keskiviikko 11. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - The Black Cauldron (1986)

GENRE(S): Adventure
DEVELOPER(S): Sierra On-Line
PUBLISHER(S): Sierra On-Line

The most expensive film of its kind in its time, The Black Cauldron was the Walt Disney Company's 25th Animated Classic;  in reality, the movie is not that classic. Based on the series of fantasy novels dubbed The Chronicles of Prydain, the film was criticized for being a very dark and bleak piece of work for a Disney movie, and it was not very warmly recommended to Disney's usual target audience. However, it gained somewhat of a cult following due to its PG rating, and remains one of the most sought-out curiosities in the library of Disney's animated films. What also makes The Black Cauldron an important part of Disney history, is that it was the first Disney feature film to spawn its namesake game, and the fourth Disney game altogether, preceded only by Mickey's Space Adventure and Donald Duck's Playground from 1984, and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood from early 1986. Like all of those games, The Black Cauldron was also designed by Al Lowe and published by Sierra On-Line, but the gameplay was much closer to Sierra's usual graphic adventure franchises such as Lowe's next endeavor, the adult-oriented Leisure Suit Larry. Despite being somewhat ahead of its time in some sense, The Black Cauldron is of the most annoying games by Sierra I've ever played. Remembering that games like King's Quest: A Quest for the Crown and Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel exist, that can't bode well.

This little piggy went to hell

The text is awkward as always.
The Horned King is after the Black Cauldron, a magical artifact which would allow him to build an army of the Cauldron Born and finally take over the world of Prydain. To find the Black Cauldron, he needs the reluctant help of a pig named Hen Wen, who he locates on a farm owned by the enchanter Dallben. It's up to assistant pigkeeper Taran to save Hen Wen and his home world from the Horned King, and fulfill his dream of becoming a great hero.

It's been a while since I played a Sierra game, actually something along the lines of six or seven years, if not taking into account my periodical playthrough of the greatest Sierra game ever made and Al Lowe's breakthrough title, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. I knew nothing about The Black Cauldron when I started playing it, and I thought it would prove to be a very typical Sierra game for which I would need a walkthrough to figure out the most cryptic, precise text commands to make the main character co-operate with me to some extent. Well, The Black Cauldron turned out to be a completely different game by Sierra, made for kids whose parents didn't allow them to see the movie. Ironic, isn't it? Although different in gameplay, The Black Cauldron suffers from many problems very typical to Sierra's adventure games and requires you to use at least two save slots all the while if you're faintly hoping to wrap this son of a bitch up. It's short and immature, yes, but not easy, definitely not easy to stand, and it has a one-off user interface that'll drive you downright out of your modern mind. In other words, it's for the most die-hard Sierra and/or Disney completists only.

Wanna take a wild guess how hard this is? It's
useless, too.
A common misconception among young players is that the definition "graphic adventure" derives from these games having exceptionally nice graphics in their time, which is not the case at all, although they were usually very detailed due to the fact that most of the gameplay was based on spotting items on screen and interacting with them. The real reason is very simple: before Mystery House, also made by Sierra, came out in 1980, all adventure games were solely text-based. You were given a written description of your surroundings and you needed to figure out what to do with the information and enter simple, usually very limited and cryptic text commands to get by. The graphic adventure used to work the same way, you still entered those commands, but the main difference was that you saw everything in contrast to just imagining it. Well, that's enough of a history lesson, but my point is that The Black Cauldron was the first game to also abandon the text commands in addition to a purely text-based interface; it's a little closer to what became known as point 'n' click... if only it were that simple.

Anyway, the graphics are definitely not much to look at. If you've seen one Sierra adventure game released before 1989, you've seen them all. Just the settings are different and the characters are different-coloured, they have different hairstyles, etc. They all move the same way, and they speak extremely clumsy, similar bits of dialogue. However, since The Black Cauldron is most of all a Disney game rather than just another Sierra adventure, the environment's very cartoon-like. For example, trees in the bog have scorned faces like in any haunted forest in any good cartoon. The game differs for its advantage from every other Sierra game ever released. It's definitely a novelty item all the way from the graphical display itself, for people that are still stubbornly fascinated with Sierra's games. Since the conception of ScummVM, we no longer have to cut the cords of the PC speaker to simmer the game down, we can simply turn down the volume, which makes the music a bit more bearable. The music ain't really that typically bad to begin with, and just like in all of Sierra's games, you can turn the sound off at any time.

