Retro – The Legacy: Realm of Terror

By Alec Meer on September 5th, 2008 at 6:20 pm.

It's Indy's dad

A guilty secret. This Microprose RPG was one of the first games I ever bought – not played, but bought, with actual money, in an actual box and everything. I think it was a good year or so after the thing was actually out, but for some reason it caught my eye in the shop and stuck in my head, convincing me to save my pennies and head back a few weeks later to treat myself to it.

Very much a teenager, I was reading a lot of tawdry horror fiction at the time, and though I was yet to have any experience of Lovecraft or Poe, The Legacy‘s haunted gothic mansion setting was enough to grab me on its own.

I didn’t feel I needed to read reviews or seek peer approval – I just wanted a game there and then, and this one featured zombies, other-worldly beasts, creaky doors and guns. I knew nothing about it beyond the back of the box, which, by 1993 standards, featured screenshots beyond my wildest imaginings. Accurate screenshots, but as it turned out their apparent photo-reality was a result of many of Legacy’s sprites being essentially static images. Still, even before I’d played the thing, the game felt like it was somehow mine, because I’d chosen it.

I presume it was a little (or a lot) of the same mentality that drives so many young men towards overly-defensive fandom of Halos and Metal Gears and, to be topical, Warhammers Online these days. I even remember tracking down a review in PC Zone that scored the Legacy 70%-odd, and being mortified. How dare they! This, despite the fact I never finished the thing. Never made it very far at all, in fact, as it was bastard hard, a result of crude controls and unsympathetic design. But it was mine. How dare they.

It was mine, that is, until the day one of its install discs – floppy discs – stopped working. I had to uninstall and reinstall games on my mum’s 486 pretty regularly due to its tiny hard drive. I’d probably installed Legacy a good dozen times by that point, which was doubtless why that disk was knackered. There was nothing I could do about it – I’d had it a few months, so couldn’t return it to the shops, while the manual stated in no uncertain terms that the publisher, the late Microprose, would not replace busted discs. So here comes that guilty secret.

About a year later, desperate for cash, I sold The Legacy on. My mum was flogging a load of stuff at a car boot sale, so I stuck a price tag on the box and sent it along with her. Knowing full well it didn’t work, and whoever bought it was screwed. Oh God. I realised how awful a thing it was that I’d done pretty much as soon as she’d left. Pre-mobile phones, I had no way to contact her, so all I could do was pray no-one actually bought the thing. Inevitably, she returned a few hours later with a crisp fiver for me. I still feel guilty to this day. So, if, by any chance, you’re the poor sap who bought a busted copy of The Legacy: Realm of Terror from a car boot sale in Herefordshire over a decade ago, I’m so sorry.

But what of the game that incited this moral collapse? Is it still notable in this day and age? Is it still, as I remember, worthy of its grandiose subtitle? Well, no. It doesn’t hold up well at all, at least in terms of atmosphere and interface. Conceptually, it remains very appealing. Essentially The Fall of the House of Usher vs Call of Cthulu: The Videogame, it’s a vaguely Ultima Underworldish affair, only setting its roleplaying in something very different to the high fantasy/space opera settings that are so often the limits of the genre today.

The setup? You’re the heir to the estate of a deceased, wealthy relative. The house they’ve left you isn’t exactly homely. “Mood-lighting” is probably the nicest thing you can say about it. When you go visit it, you’re locked in. You have to get out. Monsters and mad relatives don’t want you to get out.

The character selection is neatly done, having you select from a bunch of different newspaper frontpages revealing who the heir to the Winthrop estate is. While you can jump through to statistics (and even alter them), you’re making your choice based on who you want to play as more than what you want to play as. Like Cluedo, but with more mystics and ex-marines. It’s actually a little akin to the way Fallout did character selection a few years later – pre-generated templates with established biographies, but the option to make something entirely custom if you so wished. I pick the ex-marine, as the idea of punching Cthulu in the face is too good to pass up.

