Thursday, October 13, 2016

At Random: Quest for Camelot (Gameboy Color, 1998)

Hi, everyone!  It's been several months since I've posted here, but my current show is up and running and rehearsals for the next one don't start for a few weeks aside from a staged reading I'm doing next weekend -- whew! -- so I have a little time to do some gaming and writing.

One of my brother's students has given me an opportunity to play a game that hadn't even crossed my mind -- Quest for Camelot for the Gameboy Color, published by Titus Software to tie in with Warner Brothers' 1998 animated fantasy movie.  It showed up in the mail on October 1st, so I've been able to spend a little time with it!

Licensed games are almost always at a disadvantage, especially when development schedules are constrained by an immovable studio release date.  Generally, these games end up using an existing engine, or even modifying a work-in-progress game design and just grafting on graphics related to the licensed property.  Projects like this are valuable, in that they keep many a fledgling developer afloat while they work on more original and substantial projects, but the results are usually rushed and unpolished.  For example, this terse, silent title screen could have done with a little color and context and 8-bit music:

To its credit, Quest for Camelot differs from most licensed titles in that it's not a side-scrolling platformer -- instead, it opts for a Japanese-style Action RPG design.  We can select English, French or Spanish language at the start, after which a lengthy sequence of illustrations and text screens sets up the story -- our hero, young K... something, must discover what's happened to... oh, man, I've already forgotten what the storyline is.  Time to reset!

Okay... a young girl named Kayley jumps off a pony into the arms of her father, Sir Lionel, who must leave immediately for Camelot; she wants to be a knight too.  At Camelot, Sir Ruber demands King Arthur give him more than his fair share of land, and attacks the King when his "need" is denied. The King successfully defends himself against Ruber's attack, probably because Sir Ruber's arm appears badly broken (or his name is actually pronounced "Sir Rubber") and he has no idea how to wield his mace or aim at his opponent:

Somehow Ruber manages to escape all of the charging knights -- but what's this?  RUBER HAD LEFT A HORRIBLE REMINDER OF HIS BETRAYAL!  By taking a big... oh, no, by killing Sir Lionel.  As the game begins, it is ten years later, and Sir Ruber returns to... well, the text cuts off here and there's no music to set the stage in these cutscenes, but we see a grown Kayley fleeing on horseback before the action cuts to...

... some dude we haven't met before, standing out in the woods someplace and suffering from acute constipation judging from the expression on his face.  Oh, wait!  When I start walking around and turn the character to the side, I can see that it's Kayley... I think... she has a ponytail, at least, but who knows what she did with her horse?  The first person I talk to, a FARMER, gives us directions about how to talk to someone, which is not very helpful as I've already figured out how to GET IN HIS FACE BY PUSHING AGAINST HIM AND PRESSING THE A BUTTON.  After telling me that Sir Ruber has captured my mother, Lady Juliana, and warning me about his ruthless knights, and informing me I should visit the blacksmith to the east, he tells me to hold the control pad in the direction of the person I want to talk to and press the A or B button, and that I need 30 gems to save my game.  Then Mr. Farmer flees offscreen, apparently in terror of our heroine's aggressive questioning technique or fearing he will be discovered by the RPG GRP (Game Reality Police).

Mr. Farmer's flight has cleared the bridge to the south, but I'm going to go explore to the east before we start out on what I presume will be a long and arduous journey.  There's a blue knight wandering around here, and if I walk into him, I lose one of Kayley's five life hearts, accompanied by a horrible farting sound, so I guess he's not somebody we should be talking to.  There's an impassable fence line to the east, and nowhere else to go up here, so we'll travel south across the bridge and then head east in search of the blacksmith.  We have to avoid some more blue knights in the area, but I find the blacksmith where I was expecting to -- he tells us that Ruber's knights have scared his hens away, and offers to help us if we can round them up.  Why the Blacksmith has hens is not explained, so we'll call this Rushed Development Clue #1!

