Monday, December 30, 2019

Adventure: Hugo's House of Horrors / Hugo's Horrific Adventure (1989)

I haven't had much time to sit down and dig into a proper adventure game in a long while,so I was pleased to run across an animated adventure game that only took a few hours to play -- David P. Gray's Hugo's Horrific Adventure (its in-game credit), a.k.a. Hugo's House of Horrors (in old shareware ads if memory serves.)  It was originally published in 1989 with a mouse-supporting update circa 1997.

The design was inspired by the Sierra/Lucasarts 3-D adventure games and the technology is similar, but it's also a bit of a throwback to the bedroom coder days of yore.  It appears Mr. Gray was a one-man team, designing, programming, composing the music and creating the art and animation, so it's a fairly small map and has a homemade feel about it, like an early text adventure with some audiovisuals added.  The game was originally released as a shareware demo, and users were encouraged to purchase the full game, if only to have the manual handy to help answer some questions near the end of the game in the pre-Internet days.

For this post, I'm playing the ScummVM-compatible release available at as the first part of The Hugo Trilogy.  Note that the ScummVM plugin for the Hugo series uses the host emulator's text boxes, rather than the Sierra-style popups used by the original game, so if you want a more authentic experience you may wish to track down the original release and run it in DOSBox.

As always, I'll recount my playing experience in detail here, so if you intend to play this one yourself, be aware that there are comprehensive...

   *** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***

Hugo's Horrific Adventure has no title screen -- we're dropped right into the first gameplay location, a haunted house with eyes peering out and an unCLIMBable fence.  We can't walk offscreen left or right, so clearly our first goal is to get inside the house.  Our hero, Hugo, is the gent in the very 1980s cyan shirt and magenta pants.

The keyboard controls are similar to the early Sierra AGI titles -- we walk Hugo around with the arrow keys, and type to issue commands, with a general requirement that our hero be close to any objects with which we want him to interact.  The animation engine is a little glitchy -- if we repeatedly hit the movement key, Hugo's walking animation resets on each keypress so that he glides across the background.  It looks better if we just tap the key to start and stop his motion.  The music is suitably creepy-slash-jaunty, with a fun shift in tone if we stay in one place for a while.

There's a suspicious-looking pumpkin on the ground by the front door -- we can TAKE PUMPKIN then OPEN PUMPKIN to reveal a key, which falls to the ground, allowing us to TAKE KEY and OPEN DOOR.

Upon entering the main hall, we see a white-haired gentleman in a lab coat walking to the right of the upper level and vanishing through a doorway.  But I'll check out the area a bit before trying to find out what he's up to.

We can TAKE CANDLE from a small round table on the lower level.  We can EXAMINE any of the several PAINTINGs but not MOVE PAINTING or TAKE PAINTING so it appears these are just for decoration.  EXAMINE DOORWAY near the small opening under the staircase is worthwhile, as it yields a penknife and a small silver whistle.  As before, the newfound objects end up on the floor, so we have to TAKE PENKNIFE and TAKE WHISTLE.  And we have 46 of the 200 points already?  Perhaps this will be a brief adventure!

I chose to explore the upstairs bedroom next -- we can LOOK UNDER BED to find nothing, but there's a chiffarobe/wardrobe/whatchamacallit present as well.  We can OPEN WARDROBE to find what looks like a severed HEAD, but is actually a MASK shaped like a monkey's head.  In the process of figuring out what the wardrobe was called, I discovered that if we specify EXAMINE [unrecognized object] we are given a room-level description.  EXAMINE WINDOW reveals the outline of a shed below, in amongst some trees, so we should try to find that at some point.

Next door is a bathroom:

We can't seem to USE TOILET or USE TUB or TAKE BATH or USE WATER CLOSET; EXAMINE WINDOW reveals the same shed seen from the bedroom.  EXAMINE SINK provides no useful information, though EXAMINE MIRROR confirms the 333 text written in lipstick that we can plainly see in the artwork, so we'll make note of that information.

