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.
The transition from 2D to 3D isn’t always the greatest idea, but Headfirst Productions’ Simon the Sorcerer 3D still retains some of the predecessors’ qualities.
Simon the Sorcerer 3D (PC)
(UK 2002, developer: Headfirst Productions (now defunct), publisher: Adventure Soft, platform: PC)
Wannabe sorcerer Simon has to find a way back into his own body, then locate the Swampling who leads an underground resistance against Sordid and his apprentice Runt, and ultimately save the world by gathering a gang of heroes.
It’s a crazy world and a crazy story with even crazier people
The story is much more epic, but also much more convoluted than in the preceding games, again featuring an unnecessary cliffhanger to an ending that is surprising but also nonsensical. Still, compared to Simon the Sorcerer and its sequel, there are more than enough unexpected twists and turns in each of the six very long chapters that offer a much bigger world to explore. The humor is also great, as high fantasy or fairy-tales are made fun of, e.g. by showing an oversized wizard who only seems to eat hamburgers, because he thinks that the bigger his stomach is, the more magic can fit in; or by putting the names of Sneezy and Happy of the seven dwarves into the context of a rockband with the hit-single “Hi Ho” and who ultimately become drug addicts.
Adventure game conventions and gaming in general are again ridiculed, e.g. when Simon comments about the great new special effects in a transitional scene one doesn’t get to see or that adventure game characters never use the bathroom. Direct addresses of the player are very common as well, e.g. when a fairy explains certain new controls and gameplay elements, Simon tells her not to talk to him, but to those people sitting in front of the PC; or when something terrible happens, he accuses the player of having waited for this event.
The dialogues are just as funny as the weird personalities Simon meets: a tree that recites poems; an Italian pizza store owner for whom the only happiness in life is selling his food at a very high price, because it’s the best in the world; or a barbarian whose limited repertoire of words and his Austrian accent as a clear reference to a certain action movie star. The list goes on, and even if some of the dialogues are a tad too long, the writing remains witty if one has a sense of sarcastic humor that reflects anti-hero Simon’s attitude towards everyone and everything.
Going places in 3D
It’s clear that the concept of an open world was the basic idea when designing the game, but unlike action-adventures such as Ocarina of Time, the use of a 3D perspective breaks the game in so ways that it would have been much better to focus on a traditional 2D point-and-clicker presentation and gameplay. Running around in wide spaces without anything to do or to see is one such problem. As there isn’t any fighting involved, it’s pointless to go from one place to another on foot, even if a sprinting mode can be activated.
Of course there are other ways of transportation: either going into a phone booth that serves as a teleporter or later flying on the back of a big bird, but both systems are less than user-friendly. The former means watching the same long Simon-spinning-around animation before selecting one’s destination (and the same animation again before exiting the booth), while the latter doesn’t only mean seeing Simon blow into a horn to summon the beast, but also witnessing how it soars into the sky and lands again and again. Without any option to skip these sequences, instead enduring rather long loading times when changing locations, it’s always painfully slow work.
An over-the-top view that obscures the rest of world in the bird-flying section makes finding the few landing platforms unnecessarily difficult. A map that is always accessible would have made transitions much smoother, especially since there are so many locations and characters to visit. As a day and night cycle further changes which places one can go to and which people one can meet, it takes even longer to reach Simon’s room where he has to open various doors and traverse many stairs before he can finally go to bed… only to do the same thing again soon.
Falling into pieces in 3D
Moving Simon around in a third-person perspective might at first seem like a great idea for more immersive gameplay, but as soon as one has to navigate through a building and gets stuck on almost every wall (or crate, as in the inevitable Sokoban section), with the camera jumping back and forth, one wishes that the good old 2D perspective would make a return.
Balancing on a rope by pressing a key in the opposite direction from where Simon leans to is another example of bad camera movement, as the controls are reversed when he’s half-way through, and without much time to readjust, one has to press the other keys. Walking on safe spots of quicksand or over invisible tiles when crossing a pit of lava shows how failing and restarting sections (including time limits in some scenes) during which Simon can die isn’t much fun, as this only frustrates the more contemplative adventure game player (but also anyone else, for that matter).
Even going through doors can be an obstacle, with Simon getting stuck inside or not being in the right position to open them. The same holds true for interacting with the environment or talking to NPCS, as standing right next to them doesn’t necessarily mean one is in right the spot the developers want the player to be. Changing into first-person view is essential at times. While it can help to have a better overview of one’s surroundings and maybe identify items that are easy to overlook, it’s required when using a yoyo that can hit things and people, but also fetch certain items. Unfortunately mouse control isn’t supported and one has to aim with the less than stellar keyboard keys, which becomes extremely difficult when under pressure in certain situations.
