I just got around to playing Sabre Wulf for the first time last week, and like many of my other experiences with older games, I have no nostalgic ties to Sabre Wulf. It has to stand the test of time to interest me in the present. Amazingly, Sabre Wulf did just that. I’m still thinking about it This game was developed by Ultimate Play the Game (which deserves its own article on this website) for the ZX Spectrum in 1984 and was then ported to the C64 by Firebird in 1985. I’ve never played it on the ZX Spectrum, but apparently, the C64 port is almost identical to the original version. It is the first in the Sabreman series, which also includes Underwurlde, Knight Lore, and Pentagram (as well as another game never released called Mire Mare…come on,
someone make this game happen!).
What I found so intriguing about this game was the artwork and the maze gameplay. I know many people are turned off by maze games, and I admit that their gameplay gets tedious when they reuse the same sprites and artwork over and over again, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for mazes. I love the dungeons in the Ultima series, I get excited at the idea of getting lost in Wolfenstein 3D, and Sabre Wulf does it for me too.
Honestly, seeing a screenshot of the game is what drew me to play it in the first place. The stunning jumble of colors against that black background is striking and beautiful. Now I’m the first to admit that graphics don’t make or break a game, but it was pretty easy for me to ignore the tediousness of the maze gameplay after the second hour in because I had so many interesting things to look at onscreen.
But the heart and soul of a game is its gameplay, so let’s talk about that. Sabre Wulf has you searching in a vast jungle in order to recover 4 pieces of a charm so that you can access the cave on the game’s final screen (where you are told to continue your adventure in the second installment of the series, Underwurlde). Along the way, there will be up to three enemies that quickly and sporadically appear at any given time on every screen, so your best strategy is to hold the attack button down constantly; you move a little bit slower, and you look ridiculous swinging your sword around as you walk, but it’s the best way to survive. However, since you can only hit enemies that are to the left or right of you, there is still plenty of dangerous moments since it is almost impossible to kill anything directly above or below you. And yes, there are screens of long, vertical paths where you are sure to die.
To counter your vulnerability, along the way there are huge flowers which will randomly bloom, and if you come into contact with them in that moment, they make you temporarily invincible. They also have other side effects on you based on their colors, such as speeding you up or slowing you down or reversing your controls. But that invincibility sure comes in handy!
Besides the constantly-generating enemies on each screen, there are also a few creatures that you can’t kill at all. The title’s Sabre Wulf is one such creature. When you encounter him, you just have to run, but he can follow you from screen to screen! There are natives running around the jungle too. And lastly, there are big hippos and rhinos which have a set path. Once they reach the end of their path, rhinos will turn right around and go back the other way while hippos will lie down to go to sleep, thus blocking your way. They have to be awakened again before they’ll move and open the way for you.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it is very easy to die in this game. There are so many enemies and cheap deaths (like running into a sleeping hippo just because you didn’t know that the path was blocked on the next screen). I recommend playing this one on an emulator with Anyone who hates maze games should steer clear, but if you’re like me—obsessed over exploring vast areas and getting lost—then I recommend you give this old game a try. If nothing else, it will introduce you to the wonderful world of the developer Ultimate Play the Game, who have quite a lot of gems in their library of games and who eventually became the incredible developer Rare. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Old-school maze games are the best. I can honestly say that they just don’t make them like they used to anymore. These days, I don’t think anyone would accept a modern game that looked exactly the same on every single screen, but it was an acceptable practice back in the day due to hardware limitations, and so there are many retro games that have this feature. When I am craving a good maze adventure, games like Sabre Wulf sate my appetite. Maybe next week I’ll check out Underwurlde.
The two guys who made the original Sabre Wulf were Tim and Chris Stamper, and just as Jex said: They later went on with Rare. My dislike of the original game is clearly my own issue, because the reviews for the game, back in 1984, were quite glowing. The Sabre Wulf characters also make several Easter egg appearances in later games (such as Sabreman himself appearing in Rare’s excellent Banjo-Tooie N64 game. He’s the explorer that is frozen and must be returned to his camp).
Also, in my Gameboy Advance cartridge collection there is a Sabre Wulf game, albeit with quite different gameplay. Here’s a video of that version. No, I have no idea why they opted for no sound in their video.
