Wolf Like Me: Knight Lore

By Kieron Gillen on May 14th, 2010 at 2:38 pm.

Bless Sabrewulf.

When I was over at Retro Remakes earlier linking to Dracula Cha Cha, I noticed Peter Hanratty has recently completed his remake of Ultimate’s classic spectrum game Knightlore. It’s a straight rework, with new-style visuals, and you can get it from here. It is absolutely Knight Lore. As in, an undeniably all-time-classic that’s close to unplayable today. Which is interesting, and a few thoughts on that below…

Knight Lore’s importance can’t be overstated. In terms of the Brit industry in the 1980s, in terms of impact on how people approached and thought about games… well, only “Elite” sort of looms larger. While it wasn’t the first Isometric game – Q-Bert and Zaxxon in the arcades and 3D Ant Attack on the Spectrum precede it – it was the first Isometric game which worked like this. Rather than simple arcade games, you had a full on action-adventure world. It was a place you could explore. The quest was simple – collect items, drop in a cauldron and gain the cure to the curse you labour under. But the fact the world actually looked solid – not awkward-use-your-imagination-wireframes or flat-screens – changes that entirely. Enormously innovative, incredibly atmospheric and totally unplayable.

Some really old classic games are unplayable now because they’re simply too slow, with treacly awkward control systems which have been long since superseded. Knight Lore is a little stiff, sure, but you can wrestle with it. It’s not that it’s been superseeded technically. It’s that it’s been superseeded in terms of style. It’s an arcade-adventure. That’s a perennial. The problem is that it’s incredibly, awesomely difficult. Playing now, I managed to lose all five of my lives in the first thirteen seconds. The problem is the perennial one of isometric adventures – working out positioning and how far jumps will go, and what you’ll hit. There’s no give in the control. Hitting a pixel of a block will stop you. And if you miss, you die. And if you die, you lose one of your five lives. Variety is added by you starting in a randomised position each time, but it’s genuinely brutal.

It’s actually interesting in how, when forcing gamers to wrestle with a whole new way of playing games, it throws a curve-ball. You’re a werewolf – the aforementioned curse – and as such as the day-night cycle progresses, you change from wolf to man. During the change, you stand warping shape for a good couple of seconds. So when players would be getting used to the whole isometric adventure thing, the Stamper Brothers also expected you to keep an eye on a short-length timer which would almost certainly lead to you losing a life if you tried anything near it. Oh – and not the only timer either. If you don’t complete the game in 40 days, it’s game over. The amount of faith they have in a gamer being willing to suffer this is almost heartwarming.

This is how games were made, is what I take away from it.

Of course, there’s a spin on this away from “Oh, Old Games Actually Were Shit”. Ritman’s Head Over Heels, turning up three years later, shows how the ideas of Knight Lore – and the difficulty – could be harnessed into something that’s still challenging (and totally compulsive) today. That’s the core thing in retro stuff for me – looking at what works now, and what doesn’t.

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96 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    Hmm, since Rare/Ultimate are quite precious about their IP (on the World of Spectrum website, one of the few games you cannot download are theirs), could this be hit with a cease and desist?

    P.

    • Wulf says:

      I hope not, that would be so horrible of them. That’s what I can’t understand about a lot of crazy, frothing publishers who slap around cease and desists though, instead of doing that, why not just work with the developer to turn it into something saleable with split profits? I mean, I wouldn’t mind paying a small amount for a Knight Lore remake.

    • GT3000 says:

      Cease and desists usually come at a time when the original IP holders have plans for the baby much like when that Generals mod for Halo got smashed to pieces by MS and Halo Wars followed in the wake. Other people are jealously guarding what’s theirs which is understandable. You know by now that the consumer was made to be abused. Shame on you, boy.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      The IP is now owned by Microsoft I think. Which may be a problem. Their purchase of Rare (who had purchased Ultimate) wasn’t particularly cheap.

