Note: The reason to revisit this classic game was because of my discussion with Later Levels’ editor Kim about the (mis)use of 3D in classic point-and-click games that were originally in 2D. Kim will play this title and the other two games of the series in her upcoming Twitch live stream that starts this Saturday, 8 September 2018, at 09:00 BST.
Adventure Soft‘s classic point-and-clicker Simon the Sorcerer might be over 25 years old, but the mix of fantasy and British humor still works great even today.
Young Simon is transported from the modern into a fantasy world where he has to save wizard Calypso from the evil sorcerer Sordid.
There’s something about British humor that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to translate, as it has been tried by many people in various art forms, be it movies or games. Monty Python’s escapades are probably the most inspirational works, but they’re not so easy to replicate. Even if Simon the Sorcerer‘s humor isn’t quite as memorable and doesn’t always hit the right notes, there are still enough nods to the classic British ensemble and the sense of humor in general, as can be seen, for example, in the nonsensical haggling between the hero and a merchant for the price of a diamond. A few direct addresses to the player and other meta-fictional elements that make fun of the adventure game genre are also present, turning even the most dramatic scenes into surreal sequences.
But the fantasy parody element is more prominent, as not only fairy tales are made fun of, but the high fantasy genre in general and some literary works in particular as well. So it’s not surprising to see goats reciting from a storybook when trying to cross a bridge and get past a troll who doesn’t really like his role, or to witness Gollum fishing who turns out to be a fan for the annual Tolkien dress-up convention. There are so many references to and gags about individual characters, like dwarves who like nothing better than mining and drinking beer or Rapunzel who is half woman and half pig, that this could have easily ended up as a freak show with no real connection of the parts.
Comical fairy tale fantasy world and characters
Despite running from one strange situation into another, Simon traverses a world that feels believable. As the dialogues are witty and the characters memorable, e.g. the swampling who likes to offer Simon a terrible stew to be his friend, one can’t wait to see who or what else is waiting around the next corner. Unfortunately the main storyline itself isn’t the most thrilling, which comes with the territory of comedy, as except for trying to get into Sordid’s castle and throwing a magic wand into fiery pits to ultimately defeat the evil sorcerer, there isn’t much plot development. It’s also a shame that one only learns about Sordid through dialogues, so that when one finally meets him, he doesn’t leave much of an impression, which can be said about Kalypso who doesn’t even turn up, too.
However, despite all the narrative shortcomings and all kinds of fantasy/fairy tale characters thrown into the mix, it’s a joy to explore each new setting, as the world feels complete. Simon as a character might seem to be egoistic and rude at times, but he still remains a likable chap who simply speaks his mind without losing it in the process of coping with another dimension he doesn’t understand. Unlike with the main protagonist Rufus in Daedalic’s Deponia games, one isn’t revolted by his remarks and still cares about his predicament.
So many puzzles to solve
The player is thrown into an expansive world, just as Simon is, which is both a blessing and a curse for the puzzle design. As almost every location can be accessed right from the start and many screens await, it isn’t always easy to remember where everything is and what to do. Tackling problems in a non-linear order is great if one gets stuck on one, but it doesn’t make finding solutions any easier if the inventory is soon filled with all sorts of items the use of which only becomes clear later or with a bit of trial and error. Constant backtracking and a labyrinthine forest with many important locations don’t help, either. The map only provides a few shortcuts to the most prominent places, but with so many screens hidden, it’s not the best way to travel around. Simon’s slow walking animations also don’t make this any less difficult.
The inventory-based puzzles are varied and fun, even if it means trying out things that only make sense in a weird sort of way, e.g. using a pig to eat through a door of truffles. The quality of the conundrums varies from time to time, sometimes from obvious to very obscure solutions (especially at the end), but at least there’s always something to do and if one understands the strange logic of the world, the solutions aren’t too difficult to come by. However, overlooking items and remembering all the places and people can become a problem. Clues are only given if one pays a lot of attention, and even if one can ask an amnesiac owl for hints, these aren’t the most obvious ones. There are also a few annoying parts that either rely on time-sensitive actions, e.g. using the right item or giving it to a certain person, or in one instance sheer luck, as Simon has to utter magic words and transform into animals in a rock-paper-scissors like duel against a witch, the outcome of which is random.
Pixel art and catchy sounds
The game still looks rather nice with some lovely pixel art that can be seen in the colorful backgrounds and the characters. Animations are also quite good, resulting in some fun slapstick sequences or even livelier background additions, e.g. with birds flying around or deer running through the woods. The voice acting is great, too, although it isn’t in sync with the text one reads, and there are a few actors who deliver the lines as if they just read them out of context. The soundtrack on the other hand is pretty cool, with lots of catchy tunes and some atmospheric midi set-pieces.
Happy Birthday or not
The newly released 25th Anniversary Edition should actually have been the game to be reviewed here, especially since it’s the one replacing the digital version of the original. But it would have done the title a disservice to use this instead of the 1993 version (that is still included as a bonus in the newer one, by the way). Usually games can benefit from remastered graphics, as could be seen by Day of the Tentacle: Remastered. However, if only a SCUMM launch program is used and the graphics are put through a filter, then something less satisfying can come out of this, i.e. some very ugly character models and backgrounds that make some of the scenes almost seem unrecognizable.
Unlike the much better remasters of other games, it’s also a missed opportunity that one can’t switch between the modes on the fly, requiring restarts or reloading a game. The new control system is just as superfluous as some very nasty system crashes and the limited number of savegames (and letters to be used). It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the remastered soundtrack is of a better audio quality, and the inclusion of a hotspot function is very welcome as well.So one should play the game with the original graphics and maybe the upgraded soundtrack in addition to the hotspot key, although the new controls and the skip button for dialogue sequences (that is always visible on screen) can be neglected.
A delightfully classic adventure
Simon the Sorcerer has lost none of its wit and charm after 25 years. It might not play in the same league as the Monkey Island games in terms of puzzle design and memorable characters/world-building, but the mix of fantasy and British humor, sprinkled with some meta-fictional elements, make it a fun game that can easily stand on its own against today’s humorous adventure games. Unfortunately, the 25th Anniversary Edition isn’t what the game deserves and those new to Simon’s adventures should experience the title in its pixel glory, as it was meant to be.
Score: 8/10 (for the original version)
Score: 6.5/10 (for the remaster)
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