Come with me back to the ‘80s; a time of tie-dyed clothes, outrageously coloured socks and the most shocking fashion crimes committed since, well, the ‘70s! When we weren’t trying to style our hair like A Flock of Seagulls, or look like Boy George out of Culture Club, we had another diversion in the shape of adventure games. It appears that the crest of the wave for retro ports of old games hasn’t been reached yet, as the 8-Bit Adventure Anthology – Volume 1 proves. Is it me, or is calling your game Volume 1 a bit ambitious/presumptuous? How do you know that the first Volume will sell enough to warrant a second? Let’s check it out and see if that faith is displaced.
The first thing to know about this title is that it is made of three games, as the word Anthology would lead you to believe. In no particular order, these are Shadowgate, a game which first saw the light of day in 1987 on that well known gaming machine, the Apple Macintosh; Deja Vu, released also on the Mac in 1985; and lastly Uninvited, which is sandwiched nicely in the middle, being released, again for the Mac, in 1986. All three games used the MacVenture engine in their original incarnations, and all three were also released on the NES and the Amiga, amongst others. So, how do they hold up today?
Well, starting with Shadowgate, the answer is quite well. The story is the usual fantasy nonsense, as we take on the role of the last of the Line of Kings, which makes us the “Seed of Prophecy” who it falls to to stop the Warlock Lord in his attempts to raise the Behemoth and destroy the world.
Shadowgate, and all the games in fact are, as you might expect, exact copies of the originals, and this includes the interface which allows you to interact with various items in the world and in your inventory. You can move, take, use, speak and so on, as you try to have an effect on the world and its denizens. I’ll share with you a pro tip here – always, always, always pay attention to your torches. More can be picked up in the castle as you explore, and you should make sure you have enough. If the torch goes out, you die. Dead. Finito.
As you try and wrap your mind around the puzzles that you come across it is easy to lose track of this, but music cues will remind you. So, as you wander around the Shadowgate Castle, trying to find and stop the Warlock Lord, a large amount of trial and error enters the proceedings. Can you Open the door? No? How about if we Use this key? Ah, now we can progress. I’m not going to spoil the adventure, as the story is actually quite good, but the amount of lateral thinking that is required is astounding. You really have to be on the same wavelength as the developers if you want to progress, and even then, some deaths feel cheap and are unavoidable. An example is when you come across an attractive lady tied up in one of the rooms. If you do not take the correct action, she turns into a werewolf and kills you outright. Sadly, the correct action involves finding a secret room hidden behind a wall in an earlier room, so much muttering and back tracking is required. Luckily, if you continue from the Game Over screen, it places you back in the previous room, so no progress is lost. There is also a manual save option, so remembering to do this is also a good idea.
In reverse chronological order, Uninvited is next. The story this time sees you coming round from a car crash, and noticing that your sibling is missing. Did they go into the house over there? Best go and explore to find out!
As you wander the Mansion, looking for help and your relative, it becomes apparent that this isn’t any ordinary mansion. This was brought home to me by seeing the figure of a lady, who I tried to speak to. Sadly, it turned out that the Lady is a ghost, and she turned around with a skeletal face and killed me outright. If you only take one thing from these games, it’s that instadeath is a massive feature. The game plays out the same as Shadowgate, giving you rooms with picture and a text description, leaving you to then choose what to do in the room. It is difficult to describe the game any more than this without spoiling it, so you’ll have to take my word that the spooky atmosphere Uninvited creates is quite effective, and knowing that you could die at any minute focuses the mind wonderfully. Thankfully, there are no torches this time around!
The third and final game in the Anthology is the earliest, and also the only one set in the modern era, with no mention of Warlocks or Ghosts.
Deja Vu sees you awakening in a bathroom stall, with no memory of who or where you are. In a nice touch, looking in the mirror tells you that you have no memory of your own face. As you explore, you’ll start to find clues about who you are, and why you have a revolver with only three bullets in it. Is it related to the dead body you find with three bullet holes in it?
Again, instadeath is present and correct, and as I stepped outside to be met by a Mugger, demanding my money, this hit home quickly. I had no money at this point, so tried to use my gun on him. Unfortunately for me, he was quicker on the trigger and I was dead.
Interestingly, each death in each game unlocks an achievement, so it’s almost like the developers knew what would happen, but of the three games included in the 8-Bit Adventure Anthology, this is definitely the most grounded, and the easiest to get along with. It’s not easy, but by this time I was getting used to the way the inventory works and using things on other things.
Now for the all important verdict. Graphically, these games are as good as they ever were – at least if I’m judging them by the Youtube videos I had to watch. The sound is also correct for the period, but Deja Vu must go down as the worst offender here, as the title screen has a horribly, high pitched, jaggy “tune” that had me wincing and reaching for the volume button. The interface is also exactly as it was, which basically translates best as “annoying at times”. I want to Move to a door. I can’t until I Open it. If it’s not locked, would it be such a betrayal of the source material to just allow me to walk through it? And don’t even get me started on the series of events that takes place at the end of Shadowgate – any step of which could kill you at any time if you dare even think about doing the wrong thing.
The main feeling I take away from these games is that of user unfriendliness. In an era where we are used to having games hold us by the hand and guide us through what happens next, these titles are like a slap in the face, and a real step back in time to when games were hard and deaths were plentiful, even before Dark Souls came along. And to my mind, that is a fair comparison. If you mess up, you die, so you’d best remember where you are, what you are meant to be doing, and get your trial and error on.
If you were a fan of any of the games included in the 8-Bit Adventure Anthology the first time around, or if you want to experience what games were like in the good old days, this is a no-brainer. The ports are nigh on perfect, so much so that walkthrough videos from the original games will still, thankfully, work today. You may just need them too as even though the games aren’t massively long, they will test your grey matter. If you are looking for something that will show you what it was like when games were games, and players were… nervous, then this is the anthology for you.