      Most of the problems with WoS list of games flagged as “Distribution Denied” has however to do with the difficulty to get an hold on the IP holders. Then it is getting a reply from them. The website flags anything as Distribution Denied by default if they can’t get a clearly positive answer. But there’s plenty of other remakes of old speccy games out there and with the exception of a Dizzy game (if memory serves me right) some 10 years ago, I haven’t seen anyone being taken down so far.

  2. Lobotomist says:

    Yea! Knight lore!

    Spectrum <3

  3. Risingson says:

    Knight Lore, being Knight Lore, is still way more playable than Underwurlde and many more “videoadventures” of that time.

  4. Bascule42 says:

    …was never any good at this game when I had for the Speccy…and I’m still crap at it now. (Am playing manic miner instead).

  5. Risingson says:

    I only answered that? C’mon, Risingson, this is a topic that you love a lot: how the 8-bit era is kept in nostalgia in such way that when you talk to people about some games being shit, you face an inmediate public harassment.

    That’s the great thing about emulators, really. Seing how games evolved, how they matured, how genres were created, splitted and merged again, and how some things, as you said, still work while other don’t. Some Ultimate games still are very fun, like Jet Pac (great fun in the bus going to work), but others like Sabre Wulf or Alien8 are just impossible.

    This happens a lot with games of my oh dear country, Spain. A country I’m very proud of and which I love a lot, but, sorry, was terrible at 8-bit games. Dinamic, the most hyped company of them all, managed to make poor games and disguised them as something better (Nonamed, Sgryzam, Army Moves), made also mediocre games saved by their atmosphere (the too difficult Phantomas games), and a very few really good ones that are mostly forgotten (the second part of Freddy Harvest, Game Over). Opera had also some hits (Goody), but their most remembered game, “La abadía del Crimen”, is just some kind of awful and absolutely unplayable when many other games were better at the time – or before – in that kind of isometric adventure.

    I still prefer efforts from some british companies like Graftgold or Hewson, whose games are still very very fun nowadays (ZX Spectrum’s “Soldier Of Fortune” is still one of my favourite platformers), and more subdue games, not as ambicious, that you always remember as being fun, as the Costa Panayi games. Oh, the nostalgia, sorry, I’m having an attack of this.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Risingson: If we want to talk hard games, we should talk Dynamix. Fucking hell.

      KG

    • Cinnamon says:

      Army Moves was a brutal game, definitely would be called masocore these days. Contra/Gryzor had nothing on it.

      I enjoyed Dustin which was on a Your Sinclair cover tape and definitely remember those Game Over adverts. Remember the ads better than the actual game for some reason.

    • Simonkey75 says:

      Recently tried playing Cybernoid on the Spectrum again, and that is brutal. Were we all masochists as children? Now, if I can’t get through a section of a game in two attempts, the disc’s out of the machine and across the room before you can say “Last Ninja was a bastard as well”.

      Thoroughly agree with you on Head Over Heels, though, Mr. Gillen – was playing it only yesterday and it remains an absolutely superb game, stuffed full of of inventiveness, wit and sheer stonking gameplay.

    • GameOverMan says:

      Hi, Risingson, fellow countryman ;-) I agree with you, those games are considered the golden age of spanish software, but I think a good number of them weren’t as good as the media claimed them to be. Perhaps I was more biased since I owned a Commodore 128 and had to endure some crappy ports, however I played most of them eventually (using a Spectrum emulator) and I didn’t change my mind. There were some jewels, very good games, but IMHO they were the exception, not the rule.

    • LaundroMat says:

      I distinctly remember a great Spanish game on the CPC: a left to right side scroller, in space, with a relatively large player character shooting running around on a planet’s surface… I thought it was called Equinox (but I looked it up, and it wasn’t), but it was definitely named similarly.

      I can sing the title tune, but that would be a bit silly…

    • GameOverMan says:

      A relatively large character running on a planet’s surface… Freddy Hardest, perhaps. Its name doesn’t sound similar to Equinox, though.

  6. Wulf says:

    Allow me to say just this: WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

    *downloads.*

    Werewolves and Spectrum nostalgia, could one ask for more?