So, yes: Objectively, I must agree with Jex, and say that this is a good maze-solving game. Just not my own personal cup of tea. Those damn hippos…
While I’m trying to get the next post for my Wargaming series up to my own personal standards (I want to show how the games are appealing to strategy fans, how they work, a demo of play, as well as a solid free example of the genre – not easy tasks for me), here are some games that have grabbed my attention recently, and I strongly recommend for readers of my blog.
“Steve Jackson’s SORCERY! Parts 1-4″
Founded in 2011 by two Cambridge game developers who have a passion for storytelling, as well as coupling said stories with beautiful designs, this company’s entire game catalog has utterly captured my time and imagination. They have developed their own technology for creating the most immersive interactive stories I’ve ever played, and have made said games available on Android, Kindle Fire, and Apple devices (and this makes me happy, because as anybody who knows me well, knows that I am not a fan of ‘exclusive’ titles. I want everybody to be able to enjoy a terrific game.)
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is currently 2 separate apps (at $5 each) that are based on a 4-part gamebook series that Jackson did many years ago. Part 1 is a smaller slice, just as the original book was, but it leads directly into the much more substantial part 2 (and a passcode generated at the end of Part 1 directly integrates what you did previously into the upcoming story).
You are tasked with locating a fabled crown and restoring prosperity and peace to the troubled land. Right from the start this app presents you with a gorgeous world, with atmospheric sounds playing in the background, and numerous branching story paths.
Unlike the original books, which are Choose Your Own Adventure style with a basic combat mechanic built in, the Inkle versions are almost living, breathing worlds. The text is procedurally generated in countless places (especially during combat, which is entirely generated on the fly as you duel your foe). You can play as male, or female (a BIG kudos in my book, because these are exactly the sorts of games that transcend genders!) The included game maps are both interactive, and subtly 3D in nature (the elevations on the maps are actually raised in 3D).
Sad as it is, in this day and age, people are utterly unreasonable and spoiled when it comes to gaming apps. People have absurd expectations that all games should be 99 cents in the App stores, and if it’s a $5 game (such as this), they have demands that even a $60 PC game would be hard-held to maintain. Trust me: Both parts of Sorcery! are totally worth the mere $10 investment in your entertainment time. Part 1, which actually has more depth than the original gamebook, is a great introduction to the series, and lays the foundation for the next 3, and has plenty of room to explore, get killed, and even re-play to try and get a better ending.
And then Part 2, for the same $5 flat fee, has nearly four times the scope! It even has a full-fledged dice game built into it for betting and gaining valuable info from. You really cannot beat the cost-to-value ratio here, because the paperback books themselves from Amazon are not even this cheap!
Click here to visit the main Inkle page for this series.
– Fully relax, immerse yourself in the game world, and explore everything. If you simply do not like how a particular path turned out, just rewind – or just accept it as part of the story and move on. I was mugged in Part 1, lost all my precious gold, and wound-up starving in the streets for a few days. I didn’t rewind the story, but just accepted it as part of the story. Good Interactive Fiction isn’t so much about winning as it is about the narrative.
– The combat is deeper than it looks: Read the text, not just the two figures and strength bars. Every single opponent has a tell as to when it’s going to attack and defend. If you do terribly in a battle, consider doing it over again and try to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses.
– Write-down the various passwords you get at the end, and keep the one you think is your best – it has a big impact on upcoming titles.
– Take the time to master the dice game in part 2 – it’s a bit vague, but you really need to fully get a grasp on it to exploit certain points of the storyline. The first time you encounter the game you can play it, in a practice round, endlessly, in order to get fully up to par with it.
Mary Shelly’s classic novel is an odd one: Not a single movie about it has ever been really close to what the novel was about, and not a single depiction of the famous monster has really ever been close to showing what it was really all about.
Inkle’s “Frankenstein”, by noted gamebook author Dave Morris, not only includes the full original text for you to read at your leisure, but also the full interactive text of his take on the original novel.
The original story was about how Dr. Frankenstein discovered a means of bringing dead things back to life, and his mental breakdown and anguish over what he had done: He felt his obsession with this medical experiment ultimately violated nature, as well as God, and in fear of his own monstrous creation he fled – leaving the monster alone in a nasty, heartless, brutal world.
The original novel is basically a series of letters and memories.
