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

Maziacs, MSX

This MSX conversion of Don Priestley‘s classic Spectrum game, Maziacs, was released by DK’Tronics in 1985. It captures the essence of the original perfectly.

The aim of the game is: to locate the hidden treasure, while at the same time avoiding being killed by the titular Maziacs – weird, two-legged monsters that patrol the maze.

When you begin you have no weapon, so finding one is a priority. If you encounter a Maziac with no weapon in your hand, your chances of beating it are relatively low. Bump into one with a sword in your hand and the probability goes up.

Your character’s energy is represented by a vertical bar on the right of the screen. Food can be found to keep this topped-up. You’ll also find chained prisoners who you can interact with and they will tell you the route to the treasure for a limited amount of time (shown as a yellow path on the maze).

Mazaics has four difficulty levels and each maze is randomly-generated based on a set of rules, so the game does have some longevity. And appeal. Maziacs remains an appealing and playable game to this day.

More: Maziacs on Wikipedia

Valhalla, ZX Spectrum

Valhalla was a game that was heavily marketed as an “epic” adventure with limitless possibilities back in 1983 when it was first released. It was portrayed by its publisher, Legend, as something of a ‘killer app’ on the Spectrum, and they even tagged it with a “MoviSoft” logo to make it seem “cinematic” – MoviSoft was the name of the game’s engine.

In truth, what you got was a laughable (and very expensive, at £14.95) medieval ‘soap opera’ with stick men being mean to each other; mostly in and around castles.

Valhalla is played by typing text commands into the game and getting responses. You can summon things and order characters to do things (they won’t always comply). And you move around (by typing compass directions), take, drop and give things, and even start fights between characters.

Ultimately, though, what you’re trying to do is find and collect six magical objects in order to reach otherwise unreachable areas in the game. The down side is that by just carrying these items they sap your strength, so you have to be careful. Also: you cannot get most of them on your own – you need the help of other characters to retrieve them.

Ah, the early days of home video gaming… Archaic, frustrating gameplay, and simple concepts that are blown out of all proportion… Valhalla – like Carnell Software‘s Black Crystal – is a game that was mostly hype over content. There is a modicum of fun to be had playing Valhalla, but overall the experience is a turgid one.

One interesting thing to note about the publisher: the late, great John Peel was the chairman and founder of Legend, and Valhalla was its first game. Two more Spectrum games were released by LegendThe Great Space Race in 1984, and Komplex City in 1985.

More: Valhalla on Wikipedia

Magic Carpet 2, PC

The full title of this 1995 sequel is Magic Carpet 2: The Netherworlds, and it is an excellent continuation of the series.

Magic Carpet 2 features exterior and interior (cavernous) levels that are more dense than the original, with more new monsters, secrets, and evil wizards to defeat. It also has a multiplayer mode (which the first game didn’t have).

Graphically, Magic Carpet 2 is more impressive than its predecessor and the use of night and day in the game results in a more varied colour palette – and a more interesting landscape – than previously. Again: the landscape is deformable to some degree by shooting it with fireballs, and various locations hide triggers that spawn monsters, new spells, and bosses. Unlike the first game, Magic Carpet 2 features a useful ‘Help Mode’, that points out what everything is – until you get sick of it and turn it off. It helps get into the game quicker, and not miss any important gameplay features.

The gameplay in Magic Carpet 2 is pretty much the same as before: build a castle; collect mana with your balloon; build your castle up; collect more mana; rid the landscape of monsters; complete any quest objectives.

Most monsters are pretty tough, so the best tactic is to lure them away from groups to deal with them one at a time. The killer bees, for example, will kill you quickly if a number of them swarm you, so it’s best to split them up if you can, which you can do with your deft carpet skills. Mastering the carpet is key to beating the game, and the controls work extremely well, allowing you to perform very tight and precise manoeuvres with just a modicum of skill. You can also fly backwards and sidewards, which helps a lot. The controls are very responsive, though, so do take some getting used to.

There are 25 levels to play through in total – all of which can be completed quickly (by completing quest objectives), or can be scoured for more spells and mana, and a higher completion percentage, if so wished.

Magic Carpet 2 can also be changed to SVGA mode (640×480) ‘on the fly’, meaning: you can switch between the default VGA (320×200) resolution, and SVGA resolution by just clicking an option in the menu, although I couldn’t find a way of making SVGA the default (every time I restarted the game it ran in VGA, and I had to manually change the resolution). The game also crashed quite a bit for me in SVGA mode (usually preceded by graphical glitches), and I had some problems saving the game (and having to restart from the beginning – four times so far). Playing in VGA proved to be more stable (no crashes). And this is the bought GOG.com version I’m talking about… In spite of that I really enjoyed playing Magic Carpet 2 again – it is better than the first Magic Carpet, and it is also a superb game in its own right. Another classic DOS game from Bullfrog.

More: Magic Carpet 2 on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Magic Carpet 2: The Netherworlds on GOG.com

Magic Carpet, PC

Magic Carpet from Bullfrog was first released in 1994 through Electronic Arts. It is a DOS-based, first-person action game with you – the player character – flying a ‘magic carpet’ around a series of islands, fighting evil wizards and monsters and collecting ‘mana’ to increase your magical powers.

The game plays a bit like a flight simulator, although obviously flight sims don’t have magic spells, castles and monsters that shoot fireballs at you. Using a mouse and keyboard the carpet flies around very smoothly. Initially it moves quite slowly, but acquiring a ‘boost’ spell helps speed up when necessary. Which is often because the many monsters found wandering the landscape are actually quite tough cookies.

There are numerous spells to collect – usually in the shape of a red jar, and these only appear once you’ve flown near them to disable their “invisibility lock”, forcing you to explore the whole map – or at least certain places – to find them.

The one spell you begin with is the ‘Build Castle’ spell. Fire this into the ground (or sea) somewhere and a castle is created, which then sends out a balloon to collect any mana you’ve claimed. Neutral mana is coloured gold; your mana is coloured white; enemy mana is coloured whatever colour they’ve chosen. Mana can be found for free scattered around the landscape, or can be generated by killing monsters. The basic aim is to collect a set amount of mana on each level in order to progress to the next.

The landscape itself is deformable (to a degree), meaning: you can blast it with fireballs and change the elevation. You have to be careful where you shoot, though. Accidentally blasting friendly villages will usually result in a hail of arrows to contend with – as well as everything else – so is not advisable. What is advisable in Magic Carpet is to learn when to run away. And also how to ‘peck’ at tough opponents, and avoid their shots at you. Becoming familiar to the two-button command system is a must too, but learning how to play Magic Carpet properly is worth it, because it’s still a great game.

By level three you’ll also be up against a rival wizard, who flies out on his carpet, turning any mana he finds his colour. You have to build your castle quickly and turn any mana he’s earmarked as his, to your colour, and fend him off (with fireballs) until your balloon collects the mana. This results in some very exciting dogfights over coastlines. You can even get lucky have monsters kill your opponent – it depends on where he goes. When he dies, though, you get a message on screen. If you die, you start back at the castle and can continue the level without losing progress.

Finally: there are two really weird “3D” modes in the game (toggled by pressing F10), one being red/blue mode for use with cheap red/blue 3D glasses (these were supplied with the original g