The RPG Scrollbars: If Knightmare Was A PC Game

You’re probably going to die. A lot. Knightmare is one of the first games to truly combine the random element of modern 80s hits like Rogue, combined with the deeper storytelling promised by hot games like next year’s thrilling looking Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. But how does it actually play on your PC? Or more likely on Amiga and ST, where it probably has much better graphics and audio. One day they will pay.

The genius of Knightmare is that no two games are ever quite the same. You begin each time with a randomly selected party, though it must be said that most of the characters generated do tend to be of a certain mould – squeaky-voiced, male, more than a little awkward. After that, Treguard the Dungeon Master ushers your lead character into the dungeon to begin, while the other three sit back as ‘advisors’. The amount of help they give is often questionable, but at least they don’t tend to repeat too many lines, with the exception of ‘You’re in a room’. This may lead to feelings of irritation after a while, or loudly yelling ‘No shit!’ They also tend to struggle with basic concepts like ‘left and right’. Oh, for basic clock directions or something.

Sometimes your goal is randomly selected, other times you get to choose it – but it typically involves retrieving some golden artifact that doesn’t really seem to have any bearing on the case. Likewise, some rooms have multiple doorways, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re being pushed down a fairly specific, very linear path through most quests, with less raw ‘gameplay’ than you might expect.

Early on especially you might start wondering if the designers have ever played an RPG. My first game ended, for instance, when picking up a sigil from a clue table, which seemed like a smart move when encountering another room with that sigil above its door, only to find out that I was merely meant to remember that and actually take a lamp instead. Gah! I know roguelikes have a justified reputation for difficulty, but it’s rare to find one that wants to put the boot – sorry – the Silver Spurs into something squishy quite this early.

Fortunately, this level of bullshit proved relatively rare, though there were quite a few moments when ultimate success or failure did come down to a random choice. The second run through for instance – running into a witch who wanted to do her hair, and only having soap instead of a comb. Another ended with a smug comment about picking up a weapon instead of a horn, as if anyone would just assume “Well, I might just randomly come across the walls of bloody Jericho…” Bloody RNG. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could at least make saves whenever you wanted, instead of… let me just check… ah, yes. Never. Oh, well. Back to Level 1!

It’s a shame that the NPCs you meet all seem to run on such tight dialogue scripts rather than really offering much scope to talk around a problem or find inventive solutions. Very, very occasionally you get that chance, like persuading a guard to follow along, but usually they just exchange names and say their piece. Like a lot of RPGs, Knightmare does reuse character models quite a bit, but at least they generally compensate by giving each a strongly defined character. Still, there’s so much more they could do than simply ask riddles.

Early on NPCs are all pretty much obstacles, though it’s not too long before you start to meet more friendly and neutral figures with their own mini-quests to complete and storylines to learn by using an artifact called the ‘Spyglass’. The downside is that the more the game relies on this past its opening levels, the more on-rails everything becomes. You’re outright told what items to pick up most of the time, the trivia questions go away, and usually each scene is so led by the hand – sometimes literally – that the earlier feeling of danger largely fades.

Also, for some reason you’re not allowed to kick hostile NPCs in the balls.

That’s not to say things ever become easy, mind. It’s just a different, and less satisfying form of difficulty most of the time – there’s the adventure, increasingly told through barely interactive cut-scenes in which your character just stands around looking a little confused, and then there’s the puzzles, completely separate. It’s still compelling stuff, if often badly acted, but the sense of actually being on an adventure in a dangerous dungeon is soon lost. The addition of towns and friendly dragons and a whole civilisation living in the dungeon is great for variety, but it means a long, long wait for any actual drama on each life.

