By Alec Meer on January 9th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
Presenting the first in an occasional series of features in which RPS writers scour their local charity shops for weird and wonderful/terrible PC games they’ve never played, then attempt to play them. This time it’s Gremlin Interactive’s 1991 boardgame adaptation HeroQuest, found for £1 in a British Heart Foundation shop in Hove.
I’ve had this idea brewing for a while, that the many charity of shops of our wounded but still-sceptred isle quietly house an alternative history of gaming. Their dusty racks and handwritten price-labels tell a different story to the Greatest Hits of interactive entertainment told by endless list features (including our very own). These donations to good causes/sacrifices on the pyre of spring cleans are so often the games that nobody quite loves but were made anyway. They’re artefacts from a machine culture, gleaming CD relics of the great churn of licensed games and cash-ins and cynical sequels and calculated attempts to ensnare the attention of boys who like guns and monsters.
It’s exceedingly rare that any charity shop – and I visit them often, for I am a lover of both oddities and bargains – offers a game I truly want to play. But perhaps there is treasure in those quiet, chintzy hills. Perhaps there are wonderful or at least brave games which passed me by, which deserve a quick gaze to fall upon them once more. Or perhaps there are marvellously terrible thing, absurdist reminders of how slovenly or poorly-judged PC gaming’s past could be.
So, HeroQuest, or Hero Quest, or HeroQuest & HeroQuest: Return of the Witch Lord – there was a charming lack of consistency back then, a more haphazard time before the Brand Is All. I found this DOS game in a suspiciously-smeared CD case with the slightest of manuals and all the perfunctory back-blurb of an umpteenth re-release while the license was still valid. This is the 1995 version, which means it’s on CD rather than floppy disk and includes the Return of the Witch Lord expansion but is otherwise essentially the initial 1991 release from sadly long-defunct Brit dev/publisher Gremlin Graphics Software Ltd, aka Gremlin Interactive.
I’ve never played their PC and Amiga adaptation of the Games Workshop/Milton Bradley co-produced 1989 boardgame, as its initial release pre-dated my first PC ownership and subsequent re-releases came after I’d moved on from the physical game. This feels like an odd ommission, for HeroQuest is most certainly a Game That Made Me. I found a piece of my own history in a charity shop.
I had many toy-fads as a child, as many children of my age in the mid 80s to mid 90s did. There were Star Wars figures of course, a bit of Lego, brief dalliances with He-Man and Thunder-Cats (which didn’t last long due to an awareness even to my very young mind that they were little more than dolls with swords) and a very extensive obsession with Transformers which continues somewhat to do this day – blame my fascination with the mechanical intricacy and design cleverness of their adjustable plastic. (I am seriously considering starting a super-low-value Patreon, just enough to cover/justify the cost of the figure, to review Transformers, and the only reason I don’t is I couldn’t take the disappointment if no-one pledged, as they surely wouldn’t. Some things are best left as dreams).
HeroQuest, which was a Britain-wide brief fad, was the ‘toy’ that marked something of a progression for me, a step up from action figures for roleplay and into figurines with rules and hobbyism. I was becoming a man, or at least some inwards-looking, socially-awkward simulacrum of one.
Of course I didn’t know it at the time, as I irregularly sat down for bouts of its simple dungeoneering and die-rolling with a caculating father and a confused sister, but it was a gateway drug to Games Workshop proper, that great and expensive fad of my early teens and one which, though abandoned for the longest time due to school days money and mockery, informs so much of what I appreciate in fantasy and scifi worlds to this day.
HeroQuest led to Space Crusade let to Advanced HeroQuest, which led to Warhammer Fantasy Battles, which led to White Dwarf, which led to Warhammer 40,000, which led to Warhammer 40,000 Epic, which led to not being able to afford clothes, which led to being a lifelong dork who writes about computer games for a living. HeroQuest made me. No HeroQuest and perhaps I’d be a lawyer or a doctor or a builder or someone who has a favourite football team.
Of course this means that my memory of HeroQuest and the reality of HeroQuest are two very different things, and this just-discovered DOS adaptation proves itself a third incarnation of this personal junction-point game entirely. To me, HeroQuest is defined by this boxart:
I studied that image religiously and often, especially on occasions when no bugger would play the game with me. It spoke of such great adventures, such heroism, such delicious carnage, and most of all an alt-universe He-Man who was a stone-cold killer rather than a namby-pamby peacenik with Barbie hair. (I knew nothing of Conan at that point). I also tried, poorly, to emulate its colours on my earliest attempts at miniature-painting, and sadly my skill in that area has not improved a jot in the two decades since.