The opening hallway, very reminiscent of the first level of the original Resident Evil, confuses me. On the one hand, it’s definitely stirring up fifteen-year-old memories. On the other, what I remember as massive and terrifying is now small, brown and cursed with a very cheesy mwah-ha-ha sound effect. Movement is the cumbersome old mechanic first-person games used to employ before direct keyboard control became the norm – clicking on on-screen directional buttons.

It’s a miserable way to steer yourself, but it’s got one thing going for it. As with Space Hulk, the protracted 90-degree turns add to the menace. Denied any peripheral vision, I have no idea what’s around a corner until I’ve shopping-trolley-steered my way to directly face it. The beasts I encounter aren’t in themselves fearsome, but there’s a vague shock from the simple fact of suddenly seeing something. It’s a slow, quiet game, the monsters few and far between. Just as well, as the combat is as crude as the movement – two pairs of onscreen buttons, one each for your fists and one each for whatever your fists may be holding.

So there I am, punching a zombie in the face by clicking on these two little buttons, dealing out a minute amount of damage per successful thump. The zombie only hits back once every ten seconds or so, but whenever he does he demolishes a good quarter of my health bar. Bloody zombies. Bloody Legacy. Now I remember why I never finished this game – it’s ridiculously hard.

I press on, through wooden door after wooden door, occasionally picking up items and exposition. The Resident Evilness is there throughout, and it’s clear this is survival horror as much as it is an RPG – long before the term even existed, I’d guess.

Every now and then, I lose most of my health bar. Or all of it, which means I have to remember to save often. Old games have such little pity for their frail players. In one room, I plunge suddenly through the floor to a cellar area below. I lose half my health bar. Against one wall of the cellar, there’s a weird blue glow. I should know better really, given this game’s sadistic tendencies, but I stumble into it. Zap! And I’m in another dimension, just like that. It’s hard not to admire Legacy’s excess. It’s crude and confused, but it’s got a portal to another dimension in the basement. More games should have portals to other dimensions in the basement. Trouble is, my weak-minded soldier freaks out about his reckless hopping through time and space, his mental anguish somehow removing another quarter of his severely diminished health. Well, this is no fun.

Forced fear’s an odd mechanism to have in a game. True, it’s something to consider other than the usual health and energy and ammo, and is a potentially ingenious way of ensuring the player doesn’t feel like some detached super-human meathead. At the same time, if what’s scaring the character isn’t remotely unnerving the player, it’s just an annoyance. A beastie jumping out of the darkness I could understand, but I – and thus my character – chose to walk through that blue hole in the wall. So this kind of punishment just feels unfair, like I’m being penalised for having fun. Well, one thing I’m not doing is having fun. Maybe I’m spoilt by modern standards and associated snobbishess, but certainly this revisit to a game from my childhood has turned entirely sour by now.

Wandering through the blue ether, I’m suddenly approached by a two-mouthed Lovecraftian demon thingy. If only I could talk to the monster. But I can’t. I can only punch and punch and punch and punch and punch. It does nothing as I do so, least of all die. Around thirty punches in, it decides to finally take a bite out of me. Just the one. And that’s it. All over. I don’t bother to reload a save game this time, and with a sigh I exit. I had hoped I’d unearth an overlooked classic, but all I found was a peculiarly awkward evolutionary step between text adventures and cRPGs. You shouldn’t always go back.

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37 Comments »

  1. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    I’ve been meaning to play this game for a long time, but while it’s – expectedly – not something that stands the test of time, I still plan on trying it out.

    Forced fear is quite the double edged sword. I’m more supportive of a design that has the player go “did that just happen?” rather than a character going “ohsweetjeebusitshumpingmyleg” and then assuming a fetal position out of respect for whatever bloated interplanetary diety crosses his path. That’s not to say it can’t produce interesting results, but there’s a clear difference between interesting and “stop taking away my control over the character, you twat”.

  2. Psychopomp says:

    For some reason, this made me want to play through Dreamcast horror-action-rpg Illbleed…

  3. InVinoVeritas says:

    So I tracked down a guide for this little gem, and found a passage on your “Lovecraftian Demon”… Apparently they are called Bloodbeasts, are extremely nasty, and should NOT be approached in melee combat. However, keeping one’s distance and shooting/spelling them up works well, as they have no ranged attack. Sounds like the deck has been stacked against Mr. Punchy Marine…

  4. Michael says:

    Awesome, awesome write-up, Alec!