At the start of the game simply getting to Level 2 feels like an achievement. After just a few attempted quests, it’s almost a certainty, with Knightmare more interested in its own characters’ lives than the actual player. In particular, while it’s a great reveal that the universe is a competition between the Powers That Be and the Opposition, as led by the awesome Lord Fear, it’s hard not to notice that he spends most of his time barely even giving a damn about the Dungeoneer. And in fairness, I can’t blame him, since it’s not like you’ll get all that many of your characters far enough to even make him a little bit nervous about having to show up as the final boss.

The problem is that in generally giving up on puzzles, but having NPCs that never really evolve to a point that allows for emergent solutions, Knightmare increasingly has no choice but to deploy outright assassin rooms. Now, this can work. You die to a corridor with giant circular saws running down the wall and goddamn, you feel like that death was warranted. Even if you aren’t allowed to do the sensible thing and just lie down on the floor and let them whiz over your head. It helps though that in that case the death is on you – on not being fast enough, on walking into a blade rather than away from it, or something like that. But some of the other ones the game will sometimes throw in – Christ! What kind of sadist would throw in a game of Play Your Cards Right with collapsing floors for failure and time pressure and no explanation of the pattern required to cross the tiny bridge in safety? Evil! Have the designer flogged!

Overall though the game’s approach of throwing everything against the wall does help make each quest feel different and dynamic, even if it can take a while for bad ideas to work themselves out. A dalliance with more outright comedy characters, for example, leads to the unfortunate appearance of racist Chinaman stereotype Ah Wok, who thankfully doesn’t appear very often. Mostly though it’s the graphical styles as you unlock more and more of the game that don’t always fit, as the cool handpainted locations of the first few quests give way to edited photographs of assorted castles and then to some seriously underwhelming 3D work that even now, now being roughly 1987-1995 according to my calendar, are almost too bad even to giggle at.

It’s at this point that the creators’ lack of apparent familiarity with modern RPGs really starts to bite, with the game increasingly becoming non-interactive aside from the assassin puzzle rooms and seemingly more interested in dragging things out for hour after hour, heck, week after week, than retaining the sense of danger established in the early stages. You have to be really, really dumb to not know what you’re supposed to be doing, and usually don’t even have the option of doing anything else. At this point I really missed the early levels where it felt like there was an actual dungeon to explore, instead of just a linear path that occasionally takes your legs out from under you for screwing up.

Mechanically, the more you play, the more you also spot a lot of glitches with the core game, especially in terms of collision detection. One time you’ll have a blade go right through you with nobody caring, the next you’ll be on what looks like a safe spot only to tumble to your death or fall into quicksand. The platforming bits in particular often seem flat-out unfair. The advantage of being able to look down and see your feet just doesn’t compensate for the difficulty when that’s literally all that you can see. After just a few quests, you also learn to completely ignore the so-called ‘life force’ system – health to you and me – since pretty much anything that kills you does so in one hit. Really it only exists to add completely meaningless drama to finding food. But, since the only time you’re really reminded that you need any is when you find some, it never actually matters.

Unlike most Roguelikes though, of which there are currently very few since as we all know, it’s 1987-1995 and even Diablo hasn’t come out yet, you have to give Knightmare full props for staying interesting. By the time its own life-force expires and it just doesn’t have the novelty it used to, it’s still a hugely compelling game that at least tries to reinvent itself on a regular basis. It’s just a shame that when you reach those moments, it’s the graphics rather than the core systems that get all the focus – that there’s never the scope to argue with the NPCs instead of quietly following them, or to widen up the dungeon with alternate, specific paths, outside of a poorly conceived ‘short cut’ concept that occasionally but still too often shows up.

But, as a way of making RPGs more relatable to the average player, and a demonstration that D&D type games don’t have to be a deep, number-heavy spreadsheet odyssey, there’s no way to call Knightmare anything but a complete success. It’s the game destined to make dungeons feel cool for a whole new generation, and likely remembered fondly for years to come. Even more than Time Busters.

Hell, it’d probably make a pretty good TV show too.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe not so far away, Knightmare wasn’t in fact a computer game, though it did spawn a couple of them. And they were terrible. Check out the write-ups I did of them here. Wince that the gamebooks were better.

