SPELLCASTING 101 REVIEW (PC)
Everyone knows the story about the boy who wants to be a wizard. At first, he leads a lackluster existence, living with uncaring caretakers and sleeping in barely-habitable quarters. His circumstances vastly improve when he makes his way to a school for blossoming spellcasters, where all the teachers have funny names and the students play some fictional sport loosely influenced by real world ones. It isn’t long before our hero discovers sinister forces are afoot and finds out that he has long been destined for greater things.
That hero, of course, was Ernie Eaglebeak. The year was 1990, the game was Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, and the author was Steve Meretzky– although this plot was doomed to be ripped off by hack authors for years to come.
Writing about Spellcasting 101 is actually pretty hard for me since there’s a strong desire to jump right into its technological advances and how it relates to specific other IF games, but I’ll fight to save the “IF nerd talk” stuff to the end. Just the same, let’s start this off with some history.
Anyone familiar with Infocom knows that Steve Meretzky is the brain behind several of their most beloved titles, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (co-written with Douglas Adams), and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. He also wrote Zork Zero, Stationfall, and Sorcerer, which were more divisive among fans.
It’s interesting to see elements from the above influence Spellcasting 101. S101 has Zork Zero’s silly names, Sorcerer’s spellcasting, and it has LGOP’s naughtiness modes. In fact, in NAUGHTY mode, it’s a lot more explicit than LGOP ever was. Of course, explicit doesn’t necessarily mean erotic, and as one would expect, all love-making scenes have a comedic bent. For the most part, I kind of regret not playing the game in NICE mode since some of the sex substitutes (like washing dishes) sound entertainingly zany. Just the same, there was one shining moment where the combination of a time manipulation puzzle and fornication resulted in an especially brilliant bit of prose.
Let’s get to the game itself and come back to comparisons later. First off, not all of the writing is up to the level that I’d expect from an Infocom alum. For whatever reason, I hate the cadence of the introductory text so much; there’s just something off about it. This is an intro which should be AWESOME since the game starts with a predicament with three (count em, three!) possible solutions and a strong sense of motivation. This is followed right away by a puzzle with two solutions (although the easier of the two is nonsensical and unsatisfying and is only easy because it is handed to you on a platter after your first failure). Not a bad way to start a game.
This is followed by some copy protection questions. This made me dig through my “Lost Adventures of Legend” material, and I’ll tell you this- avoid the text files that are in the game directories, as they are more spoiler-y than helpful (telling you about spells you don’t have yet and more of the overall plot arc than you need to know).
Anyhow, soon after that, I was a registered student at Spellcasting U, and things started to get rolling. I went to my classes. I went to frat parties. I ditched Phys Ed. Life was good. In the dormitory, there were even some pen-and-paper RPGers playing an unending game of “Malls and Muggers” which, for whatever reason, reminded me of Robb Sherwin’s Necrotic Drift.
What’s nice about this section of the game is that, in retrospect, sitting in on classes isn’t quite as important as you think it’d be, and there’s just enough time in between to pick and peck at the campus for problems to solve. Then there’s the Big Plot Twist and it’s not long before Ernie is map-trotting, ostensibly to collect magical parts to something called “the Sorcerer’s Appliance.”
Each destination has a different theme to it. Fans of wordplay and Nord & Bert Couldn’t Make Head Nor Tail Of It will enjoy the first stop, where inhabitants have been turned into physical manifestations of their names broken down into chunks, so a small insect atop another object might be a fellow name Anton (“ant on”). This section is initially cute, but there’s like 80 inhabitants and you gotta collect them all. It doesn’t help that some of the names are firmly rooted in the 70s. Luckily, just waiting causes fairies to appear that just shout answers at you, but it can take days (in in-game time) to get through this part and that hindered my enjoyment.
I have mixed thoughts about the whole map-trotting section of the game. Puzzle-wise, things are straightforward enough, and while it took some leaps of intuition and logic, I always found the next place I was supposed to be easy enough. Still, as far as the plot/motivation goes, I thought this section could have been a bit stronger, especially since the objects you are collecting turn out to not be at any of these places.
The endgame breaks out some slightly annoying puzzles, but given the general low difficulty level of the game, it didn’t wear out my patience. All in all, I did end up enjoying the game a good deal more than I expected, considering how hard it’s been for me to play past that introduction. All in all, it was a fun time.
Legend games have their own special interface. Besides the graphics window, there are two columns to the left. The first has a scrollable list of all verbs supported in the game. The second has a list of all objects within scope. There’s also a clickable compass rose. You can also opt to turn off several of these features for a surprising amount of possible combinations.
It only occurred to me while playing S101 that the Legend Entertainment interface is the spiritual successor to Infocom’s z6 games. Z6 was a version of the z-machine that allowed graphics and multiple windows, all mouse-click-able; it was used in later Infocom games like Journey and Shogun. Bob Bates, one of S101’s “system architects”, was working on one of the last-known z6 games in production, an adaptation of James Cameron’s The Abyss, when Infocom either was sold or finally shut down (I didn’t look up the exact chronology for this review).
So, even if it took me a while to recognize it, it is cool to see the z6 dream live on. Of course, in pursuing graphics and windows and things, Legend abandoned portable standards like the z-machine and opted for games hard-coded into executables, making life much harder for SCUMMvm gaming historians today. Maybe that dream (the z6 dream) had to die for a while (and is only being resurrected now by Inform extensions like Vorple).
I also have to admit that by the end of the game, I started training myself to not look at the objects-in-the-room column (and eventually remembered to turn it off) just because I found it disconcerting to have objects pointed out to me before I noticed them in the text, especially because a lot of these objects didn’t stand out in the text because they just weren’t important.
The Infocom z6 games’ command columns have the benefit of being efficient, but that takes a good eye for design and hand-coding. The Legend approach is more casual, going for something that could possibly be auto-generated (I don’t know if they actually were), where almost every possible verb is accounted for. It can be a bit much.
Oh, and before I forget, the music. Yes, Spellcasting 101 also had sound effects and music. I have to say I hated most of the music; there were only a couple songs I did not hate, but most of the rest of the game had either silence (which there is a lot of, as songs are pretty short) or had songs that made me wish they were silent.
Abandoning the “carryall”/”bag of holding” (objects that let you carry as much as you need) route, S101 has no player inventory limit at all. I think this is common among Legend games. Sort of interesting to see ex-Infocom Imps go this way. All of these things can be seen as a strong effort to take the hassle out of text games. While S101 has timed sequences (the beginning scene and a couple other places) and keeps track of days and time, there’s no overall harsh deadline looming over the player’s head like you’d see in earlier commercial games. Even more interestingly, in the college-life segment of the game, the usage of time and days is mainly used to give a sense of momentum and realism to the environment. It is not the delicate dance of being-in-the-right-place-in-the-right-time that you’d expect from a game like Deadline or The Witness.
It’s just great to see Infocom people rebel against Infocom game expectations. For more than a dozen years now, the IF community has been trying to out-design Infocom (and several would say we’ve long succeeded, even if I’m a little more torn about it), so it’s especially fun to see Infocom guys try to out-design Infocom. I feel like if I keep playing through the Legend library, I’m bound to learn a lesson or two about the craft. Interactive Fiction 101, we’ll call it.
Read the full game transcript over at Roody’s Old-School Transcripts:
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