Entering the Professor's room causes us to lose the monkey mask, so at first I thought solving this room might have to do with sneaking it in somehow -- actually, it appears to be a restriction imposed simply to avoid animation complications.  Upon entry, the Professor urges us to get in place to "begin the experiment!" by stepping into a large open box connected to some wires and an imposing control console.  There's another character here, a large green fellow who looks a bit like the Green Yamo from the old Datasoft Bruce Lee game but is actually Igor.  EXAMINE TABLE near the door indicates there's a useful rubber bung here, but we don't seem to be able to TAKE BUNG as the glass door of the experiment booth is blocking our access to the tabletop.

So we might as well step into the box as the Professor asks to see what happens -- Igor mistakenly presses the red button instead of the blue as the mad scientist directs, and our hero is shrunk to about half his usual height.  The Professor departs in frustration, and now that we're smaller we can walk behind the glass door and TAKE BUNG, at least, but now we're too short to reach the unusually high-placed doorknob to exit this room.  So we're going to have to work something out with Igor here.

We can step back into the box and say IGOR, PUSH RED BUTTON -- of course, he pushes the yellow one, and now we're normal size but so discombobulated we can't coordinate ourselves enough to open the door.  Asking IGOR, PUSH YELLOW BUTTON causes the green one to be pushed, creating a pixel-fragmented Hugo that is equally unable to open the door.  It appears Igor tends to push the button to the right of the one we we ask for, so IGOR, PUSH GREEN BUTTON causes him to push the blue button, restoring Hugo to his normal condition, and I decided not to ask for any more button presses.  I also stopped to TAKE MASK again after exiting the room.

Heading north on the lower level leads us into the house's kitchen, where we can try (but fail) to TAKE the BROOM leaning against the wall, which is magically held in place somehow.  There doesn't seem to be anything in the oven or the cupboards, but we hear a feast going on in the room to the right.  We'll go left for now, only to encounter an attack dog, so we'll make a hasty trip back to the kitchen.  Re-entering to try my luck again, I was attacked and (I presume partially) eaten by the dog and had to restore a saved game, but I was able to catch sight of a mousehole on the wall in the dog room that may bear re-examination if we can deal with the angry pooch.

Exiting out the back of the kitchen, we see the fabled backyard shed -- which isn't really camouflaged at all, and we can't leave the path that leads to it so we have no choice but to check it out.  It's locked with a combination lock, and 333 -- surprise? -- is the correct combination for entry.  EXAMINE SHED discloses that the structure is in severe disrepair, but we see an oilcan on a crumbling shelf -- and for a change Hugo automatically adds it to inventory, presumably to avoid having to depict the shed's interior at all.

Returning to the house, we can enter the Feast room, which is populated with the standard Halloween characters -- Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula -- as well as... Gwendolin, Hood, Pea Head and Slime, so no Universal lawyers will be knocking on Mr. Gray's door.

The butler asks, "Care for a chop, sir?" -- answering YES leads to Hugo's swift demise, as the butler chops the interloper's head off with a carving knife.  Answering NO leads to the same conclusion, so we'd best just avoid the butler as he patrols the upper side of the room.  But there doesn't seem to be much else to do here, and it turns out that if we WEAR MASK we can use the disguise to make off with a pork chop from the efficient but easily deceived butler.

Now let's try giving that to the dog... this takes a little coordination of text input versus the animation, because there isn't really enough time to type the whole command before the dog takes Hugo down.  This is the first of several situations in the linear last section of the game where it worked best for me to type the command, enter the next room, and hit ENTER to execute it.  My attempt to GIVE CHOP was unsuccessful despite my clever timing, but following the game's helpful post-death recommendation to THROW CHOP instead worked.  Now we can EXAMINE MOUSEHOLE to find... a pile of squishy mouse droppings.  Hooray!

Hugo refuses to take any, erm, droppings, and attempting to leave and return to the room puts the dog back on dangerous full alert despite the luscious-looking pork chop still lying on the floor.  So why are we here?  EXAMINE RUG suggests a corner near the door looks uneven; moving to that side of the carpet allows us to MOVE RUG and discover a trapdoor.  This feels significant but I hope we have everything we need, because I suspect there's no going back after this point.

