Saturday, October 21, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've been on a nostalgic kick lately, and it seems that every now and then I log on to a few web sites just to see if they have any holdovers from my youth. I've looked over such things as modern Lego creations, music videos from the 80s, and even old interactive novels of the sword-and-sorcery genre. I don't spend as much time browsing through those, however, as much as I do spend my time hunting for old computer games.

You see, my generation reached the peak of its childhood in the late eighties, right around the time when most video games first reached our shores. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the shadow of a household computer, and apart from the fact that it got me started on an IT-based background, the infernal device also got me hooked on some of the classics of gaming. Admittedly, most of those classics managed to get themselves lost in the mists of the last two decades, but some of the better ones are still available through the efforts of a few "abandonware" sites.

The Kyrandia series of games were a clear favorite, I believe. Developed by Westwood Studios under Virgin Interactive, it was one of the first PC adventure games to feature an intuitive point-and-click interface. Not that this really mattered to me, though; I was more attracted to the series' sense of humor and offbeat setting. And of the three games created with the world of Kyrandia in mind, nothing represented a better combination of puzzle logic and utter weirdness for me than the second installment: Kyrandia 2 - The Hand of Fate.

The Hand of Fate was an interesting game, to say the least. Its predecessor, The Legend of Kyrandia, followed a young man named Brandon in his efforts to stop Malcolm, an evil court jester, from terrorizing the kingdom. Its successor, Kyrandia 3 - Malcolm's Revenge, followed the villain Malcolm in a quest to redeem himself (in a funny, twisted way). But The Hand of Fate was totally independent of those other two forays in that you didn't need to know anything of the setting's history in order to get around.

The story behind the game is remarkably uncomplicated: The kingdom of Kyrandia is literally disappearing... rock by rock, tree by tree, and almost certainly in a very inconvenient manner.

This strange phenomenon baffles the land's preeminent magic-users, who obviously have to do something before everything -- and everyone -- disappears completely. Eventually they decide that the only way to solve the problem is to retrieve an enchanted "anchor stone" from the center of the planet. (What that has to do with the disappearances is never adequately explained... although for good reason.)

This, however, raises the issue of finding some poor, unlucky sod who's gullible enough to make the perilous journey. And interestingly enough, the "right" man for the job turns out to be a woman:

So now you, as the player, get to step into Zanthia's shoes and guide her on her quest to find the anchor stone. Zanthia is actually unique in terms of game characters: She's skeptical, smart-mouthed, and otherwise intolerant of other peoples' stupidity (which Kyrandia's population accurately represents in varying doses). Zanthia also happens to specialize in potions and alchemy, which practically gives you license to grab bunches of random items and mix them all together to create strange effects.

With all these responsibilities swirling around her head, Zanthia returns to her home in the swamp to make preparations for the journey. Only there's one catch: Somebody has ransacked her house.

At this point, you take over Zanthia's actions. Crippled by the loss of her reference books, cauldrons, ingredients and other equipment, you have to guide her across treacherous locations, past insidious individuals, and through intractable situations. Or maybe not.

Zanthia actually knows her way around, for the most part. As with most adventure games, you have to find items strewn across the landscape, then use them with various people, places and things in order to progress along your journey. The "thinking" requirement of the game comes in when you realize that you have to find these items to start with, not to mention the fact that you have to figure out what object to use with what other object, and then perhaps in which situation.

Despite the interesting background and setting, this is not necessarily an easy game. Some of the items are difficult to locate or acquire, and a few of the puzzles have unintuitive solutions. Sometimes the game even actively seeks to confuse you, implying that there is more than one solution available to a problem even when you actually only have one realistic alternative. After running through the game for three times, however, I'll admit that everything does make a kind of sense after a while. This is Kyrandia, after all, and if there's anything that can be said about Kyrandia, it's that it's weird.

Throughout the game, Zanthia almost certainly finds herself stuck in a lot of situations that cover both the bizarre and the mundane. She has to find a way to ride a dinosaur, collect seashells on a beach, turn gold into lead, hitch a ride on a mustard ship, take candy from a baby, disguise herself as an abominable snowman, turn lead back into gold, win a three-shell monte game, make cheese, get out of jail, and even capture a giant foot. Needless to say, it definitely makes for an interesting trip.