Sponsored links by Taboola

More from the web

From this site

54 Comments

  1. RuySan says:

    Since i’m not british, this post started really strange for me.

    What is this Knightmare game they’re speaking of which has nothing to do with the one i played on the Amiga? I asked to myself.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      For those who have never heard of/seen Knightmare (Americans especially), Spoony did a really great outsiders look at it a while back:

      link to spoonyexperiment.com

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      The one you played on the Amiga (if you’re talking about the Dungeon Master-alike) was based on the TV show. It just didn’t make a whole lot of use of the property.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The Amiga version is even more awkward than most people vaguely remember, starting with the justification for it being a four-man party, and ending with the advert for Captive 2. Neither of which manage to get past the deep-down awkwardness of realising that Treguard has sent the team into the dungeon naked.

      • Premium User Badge

        JamesTheNumberless says:

        The Knightmare game was maddening, it should have been the best game ever, being based on my favourite TV show and featuring more or less the same gameplay as my favourite game – it promised to have some charm, starting your characters off with t-shirts and penknives, but it was all downhill from there.

    • Thankmar says:

      Since I never heard of Knightmare before, TV-Show or game, this was indeed a weird first readthrough (Is it some FMV-Game you never heard of before? But wouldn’t it be a little early for that?).
      That show must have been nice to have had around as a teenager (choose your own grammar).

  2. Jockie says:

    I’m curious as to how much Knightmare you watched as research for this article Richard?

    My own memories of it are hazy (and almost universally positive) and I feel like it’s probably better that way!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      A few episodes, but I’ve seen them all at least once via Challenge repeats or on YouTube. It holds up better than you’d think, aside from the first series which is both hammier than the winner of the Guinness World Record holder for Least Kosher Sandwich and has Treguard being a colossal prick, and the last one, where the gimmicks like the Reach wand and the awful 3D graphics really let things down. But I still think the earlier seasons look surprisingly good!

  3. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Knightmare fascinated me as a kid and I always wanted to be on it till I realised there was no hope as A) I didn’t live in Britain B) the show had actually ended several years prior and I was just watching reruns.

  4. Heroes182 says:

    Ultima V’s subtitle was Warriors of Destiny, not Warriors of Darkness.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      D’oh. I keep transposing overused words at the moment.

      • Heroes182 says:

        Hmm… Warriors of Darkness might have made for an interesting alternative plot where you figure out halfway through that YOU WERE THE SHADOWLORDS ALL ALOOOOOOONG!

        Sorry, back to Knightmare; growing up in not-the-UK, I wasnt exposed to this until I was in my mid-20s, and I always thought the concept was fantastic but the execution… not so much. Maybe watching it as a 9 year old is somewhat necessary to fully appreciate it?

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          It doesn’t hurt to remember being terrified of wall monsters instead of just slightly amused by the dodgy synchro-vox effect, no. The game itself is honestly quite weak, which I remember being a problem at the time – early on it was pretty much like looking through a magic portal into another world, but by the end (and I say this having thought it at the time) actual RPGs had long left its increasingly simple, more TV viewer friendly mechanics in the dust. This really bit its attempted successors, with Virtually Impossible looking like shit from the start, to say nothing of attempted new TV games like Time Gate (aimed at adults) and the truly ghastly looking Knightmare VR.

          Oh, and that awful, awful YouTube Geek Week thing. Brr. Only Ashens felt right for that one.

          But that’s speaking with a critical hat on, and nothing can dampen my love for this awesome show. I think a lot of what it did can still be appreciated – particularly the artistry in the early seasons, which ironically holds up much better than the awful photographs and bad 3D, the excellent composition work (note the shadows) and the stand-out performers like Hugo Myatt (Treguard) and Mark Knight (who played Lord Fear, amongst others) and Paul Valentine (Motley/Sylvester Hands) who really breathed life into it all.