Well, perhaps we don't have everything necessary, as the trapdoor is bolted shut.  I try to TAKE BOLTS and OIL BOLTS and OIL TRAPDOOR to no avail.  But OIL BOLT works (there's only one big, rusty bolt) -- but then we can't PULL BOLT or REMOVE BOLT or UNSCREW BOLT or OIL BOLT again?

Ah!  It turns out this is not the nut-and- but the sliding sort of bolt, and OPEN BOLT works, followed by OPEN TRAPDOOR.  Hugo discards the monkey mask automatically, yet again, and we find ourselves in the basement.  117 of 200 points so far!

LISTEN DOOR yields some muffled sobbing so perhaps we are close to rescuing Penelope!  (I only know this is what we're supposed to do because getting killed by the dog suggests that now we'll never accomplish this laudable goal.)  TALK PENELOPE establishes that this is in fact Penelope, but she's gagged so she can't suggest anything.  If we stand around too long, like we're taking blog notes or something, the game starts prompting the player to see if some help is desired, but I'm resisting for the moment.

We can see (by mousing around) that there's an EXIT underneath one of the rocks near the door, but we can't MOVE ROCK or PUSH ROCK successfully.  BLOW WHISTLE produces nothing interesting.  UNLOCK DOOR reveals there's no keyhole or bolts, so it's not clear how we can open it.  PUSH DOOR is not useful either.  And we can't get back upstairs, so it's truly a one-way trip after we pacify the dog.

What to try?  In Hugo's inventory, we currently have a penknife, a bung, a whistle, a candle, a key, and an oilcan.  We can't BURN OILCAN, although we can OIL DOOR, making it an oily door that still won't budge!

OH!  We can maneuver Hugo between the rocks by the door to the Exit to reach a cave, where Hugo immediately gets attacked by some vampire bats, fatally so.  But readying a BLOW WHISTLE for immediate execution confuses the bats' sonar so that we can explore the cave area we're in.

Unfortunately, the next room contains a murderous mummy, so it seems we need to prepare some kind of offense or defense here as well.  I couldn't burn the mummy's bandages or find any other way to attack him, but as he always just makes a beeline for Hugo it appears we can use the onscreen geography to get him trapped behind rocks and navigate past the room, being sure to TAKE TREASURE on the way.

Next, we find ourselves at an underground lake with a passage on the far side, near an old man with a fishing pole.  There's a small boat on the near side -- we can't USE BOAT or BOARD BOAT, but GET IN BOAT reveals a hole in the vessel's bottom, so we have to PLUG HOLE WITH BUNG before we can proceed.  Good thing we've been faithful adventurers, collecting every object along the way!

We can't move the boat yet as it's tied to a post -- we can't UNTIE ROPE (it's too knotted) but we can CUT ROPE with the penknife, then GET back IN the BOAT and PUSH OFF.  We drift over to the other side of the lake, but can't GET OUT because the old man is stubbornly in the way.  TALK MAN reveals that he wishes to help, but he vows to test our adventuring mettle by asking a series of questions, mostly related to popular fantasy literature.

I was able to answer BILBO as the first name of the hero of The Hobbit; NARNIA as the home of Aslan; and BRAM STOKER as the inventor of Count Dracula.  I successfully chose (c) Drink It concerning what one should do with a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.  The final question is a riddle: "What's the name of the only mammal that can't fly that can fly?"  I initially guessed PIG, incorrectly, and was doomed to float forever on the old man's lake, which seems a bit harsh when all he really has to do is move a foot or so.  Fortunately, we can just TALK MAN again to re-take the quiz; I tried SQUIRREL and FLYING SQUIRREL, also unsuccessfully, before successfully arriving at HUMAN -- we can't fly naturally, but we can fly with technology, which seems obvious in retrospect.  Two more questions remain -- "What was the name of Roy Rogers' dog?"  I knew Trigger was his horse, but I had to look up this bit of trivia - BULLET (the Wonder Dog) is the correct answer, and then of course I answered YES as to whether I really want to rescue Penelope.

