Without knowing it, my primary school got me hooked on Adventure Games. Who would have thought my addiction to videogames could be blamed on my early school teachers?
Every classroom had a BBC Micro "Acorn" computer desk. These mobile desks-on-wheels were the reserve of those who had finished their work early or those who had over-achieved. as a reward, we could play on the so-called "educational" text adventure programs. There was always a queue, and we all worked in small teams so that we could get as far as possible through the game before hometime!
Most famous of these was probably "Granny's Garden" - a Fantasy adventure, which even had some graphics! Martello Tower was another popular title. But the one which will always be etched in my memory is Merlin's Castle. For all of the wrong reasons.
In order to write this blog entry, I downloaded BEEBem - a BBC Micro emulator - and a Rom of Merlin's Castle. I wanted to see how accurate my memories really were, and if the game was really as frustrating as I remembered. In a word - yes.
The premise is thus; you fall asleep in a clearing, whereupon you awake in a mysterious land. And... go! It was as simple as that. Taking the example of many similar games of the time, your character can mover north, south, east or west, and you can "take", "use" and "drop" items. With a limited inventory and many impassable areas, these games required a lot of backtracking to pick up that particular item you couldn't fit in your pockets earlier, but now needed to help kill that pesky snake.
So you quickly get the idea of how this works. You feel satisfied when you realise the way to get over that old brick wall is to use the ladder. That key you picked up can help you get through the rusty gate. Everything seems to be going well until... "You are lost".
Wait a minute, I know where I am, I just came south from the crossroads and east from the witches - I've even drawn myself a map. I'm NOT lost. But if the game says so, sucks to you - it's game over.
Ok, reload my game, pick up the ladder again, open the gate again. Hmmm, that blacony seems a bit high - perhaps the ladder would come in handy again? "You slip and die - Game Over".
You start to see the problem with this game. It seems so lazily written when you compare it to later video game experiences. Nowadays we are spoiled by superb graphics, excellent control systems and well-structured gameplay. Games in the 1980's were punishing. If you wanted to finish a game you had better be taking notes and learning from your mistakes. Trial and error is the order of the day.
You could say a game like this was a precursor to the trigger-happy Sierra SCI adventure games, such as the Quest Series' and Leisure Suit Larry. But those games have a comedic charm - the random deaths are often ironic or hilarious. Merlin's Castle is unrelenting in it's stoicism. There is nothing to laugh about here.
Don't get me wrong, games of this ilk really helped push things forward and show what could be done in terms of gaming software. It certainly has a strong atmosphere. The very way in which the game frustrates, it excels in creating tense gameplay. Without the element of danger looming over you, there would be no excitement in the game. The more that the random endings frustrate, the bigger the thrill when you conquer the villains.
A game like Merlin's Castle was perfect for school children. I may not have understood at the time why we were playing this in the classsroom, but looking back, you learn a lot of useful lessons. Navigation and mapping are both very important skills when you are young - being able to work out the best and safest route from A to B. Trial and error helps the student to learn consequences of their actions - they have to apply logic to overcome the problems next time around.
But fundamentally, the lack of graphics and meaningful sound demand the player to use their imagination. This is something we certainly take for granted nowadays. Who needs imagination when glorious visuals are laid upon us in Gears of War or Fable, for example. A game like Merlin's Castle encourages us to create this world in our mind. Through very little exposition and scene-setting, we can picture what each scene would look like. We each have a different idea in our head of what the golden spire will look like. Each game experience is personalised. What recent games could really claim that?
A text adventure is ultimately more like a book that a video game. The "reader" takes from the experience what they are willing to put in. What they create in thier head might be more fantastic than the game developer envisioned, but that makes it unique.
Merlin's Castle both inspires and frustrates.
What am I saying, even at seven years old I hated this game.