...So is it in another castle?
Whenever I start a Sierra game, the first thing I do (after changing the game speed to fast and turning the sound off) is write "look around", or just "look", or "read". Writing that command in each screen of the game has always been one of the keys to success in all of Sierra's games. Well, that doesn't help one shard of shit here. There is no text parser at all, which is the first and most major thing that separates The Black Cauldron from all the similar games of its time. The whole gameplay besides simply walking is based on the use of the keyboard's F buttons, or alternatively, the menu, which you can navigate either with the mouse or the keyboard. Using the keyboard's a lot faster, but it demands the most precision and good memory. You can't "open door", you need to press F6, the use button. You can't "give gruel to pig", you need to go to the inventory, choose the gruel, exit the inventory, then use the gruel in the pig's vicinity. That's already an F3 - F4 - F6 combination, right there. I don't know about you, but I could've easily written the command three times during the time it took me to figure out how this system works, each time.

That's not all there is. You also to have to eat and drink to survive, and the funny thing is that if you have any sense to search for edible things and fill your water flask every chance you get, you'll never run out of food and water, it seems. It's like Larry's breath spray in Lounge Lizards; something that you carry with you at all times and you need to use it periodically to be able to make progress, but you never run out of it... or so you would love to think. Of course, not using food and water doesn't only disrupt your progress, it will also eventually kill you. Of course it will - in a fictional game of Word Association, my partner says Sierra, I say DEATH.

If there's one sentence I've seen more times than "I can't do that." in Sierra games, it's "I told you to save often!" Although the sentence does not make an appearance in this game, it rings just as true as in any other example of the company's fine home computer entertainment. Walk into a dragon's nest by accident after walking around real peacefully for the last ten minutes, get killed in a second - why didn't you save? Trip into a downstream river while trying to get as close to the water as you possibly can for some reason or another (no, you can't fill your water flask from a raging stream, I tried), you'll drown - why didn't you save? My favourite Sierra death - if you can call it that - was in the first King's Quest game, in which you needed to climb a beanstalk by carefully treading on its leaves, step by step, and one false step, by quarter of an inch, was your final one. Even if you were on the first step, which was less than two feet from the ground, you died. What you needed to do was save after every single successful step to survive that sequence. If you haven't played the game, you can't imagine how it is, and be glad for it. The reason I told you about it is that there are several similar sequences in The Black Cauldron, and guess what? They can either kill you instantly, or lead you to a trap.

"bmmpxf"! Got it! Shouldn't be that hard to
It's fun to roam around in these games and collect every item from every screen before trying to figure out what you actually need to do to proceed in the story, it's probably my favourite part of each Sierra game, or an adventure game in general, actually. The Black Cauldron starts off suspiciously empty. You don't seem to get points for anything; in other games, just picking up an item gives you a few points, but in this game, you only get points for figuring out proper uses for them, and "solving geographical puzzles", such as an extremely cryptic mountain maze, or a swamp that has rocks all over it and the game somewhat prompts you to use the rocks to get over the swamp.

Well, I knew where this was going, so the first thing I did was save my game, about a hundred times, before jumping on the first rock. I died from slipping and drowning, not much of a surprise there. When I finally made the jump, I saved, and I also figured decreasing the game's speed might help, 'cause I had to take some steps to reach the next rock, and walking at fast speed would've sent me down to the bottom of the swamp again. It's extremely precise. If you're not standing on the one exact pixel, you'll either miss the jump, or drown. About a million F6 (jump) - F5 (save) - F6 (jump again) - F7 (restore game) - F6 (jump once more) - F5 (save again) combinations later, I finally made it to the other shore and got 15 points for my troubles. Yay!