  7. Red Avatar says:

    For me, I always enjoyed games taking a while to get the hang of if they were worth it. Any game which could be figured out immediately usually had a short life span to me. As long as the game is fair and doesn’t make you die in unfair ways, then I don’t mind old games at all. In fact, I still enjoy playing the old Dizzy games.

    • jonfitt says:

      If the Dizzy games were all remade so they were all slightly better looking than the Amiga/AtariST versions of the later games, and the jumping was made more forgiving, I would buy them.

      I remember nudging that little egg to the exact right pixel to make a jump over an off-screen insta-death torch in Fantasy World about a bazillion times. It had to be pixel perfect, and you had to do that same jump multiple times during the game.

      I just don’t have that patience any more.

    • Wulf says:

      Dizzy has had a resurgence of sort, with Clover: A Curious Tale, which is an absolutely lovely thing (with a story which is fully voice-acted) that I recommend anyone check out. And it’s quite forgiving compared to Dizzy, so it’s Dizzy for the older generation, where we’re not stupid kids any more and we won’t continue playing if we’re limited to three lives and have to start the game over if we lose ‘em. Yep, Clover recognises this, so it’s all that was great about Dizzy gameplay with none of the frustration.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      Magic Knight > Dizzy

      FACT

    • Wulf says:

      Sapient egg with boxing gloves > Fat bloke in a suit of armour.

      OPINION.

      >.>

    • RobF says:

      Magic Knight with the exception of Stormbringer which had some utterly horrid flaws and by then, the series was heading into the realms of really obtuse solutions if I remember right.

  8. BooleanBob says:

    “You’re saying Minibosses practice is more important than me perfecting Zaxxon?!?”

  9. Huggster says:

    Its quite scary that the rooms shown in the screen shots I still remember. Same with Alien 8 I would think.
    Fairlight was one I recall being interesting.

    Rock hard games continued for some time as well, I recall, onto Amiga and ST (Rick Dangerous was simply depressing). Cadaver? Dizzy was extremely harsh. Penertrator?
    A very old speccy game called “Mined Out” was literly impossible to complete, as on the last level the mines did not show up on the warning scanner and there was only 1 or about 4 random options to the goal. Always annoyed we never completed it.

    • Huggster says:

      All this isometric goodness makes me pine for Magic & Mayhem by the Gollops. *sigh*

    • Huggster says:

      and “Lords of Chaos”

    • jonfitt says:

      I persevered and actually got quite far in Rick Dangerous back in the day.
      I’ve had a quick look and yes it is still ridiculously difficult with traps you can only know about if you’ve died on them before.
      http://rickdangerousflash.free.fr/
      Turns out I can still do the starting boulder section from muscle memory!

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Yeah – thing with Rick wasn’t that it was hard. It was unfair. Sabrewolf isn’t as unfair as Rick.

      KG

    • Adam Dawes says:

      @Huggster, You can find the remake of Alien 8 (and screenshots for you to try to remember) here: http://retrospec.sgn.net/game/alien8

      Sadly I don’t think you’ll be seeing a Retrospec remake of Fairlight. Such a remake was in development but things got complicated with the copyright holders and so the remake was shelved. Pity, it was looking very interesting.

    • RobF says:

      By complicated, Adam means “Langdelled”, natch.

    • BonusWavePilot says:

      @Huggster: My auditory memory of Rick Dangerous, expressed in the medium of text;
      “Waaaaaaaah!”

    • BonusWavePilot says:

      @Huggster: dammit. That was s’posed to be:
      *Sproing!* “Waaaaaah!”
      (Note: stuff inside angle brackets is interpreted as HTML and ignored. Do not use them for sound effect delineation.)

    • jonfitt says:

      Rick does have something over Dizzy in that Rick can change jump direction in mid-flight. That allows you to correct your approach and even abort jumps. Once Dizzy commits to jumping his path is inevitable.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bozzley says:

      Forgive my blissful ignorance, but wasn’t Cadaver by the Bitmap Brothers the same as Knight Lore? Apart from the 16-bit graphics and the loaves of bread?