We now have 179 of 200 points as we venture past the lake into a guard station where a more fleshy-looking version of Igor stands watch over the beloved Penelope's cell.  TALK GUARD yields no meaningful result, nor does BRIBE GUARD, but GIVE GOLD cause Hugo to wisely slip him just one gold coin from our recent looting of the mummy's treasure.  And now Hugo has all 200 points collected!

Once we enter Penelope's cell, therefore, the game wraps up rather hastily -- text informs us we have rescued her and exited the house somehow getting two people past the dog and all other obstacles, and apparently Hugo and Penelope live happily, if not ever after, at least until the second game in the trilogy, presumably.  (Apologies for the obscured screenshot, I wasn't able to grab an image without the wrap-up text overlaid on top!)

Hugo's Horrific Adventure/Hugo's House of Horrors was an entertaining little animated adventure -- it only took a few hours for me to play through it, including taking notes and gathering screenshots, and I appreciated its straightforward simplicity.  Haunted house rescues and escapes were a very common theme back in the text adventure era, and the heavy use of the parser here felt nicely old-fashioned.  I'll likely return to this series in the future.

Monday, April 1, 2019

At Random: Karnov (NES, 1987)

I recently acquired Hyperkin's Retron 5 multi-console -- it's essentially an emulator in a console casing, with a generic wireless controller, clean HDMI output, and support for cheats and patches, video filtering options, screenshot captures, and save states for games that never had a save capability originally. 

It's not tremendously well constructed, and emulation will always have some shortcomings here and there, but this little box has one great feature from my perspective: physical cartridge slots for the Nintendo Entertainment System, its Japanese counterpart the Famicom, the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Game Boy Advance family (including the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Color).  This means that a lot of cartridges I've acquired over the years at rummage sales and flea markets can now actually be played on a modern display, and moreover with minimal cleaning and fussing, avoiding a basic issue that has kept me from enjoying NES games in particular as often as I'd like.

So I've been digging into my collection a bit, and I came across a title that was always something of a personal nemesis back in the 1980s: Data East's Karnov.

This title screen is the cartridge's entire attract mode.  There's no title music, no demo sample.  Push start or go home.

The original 1987 arcade version of Karnov was a challenging side-scroller -- one-hit deaths and a barrage of incoming enemies discouraged me from investing many tokens in playing it, but it was a visually interesting experience.  It was one of the first 16-bit coin-op games I had seen at the time and it was clear that my beloved NES was rapidly falling behind the state of the arcade art.  When the NES conversion arrived in 1988, I rented it once, spent an evening failing to get through the first level despite the home version's more generous two-hit deaths, and decided to leave Karnov alone for a while.  (I was disappointed that the original coin-op did not turn up on Data East's Arcade Classics compilation for the Wii back in 2010, but recently learned this was because the rights to Karnov and a few other Data East games were sold to Paon in the mid-2000s, instead of to G-Mode like the rest of the company's library, and the current IP owners haven't done much with the property.)

Of course, a decade or two later the NES cartridge turned up somewhere in my travels at a reasonable price and became part of my library.  I don't recall spending much time with it in the intervening years, but it came to hand as I was looking for something to play on the Hyperkin box, and so it was time to take Karnov for a spin.

Karnov is powerful Russian!  Karnov needs no shirt!  No neck!  No eyeballs!
Karnov is a fire-breathing Russian (ostensibly a circus performer and strongman of the non-Putin variety) who has to face down a number of bizarre creatures across 9 fairly brief, relatively slow-moving side-scrolling levels, with the customary boss at the end of each.

First level boss!  Crazy green fishnik tosses missiles from stupid American fanny pack! 

There's a little more depth to the game than that summary suggests -- an RPG-lite inventory system tasks our hero with collecting and using bombs, magic wings, ladders and other special items along the way.  The wings and bombs are critical to getting through level eight, but the other artifacts are more or less optional, which is good because the two-button NES controller means we can only select items by nudging Karnov himself left and right until the desired item is flashing so we can finally press the SELECT key to use it.  Since the game's side-scrolling structure and limited NES-era memory generally spawns enemies as the screen inches to the right, and re-spawns them if we retreat to the left, this mechanic isn't as much fun as it ought to be.  