Also, in case you didn’t know: Frankenstein is the doctor. The monster never was given a name. “Frankenstein’s monster” is a more accurate description. But that’s a minor point. This piece of interactive fiction leads to pretty much the same end as the original book, but the narrative choices along the way totally change the texture and feel of the story. For example, in my play-through of the story, the monster actually became an educated and rather well-mannered individual – but the world rebuffed his attempts at becoming “more human”.
Your play through can be totally different. The monster can be just that: A scared creation of a mad scientist that goes on a murderous rampage; a lost and lonely soul who is constantly tormented by the world, and accidentally kills a person. Or numerous other variations.
Another great deal at $5 – which is, again, the price of a cheap paperback.
Click here to go to Inkle’s main page for Frankenstein.
FUTURE VOICES ANTHOLOGY
Inkle held a contest, when they unveiled their InkleWriter application on their main website (which allows anybody to create their own interactive stories, and then publish them). The “Future Voices” free app is an anthology of the 11 winning stories of that contest. The various short stories are dark, weird, funny, and sad. I found all 11 totally worth reading, and several of them worthwhile in going back and making different choices (which totally changed the outcome). One of them, in which Death and the Devil make time-traveling romps, was so absurdly funny to me that I explored every single choice.
Totally free app: Nothing to lose. Click here for the main page at Inkle.
Without a doubt in my mind, this quickly became the most loved, and favorite, of all interactive stories I’ve ever read. Just like the original Jules Verne novel it is huge, sprawling, and epic in scope. Unlike the book, it’s phenomenally interactive, and incredibly deep – and even has a minor multiplayer aspect to it.
You are Passpartout, a valet from Paris who has just been hired by one Phileas Fogg – an extremely reserved English gentleman. On the very first day of your employment Fogg strides right up to you and announces that he has placed a very unusual wager: That he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less.
This is the year 1872, mind you: There are no jet airplanes that can do this feat in 42 hours 23 minutes (a B-52 holds this record). But the version of this 1872 world is also a future one to both the reader, as well as the characters: Because it is a steampunk world (click for a Wikipedia article on this popular genre).
There are a total of 122 cities that can be visited – some of them easily, others are hidden-away in the narrative like Easter Eggs. Every single city has a full adventure for you to explore, and every single journey between those cities also has an adventure. Plus, as if that wasn’t enough: Each new play-through has a new random seed generated for it, so items and various figures get shuffled-about.
On my first play-through I missed the deadline by a horrible 12 days. My next attempt, which whirled me through totally different cities and adventures, clocked me in at 83 days. And my last attempt crossed the finish line at just under 76 days!
Money is a factor, as well as a time. Your initial funds are insufficient: You must purchase, or obtain via other means, valuable items, and sell them for substantially higher prices at key locations. This requires keen foresight. Also, the various travel routes are not just mapped-out all over the globe. You must obtain information as to when they depart, and what methods are the fastest. This is done via different methods: Talking to people onboard the current transport, and coaxing info out of them; arriving in a new location, and subsequently exploring it, almost always unlocks new routes; or purchasing a timetable book.
Oh, and you must also tends to the needs of your employer: Mr. Fogg himself. He will get tired from the journey, and will gradually decline in health if ignored. You can attend to his needs rather humorously (“I will press your slacks, sir!” “Ah, thank you: That will make me feel much better!” — he’s such the old-school British gentleman that it’s quite chuckle-worthy).
The script for this interactive story is HUGE. Even my failures didn’t feel like failures: Fogg merely arrives back in London, and the two instantly are determined to try it again! You can modify the narrative as you please: You can be cutthroat about things (steal things, lie, and do everything you can to shave time off your trip); place bets; get married; encounter Jules Verne himself; and even encounter doppelgangers of yourselves (a clever nod to the multiplayer aspect of the game).
This is truly a monumental work in the genre of Interactive Fiction, raising the bar for what qualifies as a quality work very, very high.
The price of $5 is absurdly reasonable for the depth of this game!
Click here for the main Inkle site for this.
I have purchased other Inkle apps, just based on my previous experiences thus far, but have yet to play them. They are: Down Among the Dead Men (A pirate-themed adventure with 3 levels of difficulty, and a cheap price of 99 cents); Cainsville Files (A story based on the books by New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong); Seven Poets and the Assassin’s Secret (certainly looks highly fascinating. The original concept was that the Interactive storytelling would gradually unfold in real time via news reports and choices that you make, but that ended about a year ago – which means that the entire experience is no fully available to explore as you wish. Was started 2 years ago via a Kickstarter. The initial story is free, with the subsequent chapters costing 99 cents. Looks highly original. Click here for the website.)
