Friday, January 13, 2012

East vs. West: the Manhole (1990)

In the late 1980s, there were a couple of new multimedia technologies floating around.  One was CD-ROM, whose impact was substantial; the other was Apple's HyperCard, a Macintosh innovation that allowed for hyperlinking of elements across virtual notecards.  The Web's effectiveness depends on a similar concept, but HyperCard itself was not tremendously successful. 

Still, at least one entertainment product was developed using the technology: the Manhole, developed by the team at Cyan who would later create Myst, also using HyperCard and HyperTalk.  This title originated on the Mac in 1988, and was ported (translating the HyperCard logic to an independent system) as one of the earliest PC CD-ROM titles by Activision in 1989, and later to the Japanese PC Engine by Sunsoft in 1990.  We'll be looking at the Japanese PCE version here; the entire game is framed in a Mac-style gray box with a menu bar, though there's no operating system at work here, just a visual border in keeping with the original look and feel.

I'll admit I played the Manhole, back in the day when there were very few PC CD-ROM titles available and any use of the technology was of interest.  But it doesn't surprise me that it isn't well remembered today; it wasn't really a game in the traditional sense, but more of an interactive children's storybook.  It has a definite sense of Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy about it, and its early use of animated full-screen graphics (no full-motion video yet) and spot sound effects and dialogue showed what would become possible as multimedia technology advanced.  But there's no gameplay here, really; players who found Myst lacking in that area should be advised that at least the Myst games contain puzzles.  All the Manhole has to offer is a series of displays with hotspots that can be clicked on, leading to other areas in the world and/or displaying cute, short animations with CD quality music.  As an introduction to the mouse for young children, I can't think of a more entertaining exercise; but by today's standards it's just a novelty.  There's not even a real end to the story -- when we've grown tired of wandering around, the only way to "finish" it is to bring up the Start-button menu and select the icon marked "END ING", at which point a full credits list for both versions rolls.

I guess an ending is a bit much to expect here, as there isn't even a story per se -- we're just free to explore this land's bizarre geography, where a boat ride can detour through a rabbit's beverage:

And a picture of a fireman's hat on the wall can lead into a sombrero-heavy dance sequence:

Or an elevator can take us to a sunken shipwreck:

There's a fair amount to explore and look at, although the conversion from the Macintosh is a bit odd -- the onscreen text remains in English, but the voiceovers are completely in Japanese.  And the manual's back cover appears to have been based on the US version with some comprehension lacking -- the text still reads "What You Need to Run the Manhole", with nothing listed below that point, as the PC Engine hardware was pretty standardized (this game ran on the original PCE CD-ROM 1.0 system card standard.)

The various animal characters we meet are not devoid of personality -- they are nicely drawn and they have character, expressed by their voiceovers and indirectly if we look around a bit.  This hip dragon remains a personal favorite:

And the walrus is clearly not fond of company:

But the Manhole's experience runs out steam pretty quickly -- there's not really that much to do and see here, and the entertainment value can be exhausted in a few hours' time.  The biggest problem is that we can't interact with these characters or this world in any satisfying sense -- we can't change anything, or learn anything deeper about the world of the Manhole.  There's not so much as a fetch quest on hand to provide a sense of accomplishment, and so we're relegated to the role of tourist -- free to explore and find the hotspots, but not really to become part of this world.  And so we poke around for a while, and then select the end credits and call it done:


the Manhole was a casual game before that term came into common use, and even that's stretching it; it's more of a toy, briefly amusing but not truly involving.  I know it has its fans -- enhanced versions were released as recently as 1995, and it's still commercially available today -- but I don't think it's aged well.  Call it one for the history books.

This one didn't sell well enough to be truly cheap, but it's not also much in demand.  I can't recommend the Manhole, but interested readers may be able to find it for sale here.


  1. Good point, thanks! My closing link only refers to the Japanese PC Engine version. The later Masterpiece Edition for the PC is available both at and also via Steam (though only as part of the Cyan Complete Collection.) Ironically it seems that the original Mac edition is out of circulation, though.