To the game's credit, there are alternate paths for the exploration-minded available in most of the levels, but dogged left-to-right movement will finish the game just as readily.  Even with the simplest, most straightforward approach, Karnov remains a difficult game for yours truly; many of the enemy creatures fire missiles at angles that are tough to avoid by ducking or jumping, and even though their individual attack styles become more familiar as the game goes on, my aging skills were soon outmatched.  I did manage to get through the first level, finally, but then I spent half an hour dying in more or less the same spot early in level two, only once getting to the mid-way checkpoint before hitting game over and starting back at the beginning of level two (the game supplies infinite continues but one has to complete an entire level on a single "credit" to make any real progress.)  

So... I took advantage of modern emulation technology to apply a cheat code, giving Karnov invincibility against everything but falling in a (mercifully rare) hole in the level design.  This enabled me to see all nine available environments, and witness the endless repetition of the same background music and the re-use of boss enemies across multiple levels, because, hey, cartridge ROM space didn't grow on trees in 1988.

Darn you, capitalist Pepperidge Farm fish-crackers!  Go back to your barrel and gorge on American hearty-attack breakfast!

Finally, after swimming and running and shooting and flying and shooting and shooting and shooting and jumping and shooting some more, our dauntless Russian has to fight off a single-headed, triple-entrance dragon creature:

Hold, please.  Mr. Karnov is taking damage and currently unavailable to come to the screen.

And after all that -- battling legitimately through nine increasingly difficult levels or waiting three decades until a wondrous technological solution becomes available -- the game's ending is... well... a bit of an anti-climax:

In Soviet Union, game finishes you!  Exclamation points are expensive, third one sold on black market.

So that's my experience with Karnov on the NES.  I'm glad to have finally sort-of-played through the entire game, instead of just watching a YouTube video, but there's not a lot I can say about Karnov.  It's very much of its time -- colorful and challenging, reasonably well-ported from the arcade, but also early enough in the life cycle of the NES to get by without pushing the hardware, cartridge size or gameplay possibilities.  It's a competent, typical example of the 8-bit side-scrolling videogame, but history has pushed it into the background, overshadowed by NES genre-mates like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania and Battletoads.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

At Random: Magician Lord (Neo Geo, 1990)

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything here, and I'm heading into another busy period so this may be my only post for a while to come as well.  But I've recently found myself drawn back to SNK's Magician Lord, a launch title for the Neo Geo arcade system/console.

He's a Magician!  He's a Lord!  He's Magician Lord!
This side-scrolling, single-player fantasy action game was developed by Alpha Denshi working closely with SNK during the Neo Geo's development.  And it was fairly impressive when it hit arcades in 1990 -- the graphics were bold and colorful with scaling sprites and deep parallax scrolling, the audio included digitized speech and music with sampled instruments, and while it was an arcade machine with a difficulty level designed to keep the coin slot fed, it was possible to get a feel for the visual style and gameplay on a single token.

But what I think appealed most to me was that you could play THIS version, exactly as it was, at home on SNK's Neo Geo console in 1991.  Today we're used to coin-ops arriving at home in arcade perfect form, or as close as emulation and control options will allow, but the Neo Geo was the first system to deliver actual arcade hardware to the living room.  The system was an investment -- around US$600 for the system, and building a game collection was even more expensive with titles in the neighborhood $200 apiece.  But look at that massive Magician Lord cartridge -- packed with so much gaming goodness it needed TWO edge connectors!

23 Megabits of Magic + 23 Megabits of Lordliness

Magician Lord isn't a bad game, but it falls short of being a great game.  The action is simple and repetitive -- walk, shoot magic, jump, duck, climb a ladder, take a couple of hits, use up your lives, and put another token in to continue.  Occasionally there are transforming power-ups to acquire, with six different alternate forms for hero Elta the Magician Lord to take, but the game throws so much at our man that (at least in my less-than-capable hands) these temporary modes tend to be very temporary indeed. 