Now, a lesser game might ask us to find a hen, or maybe three, but Quest for Camelot is no quick cash-in... we have to find FIVE of the feathered blighters.  I find the first one in a cave -- well, it's actually a path to another area of the map, and Kayley's passage through it is accompanied by a flash of light and a rather neat screen-warping effect, rather overselling what appears to be a village underpass.  The blacksmith has no interest in only one of his hens, and tells us to keep looking, forcing us to carry live hens around while we search in caves... oh, I guess that WAS a cave, I just expected such a cavern to look different from the surrounding countryside.  It doesn't take long to find the five hens, and on my way back to the blacksmith, I encounter a ghostly, shaky-looking, possibly inebriated Merlin, who advises me that RUBER IS IN THE MANOR but we must become a skilled sword fighter before we face him.  I soon realize I have wandered into another section of the map and the blacksmith isn't here, but I go back through a "cave" and find my way back to him.  He gives Kayley a sword and advises her to seek training from his brother, who lives in A HOME to the south.  I hope he means a house.

"Here's a great sword for you, the best I ever made!  Now go pick it up out of the dirt!"

I almost leave without noticing that the sword is just laying on the ground and has not been automatically added to inventory.    There's a short, Zelda-ish animation when Kayley picks up the sword, at least.  I find my way to the brother's house, and he accuses me of stealing his brother's sword before deciding I look honest.  He tells us that we will gain experience through combat, strengthening the sword, and that he will teach me more after I take out all the knights terrorizing the town.  Of course, he doesn't actually tell me how to use the sword to fight the knights, and I reach my first GAME OVER screen shortly.

(As I replay the opening, it occurs to me that the Blacksmith looks a lot like one would expect the Farmer to look, and vice-versa.  Primary evidence: the Blacksmith is holding a pitchfork, plus the aforementioned hens.  RDC #2!)  This time, I mess around with the interface a bit and figure out that the Save screen (accessed by pushing START) is also the inventory/equipment screen.  I highlight the sword and hit some button or other, and the sword moves up to the top row of the generally featureless inventory screen -- and now I can hit the B button to attack with the sword.

Quest for Camelot's combat mechanics leave a lot to be desired.  Basically, we approach an enemy and start wildly swinging the sword -- if we do it fast enough, we generally won't take any damage, though every contact knocks us backwards a bit so we have to be careful not to get cornered or pushed into the bounding box of another enemy.  An energy bar is displayed above the enemy's head when we've done damage, and while no numbers are ever shown, the bar display seems to be based on the maximum number of hit points an enemy can possibly have; all of these guys start with the bar only partially filled.  Some enemies drop 10 gold pieces or a life heart when killed, which is handy as I have taken quite a bit of damage just trying to collect the hens.  It took me a while to find and kill all the knights, but now the swordmaster teaches Kayley a charged-up spinning sword attack, useful when surrounded (well, purportedly useful -- I found that I took more damage when I tried to use the spin attack instead of just beating on the nearest enemy.)  The swordsman advises us to seek Merlin to gain entrance to the manor, which the drunk old wizard does by allowing the formerly (and still) featureless bridge nearby to become a portal, and promises to see us again elsewhere.

I almost die at the hands of a number of blue knights just inside the Manor walls, but manage to survive.  Inside the Manor, the music thankfully changes to something a little more melodic than the thumping, raspy, percussion-heavy travel tune we've been hearing since we started the game.  A servant tells us we need a shield, and he saw a man with a dog pick one up (let's hope the servant's eyesight is pretty good and the guy wasn't just cleaning up after his pet.)  Setting out to find him, I run into some cloaked figures -- and the sword as-is isn't much use against them, as they just get larger, doing damage as they press me against walls and furniture, and I die shortly, restoring from a recent saved game to continue.

I find the man in the southeast corner of the manor -- his dog has indeed gone missing, so we have another fetch quest to complete.  While looking, I discover that contact with the cloaked enemies causes them to give chase -- so it's really important not to attack or run into them.  I see Merlin yet again, who tells us we need to find a grappling hook, and a dungeon key, and then pick up an arrow outside; he also mentions that we can open chests by swinging our sword, as one does.