    • Huggster says:

      Yes, Rick certainly was unfair.
      Also the “certain death egg-roll” which Dizzy makes and you just know its certain death makes you scream (“You STUPID little egg! Just STOP!!)
      Also the “Waaaaah” from Rick Dangerous still brings back extreme anger to this day!! Who says computer games don’t make you psychopathic?
      Off to try those remakes now.

  10. Dominic White says:

    While those screenshots do look lovely, this’ll have to do a really bang-up job to be as good as the Head Over Heels remake from a few years back.

    http://retrospec.sgn.net/games/hoh/ – or is it by the same people? I haven’t checked the credits yet.

  11. Cinnamon says:

    Never really liked Knight Lore to be honest as I had no idea what was going on and found the controls frustrating. Preferred their 2d games like Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf.

    I think that Ant Attack should also get credit for doing isometric graphics.

  12. Jeremy says:

    “It’s not that it’s been superseeded technically. It’s that it’s been superseeded in terms of style.”

    Superseeding is what bittorrent sharers do. ‘superceding’ is what newer things do to older things. Sorry, but that’s all I have to contribute.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Flimgoblin says:

    Never got into Knight Lore, but I played Head over Heels to death… superb game but horribly irritating with pixel perfect jumps…

  14. Irish Al says:

    Wasn’t Bugaboo The Flea of Spanish parentage? That was quite good.

    • Risingson says:

      That one was from the people at Investronica, I think. They only made two (really good) games: this one and Fred.

    • Risingson says:

      I mean, their only games in that company (sorry, Invescomp… namely a group that depended on that huge spanish corporation called el corte ingles). They were later Opera and Made In Spain.

    • Risingson says:

      Third typo! Now, at 32, I’ve just discovered that it was INDEScomp, and didn’t have to do anything with Inves. Anyway.

    • Mungrul says:

      Bugaboo the Flea was completely sodding TERRIFYING.

  15. jonfitt says:

    I wonder how much of the pixel perfect jumping that was required in older games was a design choice to make the game difficult, or a limitation of the software.
    Adding in flexibility is definitely more work than not, and often these guys were butting up against the limits of memory.

    • bill says:

      I think in many games it was a way to make them longer. If most of those games were as easy as games now we’d have blown through them in about 10 minutes. There wasn’t enough memory to store much content, so they had to get you to replay that as many times as possible to get your money’s worth.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Having done my share of Z80 programming, I can say it was a bit of both.

      For one, there’s less instructions involved in a fixed movement scale. Character jumps always being the same distance requires much less instructions and there’s no need to store data either. And instructions take memory space. And memory space was at premium on these machines.

      So the limitation was more or less real, which designers would then use to be a part of the game design; indeed, as you say, mostly to add a level of difficulty, I would assume.

      Some games were more extreme than others. Dynamite Dan was a feast on pixel accurate jumps, as was Jet Set Willy or Manic Miner. Monty Mole, Chuckie Egg, or Bounty Bob Strikes Back were more forgiving alternating between pixel accurate and less accurate gameplay with an emphasis on less accurate.

      I seem to think the game that better mastered this conundrum (almost all games for the spectrum had fixed movement rates), was Nodes of Yesod. It required almost no pixel accurate positioning on behalf of the player. With the constant spawning of critters floating around and the need to jump from game screen to game screen, the difficulty of the game was served. Nodes of Yesod gave you a feeling of freedom of movement. But it was in fact just another fixed movement rate game. Just very well hidden because you only rarely would feel the need to position yourself perfectly.

  16. Ginger Yellow says:

    I probably spent more time playing Sabre Wulf (sort of a 2D Knight Lore) on my BBC than any game other than Elite. Never got very far, though.

  17. Mr_Day says:

    Ah, I love Retrospec. Can I give a quick “you should all play Klass of 99″?