Unfortunately for me and other Kyrandia fans, Westwood Studios has since moved beyond -- far beyond -- the fantasy-adventure series. In fact, the one-thriving genre of adventure games is now at death's door, seeing that contemporary game-playing audiences give more attention to first-person shooters and wartime strategy titles nowadays. Westwood Studios is itself gone, having been absorbed by Electronic Arts in 1998 and liquidated a few years afterwards. The company is actually more well-known for producing the Command and Conquer series in its last decade of existence, and has left behind a significant number of followers. Given these developments, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see another Kyrandia game.

What that means, of course, is that these games remain classics for the older crowd, particularly for those thinkers of my generation. It also means that you're unlikely to find a lot of other games that offer a similar level of entertainment (unless you're one to go rooting through old downloads), and that you really owe it to yourself to try them. Yes, this is a not-so-subtle endorsement; Do find a copy of the game and give it a run.

Some good things, after all, must be made to last.

If anybody needs me, I'll be collecting a few anchor stones...

* Despite my acquisition of the game from the odd abandonware site, Westwood Studios / Electronic Arts presumably still holds all the rights and privileges to Kyrandia 2 - The Hand of Fate, as well as all related items. These screenshots are posted here for the purpose of review; Should the actual copyright owners turn their attention to me, I urge them to keep this game free for download. That would keep this classic available to other potential fans, and make a nice promotion for any further sequels (Fate willing).


Jac said...

the animated screenshots are so cute!

Sean said...

Jac: Up late, are we? How was the Komikon?

The graphics took about an hour to set up - I had to run the game under DosBox, then take a bunch of screenshots, crop them, and finally thread them all together via Photoshop and ImageReady. But they turned out well, didn't they? :)

Arnel said...

The adventure genre is not dead yet, though there's relatively little commercial success that can be met from it. A lot of indie games, both free and not-so-free, are out there for the taking.

Try sampling some free adventure games from here or even in

Sean said...

Arnel: I never said that the genre was dead, mind you... only that it was dying. While adventure games still exist, they're mostly off the radar for a lot of contemporary gamers: You have to actively search for them nowadays, as compared to spotting them on the store shelves. The indie projects are doing a remarkable effort in keeping the genre alive, but they really need to attain significant exposure in order to fully revive the art.

That, and you need more players taking note of the games. Hopefully this article - and your links - helped that part of the deal a bit. Thanks.

Arnel said...

Sorry about that, I guess I misread what you said. Damn glasses... =)

You're right. I've heard mostly the same comments even for interactive fiction. People had to search for them just to find out there's a whole community discussing and creating them.

Not only is there not enough exposure, there's also a lot of amateur games that are sadly not up to snuff.

Well, someday soon, it'll come back. I hope.

Sean said...

Arnel: Most amateur games aren't up to snuff, yes, but I think that that's simply because it's difficult to put together a full-fledged adventure game in the first place. It's even more difficult, in fact, to put one together with just the right amount of logic and charisma.

With that said, we'll probably get it right in time. We just need loads of practice...

cstiu said...

Didn't know Kyrandia was a clear favorite... actually I was never able to play this game :) My favorites are the Monkey Island series (grog anyone?) and Day of the Tentacle (strangely enough, this is where I learned what "barf" meant. Who said these things are not educational? :P)

Sean said...

cstiu: I didn't realize that either, until I came across a copy of the game and realized just how much I had missed it. I can live without the King's Quest series, for instance, but I couldn't help myself from running through this game a few more times. :)

I remember the Monkey Island series as being pretty good, too, and Day of the Tentacle is the only other adventure game on my list that I miss heavily. I can't find any copies of those games, though, so I'll have to settle for Zanthia and her quest.

Tommy said...

Loved the Kyrandia series as a kid, this second installment being my favorite. You can find the ''talky'' (CD) version if you know where to look *cough torrent cough* and it's worth the download (incredibly small by today's standards) to hear Zanthia's smarmy smart-aleck-ness. least I think so =)

Sean said...

Tommy: There's a "talky" version? Gosh, it's been a while... although I'll probably try to track down an authentic copy first (no matter how futile the gesture might be).