It's about at this point that I start to wonder who this game's target audience was meant to be -- the adventuring and puzzle-solving is pretty elementary, but it becomes a tedious stealth game at this point, and sometimes the ghosts start making a bee-line for our heroine without apparent provocation.  In other words, I am dying A LOT.  I find the guy whose dog is missing again, but no sign of the dog -- in fact, he seems to have given up, and just assumes the dog will come back when it's hungry.  I also find a large gem of no practical value.  Wikipedia tells me that the game has 9 worlds and 60 levels... oh, man, this does not sound like fun.  For the purposes of exploring more of the game, I enter a GameShark cheat code (010518C1) that refills Kayley to full health whenever she takes damage.

Now I can continue more readily, and I learn that the ghosts can be defeated -- it's just risky to take them on, because if you end up backed against a wall or even near a less-than-sprite-sized gap when they enlarge, you're hit repeatedly and dead in short order before you can even move out of the way.  I find a hidden switch that opens a secret passageway, and this allows me to zzzzzz....

Sorry, this allows me to find the grappling hook.  And eventually I find the dog, and the graphics are so clumsy that from the side it looks more like the dog with two backs, y'knowhatI'msayin':

And I learn, of course, that if we run into a ghost with the dog in tow, the dog runs away. so it takes me a few tries to get the dog safely back to its owner and earn the shield.  With the shield and grappling hook in hand, I discover that we can only have one item equipped at a time, so we'll have to be choosy about our inventory handling.  Returning outside the castle, I realize that the "ARROW ON THE GROUND" Merlin mentioned is actually a pattern of stones on the ground pointing to where we can use the grappling hook, allowing us to access the upper level of the Manor and fight some more knights.  And my sword levels up, apparently having drawn enough blood to be more powerful now, though there's no indication onscreen of its level or its XP, so it's anyone's guess as to when it will level up again.  I find the dungeon key up here, so we're getting closer to fighting Sir Ruber -- Merlin is standing by the dungeon entrance, and now we can enter it.

Kayley finds herself in an underground maze patrolled by giant spiders now; they're fairly tough to kill, and our progress is slowed by webs on the ground so navigation becomes more important.  A tunnel leads to a boss battle with Sir Ruber, who leaps around like an idiot, descending on Kayley's head and otherwise being hard to hit without taking plentiful damage.  And he looks more like Peter Boyle as Young Frankenstein than any of the other crudely-rendered Sir Ruber images we've seen so far. 

I finally manage to wear him down, but despite Merlin's warning that Kayley must not let him escape, he escapes.  A cut-scene (well, some scrolling text followed by some Warner-approved illustrations eating up cartridge space that could otherwise have been used to enlarge the maps or improve the graphics) establishes that Ruber's attempt to steal Excalibur from King Arthur was interrupted, but the legendary sword is now lost in the Forbidden Forest.

The forest is patrolled by invincible moving rock formations, snakes, and winged creatures that are particularly hard to get into sword range without taking damage.   Someone named Garrett guards a bridge and will only let us past into the more dangerous part of the forest if he believes in our sword skills, which I will presume means the sword must be at level 2, as despite all the fuss he lets us through immediately.  The blue knights have given way to more dangerous gray knights, and we can find Garrett in his house in the forest, though he throws us out immediately for no specific reason.  Merlin continues to wander around the map, and here he appears to warn us about a deadly giant plant ahead -- to defeat it, we need a MAGICAL STICK (back to basics here) and he won't let us past without it.

Sure enough, we meet another farmer (this time represented by the graphic used earlier for the blacksmith, RDC #3! Bingo!) whose garden has been destroyed by Ruber's knights.  He wants us to kill all the knights in exchange for some reward. The worst thing about these "kill them all" quests is that we're given no indication of how many potential victims there are, so Kayley has to wander around the map, murdering people until she thinks she's dispatched everybody, then check in with the quest issuer to find out if she's really done or not.

While hunting down knights, I visit Garrett's house again -- and this time, the game state has changed so that instead of just throwing us out for no stated reason, he's quite talkative.  He volunteers that he knew Sir Lionel when he was a stable boy, and he opens up a sealed spider cave where the magical stick is rumored to be hidden.  On the way there, I spend 50 gems on a magic shovel offered by a merchant standing in the middle of the woods, not really the best location for a retail operation.  The cave is filled with pitfalls that kick us back to the entrance, and the spiders here are fairly resilient.  The magical stick is hidden in a chest, and now we can continue.