  18. Thirith says:

    Head over Heels was one of those games I never got. I’d manage to get about 4-5 screens into it, and then I’d be stumped. Never knew whether that was because I got it as a cracked version and didn’t have a manual, or whether I was just a stupid little kid. Or both.

  19. Jimbo says:

    These screenshots make me want to play HeroQuest.

  20. clive dunn says:

    Underwurlde occupies a special place in my memories as i had a copy of my friends tape which only worked twice before no amount of azimuth tweaking could get it working again. The weeks turned into months turned into years and still i wished that that tape worked. Occasionally i would try it again on different tape recorders; sometimes it would get nearly all the way loaded but it never did. I’m still sad about it 20 odd years later. I know i could get an emulator and play it but that’s not the point. I wanted that tape to load. It was so close.
    Anyone else have games in the affections that they couldn’t actually play?

    • Adam says:

      Many… One I remember in particular was a Speccy games compilation I got one Christmas called Select 1 (http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0011349). I enjoyed it for a couple of weeks before my brother spilled orange juice all over the cassette, and it never worked again. For many days I sat and looked longingly at the cassette box, knowing that the tape within would never screech its loading noises ever again.

  21. Peter Hanratty says:

    I like you :)

  22. Mac says:

    Ultimate: play the game used to equal instal-buy!

  23. bobince says:

    What I liked about Abadía (and Dustin, which I’d forgotten about, plus Great Escape/Where Time Stood Still) is that it gave you a realtively open world and let (made) you work out the rules without any hand-holding. I never got very far in any of these games, but I enjoyed not knowing what I was doing.

    More recently, Ice Pick Lodge’s game have given me the same feeling, though of course the internet has taken the edge off the mystery.

    The more gratuitous difficulty of Army Moves et al I could never enjoy.

    • bobince says:

      [gah. reply to risingson]

    • Risingson says:

      I read you, I read you. I actually have more appreciation for The Great Escape, which made all right and didn’t have glitches like the infamous “I order you to follow me” (or whatever was the translation into english).

  24. Fitz says:

    Brilliant. Now all I need is a USB Kempston Competition Pro joystick.

    • Mr_Day says:

      Good lord. That’s a lot more tempting than it should be.

    • Wulf says:

      I actually own one of those, I rarely use it because the stick is microswitched, so it’s a real bastard to try to move in any direction. Incredibly stiff, then. I played Hurrican with it for a bit and ended up with wrist-ache, and I’m rather glad we have pads, these days. But I’m also glad that I have that stick. It sits in my room like an icon of simpler times, proud and dignified, and probably deserving of its place near all the other things I have on display (such as my Country Artists wolf figurines, which I am perpetually in love with).

    • Wulf says:

      Mine’s black though, and not see through, so it looks less tacky.

      Let’s see if I can’t find it…

      http://amigakit.us/catalog/images/competition-pro-usb.jpg

      There we go.

    • Wulf says:

      In fact, you know what I miss? The edit function and those Kempston Formula 1/2 joysticks.

      I’d love to have a USB version of one of those.

  25. Arnulf says:

    The description given could almost perfectly fit to Cadaver which I played on my parents’ Amiga. I finished the first one, but couldn’t get through the extension, which was even harder than the original game.

  26. itsallcrap says:

    Wow, it seems everyone who comes here had a speccy. Makes me feel much less old.

    Anyone remember a Batman game that was just like Knight Lore only shit?

    • HarbourMaster says:

      I did not have a Spectrum. I HAD AN ATARI 800 WITH MORE THAN 15 COLOURS. Hey, can we start all those insane my machine is better than your machine fights we used to have at school?

      No one ever has fights like that these days, yeah, consoles and PCs live in harmony, like ebony and ivory.

    • Stu says:

      No, I don’t remember that Batman game. I do remember the one by Ritman & Drummond (the men behind Head Over Heels) that was like Knight Lore but NOT KEYBOARD-PUNCHINGLY FRUSTRATING, and therefore ACE.

