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