There are also some unintentionally amusing bits between levels when the main villain stops by to complain about the player's progress, from the days before careful Japanese-to-English localization was a thing:

Sticks and stones...

Aren't we all, dude.  But we're only two stages in.  Chin up!

Magician Lord was an early title for the Neo Geo, and the relatively small 46 megabit cartridge's limitations become apparent as one gets deeper into the game.  Many enemies encountered in later stages are palette-shifted versions of earlier foes, the excellent 80's-synth background music gets reused on multiple levels, and the maps are generally compact aside from a few late-game mazes that seem very out of place in an arcade experience.  The bosses are large and nightmarish and varied enough, but rather stiffly animated and predictable, and the end of the game wisely features a mini-boss rush rather than revisiting the big guys. 

But maybe these limitations are part of what I like about this title -- it feels stuck halfway between a coin-op and a home console experience, and it's more richly textured and progression-oriented than most of its arcade and Neo Geo brethren.  Over time, it only became more unique as SNK's later success (and title releases) focused almost exclusively on fighting games.

As tempted as I often was, I could never quite convince my checkbook to ante up for the Neo Geo console back in the day, so I only actually played Magician Lord a few times in the arcades, most memorably for the first time at The Circus in Marinette, Wisconsin.  I remember being surprised and disappointed that it was never ported to home consoles -- it seems like the Genesis and SNES could have handled a reasonably accurate conversion, or the Playstation if cartridge space limitations were the problem.  Maybe it just wasn't popular enough to be worth the effort; the game didn't resurface in any officially licensed form until emulation of the original arcade software became possible some fifteen years later on the Wii, PS2, Playstation Vita, SNK's own Neo Geo Mini line, and most recently on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, XBox One and PC via HAMSTER's Arcade Classics Archive series.

And despite owning the game in multiple forms over the years (even the physical cartridge shown above, despite never owning the console... yeah...) -- and playing it many times -- I realized recently that I'd never actually finished Magician Lord, or even gotten very close to the end.  So I bought the most recent PC emulated version (from Microsoft's store, as it doesn't seem to be available via or Steam) and set out to tackle it seriously.  This time I finally navigated patiently through a couple of frustrating, game length-padding later levels where I'd gotten stuck before, where visually identical doors and ladders are not in fact identical, and made it to the penultimate stage.

It was here that the nails-hard difficulty very nearly exceeded my abilities, where a series of platforming moves are combined with a plethora of floating, firing enemies and, despite the game's generous continue approach, I couldn't survive long enough to get anywhere at all before putting the next virtual token in.  The idea is to jump/walk across a series of floating platforms without getting hit by the floating spheres or their fireballs.

I either fell off the platform or exploded into Elta fragments while trying to capture this screenshot

I did finally make it -- not quite getting all the way across, but somehow getting far enough that keeping the joystick pressed leftward allowed me to land on a lower level instead of falling to my usual untimely death.  And a little more navigation led me to collect the final book (yes, each boss guards a mystical tome of power that will ultimately restore freedom to the land when the magical, lordly shelf is filled or something to that effect):
I am not an animal!  I am not a human being!

After this point, inserting far more in virtual quarters than the $7.99 I paid for this incarnation of the game to continue whittling down the various mini-bosses and final boss while getting my hat handed to me every few seconds, I managed to make it to the end!

Not the final boss either, but these giggling, leaping mini-boss twins are just too cute

"Of course, everyone has died while crops and water were unavailable all this time.  I survived by eating my beard."
So now I have experienced all that Magician Lord has to offer, and yes, I still have a nostalgic soft spot for this game and will probably return to it now and then.  If I'm honest, it was the technology advance the Neo Geo represented, and the just-out-of-my-reach pricing at the time, that really made an impression on me, and this game was just the most personally appealing of the launch titles.  But it still makes me very happy to be able to finally play it at home more than 25 years later.