    • pilouuuu says:

      I remember playing Batman on my MSX! I simply loved the isometric graphics as I never saw something like that before and it was cool collecting objects and special powers. It was for me one of the best games based on a franchise from a long time… And it’s the best Batman game until Arkham Asylum showed up IMHO. Great classic stuff!

    • LaundroMat says:

      Yes I do – I played it on my CPC 6128. It even was available for that Amstrad CP/M based morword-processor-than–computer thing (the Amstrad PCW series).

    • bill says:

      The speccy was frustration incarnate. The fact I had to wait 20 minutes to load a game, watching it count down from 1000, and usually having it crash at 003. And how I had to twiddle with the connection to the tape deck 20 times to even get that far.

      Ghostbusters was rather frustrating, you had to estimate by eye if you were going to cross the streams, and at that time I could never get it right.

      The Living daylights was frustrating, controlling a black target to try to shoot black-enemies popping up from a black background. I don’t think I ever made it past the first level.

      But the ultimate was Airwolf. Take off. Crash. Take off. Crash. Take off, make it to the second screen. Try to shoot your way through a fast replenishing force field in a copter that can’t hover. crash.
      Never ever made it past that first force field. Never even got as far as an enemy.

  27. GreatUncleBaal says:

    Now I think back, I seemed to have a lot of these bastard hard isometric games – not that I was ever particularly good at them. Worse than Knight Lore, however, was Rasputin (although I’ve just looked it up and am slightly surprised to find it’s not proper isometric 3D like I thought). Nightshade was another odd one, I seem to remember you fired antibodies or germs (or something similar) at ghosts.
    Replaying Knight Lore again now, I am amazed I made it through childhood without having some sort of rage-induced stroke.

  28. Hope says:

    I hope that the title of this article is a reference to good ol’ Dead Like Me?

  29. LD says:

    now that we got gone for good
    writhing under your riding hood
    tell your gra’ma and your mama too
    it’s true
    we’re howling forever

    do i win a prize?

    also K.W.K

  30. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    “Sabrewulf” is the only Ultimate game I hold dear, mainly because (a) it wasn’t too hard that I couldnt’ get past a few screens before rage-quitting and (b) I remember making an intricate map of the game made from what seemed like 4-dozen school notebook pages sellotape together.

    Great days, great days.

    P.

  31. Kurt Lennon says:

    I shudder to think how many countless hours I spent playing this game around the age of 10, without ever having the vaguest clue what I was supposed to be doing.

    Confusingly great memories…….

  32. MadMatty says:

    i havent tried this one, only Head over Heels wich i played a lot- get the PC remake its free!!
    Cadaver for the Amiga is more of an RPG-centric game, but yes, it does use a lot of the same mechanics- as does “Mr. Robot” which is a newer Indie release.

  33. LaundroMat says:

    I always thought I was too young to play these games when I had them for my CPC 6128 (when I was about 12). Looking back at it, I probably got farther in any of those games then than I ever would now.

  34. Disquete says:

    @LaundroMat I may be AMC. It wasn’t so hard as Game Over, I could finish it even without cheats.

  35. Kefren says:

    I never got far with this in the days when I played it on my friend’s Speccy, but when I replayed it on an emulator a few years ago, and used a map, I completed it on my third attempt. Strange. Maybe I was lucky in the items the cauldron asked for.

  36. Brendan C says:

    Is this headline a reference to a rather superb TV on the Radio song? If so, kudos.

  37. Zapatapon says:

    When I first played Knight Lore (on the Amstrad CPC) I was amazed, but the feeling quickly faded to be replaced by immense frustration. In truth, only a very few 8bit isometric games were really enjoyable, most of them were shite and/or uninspired clones.

    Besides Ritman’s absolutely incredible games (HoH and Batman), the pinnacle of the genre was in my opinion reached with Herbulot’s Get Dexter games (1 and 2). Unfortunately only available on the Amstrad and Atari ST and mainly diffused in France, hence perhaps the relative lack of recognition, they are still totally playable and fun today and featured an impressive technical upgrade over Ultimate’s engine (I wish there was a remake).