To observe that Sherlock Holmes is popular at the moment is to be on a par with Lestrade's detective skills. While Doyle's creation has never been out of the popular consciousness, it's hard to think of a time when he's been so omnipresent as now. With the UK's Sherlock and the US's Elementary both reinventing the detective for the modern day, while Guy Ritchie's movies make huge noise at the box office, it's hard to move without bumping into the man. And that's without taking into account the TV shows that are just the concept redressed, from House (House/Holmes, Watson/Wilson - geddit?) to Psych, and of course Frogwares' ongoing game series. So it seems a surprise that the attempt to reprise the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective gaming series has had a shaky start.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective first appeared in 1991, ported across everything from black and white macs to shiny colourful PCs, and of course to the home of wonky FMV acting, the MegaCD. It was a distinctly different way of playing an adventure, where inventories and puzzles were replaced by interviewing just about everyone in the phone book, and carefully reading The Times for clues. Once you'd done enough of this, you'd be hauled in front of the judge to prove your knowledge of the crime.
In the first half of this year, Zojoi - the rights owners to the series and featuring two of the original developers - failed to Kickstart $55,000 to see the games revived for the modern machine. Raising less than a third of the money, it sure didn't seem like people wanted the games back that much. Which bemused me, what with Kickstarter's predilection for nostalgia. Only 559 people funded, despite all nine of the previous games remastered only setting you back a $9 pledge. But as so many go on to say after their Kickstarter falls short, they were going to carry on regardless. And here, they did. So it is that the first three episodes have re-appeared, with a completely overhauled interface, and a significant resizing of the videos so you can see them without an electron microscope.
Oh boy, they're cheesy. And yet, they're more than that.
I mean, I remember their being cheesy - but then this was something so very new. FMV in games was already a thing, and the arrival of the CD-ROM was ensuring it was all too present. But straight interactive-FMV games weren't really a big thing until 1993, with the likes of The 7th Guest and Dracula Unleashed. By then cheesy acting was so normal you sort of thought it had to be that way. But in '91, just seeing your PC make a tiny window of video come out was extraordinary. (Heck, that lasted long enough that four years later the fullscreen videos of Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and Edie Brickell's "Good Times" on the Windows 95 disc still seemed like some sort of witchcraft.) False sideburns are crudely stuck on every man, while ladies wear ill-fitting wigs. Even Watson seeming to struggle with speaking out loud, as if he has fourteen oranges stuffed in his mouth, and has never had to operate this human face before. Peter Farley as Holmes seems to get away with most of it for both clearly deliberately camping it up, and for the grins he keeps flicking to camera, which seem to send the comforting message that he knows - he knows. (Although I can find nothing else about him - it's his only IMDB credit.) But that everyone else in Sherlock Holmes seemed to talk as though they had never heard language before, as if they'd learned all the lines phonetically, didn't matter one bit.
It does rather matter now. The hilarity of desperately poor attempts at British accents actually never wears off, and the poses so many of the actors strike for their moments never stop being funny, but the problem is this is all burying what's actually quite a serious game. And a difficult game, too.
It is perhaps somewhat at odds with how Holmes investigated. Eschewing any notion of hunting for clues, instead the entire premise is based around interviewing people. Scanning through the newspapers should inspire people to visit, and visiting them should point you toward other people to visit. Then you go back to the newspapers to see if anything else now stands out, and so on. All the while you have to be thinking like Holmes, spotting threads in conversations, and putting the facts together. If enough people mention France and French-related matters, then perhaps a trip to the French Embassy is in order. And then check the papers for any mention of France. By the time you're in front of the judge you need to not only know the murderer and the motive, but have picked up distinct information that led you toward this conclusion. Make a mistake in the multiple choice questions and you're thrown out of court, told to carry on investigating.
And those questions are smart. There are many red herrings in each story - possible motives that turn out to be entirely unrelated. One of the three episodes in particular (and I shan't spoil which) begins with a premise that proves to be nothing to do with the eventual solution, and the pathway there is a logical and reasonable one. By the time you're in court, if you've not shed all connection to your original hypothesis, you'll get caught out.
See - now it's sounds like I'm describing something really interesting! It is! But perhaps I'm doing the game a few favours in my summary. Because the experience of playing is more disjointed. And oddly, a big part of this is due to a change made in these updated versions.
The original game, whose screenshots prove remarkably evocative to the halcyon days of my 14-ness, had an interface that allowed you to switch easily between your notebook, the directory of interviewees, newspapers and the court. However here, for reasons I cannot fathom, the decision has been made to remove all that. Instead you have to close down each section to get back to a central menu, making everything feel about seventeen times more clumsy. That's especially crude when trying to get from a particular newspaper to a particular interviewee, which now takes five clicks instead of three. There are lots of improvements too, including mouse-scrolling screens, and not least the hugely improved video rendering. The game still plays in a window on your screen, but at a far higher resolution than the original. But what an odd, odd thing to have done.
Here's the most important thing, though. You do find yourself checking these aren't based on original Doyle stories every now and then. And that's a high compliment. The greatest production of the Holmes stories - BBC Radio 4's exquisite series of dramatisations of every story helmed by playwright Bert Coules, and starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams - did an unsurpassed job of capturing the spirit of the original writing. But even Coules' own later additions to the library stuck out like a sore thumb. (They're still well worth a listen, however.) As clumsy and silly as the delivery of the Consulting Detective games may be, it's a fine achievement that they have the ring of authenticity.
But they're so damned silly. I spend most of the time trying to work out whether an actor's accent is supposed to be British, Australian, or from Jupiter, then trying to work out if they're just exceptionally bad at acting and thus forgetting how to speak, or if they're an American having their first ever go at a British accent. Or both. And realise I've not listened to a word of what they've actually been saying. It took me three goes to listen to what was being said here, in an example of one of the Jupiter accents:
Unfortunately, the largest issues with the original game still remain, and that's the inherent unfairness of it all. Playing as Holmes, being thorough would seem the most appropriate method, but the game constantly criticises you the more work you do. Points are accrued for every interview, or every time you send an irregular to a location for you. Heaven forfend you go somewhere that doesn't have information, as then double-points are added. At the end, you're then scolded by the judge and Watson for your ineptitude. But... I was doing a good job of investigating a crime!
This gets even worse when you have solved the murder early on, but the game won't let you visit the judge to say so, because you haven't achieved an arbitrary and unsignalled required task. On the third of the three episodes - the only one I actually figured out ahead of time - I've reached a point where I've visited everyone I can think relevant, then everyone who doesn't seem relevant, I've unlocked all of Watson's clues and completed what he suggests, and still I'm not allowed to tell it to the judge. I've even been told by those clues who the murderer is, but I'm buggered if I can work out what I need to do to finish it. And that's plain stupid.
It's a real shame that these remakes haven't sought to fix nonsense like this. Why not make it possible to visit the courts as soon as you're certain, rather than when the game thinks you're certain? And why not engineer a slightly less silly system for judging the standards of your investigation, which to complete to its standards would require psychic prescience of the sort Holmes would disprove.
Clearly the failed Kickstarter meant that Zojoi was remaking these games out of their own coffers, rather than via the additional funding, so it's possible that ambitions were toned down. And that also might explain why each of the three episodes costs £4 on Desura, rather than the rather more amenable £5.60 for all three that the KS tiers had offered. But it remains a shame, since there's still tremendous charm to these games, buried beneath the abysmal acting.