The transition from childhood to adulthood is an awkward and difficult phase in anyone’s life.
There is so much change going on in our habits and bodies at the same time that we are bound
to look and act stupid at least part of the time (for some of us, it was all of the time). It’s no
different for the teen years of video games (which I am dubbing the period from the mid-80s
to the mid-90s). So much was changing—the transition from 2D to 3D gameplay, the arcade’s
decrease in popularity as home consoles became more capable, and the introduction of discs—
laserdiscs, CD-roms, and DVDs.
It was during this phase in video games’ history that a strange and awkward anomaly showed
up: the interactive movie game. Wanting to show off the power of discs as a new gaming
format, developers created a new type of gameplay in which the player watched a full-motion
video (FMV) and pressed the button or moved the joystick at the correct moment, based on
cues from the video that they were watching. Today, we know this as the quick time event
(QTE), and most gamers shudder at the thought of it because of their bad experiences of it in
otherwise great games.
But I want to argue that the quick time event as a standalone mode of gameplay is actually
quite fun, and its potential has barely been tapped despite a long history of it being used in
mediocre to downright awful gaming experiences.
It all started with the very first laserdisc arcade game, Astron Belt, which was developed
in 1982. It placed live-action footage of spaceships in outer space behind your ship sprite
onscreen. I’ve never played it, and to be honest, it doesn’t look very good. But that’s okay
because the very next laserdisc arcade game not only revolutionized the arcade world as the
first commercially successful interactive movie game, but it also continues to be remembered
as one of the greatest video game landmarks of all time.
I’m talking about the legendary Dragon’s Lair, developed in 1983 and published by
Cinematronics. You might think you have an idea of what it looks like based on its release date,
but you’d be wrong. There are no 8bit sprites here. This is a cartoon FMV, and it is especially
striking the first time you see it because it looks like the Disney cartoons of that era. Actually,
it was headed by the ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, who is most famous for his alternatives to
Disney’s cartoon offerings during the 80s and 90s. Some of his most famous films are The Secret
of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and A Troll in Central
Park. The art style of Dragon’s Lair is identical to those great children’s animated movies.
In this game, Dirk the Daring must rescue the sensual damsel in distress Daphne from the
dragon Singe who has locked her up in the evil wizard Mordroc’s castle. Just your standard
fantasy plot. But the gameplay is like nothing you ever saw before (if you saw it in 1983, that
Dirk cannot be directly controlled. Instead, the player watches him move around the
booby-trapped castle from one enclosed room to the next. Each room has unexpected dangers
that await Dirk, and the only way to save him is to input the correct command at the precise
moment as is needed. A wall of flame to Dirk’s left means you must move him to the right. A
bat lunging at him means it’s time to whip out his sword to hack it to pieces. The whole game is
one quick time event after another.
One unique feature of this game that was lost later on in the evolution of interactive movie
games was the random placement of the character in different rooms. Each time Dirk dies—
which is usually a hilariously morbid cutscene—he is placed in a new room upon being
resurrected. Each room has to be completed before he faces the final challenge of fighting the
dragon Singe, but the sequence of the rooms is randomized each time during gameplay.
The game used randomization to show off the main feature of the laserdisc format—that
games no longer had to follow a sequence of linear events from point A to B and finally to
C. Sometimes, the player just might choose to go from A to C and then go back to B. It was
a revolutionary step in gaming, but it wouldn’t be fully realized until later on when it was
incorporated into adventure games on the PC. Here in Dragon’s Lair, it feels a little too chaotic
and with very little sense of progression.
Don Bluth went on to design two more interactive movie games: Space Ace (1984) and
Dragon’s Lair 2: Time Warp (1991) which had a more linear progression but which still showed
off the laserdisc’s capabilities by having branching paths in the game, kind of like a “choose
your own adventure” book.
In my opinion, these three games show how entertaining quick time events can be when
handled creatively, yet even in these games, there is much room for improvement. For
example, it can be difficult to determine which input will successfully save Dirk’s life.