          It was a game designed to be watched on the edge of seats, and with just so many moments where a team would snatch defeat from the jaws of success or just screw up SLIGHTLY and bite it. Or just plain screw up. I think my favourite there was the team who actually tried role-playing, which the characters would generally try to go with if they could. Unfortunately their attempt was to try and pass off a goblin summoning horn as a special magic one. To Skarkill the Goblin Master. It went… about as well as you’d expect. (sniggers)

  5. Saarlaender39 says:

    “Simon, sidestep to your left!”

  6. neffo says:

    Kill Jester.

  7. Pockets says:

    I’m convinced that Knightmare would make a fantastic Oculus Rift game.

  8. C0llic says:

    Good old Nightmare. So much time spent screaming at the screen at people who didn’t know left from right. I still think it’s a fun concept and could probably work today with the right actors and effort put into it.

    • C0llic says:

      Oh, and back The Crystal Maze. While not exactly the same thing, when I think of nightmare, I think of that as well. It was a very similar type of experience for adults, and I miss it too. It wouldn’t be the same without Richard O’Brien’s accordion though, of course.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Crystal Maze of course based on the ghastly Fort Boyard, only existing because they had the rights to make a UK version of that show but the set wasn’t ready.

        • C0llic says:

          I had no idea of it’s history until you mentioned that, or I’d clearly forgotten. Brilliant story :D The article I just read about it was on Buzzfeed though, so i can’t bring myself to link it.

      • rmsgrey says:

        Accordion? I think you meant harmonica.

        And, yeah, Ed Tudor-Pole tried his best, but never quite captured ROB’s magic touch.

        And then there were the many imitators, most of which sank quietly without trace…

  9. zarnywoop says:

    I remember playing Knightmare on ZX Spectrum.

    • Premium User Badge

      caff says:

      Me too, although I don’t think it was much like the TV show from what little I can remember. It can’t have been very good.

  10. aphrek says:

    Here you go, thank me later: link to youtube.com

  11. Scurra says:

    There does seem – alas – to be a fairly common trajectory of these sort of shows. (I would include things like The Adventure Game, Now Get Out Of That and The Great Egg Race from a slightly earlier era.)
    They all start off being an unusual derivative of the quiz show (where the core element is “I can figure that out before them”), pass through the game show stage (where the outcome is more about spectacle rather than anything else) and – if they survive – end up as merely entertainment shows (where the “member of the public” plays second fiddle to the performers.)
    The Crystal Maze is an interesting example of a format that went straight to the game show stage and largely managed to stay there, “mumsie” excepted…

    As someone who adores the quiz show genre (but then again, I do cryptic crosswords as a hobby), it always upsets me when a show slides into the game show category – for example, Pointless, which has compromised a little too much now I think.
    I will add a shout-out for Race To Escape, hidden away on the Discovery channel, which is still in the quiz show phase of its life, even if they feel the need to explain the puzzles ahead of time. (The first run might have finished now though.)

  12. Canazza says:

    I found “Keep Talking and nobody explodes” to be a great Knightmare-esque experience

  13. Kala says:

    Man, Knightmare was fandabbydoozy. It was my favourite show as an 8 year old! (Even back then I felt I could’ve done a better job than the doofuses they dragged on there. LEFT, YOU FOOLS. LEFT.)

    Yes, I have rewatched as an adult, and no that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm…for the concept at least, if not always the execution ;p

    “You begin each time with a randomly selected party, though it must be said that most of the characters generated do tend to be of a certain mould – squeaky-voiced, male, more than a little awkward.”

    To my recollection they had a fair amount of either mixed teams or all girl teams as well…? Maybe that was the later seasons though, as my hey-day was probably the Lord Fear era.

    ” Even if you aren’t allowed to do the sensible thing and just lie down on the floor and let them whiz over your head.”

