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Irrelevant review: Shadow of the Comet - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Irrelevant review: Shadow of the Comet
So last Friday after the Home and Garden show where I bought a fancy ribbed plate that can turn garlic into paste, plonq mentioned how he missed the music from a computer game he had once played on an Amiga. Mentioning stuff like this to me is dangerous, because (1) I like trying to track geeky things down, and (2) I like reuniting friends with obscure media.

Unfortunately, he could remember almost no details about the game. He only played it for a few minutes. The game itself was underwhelming, so the music stood out. He can't remember the name except that it was pretty generic; there were stupid "you're dead" traps, and there was a scientist and a planet-threatening comet or meteor. So I did my research, fired up the emulator, swore liberally at the emulator's weird keyboard and mouse-mapping, asked around on an Amiga forum, and then gave up.

Mind you, there are a surprising number of Amiga games involving planet-threatening comets or meteors. Terramex, Maniac Mansion, Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, Ambermoon, It Came From the Desert... I was impressed by small details of programming complexity in Damocles: Mercenary II.

And then I got to playing Shadow of the Comet again. It's a PC adventure game from 1994 based on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos.

So those of you who read my posts know that I love adventure games. None of my friends want to try 'em, usually because there'll be a puzzle for which the solution was annoying or made no sense. Sadly, I must agree with this. (Another problem is limited repeated gameplay.) But when I watch friends play games on their Sony Playstation, I never see the level of narrative I get from adventure games. Sometimes the atmosphere and attention to location detail is there. But when I play a game, I want story, not to blow things up. I want to explore, not challenge my hand-held controller skills. Nothing much offers what I want anymore.

But yeah, those puzzles can be so damn... stupid. Old Man Murray's NSFW Who killed adventure games? justly castigated bad puzzle design, aptly describing the frustration of "spending six hours trying to randomly guess at the absurd dream logic [of Sierra's] Roberta Williams". And it makes me reflect, when I was younger and the Internet and walkthroughs weren't generally available, I had a lot more patience for solving game puzzles. Colossal Cave Adventure took me over a year to finish. Now - pffft. My attention span and patience in games is gone. Am I stuck? Yes? Am I going to try every item in my inventory everywhere? Am I going to re-explore every location I've been through once already? Hell no - Walkthrough, here I come!

Where was I... oh yeah, Shadow of the Comet. Good story. Excellent atmosphere. Bad puzzle design.

It's like... arrgh. You're supposed to stop Cthulhu from returning, but you're barely given any instructions. Some clues end up in your diary. Some clues are mentioned cryptically in conversations that don't get repeated. And most clues aren't enough to help anyway. (I'm about to rant; skip it and I've got graphics and sound at the end.)

Oh game, how do you frustrate me? Why am I in this underground maze filled with death traps and too-well-hidden secret doors? Because I need to rescue four statues to defeat four occult families? Great. Don't bother explaining the chants and use of the statues I need to pull it off, by the way.

I took a fish out of a garbage can. Oh wait, I was supposed to use it on the hotspot in the middle of the room's floor? The hotspot that was never indicated in any way? And hey, how was I supposed to know there was a secret compartment under a bit of floor in the old fishing shack? It's not like it was brought to my attention or anything. And hey, I'm trying to close a mystical portal here. How was I supposed to know I had to pour acid on the ground to find an important gemstone?

Dear game: Please don't tell me that I'll learn the secrets I need to know by visiting the lighthouse. It just has guys that want to kill me there, and they don't tell me anything. And then you expect me to figure out I can escape using a candle, a magnifying glass, another not-mentioned-floor-hotspot, and a bunch of feathers? That I would seriously think, "Hey, I can glide like Icarus down from here, I'm sure the feathers will hold my weight"? That it'll help me meet the gypsies' dancing bear and fortune teller, and that *she's* the one I get the secrets from? She wasn't anywhere NEAR the lighthouse. F--- you, game.

Dear walkthrough writers: I have eight chemicals. I have to use four of them in a specific order. The game has no hints. Don't tell me to use sodium thiosulphate when it's called "benzene chlorate" in my inventory. Dear game: When something in my inventory is called "chromogenous" and I pour it on something, please don't suddenly refer to it as "potash metabisulfite" instead. Also, don't expect me to know what "naphtha" is if it's something important. If you expect me to use it in an oil lamp or set it on fire, call it "oil".

Ranting aside, the atmosphere in the game was spot-on. This is your player character:

And this is the suspicious-looking mayor of the small New England town you go to visit. Right off the bat, you get the feeling you can't trust anyone even in the most seemingly innocent of conversations.

Earnest and strange local scholars. It's obvious they used photographs as a base, but they used it to good effect.

Wheelchair-bound investigators of the occult.

House photographs were also used. It worked, it really added to the town's atmosphere.

A photo you took of the stars that makes you pass out briefly from madness. The glass plate smashes of course, leaving you without proof.

An evil, immortal local fisherman who lives in a crypt and sacrificed his own wife Lavinia to Dagon in exchange for power. (One of his sons, who refused to follow him in his evil ways, has webbed hands.) You know, pixel art is a real talent. These graphics were in 320 x 200 windows with limited colour palettes. Look at the details in some of the images above, the desk lamp, the typewriter, the purple dragon thing on the filing cabinet - it's an under-appreciated skill.

The fate of the mayor.

The final three are all from the endgame. Serious wtf-puzzles with almost no hints given at all.

And finally, I'll share the two main musical sequences (Music1, Music2). Tense, oddly foreboding, not giving you a feeling of being well-settled at all - something's afoot, you're not going to like it, and you can't sit around. Oh yeah, this game had the Cthulhu atmosphere just right! If only they hadn't made it so next-to-impossible to figure out.

2 comments or Leave a comment
boinggoat From: boinggoat Date: April 12th, 2008 02:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Ahh, adventure games. I used to love them. They really showed off a computer's graphics back when graphics were primitive. But yes, some of those puzzles were just stupid.
Granted, when they went to a mouse-driven interface they became click-randomly-and-you'll-solve-it games, but the text parsers could turn into retarded guessing games.
I remember one time I was showing space quest I to a friend. This was after I'd already solved it. I got stuck in the home of the underground people (that give you the skimmer). I KNEW I was supposed to put the data cartridge in the slot for their computer, to learn about the stellar converter the sariens had stolen...but I couldn't. Do. It. I spent about an hour doing this:
"put cartridge in slot"
"put cartridge in the slot"
"put cartridge into slot"
"put cartridge into the slot"
"put the cartridge into the slot"
"put the cartridge in the slot"
"put data cartridge into the slot"
"shove data cartridge into the slot"
"push data cartridge into the slot"
"place cartridge into slot"
"shove the goddamn cartridge into the stupid slot"
"fuck the slot with th cartridge"
"use the cartridge with the slot
"use the data cartridge in the slot"
"use the data cartridge into the slot"
"french kiss slot until my mouth fries"

The verb I'd been looking for was 'insert'.
dronon From: dronon Date: April 12th, 2008 08:14 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh geez. And before then, instruction manuals for text adventures would provide a list of all the verbs (or most of them) in block capital letters.
2 comments or Leave a comment