  5. Max says:

    Isn’t Indiana Jones’ father called Henry Jones? Someone else has probably mentioned this already, but nevertheless I thought it was pretty coincidental that he shares his name and appearance with Sean Connery’s character in The Last Crusade.

  6. Citizen Parker says:

    OMG WAR looks NOTHING like The Legacy: Realm of Terror! Clearly you haven’t done enough RVR / PvE / PQ / ABC! Terrible, terrible review of WAR.

    Anyway, I’d always hailed Microprose’s Darklands as having one of my favorite character creation processes of all time, but this sounds downright interesting. It’s a shame we don’t have more experimentation like this these days…

    Great write-up, as always. The experience of buying games because they could be yours rings so true – I’ll always have way too much affection for that old PC gem Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday as a result.

  7. Iain says:

    Excellent review of a game that I’ll never play – brings back memories of many games I bought in my younger days that I held up as great despite the fact that I was incapable of actually making any progress in them (obviously due to the grossly unfair difficulty curve in those days).

    Slightly (if not largely) off topic, but does anyone remember the PC adventure of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” based on the story of the same name by Harlan Ellison? I never played it, but I remember reading reviews at the time – it was never exactly celebrated, but the concepts of the storyline always sounded superior to the gameplay. Which would make sense, given the source material.
    Ok, so long story short – has anyone played it recently, and is it worth it? Especially given how difficult it is to get hold of.

  8. Joe says:

    If you like crude controls and talking to monsters then you should look up Captain Blood. The game I mean. The one where you were a space captain searching planets for lost organs or something.

    Honestly, I may be drunk, but something tells me you’d like it.

  9. Jockie says:

    This is what i love about RPS and Pc gaming specific sites. Reviews and opinions on games lost in the mists of time that have no relevance to anything or anyone, except for a shared love of gaming and the hopeless nostalgia, obsession and hobby-ism (should be a word! damn you firefox spelling checker!) that the PC does best.

  10. Nick says:

    I’d like another good Cthulhu based game. Dark Corners of the Earth was wonderful but no bugger bought it and the company died =(

    It and Anchor Head and.. uh.. some of the Alone in the darks are about the only good ones I can think of.

  11. neoanderthal says:

    @citizen parker: Was that Buck Rogers game made by SSI? I remember having a top-down Buck Rogers RPG *way* back when for my Atari (along with a graphically boring but at-the-time entertaining tactical space game titled “The Cosmic Balance”, also published by SSI). I remember the first time I played Fallout – I was reminded of my experiences with the BR game from days of yore.

  12. Free Xbox 360 Premium says:

    I used to love going to up to game stores and shelling out some dough for a floppy disk game. Those were the days.

  13. Zeus says:

    I love this site. Not only do I get the major news stories, I get to read retrospectives like this.

    I especially dig the not-quite-retro retrospectives, like “I’m still playing so-and-so after a year.” It’s unique, especially when most websites are divided between recent titles and a small “graveyard” section limited to games made before 2000.

    That being said, The Legacy *is* a game made before 2000, and this article still rules. This game has fascinated me since the early 90s. Maybe it’s time to hunt it down on ebay…

  14. rei says:

    Slightly (if not largely) off topic, but does anyone remember the PC adventure of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” based on the story of the same name by Harlan Ellison?

    I played it, but all I can remember is some nazi doctor (Josef Mengele?) cutting up a corpse. Maybe I was the doctor? Never read the short story, and never got very far in the game, but that bit kinda stuck with me.

    I do remember that my games publication of choice at the time lauded it whenever they got the chance.

  15. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    That short story gives me nightmares. ARRGH! etc.

  16. bluewyvern says:

    This definitely sounds like yet another obscure, hard-to-find retro game that I’ll have to keep an eye out for and maybe track down someday. Thanks for the introduction.