    Also (reaching back into the foggy mists of time here) wasn’t there lower placed saws as well as higher ones? Maybe they weren’t floor level-low though.

    But it basically was a video game, really. Given it was largely digital and interactive. Though I loved how it integrated with so much stuff… d&d! larping! improv! quiz shows! Not that it was seamless or anything, but it was (to my knowledge?) unique.

    I think as a PC game, it would have to be multiplayer, 4 player co-op. Randomized scenarios. (Tregard as the AI dungeon master)

    Though it would be a pisser for the person wearing the hat ;p “Is it meant to be a blank screen, or have I crashed?”

    Can you imagine the stress though, when you’ve been at a campaign for ages, and the tension for the poor person trying to do The Time Sensitive Things at the command of three increasingly impatient friends…? NO. NOT THERE. OMG. WHAT ARE YOU DOING.

    That would end friendships, I think.

    • Premium User Badge

      JamesTheNumberless says:

      I assume the dungeoneer could always see a little bit in-front and below themselves, which is how they managed to pick the right things up off of tables, etc. I wonder how that would translate to VR, if you actually could see the ground beneath you. In theory would push the boundaries of what could be done in action sequences but in practice you’d be limited by the available space.

      • Kala says:

        Yes, you’re quite right – it’d be three quarters a blank screen with a small letterbox at the bottom. Still frustrating for that player though, I’d imagine :)

        Ofc the premise for Knightmare meant that the dungeoneer would HAVE to have limited vision (or a good actor, child actors they were not), given they’d just be seeing green screens instead of digitally generated environments.

        In a video game, ofc, that problem would be resolved and all players could see their surroundings… But in doing so, you’d also cut out a large portion of the tension involved and teamwork required to beat it.

        Though I dunno who would pay for a video game they wouldn’t be able to see much of ;p (esp in todays graphics obsessed world!)

  14. Premium User Badge

    JamesTheNumberless says:

    I’ve often wondered how you might be able to make Knightmare work as an online Multiplayer but never got past how easy it would be to cheat. I wonder though if you could make it into a decent living-room game with the new HTC VR tech – DM at the PC, dungeoneer side-stepping around the room, and the rest of the team on the couch.

    • edwardoka says:

      I would dearly, dearly love for this to be a thing.

      Even though the helm was purely to stop the dungeoneer from seeing the greenscreen, it really did inform the core challenge – that of navigating a largely blind avatar through rooms and precarious situations.

      With a very large bank of rooms, scenarios and plot arcs (think FTL + AI Director), the one donning the Helm of Vive-shaped Justice would have to be similarly limited to seeing directly beneath them in the VR world.

      Not sure how would that work for pits and navigation challenges, though, because in the show the dungeoneers couldn’t see chromakeyed pits etc (only greenscreened floor), but they could see and interact with physical props on the sound stage.

      How would tables/stairs work?

  15. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Thank you for the explainy comments. I was completely baffled by this article having never heard of Knightmare in any of its seemingly multitudinous formats.

    What an odd thing to have.

  16. waltC says:

    “Racist Chinaman stereotype”? Do you mean the Chinese “coolie” from the 1800’s? If so, that’s no stereotype, it’s historical fact. (People lose their sense of humor by drowning it in the dark and forlorn sea of political correctness.)

  17. jrodman says:

    Amiga with a 5.25 floppy drive. UNSETTLING!

  18. Gaff says:

    I was a hardcore Knightmare fan growing up. I owned all the books, clothing, had signed photos of pretty much all of the cast, I taped almost every episode on VHS, had both games… the works. Some friends and I applied every year to be on the show from the second year in, but never even got to the next stage. Perhaps we were too ugly, as you did have to attach photos to the application forms, before they’d invite you to be in their super secret club/Norwich.

    Heck, all of that stuff is probably still in my mom’s loft, about 5,000 miles away. Might even be worth a chunk of change these days, who knows.