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Wolf Like Me: Knight Lore

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are unplayable now because they’re simply too slow, with treacly awkward control systems which have been long since superseded.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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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