  17. weirwood says:

    I bought this game when it came out, but only played it for a bit because my brother’s computer couldn’t run it properly. My first (and only) attempt ended up being pretty much exactly the same as Alec’s.
    I then ended up exchanging it for Eye of the Beholder 3 at the shop, which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t that great a trade.
    i’ve always been wanting to give it another try sometime.

  18. ZeeKat says:

    Nick: Yeah, Dark Corners of the Earth. I bought it and the game nearly went through my window due to awesome concept of “forced fear” and very few savespots. Dark Corners of Frustration, never finished it. Shame, it looked promising.

    (ad topic, I remember Legacy having rather good scores in gaming press back then – though it was Polish gaming press, maybe we had shit taste)

  19. Chis says:

    Hmm, I’ll stick with Realms Of The Haunting, thanks. ;)

  20. Pseudonym says:

    @neoanderthal:
    Yes, the Buck Rogers game was one of the SSI gold box games. Personally, I liked it far more than their D&D themed games too.

  21. Shanucore says:

    Ahh, Realms of the Haunting… I loved that game.

  22. Pod says:

    The most important paragraph of this article is clearly the third! Back inth’day, the only way I had to gauge a game was:
    * A coverdisk demo
    * A big number in a review
    or mostly:
    * Boxart!

    I can’t keep a track of how many rubbish games I bought based purely on the box details. I also got a few gems out of it, like Amiga platformer Benefactor. But by and large they were rubbish games. I still played them as much as I could, however. I didn’t get much pocket money and my Amiga Pirating connections had long since dried up.

    Arguably, the best decision(tm) of my life was made this way. Sure it was a little later and I was a monthly PCG reader by this point, but I wasi still young and foolish. Well WAS young. Anyway: It was my birthday. I’d bought Grim Fandago for it or arranged for it to be bought – whatever. I played the demo and liked it and I was a big, big Monkey Island fan. But the cunt didn’t work. It used to crash right near the start! :( So I took it back to EB, and they asked me if I wanted to get a new box or exchange it for another. Fearing it would just do the same thing and it was all down to my PC being a bit rubbish, I chose the latter…..

    So I stayed at the counter and twirled around in place, hoping to pick out a game. Oddly, the entire shop had signs and posters to the effect of “BUY HALF LIFE!”, and it was right there in front of my one one the shelves… and it was orange, and had an interesting box with lots of nice bullet points (and of course PC Gamer that week had a sexy bright yellow cover (that I learned the other day was a hasty cut-n-paste job-hash up)). So I bought it. Aside from an upgrading to a new PC, that game remained installed for 5 years running. I refused to take it off, especially once I’d had 50 different mods for it… The main reason was that I’d lost my box, somehow, and the CD key inside it. Thankgod for Steam.

  23. Master Builder says:

    You cad, I bought your dysfunctional floppy!

    In lieu of the game, I watched re-runs of Eldorado to recreate the Lovecraftian horror, whilst simultaneously sawing my own legs off.

    An average affair, which left me with serious blood loss and a slightly decreased walking speed.

    5/10

  24. Nick says:

    The fear is Dark Corners of the Earth was pretty cool… especially when you realised your character was scared of heights. I liked it anyway. Only truely bad part was the stealth, I didn’t find the save points frustrating except in the wind tunnels area near the end.

  25. Ozzie says:

    Slightly (if not largely) off topic, but does anyone remember the PC adventure of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” based on the story of the same name by Harlan Ellison?

    I didn’t buy it, but played it half a year ago. Well, I needed a walkthrough a few times, the “choices” you have are irrelevant and you can get into dead ends, though the game always allows you to restart an episode or pick another one. You’ll need some patience, but it certainly is an interesting, unusual, morbis and quite depressing experience.
    Don’t expect a great conclusion, though.

  26. bonuswavepilot says:

    @Iain: I played an Amiga port (I think it was) of “I Have No Mouth…” back in the day. The story had some weird and disturbing elements, and HE himself does the voice of the evil megaputer ‘AM’. Overall though, it was kind of your standard clicky adventure thing. Lot of puzzles which would only admit of trial and error, and I remember at least once or twice getting to ‘dead end’ points, where it becomes obvious that a previous action has knackered you, and you’re going to have to return to an earlier save.

