Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obscurities: Lucasarts Meets Hercules - Herc's Adventures

The good people at Lucasarts (originally Lucasfilm Games) have produced many memorable computer and video games over the years.  With Star Wars money funding the company early on, the staff was free to experiment and push the gaming envelope with consistently high production values, innovative graphics techniques in titles like Rescue on Fractalus (fractal mountainscapes) and Rebel Assault (blending multiple/alternate streams of digital video), and a refreshingly failure-free approach to adventure gaming.

Not all of the company's titles were hits, of course.  I've recently been playing the Sega Saturn edition of a fairly obscure Lucasarts effort, Herc's Adventures, released in 1997 (also for the Sony Playstation).  The game didn't sell well on release and seems fairly rare today -- Disney's animated Hercules movie came out at around the same time, which may have created some market confusion during the holidays, and the 2-D style may have been perceived to be past its prime in 1997, so the game didn't garner the attention it might have had it been launched a few years earlier.  The game was developed by Big Ape Productions, but features some notable Lucasarts talent -- the stirring orchestral music is by Michael Land and Andy Newell (both of Monkey Island fame) and the packaging features a cover painting by Steve Purcell (creator of Sam & Max).

Herc's Adventures is a one- or two-player co-op game set in the world of Greek mythology, with the player(s) cast as Atlanta, Hercules or Jason, fighting on Zeus' behalf to rescue Persephone from the clutches of Hades.  Enemies include the traditional Cyclops, Hydra, Medusa, and sword-bearing skeletons, but as the game goes on its cast draws from a wide variety of pop culture sources.  The game is a spiritual descendent of Lucasarts' SNES/Genesis hit, Zombies Ate My Neighbors!, with a 2-D top-down perspective and a similar cartoon sense of humor.  Herc's has a more fully integrated plotline than Zombies, and the pace is a little bit slower, though it still has an arcade feel.  And the audiovisual ante has been upped for CD-ROM technology -- the animation is fluid and detailed, with voice clips, hand-animated cutscenes, scaling sprites and plenty of territory to explore.

It's a very polished effort, with slick presentation and in-game hints and tips to facilitate progress.  The attractive backgrounds are tile-based, but the borders are well-disguised and everything looks very painterly.  And the game bursts with variety and personality -- for example, in the first level, some skeletons reach out of their muddy graves to grab the heroes' ankles, while others leap out of the ground with swords a-swinging, crying "I'll cut yer gizzard out!" as they mount the player character's shoulders and beat him or her about the head.  Skeletons who lose their heads but are still ambulatory attack blindly in the player's general direction.

The CD medium certainly isn't wasted -- the detailed sprites have many frames of animation, and enemy attacks are fully integrated with each of the three heroes.  There are fully-voiced cutscenes, and the scale of the in-game graphics give the story a suitably mythic feel.

But Herc's Adventures is not really compelling from a gameplay perspective; the hilarity of each new enemy character, weapon and gimmick encountered wears off quickly with repetition.  The game becomes a matter of wandering around the map, finding the keys and gewgaws necessary to get past the next obstacle, fighting a boss villain, and repeating.  The levels twist and turn a lot, with fall-off points that set the players back a little bit, but they're still fairly linear and must generally be explored in the fixed order permitted by the design.  And death imposes a serious penalty - the player has to fight his or her way out of the Underworld to return to gameplay proper, and death is permanent after those second chances have run out; there are even places where the player can get stuck for quite a while, waiting for gold pieces to accumulate so he/she can purchase exit from Hades' nefarious prison.

In my opinion, the game falls into the "new technology" trap that plagued many titles during the transition to the CD era.  Resources were poured into the creation of high-quality content -- the animation and voice acting is the equal of any of Lucasarts' computer adventure games -- at the expense of game design.  In an attempt to top the classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors on a new generation of hardware, Herc's Adventures puts its focus in entirely the wrong place -- the audiovisual richness of the experience is much enhanced, but the gameplay hasn't evolved much.  There's plenty to see and hear, but not all that much to do, and most players will not be motivated to soldier tediously on just to see what's around the next corner.  When the player's character is sent to the Underworld for the last time and GAME OVER inevitably occurs, it's just as tempting to shut the game off as to have another go.

Sometimes it's best to let sleeping Greeks lie.  Or beware of dogs bearing gifts.  Something like that.

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