What I found on the other shore was an empty house with a treasure chest and a lot of cauldrons. I tried to open the treasure chest, no dice. I tried dragging one of the cauldrons out of the house - no, that was not the point. What was the point? NOTHING, so I left the house, went back with the horror of having to jump on those damn rocks again in my mind, but I was confronted by a worse horror than that: I couldn't go back. I was suddenly in a wholly different screen than which I passed to get here, and there was simply no way for me to go back to the other shore. I was stuck. I took a gander at the walkthrough - there was nothing about any rocks, or a house that fit this description. In other words, it was a trap to lure the ignorant. I did this for nothing. With a conclusive rating for the game pretty much on my mind at this point, but not the balls to write a review based on such a short while into the game and only 20 points out of 230 in my bank, I gritted my teeth and started over, immediately saving the game to three different slots. After decades of experience on the great big battlefield that is Sierra's style in the adventure genre, I still have stuff to learn about it, it seems.

Intimidating, huh? You have no idea.
Going back into the game a few notches wiser, I picked up a lot more severe problems that simply destroy the game. The removal of the text parser disables you to use a command like "look on ground" or "look in water" in a particular case. Some of the items are invisible, like a wallet tucked under a bridge in the water near your starting point. You need to either know of its existence, or walk on every single pixel on the screen and keep pressing F6 every passing second to find some of the stuff in this game. Then comes this game's true equivalent of the King's Quest beanstalk, which will turn any player that is not used to a game of this sort right off - a rope which you must climb diagonally and extremely precisely for an extended while to reach the goal. Not only do you need to save every stinking second you're able to hang on to the rope, you're also seriously advised to decrease the game's speed to the slowest possible setting, as tedious as it is.

Well, then comes the worst part. At one point in the game, you're thrown in a dungeon and all your equipment is stripped from you, along with your water flask and food. You can probably guess where this is going, and your guess is absolutely correct: even while you have no chance of eating or drinking, and even though it takes forever to get out of the dungeon if you don't know exactly what you're doing, the game punishes you and even dares to follow your eventual death up with this prompt: "Try drinking water occasionally next time." That does it, and there will be no next time. Perhaps I'm not going to beat this game, but I'll quit right now to remember it with some faint warmth. Thank you very much, Sierra On-Line, for once again proving you are just a legend in the business and not much more.

You have GOT to be fucking kidding me.
The Black Cauldron was the first adventure game that had multiple endings determined by your decisions; Maniac Mansion is usually credited as being the first game that had this feature, but only because its sales outnumbered The Black Cauldron's by about a dozen decimals. This is the one thing that has me respect The Black Cauldron, although I might never see just ONE ending in this game because of that stupid, stupid, stupid, Mecha-Streisand stupid food/water system. I had beaten well over a half of the game when the game just unceremoniously killed me, for something that is simply not the player's fault! I know changing the speed to slow would've once again helped a little, since the intervals between acute hunger and thirst are longer, but why even give us an option to increase the game's speed then, 'cause that's what most of us do right off the bat? I know it's not quite politically correct to say this about a Disney game, but since The Black Cauldron clearly isn't as much of a children's game that it's promoted as - or anyone else's game for that matter - I'll say it: fuck this game!

I hate the gameplay, I liked the commands in all their shittiness a lot more than this simplified one-press-fits-all button system. The Black Cauldron is not one of my favourite Disney movies, although I dig the Horned King. The game has inescapable traps, highly cryptic mazes that are designed just to waste your time and drive you nuts, a food/water system straight out of hell and enough sudden deaths to go around for a dozen other titles. This game is simply one of the most annoying, tedious, cryptic, boring and finally: _worst_ adventure games I've ever played. It is a prime example of how unfair a Sierra game can possibly get. I expected a playable, nostalgic game, but The Black Cauldron was definitely not the best possible game to start off the Disney marathon with.

SOUND : 6.0


GameRankings: 60.00%

One of the two Sierra adventure games to be based on a movie. The other one's The Dark Crystal, designed by Roberta Williams and released in 1983. Al Lowe designed a remake of the game, entitled Gelfling Adventure, which was released in 1984.

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