Time has separated the 1980s enough where many of the old video games of yesteryear are slowly being forgotten. Collectors scramble to pay for an increasing market value for 25 year old games, but they are few and far between compared to the majority of those who at least remember playing video games as children or adolescents. There are a few I simply am not able to share the great memories I have with others because none of my friends are remotely aware these games existed. And yet, one remains on my mind after all these years that had me captivated: The Black Cauldron.
Some of you may recognize the name from Disney or even the book series by Lloyd Alexander known as The Chronicles of Prydain. Despite the movie being a complete flop (so much so that people lost their jobs at Disney after production), it still was adapted into a video game. The adaptation was a fairly close resemblance to the film but not the original books. Furthermore the game promoted several alternate endings much like LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion (though Sierra On-Line beat LucasArts by a year).
Having seen the movie, the game is fairly straight forward though a bit of wandering is necessary to discover each key location. I was a kid when my parents got me the game for our Apple IIgs computer and had missed the opportunity to see the movie in the theaters since it was PG and was deemed too spooky for a 5 year old. So I struggled with the game as a kid. I was capable of getting to every scene in the game including some of the secret areas, but since I was in the dark from the movie or the books, I struggled to find a way to wrap the game up.
The concept was fairly unique. You were on a farm set in a magical world called Prydain where you were in charge of helping an elderly man named Dallben. Among the usual farm animals, Dallben owned a pig that had the ability to foresee the future as well as locate things from time to time. It turns out that the rather evil king of the area known as the Horned King from having a skull face with antlers extruding through his hooded cloak is after this pig in hopes of finding the Black Cauldron. This cauldron has the ability to raise the dead to which the Horned King is wishing to build his army to destroy the kingdom.
Your job is to protect this pig and deliver her to a group of fairies who are better suited for hiding her from the king’s scrying spells. From this point, the game begins splitting in different avenues depending on the outcome, which makes for a nice replayable game.
If something were to happen to the pig, named Hen Wen, along the way, then the game changes to you needing to rescue her back. If you successfully deliver the pig (which if nothing happens will take all of about 2 minutes of walking), then you are able to have a bit more flexibility on what to do.
Even going to the Horned King’s castle has options. You can swim the moat and try to avoid the crocodiles swimming in the green, putrid water or you can try to sneak in through the front gates behind one of the king’s henchmen. Because this is a Sierra game, there are points to be acquired by achieving various tasks. Depending on your choices, your final points may vary to where they don’t reach the maximum number (230 points).
Because of the graphics being heavily pixelated for being made in 1986, there are more challenges than what the programmers initially planned on. (Speaking of programmers, Al Lowe designed the game who many of you may remember from creating Leisure Suit Larry). For example, if you are walking along a path that is set on the Z-axis, that is going toward or away from the camera, there is no real sense of depth as they drew the scenes on a 2D area using darker colors to signify shading. This makes it challenging to know whether you have walked passed the big crack in the ground or if you’re even with it. The moveable character does not scale to the depth of the screen. He’s just as tall in the foreground as he is in the background. Turning to the side to walk laterally may wind up walking into the crack. This was typical for a lot of adventure point-and-click games of the 80s, especially for Sierra On-Line games like King’s Quest. While it could pose for frustrating moments when you are already faced with a solid challenge, it was common enough to be accepted by gamers of the time. Pixel art was an enjoyable look back then because it was all we had to look at. These days, pixel art has become more of an appreciated art form knowing how tedious it can be.
Like I said earlier, the game offered multiple avenues throughout the game and most notably multiple endings. This was definitely a unique feature for video games as most were linear at the time. You were presented choices not just at the end of the game but throughout that altered the ending significantly. Most of these choices were presented in the books although, of course, only one was ultimately picked. The game offers these “what if” alternatives to see how things could have played out.
Because The Black Cauldron was a Disney movie, originally aimed for children, the controls were made extremely simply. For versions on IBM compatible computers, just hitting F6 was sufficient to “do something” in the game from opening a door to swinging a sword. Every action was F6. For the Inventory, I believe it was F4. F5 was to save and F7 was to load games. And that was basically all you had for controls besides movement, which was still being used on the number pad (WASD wasn’t around until Wolfenstein and Doom).
Much of the songs that were featured in the film were converted to MIDI files and play throughout the game, which was a nice addition though mostly expected since the license to make the game was bought. The Apple IIgs version offered lesser quality songs than the IBM compatibles that were hooked up to a Roland MT-32 Sound Module.
It is interesting to briefly note about the film for those unaware of the feature film by Disney. First, it was by far the worst grossing animated film Disney ever made (inflation considered). By far. It was the only animated film at that time to have a PG rating (a cartoon for kids having a PG rating….in the 1980s no less). Besides the other Disney animated film The Rescuers, it is the only animated movie to not have a single song sung. This is especially peculiar because one of the characters in the film is a bard (though he doesn’t sing in the books and doesn’t play the lyre he carries with him). The extremely dark overtones of the movie, most notably the Horned King and the Cauldron Born (undead skeletons garbed in medieval armor), kept parents from bringing their children to the theaters. Disney quickly rebounded as they would be expected to do by creating The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and then explode with their colossal hits of the 90s starting with the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid.
The game offered some fun surprises and hidden tricks throughout. There is even an Easter egg somewhere in the Horned King’s castle. It is a shame it was received almost as poorly as the film. Much like so many games of that era that were not mainstream or hugely popular, the game is nearly impossible to find hard copies (and those that are available are usually valued at a high price). Fortunately the game is offered online through a browser to sample it for yourself since it’s nearly impossible to buy the game reasonably priced.
Click right here to go to Sarien.net, which is built for older games played through the browser. Enjoy.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.