The 3 Weird Retro Games I Never Played as a Child
When I was a younger person in the past century I developed a strong interest in point and click adventures. This is a genre that appeared early in the timeline of gaming which then peaked in the 1990s with Lucasarts and Sierra leading the charge. The most memorable of these games were bright, colourful and family friendly adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer and the multiple -Quest franchises. The best of these games are still fondly remembered by fans for their unique characters and goofy humour.
Although I loved the cartoony classics, there were a number of darker titles that drew my attention. Chief among these were Beneath a Steel Sky, but there a number of other games that caught my eye amid the pages of ‘Amiga Power’. These were dark, controversial and haunting titles that I couldn’t get my hands on. Some weren’t given classification in Australia, they had a limited release or I just didn’t have any money because I was 12 and games are expensive. There’s three games in particular that stuck with me over the 30 years since and in the age of abandonware and digital downloads I’ve been able to scratch that nostalgic itch and play them.
Let’s take a look…
This 1994 title started appearing in gaming magazines when I was 13 years old and it caused more than a bit of a stir. The cyberpunk adventure from Neil Dodwell and David Drew would already be drawing attention for its dark, Blade Runner inspired style and complex story, but that is not what the press were focusing on. On top of the mature themes and tone the game featured violence, gore and explicit sex scenes. In an incredibly rare event for the time – and since – it even features full frontal male nudity. Well…as much as they could with the graphical fidelity of the era.
Looking past these edgy elements was an intriguing premise and mechanics. Protaganist Ryan was the ‘deliverer’, tasked by the mysterious ‘keepers’ to protect the Dreamweb lest mankind be sent into chaos. These mystical elements only appear in dream sequences, and it’s suggested that Ryan could be suffering a psychotic break. The rest of the setting is in the grimy, rain-soaked streets of near-future London. Ryan uses hacking and detective skills to find and murder The Seven Evils, key figures who plot to destroy the mysterious Dreamweb. Ryan’s appearance and costume heavily evoke the style of Blade Runner, and the classic Ridley Scott film informs much of the design choices for the game.
Unlike other point and click adventures the game uses a top-down perspective, which makes it difficult to pick up on details of the environment or to get a sense of the characters. In a nice touch, almost everything in any given area is able to be picked up and interacted with. Unfortunately the vast number of these items are going to be completely useless and you only have a limited inventory spaces, some of which have to be taken up with clothing items (including one of each the left and right shoes). Trying to work out what is going to be needed at any given time results in more backtracking than necessary. Using items is already a bit fiddly without trying to work out if the data cartridge and lighter you picked up are useless or not. With the small areas to explore and the graphics of the time being what they were you find yourself going through single pixel items to find everything. This is assisted by a zoom-in window to pick out details, but what ends up happening is that you only look through this window and not at the larger image. Not sure why they just didn’t zoom in.
As you solve the puzzles and dig through data files you discover who the seven targets are and how to get to them. You have a rock star, a general, a CEO, a pair of mysterious women, a priest and a psychotic doctor. For each one you need to find out where they’re hiding and solve some item based puzzles to get in to their location. This will, on occasion, mean shooting people or swinging a fire-axe at them, which is a major departure from the old King’s Quest method of doing things.
What disappoints is that you don’t actually encounter your seven targets. The fourth, Juliet Chappel, is dead before you reach her and the fifth you all but kill by way of getting to her. The six is a mutated and dead mess when you find them and in the final confrontation with the seventh they get knocked out by a deus ex machina. Narratively speaking, this story peaks very early with the most exciting sequence being available in the free demo disk we used to get stuck to magazine covers.
For all the style and cool factor this game feels like the developers ran out of motivation early on in the project. There’s great visuals, a clear concept and some amazing music but the story peters out and the puzzles get frustrating. One of the final puzzles involves wandering around some hallways picking up a bunch of rocks. Thrilling it isn’t.
Out of the three games in this article you’re most likely to be familiar with this one. It performed well enough in sales to warrant a sequel and many of the visuals were created for the title by none other than H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist famed for creating the titular creature in Alien among many other things. Even if you don’t know the name, you’d know his bio-mechanical amalgamation works from the posters stuck up by every edgy college aged art student you wants you to know how mysterious he is.
The game is, like everything here, a point and click adventure designed by Michael Canford and Mike Dawson, the latter of which is also the main character. As Mike Dawson you wake up in your new spooky mansion following some seriously fucked up nightmares in which horrifying alien beings inject an embryo into your skull. While exploring your new house you find clues that the previous resident suffered similar visions and discovered a disturbing truth that you must now uncover and resolve. Over the course of three days you must seek out the clues needed to understand and eventually cross over into a parallel ‘Dark World’, home to your alien friends, and find a way to stop the Dark Seed from bursting forth from your head and conquering Earth. That old chestnut.