Oftentimes, paths or doorways are in a diagonal direction, and by the time you decide it’s more
“up” then “right,” Dirk is already dead. Other times, escape routes don’t appear until after your
input, and that’s just sloppy design. In other words, these games were designed for the arcade,
so they gobble up your quarters faster than you can slam them into the slot. Cheap kill tactics
Another problem is that the quick time events in these games are too fast; it is just not humanly
possible to react in time, so the games just become an expensive way to play Simon Says
where through trial and error, you begin to memorize the correct inputs regardless of what is
happening onscreen. The best way to play these games today is as modern ports. I particularly
like the Nintendo Wii port, where you get all three games in one package, and you have the
option to get infinite lives and input directions displayed onscreen. Even with these cheats on,
the games are incredibly difficult, though very humorous and entertaining at the same time.
Later on in the quick time event’s evolution, clear signals appeared onscreen to aid the player in
making the correct input, such as in the game Road Blaster (later ported under the name Road
Avenger). Then players were given the chance to interact using light guns instead of joysticks
and buttons. One particularly infamous example of a light gun QTE game is the awful Mad Dog
By the time the Sega CD came around (first released in 1991 in Japan, 1992 in North America),
interactive movie games were having their last hurrah. Unfortunately, the quality and gameplay
of most of these games more closely resembled Mad Dog McCree rather than Dragon’s Lair.
The video quality was bad, the actors’ performances were cringe-worthy, and overall, the
games were more expensive to produce than they were worth, so developers cut corners that
badly affected the creativity and quality of the games. There were some hidden gems though,
most notably Night Trap, Snatcher, and Revenge of the Ninja.
As more and more crappy QTE games flooded the market, especially in the Sega CD’s library,
the gamers’ outcry got louder and louder (and rightly so). Main criticisms concerned the lack of
interaction by the player and the poor quality of every aspect of these games. The production
value was unacceptable, and the quick time event lost its already-miniscule status in video
However, the legacies of the quick time event and FMVs still live on today. In the development
of video games during that period of time between the 80s and 90s, cutscenes became a major
part of the story-driven gaming experience. Adventure games on the PC, especially point-and-
click adventure games, relied heavily on FMVs as their cutscenes and as transitional actions
between those moments when the player was in direct control. These were usually live-
action videos, and they mostly had cheesy acting and dialogue. But then the medium evolved
to incorporate CGI instead, and suddenly the production value skyrocketed. Modern games
continue to use cutscenes as a way to progress the plot, and it all started with the use of FMVs
But what about quick time events? Are they still around? Yes, actually, they are, and they’re
slowly getting better at being included in other game genres. In the past, they were criticized
as breaking up the flow of a game (which is why back then, they were better off being the only
form of gameplay rather than having a supporting role). However, there were exceptions like
Die Hard Arcade and Shenmue, which famously incorporated quick time events in a satisfying
way. There are niche games like Heavy Rain and Asura’s Wrath which are modern examples
of quick time event games, but for the most part, quick time events play such a small role
in modern games that they are hardly noticeable (which a lot of gamers would say is a good
thing). Modern games like God of War, the Mario & Luigi RPG series, and many FPS games
continue to include QTE in their gameplay for such events like stealth kills, final death blows, or
interacting with key items.
But for the most part, QTE is dead as a primary gameplay style. And that’s too bad. The first
round didn’t go so well, that’s true, but I believe it can make a comeback and win back the
hearts of gamers. Look, point-and-click adventures have made a comeback. The developer
Telltale Games has proven that with their highly-successful and super popular video game The
Walking Dead. Amanita Design is another developer who has had great success, especially with
their Machinarium. And adventure games in general are making a comeback as well. Just look
at Dear Esther, Gone Home, Device 6, and a slew of other indie first-person exploration games.
So why can’t QTE games come back in full force?
I believe there is much more to discover and implement in this game genre. Especially with
virtual reality gaming on the horizon, it’s time for developers to try their hands at QTE gaming
once again. This doesn’t mean just trying the same old tricks as before. Instead, developers
should go back to the source: Dragon’s Lair and its sequels. You gamers too–go back to what
QTE games used to be, fall in love with them again, and discover what new potential they have
in today’s world of gaming. Someday, I hope to see QTE-action resurrected on the Oculus Rift!