Classic puzzling in 3D
The puzzles are fun and quite imaginative, including one very memorable conundrum that requires the use of one’s physical CD/DVD-Rom drive, if one gets used to all the obscure solutions that aren’t so difficult to come by if one pays close attention to dialogues, Simon’s comments and the environment, while also taking into account how messed up this fantasy world is. Catching gnomes and putting them into a self-built cannon to participate in a shooting contest or making a hedgehog-like creature vomit cheese over cabbage, because he wouldn’t eat it without, are only a few of the more outrageous examples. It’s too bad that the inventory system is so cumbersome, as browsing through the items takes too long, and there are way too many instances when one has to perform the same action twice before the control system recognizes it. Unfortunately too many mini-games and new gameplay ideas that make use of the 3D perspective break the flow and ultimately what’s left of the game’s backbone.
Not so classic mini-gaming in 3D
Just as with the fairy Navi who would annoy the player in Ocarina of Time with “Hey, listen!” before introducing new gameplay mechanics, the Fairy Godmother makes frequent and tedious appearances to tell the player about all sorts of controls he has to learn, usually only for the next section. However, the difference between the two games is that these new ideas in Simon the Sorcerer 3D rarely work. Slowly walking in the sheriff’s office to steal a key behind the sleeping guy doesn’t have anything to do with skill if one bumps into furniture or treads on bottles that are way too close to each other and can’t even be seen.
Crouching around to evade the eyes of a statue in the early section of the game is as superfluous as stealth elements come, while speed-running after pieces of candy with a very tight time limit before they disappear is as frustrating as playing a stupid Conkers game in which one has to crack the opponent’s chestnut on a string with one’s own. Knocking on a door in morse code or pressing the right button for colored fireworks in a rhythm-action game don’t leave much room for mistakes, as both require perfect timing and patience. At one point Simon uses a magic book that changes his outfit according to color codes assigned to keyboard input (which also means two keys/colors create a different color). What seems like an interesting idea soon turns out to be just another annoying idea when the hero has to run up a flight of stairs to a tower and is bombarded by colored fireballs that require fast reflexes to change his outfit at the right time.
It’s all about the money
Trying to imitate action-adventures that task the player to spend money on items, the game tries the same, but again fails. It’s just another obstacle before one can attain an item for a puzzle or progress the plot, as none of the ways to earn it is any fun. Catching random butterflies in the field that are worth different kinds of coins or simply finding them in a duck’s pond and buried underground outside with a metal detector shows how much time-consuming work, luck, and trial-and-error this actually entails. Mini-games to earn more money or that simply provide Simon with essential items also come in all sizes and forms at a carnival fair where one has to shoot mechanical ducks before they disappear, reach a high score in a Space Invaders arcade game, use a water cannon to fill up three holes in a mechanical horse race, and throw a ball into the fast-opening/closing mouth of a cardboard clown at the right moment. All of these games are frustrating, especially with an aiming system that isn’t the most accurate.
Ugliness in 3D, but with great music and sound
Even when it was released, the game’s cube character models and lifeless backgrounds looked ugly, and compared to the lovely pixel art of Simon the Sorcerer and its sequel, these obviously haven’t aged well. What is even more aggravating is the frame-rate that constantly drops in outdoor scenes, mainly when changing locations, as in the city, showcasing how bad the graphics engine works. While some of the slapstick animations aren’t so bad, just seeing the individual character heads nod left and right as if they have epileptic fits is enough to make one feel queasy. Even worse are many pauses during which the camera is fixed on Simon’s face, trying to convey disbelief or awkwardness that simply isn’t possible with the crude lines serving for a mouth.
The sound design fares much better with very good voice acting and a wonderful soundtrack that sadly doesn’t have the graphics to match its quality. Still there are a few parts that aren’t voiced and the subtitles don’t always fit to what is said. Not being able to skip dialogues or rather long cut-scenes is an oversight that could have been adjusted, though, while there are infrequent, but still numerous system crashes that make constant saving a necessity.
A failed experiment in 3D and genres
Simon the Sorcerer 3D wouldn’t be such a bad game if it was done in 2D and didn’t rely on too many new gameplay mechanics borrowed from action-adventures or other genres. There’s no way around the fact that without all the new elements like stealth sections or arcade mini-games, it would be much more enjoyable to follow the more interesting, if completely nonsensical, story and listen to the fun dialogues. If one would also replace the terrible 3D character models and ugly backgrounds with 2D or even 2.5D pixel art, it would be aesthetically more pleasing to get lost in this much bigger fantasy world.
However, if Simon runs from one obstacle into another, has problems to pick up or use items without repositioning himself or pressing the action buttons twice, and if it takes forever to go from one place to the next, then there’s definitely something wrong. The 15-20 hours playtime with a walkthrough (highly recommended) and much more without (not recommended) sound like a lot of value for money, but as the experience is so painful most of the time, one should better play the original games again.
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