    So, if you like HE’s writing, and bizarre psychogeographical stuff, you’ll probably enjoy the story itself, though the actions you must perform are underwhelming. I remember having to consult a walkthru towards the end, as there was some weird counterintuitive stuff going on (don’t be alarmed if several of the playable characters die in the endgame).

    As for getting hold of it, no sign on abandonware sites? I’m sure I’ve seen it listed in my own travails thereabouts.

  27. RotBot says:

    @Iain: A somethingawful forumite did a complete playthrough of “I Have No Mouth…”
    http://fromearth.net/LetsPlay/I%20Have%20No%20Mouth/
    Reading it is probably a better prospect than playing through the notoriously difficult game.

  28. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Next, I shall expect a Bloodnet retrospective. Terrible pacing, overbloated character system, but quite atmospheric in some moments and not in the “this is so frustrating I feel like kicking it into the atmosphere” (although those are sometimes present).

  29. Master Builder says:

    Speaking of Harlan Ellison, here’s a youtube vid of him talking a bit about ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8yzK7bfVwI&feature=related

    You’re probably not surprised to hear his opinion of computer games (at least at the time) was not very high. Would be interesting to see what he thought of them now.

  30. Pushing the Rules says:

    Just started playing Legacy, works fine in Vista =).

  31. Senor Quack says:

    One of my proudest moments as a 13-year-old was coding a nicely-done Turbo Pascal cheat for this game, allowing you to max-out all character stats and even unlocking a hidden spell I discovered. If you want to make the game more beatable, have a look at some of the folders in the subdirectories. It’s been fifteen years, but I can assure you’ll find flat text files specifying the various characters’ beginning attributes somewhere you can modify easily.

    I really enjoyed this game at the time, creeped the heck outta me. This, Alone in the Dark, and X-COM were my scariest gaming moments in the early 90s. Like you, I never did beat it, finding, some of the later stages too difficult for my teenage brain to solve.

  32. Tim says:

    I just beat the I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream game just last week! I loved the premise and the fact that it is sort of non-linear (you choose any of 5 characters stories to beat, then any of the remaining 4 etc).

    I liked it alot, I have a real interest in books made into games (Pohl’s Gateway), or games continued as books (Mission Critical, Mass Effect) but the game was kinda buggy, and I used a lot of help from the walkthrough. I do highly reccomend it. Harlan does the voice of AM in the game, incase you didn’t know. He’s VERY good at it. HATE. HATE. HATE. HATE.

    And yes, Nimdock’s scenario is the most disturbing (more since I’ve actually been to Auschwitz). He was Mengele’s assistant and you have to do a couple of procedures for him. If you do it right in the game, you get to have revenge

  33. Ciristhan says:

    It’s quite wonderful that you posted this review of The Legacy. It certainly reminds me of my own experiences (I should be around your age) with the game: the excitement to finally get my hands on a horror game, and then the onsetting frustration due to the game’s ridiculous difficulty. I abandoned The Legacy after long hours of futile attempts to dive deeper into the house’s mysteries without getting killed every ten minutes. But alas, the fascination for this title has never left me. Thanks for refreshing a couple of nice childhood memories!

  34. Shaun says:

    Thanks for this retro. I too saved my money, was lured in by the box art and awesome looking screens, to only be crushed when I couldn’t get beyond the museum/sanitarium or first few floors without dying or figuring out what to do. definitely the hardest game ive ever played. I just read another review and for the first time in 15 years or so say the so many levels I never reached. I can’t believe you sold a busted game. In fact, I feel ashamed that you did that by simple association that I had this game too.

  35. thepar says:

    To this day this still remain my favorite game of all time. I downloaded it again the other day and starting playing it it. The thing I love most about it is the story and complexity. I would love to see a remake of this game with modern day graphics. I think frictional games would be a great company for a remake. http://www.frictionalgames.com/forum/thread-12951.html Anyway great review I love this game.