So I was surprised and disappointed to find that first encounters with Gremlin’s PC adaptation had nothing to do with that art, its explosiveness and immediacy, and everything to with a stodgy backstory told achingly slowly:
Though I must say the music is marvellous. Some agreeably lurid artwork too, but it’s not exactly one for the classic game intros list.
I was even more surprised and disappointed to find that I couldn’t get the mouse to work. This 16-bit DOS game wouldn’t play nice out of the box on a 64-bit operating system, but I’m an old hand at DOSbox and soon had it up and running via that. I then spent almost three hours tinkering, reading forums and shouting at no-one to try and a way to move the cursor with my mouse rather than the Q, A, O and L buttons on my keyboard. I’d almost abandoned all hope when I found someone mentioning that the game’s supposed to offer a setup screen on first play; my copy had not, but deleting the CFG file from its directory should cause the setup options to reappear. They did. I picked mouse. The mouse worked. I stopped shouting, felt guilty for the rude things I’d said about DOSbox in the RPS chatroom and tried hard not to think about my wasted afternoon.
Onto the game proper, then. It necessarily diverges from the source material as the enemies and dungeon layout are controlled by unseen AI, and thus it lacks the sociable enmity of a flesh and blood player assuming the mantle of murderous dungeon master. Hotseat multiplayer of a sort can be had, with each player controlling one of the four heroes – Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf and Wizard – but realistically this adaptation will see a lone player control either a lone hero or the entire squad. No network or online multiplayer see, so if you wanted a sit-down session with friends it simply made more sense to play the actual boardgame. Unless of course you just wanted to show off, which most people with a PC at the time probably did. Bloody expensive, they were.
A digital dice rolls, movement points are assigned, corridors and rooms are stomped to and through, monsters are slain, treasure is found, secret passages are uncovered, traps are wandered into, mazes are solved, spells are cast and potions are drunk. It’s simple but clean rules, with variety and tactics wrung more from the changing dungeon layouts in each level than from the options actually available to players.
The loss of the tactile magic of seeing someone place dungeon tiles and figurines as the heroes explore is a keen one too; here you’re just wandering into fog of war and occasionally, without fanfare, there’ll be an almost static little sprite sat there. HeroQuest lived and died on the cackling of the GM as they set down their orcs and skeletons and Chaos Lords and whatnot, whereas this plays more like an infinitely slower Diablo. A major difference is that there’s an emphasis on finding secret passages, achieved by spending a character’s sole action per turn on searching a room for a hidden door. In many levels, these are the only way to reach the exit; in others they’re for shortcuts or concealed treasures. The dry declaration that a door has indeed been found is perhaps the game’s most thrilling moment, which I’m afraid is damning with faint praise.
I wonder if, at the time, with less expectations from games and being more accustomed to imaginging what was what shown, I’d have been less troubled by HeroQuest PC’s failure to show much combat or any spell effects. Combat has only the briefest animation, then the game simply declares a result, whether your enemy has survived or not (or whether you have if they’re attacking you). No ceremony, no action, just a few words in a silly font. A great shame, for the game structure and systems shine even in this rudimentary electronic form. It’s roguelike to some degree, exploring puzzle dungeons with little to no idea what each new step may turn up, taking gambles on what action to take each turn, and slowly learning what each threat particularly entails. It’s very simple and often very easy (the source game was, after all, aimed at kids), but it’s the kind of setup that with more gloss and pizazz would earn decent attention as a modern indie game.
I’m unfairly applying modern standards I know, but I don’t think this has aged badly so much as it would always have been too rudimentary and passionless, stopping at an awkward halfway house between directly emulating the boardgame and being a lightweight turn-based RPG for a lone player. The not-much-later first Space Hulk adaptation did much better, concentrating more on ethos and tone than on piety to a ruleset. Somehow, despite taking far great liberties, Space Hulk the 90s PC game feels more like Space Hulk the boardgame than HeroQuest the PC game feels like HeroQuest the boardgame.
You know what though, I’m so glad I found it in that charity shop. Never mind how delighted I always am to look back at an aspect of my child through a more inquiring (and often cynical, admittedly) adult mind, it’s such an interesting failure. Not even a failure in truth, just a little too lost to systems at the cost of what gets the blood up. It’s got a cheerfully chunky, proto-Blizzard look to it that I really dig, though. A remake? Oh, I’d love that.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that one song in HeroQuest sounds suspiciously like Golden Brown. Watch on from the harpsichords for a decent sample of how the game plays, too:
Now go, young hero! Voyage to your local charity shop and purchase an old PC you’ve never played before!