During the game you can explore the house and nearby town looking for clues and items that will help you. There’s few characters to talk to, so you’re more or less on your own. Time keeps on ticking regardless of your actions, and eventually you must sleep and experience more nightmares with the alien exploding out of your head at the end of the third day. This isn’t make explicit to the player, however, and if you don’t find the pocket watch you can’t keep track of the time. The watch, like a number of other items in the game, are extremely difficult to spot against the brown backgrounds and it’s very easy to miss something that will become essential much later down the track. The game also provides little indication as to what you’re doing right or wrong at any given time. Having trail and error is fine, but not when you have to play through again from the start each time you fail. You can save and load to your hearts content, but if you missed the tiny brown bobby pin on the brown floor of the brown library it’s going to be for naught.
What adds a really clever aspect to the puzzle solving is the presence of the Dark World. The alien world can be accessed once your have repaired the mirror in your house, and sits in parallel to your safe and familiar world. This means that you can affect the Dark World by manipulating things in your world. When you get arrested for digging up graves (something you do surprisingly often in point and click adventures) you can stash items in the jail cell to access when you get arrested in the Dark World. Although if you didn’t buy the bottle of scotch from the general store to activate an encounter with an attorney you’ll give you his business card you won’t be getting released in the first place.
The central concept is brilliant and the idea of a time limit to solve the mystery is solid. I wouldn’t mind replaying it time and again if there was more indicated of what has to be achieved day to day. In the end you don’t need to get rid of the Dark Seed but mess with a power generator, with the Dark Seed being dealt with in the final cutscene. If it wasn’t for a walkthrough I doubt I’d have stuck with it long to finish it. As an 11 year old seeing images of the game for the first time I found it haunting. Now I find it an example of unrealised potential. It’s the weakest game of the three, with the best just coming up.
I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM
Whilst it’s the visuals and edgy content that appealed to young teenage me in the first two games, it’s absolutely the title of this game that piqued my interest. Reading short reviews of the game intrigued me further. Based on the short story of the same name by the problematic Harlan Ellison, they described a point and click adventure where the last five humans left alive on Earth are put through individual torments by a demented and psychotic artificial intelligence. I wanted to know what happens to each character and why and find out the truth behind the nightmarish events you’re presented with.
Let’s break it down. AM is one of three supercomputers created by world superpowers with the purpose of co-ordinating their wars and the like. AM has defeated and absorbed its counterparts in Russia and China, leaving it to the be the sole artificial intelligence in the world, wherein is obliterates the human race who it sees as the root cause of all global problems. Not content with global genocide, AM keeps five people alive for the sole purpose of extending their lives for hundreds of years just to be physically and mentally tortured as the computer has come to despise his creators. At this point we should point out that AM is voiced by Harlan Ellison himself, who gives a…spirited…performance.
At the beginning of the game AM has constructed a personal scenario for his five subjects, each of which must be played through in the order chosen by the player. Gorrister is a loner, bitter about his perceived mistreatment by the women in his life, and longs for death. He’s left aboard zeppelin hovering over middle America where he must confront the truth of his actions. This includes a horrific moments where you must feed your own heart to a talking jackal. Benny is a pilot who has been misshapen into an ape-like creature and starved for decades, now trapped in a pre-historic society and tempted by the chance to eat human flesh to satiate his hunger. Ted is a womaniser who suffers from paranoia, who finds himself in a medieval castle scenario where he has to reign in his selfish tendencies.
The more disturbing scenarios are kept for Ellen and Nimdok. Ellen finds herself in a pyramid and is forced to relive a violent rape she experienced before AM destroyed the world. Nimdok is an elderly man who appears in a concentration camp with a dose of amnesia. Here you will discover that your something of a Doctor Mengele figure, feared by those around him for the nightmarish experiments you have conducted on the prisoners.
Throughout the game there are clues that not all is what it seems. There are messages that are seemingly coming from space, hinting that there are more survivals of the human race who escaped AMs grasp by leaving the planet. This could be a genuine beacon of hope, or part of AMs twisted psychological torture. There are a number of endings to find, mostly being horrible, but if you find your way through the game making the right decisions you get your chance to fight back against AM, possibly even shutting him down. Regardless of the ending, this experience is going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. It’s a thought provoking experience that delves into questions about the human condition and purpose more than almost any other game out there. The puzzles are challenging but never get too frustrating. It’s unique, dark and deeply horrifying. I’m glad I didn’t play this has a young’n, as I wouldn’t have appreciated the themes of the story. Also I may never have gotten over the trauma.
Of the three games here, this is the one that holds up best and it is the one most strongly recommended. It certainly isn’t for everyone though.