More: Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession on GOG.com

PC-Player-Ravenloft-Cover

Castle Master II: The Crypt, Amiga

A direct follow-up to Castle Master, published by Incentive Software in 1990 and again using the Freescape Engine – one of the earliest 3D game engines.

In The Crypt you again begin by choosing to play as either Prince or a Princess and must rescue the one you don’t pick from the clutches of evil. This time the environment is different (as you’d expect) and you are are exploring a coffin-packed series of rooms containing obscure puzzles and solutions. There’s some basic combat with bats and demons and lots of opportunities to die instantly. It’s a prerequisite of early 3D video games…

The tune that plays in the background of the Amiga version is a bit weird. A bit like a Tears For Fears 80s hit pop song… Atmospheric nonetheless.

Domark published both Castle Master games together in one package. They are companion pieces, and are worth exploring as a pair.

More: Castle Master on Wikipedia

Castle Master, Amiga

The fourth Freescape game, Castle Master, was developed – not by Major Developments this time – but by Teque Software Development. It was published by Incentive Software in 1990.

Again: the Freescape Engine took first-person 3D adventuring a little bit further in terms of gameplay and frame rates, although – like Driller, Dark Side, and Total Eclipse before it – it was still very simplistic and didn’t really feature any moving characters.

You choose to play as either a Prince or a Princess, and the one you didn’t choose is hidden away inside “Castle Eternity” for you to rescue. There are riddles written on walls that give hints, and many secrets waiting to be uncovered.

Evil spirits can be found in some rooms and will sap your strength until you throw a rock at them. Yes – a single rock can kill these ghosts! Your life is represented as a single bar and you only get one life. Thankfully you can save and load the game which saves a lot of ball-ache restarts.

Castle Master is still atmospheric, interesting, and challenging to play now, even if it looks rather basic. Getting anywhere does take some trial and error, but making progress is kind of rewarding, in a perverse, retro-gaming way. 🙂

A sequel, called Castle Master II: The Crypt, was also published by Incentive and Domark that same year.

Note: The back story to Castle Master was written by the infamous writer and game designer Mel Croucher (the guy who created the Spectrum classic Deus Ex Machina).

More: Castle Master on Wikipedia

Beyond Good & Evil, PC

Michel Ancel (the creator of Rayman) and his team produced a video gaming classic in 2003 with Ubisoft‘s Beyond Good & Evil.

It is a pseudo sci-fi fantasy, third-person action/adventure where you control a young woman called Jade, with a pig sidekick called Pey’j, and who is battling against the sinister “DomZ”.

Gameplay is a mixture of running around, pushing buttons, taking photos, blasting stuff, hitting things, having boss battles, driving a cool hovercraft, and all manner of other interesting mechanics. If there’s one thing Beyond Good & Evil is it’s “varied”.

Graphically the game still manages to hold its own on modern systems and is a pleasing mixture of wild colours and ethereal special effects. The game is reasonably child-friendly too, although I wouldn’t say that it is a game necessarily for kids. I really enjoyed it and I’m an old b*stard…

Always worth picking up in a sale, if you haven’t yet played it.

More: Beyond Good & Evil on Wikipedia
Steam: Beyond Good & Evil on Steam
GOG.com: Beyond Good & Evil on GOG.com

Total Eclipse, Amiga

The third Freescape game, Total Eclipse, was released on 8-bit home computers first (ZX Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC), and later appeared on 16-bit machines, including this excellent Amiga conversion, published by Domark in 1989.

What 16-bit Total Eclipse does is: increase the frame rate, and therefore the immersiveness. You are no longer fighting the slowness of the game and are free to go about your explorations more quickly, and this does make a huge difference to the gameplay. There are also more colours on-screen, and also the inclusion of spheres, so the 3D environments also look more interesting than on 8-bit machines.

But let’s not get carried away here. This is the early days of 3D gaming, and Total Eclipse is a very simple first-person action adventure with rudimentary puzzles and graphics. The basic idea is to explore the interior of a pyramid, looking for Ankhs to open doors, water to fill up your canteen (or ‘jar’ as the game depicts), treasures to increase your points tally, and – ultimately – the tomb of the Sun God Re, which resides in the apex of the pyramid, and which you must destroy.

The pyramid is riddled with traps, though. You can die by falling too far; by being crushed by falling stones; by poison dart, and also by heart attack. The ‘eclipse’ aspect of the storyline also acts like a time limit – when it happens, the world ends. So you’ve got to get a move on.

Total Eclipse is still interesting to play now and is one of the best of its kind on the Amiga.

More: Total Eclipse on Wikipedia

Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Nintendo 64

Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a surprising 2001 release – on the Nintendo 64 – for British developer Rare, in collaboration with Nintendo.

What is surprising about it is that it is an “adult” game – meaning: it contains cartoon characters behaving in ways that you don’t normally see in a Nintendo game, like vomiting on people’s shoes, making sexual innuendo, and using mild swear words.

The game begins with a cinematic Clockwork Orange-style scene, with Conker (a squirrel) looking over the top of a glass of milk as the camera slowly tracks backwards while a pseudo Beethoven musical score warbles away in the background. You know – or at least should know – at this point what kind of game this is going to be… And that is: extremely satirical, and with maybe a bit of a screw loose…

When Conker’s Bad Fur Day eventually gets going the first thing you have to do is get rid of Conker’s hangover, which is an unusual way of introducing a player to the game. Then you go on a surreal 3D platform adventure, full of Pythonesque characters, toilet humour, silly and poor taste jokes, endless tasks and puzzles, tons of film references, and of course the occasional boss battle (including one where you fight a giant turd).

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game that will appeal to adults who like puerile humour, and also to children as a “forbidden” game that “must not be played under any circumstances”, but they all do… It’s actually not that bad in terms of its ‘adult’ nature, and doesn’t contain anything too contentious, which is why Nintendo allowed Rare to make the game in the first place.

More: Conker’s Bad Fur Day on Wikipedia