As I exit the spider cave, my sword levels up again, its lust for bloodshed ever increasing, kids!  I manage to kill all the local knights, and the farmer now allows me to dig up turnips in his garden with the shovel I just bought.  Apparently a horse in the area likes turnips, and that's why we're doing this?  I find a bunch of small turnips which the game displays but doesn't seem to acknowledge, until after quite a bit of digging I turn up a large one.  Now Merlin opens up the gateway to the plant boss, but a strong wind prevents us from walking there, which is apparently why we need to find the horse.  Sigh.

Looking hither and yon for the horse, I dig in a suspiciously artificial-looking rock formation to find another heart container, which if I weren't cheating already would be very valuable.  And I finally find the horse, back near the beginning of this whole area of the game to ensure maximum backtracking play time.  While we're on horseback we can't fight the knights, so I try to avoid them.  The horse gets us past the wind (I think we needed to have found the large turnip to make it, suggesting the horse is partly flatulence-powered) but then disappears after we're on the other side.  He doesn't run off, he doesn't stop and graze, he just vanishes into the thin air.

We now find ourselves in a maze with little, minimally fire-breathing dragons to kill (think Fygar in Dig-Dug, with a short-range lick of flame coming out once in a while.)   I find a slingshot in a dead-end part of the maze, a heart refill, and finally enter a cavern where small carnivorous plants attack from the walls, forcing us to avoid them.  The boss battle occurs not too far into the cave, and is perhaps the most tedious affair I've seen in an Action-RPG, thanks mostly to the game's awkward interface.

We have to switch to the magical stick, get it into the giant plant's mouth, switch back to the sword, and attack until it breaks the stick -- apparently what's magic about it is that it can be reused indefinitely.  It's hard to dodge the plant's randomly attacking underground tendrils and get close enough to put the stick in without taking damage, and the constant need to interrupt the action to switch equipment becomes tiresome quickly.  So I just keep switching and doing and switching and doing some more, thanking the GameShark every so often for keeping Kayley alive in the face of my sheer combat incompetence.

Finally defeating the plant takes us back to Merlin, who informs us that there's yet another crisis to take care of before we can face Sir Ruber.  Merlin tells us we have FOUND ALL THE SECRETS, though he doesn't elaborate on which secrets, exactly.  And he gives us one piece of a mystical... eight piece... parchment.  And then... my game hangs.  I can't move or access the menu?  Oh, it's just a dramatic pause, apparently.

We now enter the Dragons' Territory, where Kayley meets Devon and Cornwall, a two-headed bickersome dragon that was apparently a major character in the Quest for Camelot feature film.  He tells/they tell us we need a dragon's scale to cross a large body of water to find Excalibur, and some dude has it.  And exploring this world is even more of a pain, because if we sink in the lake accidentally, we are put back at the beginning of the level, and navigating the narrow shorelines without falling in the water proves pretty difficult until I get the hang of it.

And I am not finding the dragon's scale!  It's supposed to be out here somewhere... I finally consult a walkthrough and learn that the sword can be used to cut down some trees.  Actually, it only works on one specific tree, so I can excuse myself for not discovering this on my own.  And I learn that a compass I was meant to acquire much earlier in the game would be making my life easier at this point, but of course there's no going back from this level so I can't take advantage of this newfound knowledge without starting completely over.  And I find a warp point at the edge of the lake that takes me to another area, where I can fight another of those furshlugginer plants...

And for your humble blogger, at this point my motivation is gone for completing this particular Quest.   We're approaching one-third of the way through the game; we fought Sir Ruber once already, and while I'm sure he'll be disappointed if he doesn't get to battle us again, I'm starting to share the title screen's distinct lack of enthusiasm.  The game isn't as lightweight as I expected, but by the same token it feels padded throughout -- the maps are small and full of wandering and retreading, the inventory handling is awkward, the graphics and sound are stuck somewhere between passable and terrible, and the amount of fetching and finding required to make progress makes it hard to care if Kayley ever succeeds.

I've seen worse licensed games than Quest for Camelot -- but that's not saying very much.  Time to disable the GameShark and let nature take its course:


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