Monday, November 7, 2016

Game 234: Knightmare (1991)

United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 6 November 2016
We've seen it happen before and we'll see it again: A TV or film franchise is popular. Someone thinks it would make a good computer game. But time is of the essence--you have to catch fads while they're hot--so there probably isn't a lot of time to build an appropriate game engine from the ground up. A developer is contracted with a strict deadline. "Hey, why don't we re-use the Whatever engine that was so successful in Our Last Game?" they say. Boom. Three months later, you're playing Friends: The Official Game, which inexplicably has the six title characters repelling a demonic invasion of New York in the DOOM engine. ("Could you be any more dead?!" Chandler says every time he takes down a boss. It's funny the first time.)

Thus, when I first heard that Knightmare was both a) based on a British television show and b) was developed by Antony Crowther using his Captive engine, I was sure we had another such situation on our hands. I knew nothing about the plot of the TV show: I just couldn't imagine how it could possibly be served in the kind of plot-limited, Dungeon Master-inspired first-person gameplay featured in Captive.

Little did I realize that this is a rare case of the match-up making perfect sense. The original show takes place in a first-person view (for one player) and a quasi-first-person view for the rest. The Dungeon Master-inspired Captive engine, which already allows for a variety of navigation puzzles, probably works better than anything else available in 1991 to offer a combination of role-playing and puzzle-solving.

Having watched a few episodes of Knightmare (1987-1994) now, I first can't believe I'd never heard of the show before. It's a delightfully bizarre cross between a reality/contest show, a virtual reality experience, and live-action role playing. You have to watch it to do it justice, but the basic theme is that a team of 4 kids navigates a part-constructed, part-virtual reality dungeon, solves puzzles, slays monsters, casts spells, and whatnot, hoping to find a treasure. A host, named "Treguard of Dunshelm," sets up and moderates each episode, and other recurring "NPCs" occasionally appear to offer hints or challenge the players. Only one member of the team actually "navigates" the dungeon, wearing a "helmet" that restricts his or her view. The rest observe his or her progress and offer advice and encouragement. The quests are extremely hard, and in the eight-year history of the show, only eight teams won the game. 
A player tries to navigate around a cobra while his team members give him instructions on where to walk.
(As an aside, the kids on the show crack me up. I watched three episodes from different seasons, and I don't think a single one of them smiled or laughed the entire time. They were all deadly serious and somber, even when just stating their names and the towns they came from.)

The game manual similarly presents the party as composed of four English youths who have been camping and hiking all summer, hoping to find the way to Treguard's realm. Eventually, they come upon a portal that takes them to Dunshelm, where they are given a quest to retrieve four items--shield, sword, cup, and crown--from the castle's dungeons. Much as in Chaos Strikes Back, each item lies along a particular path with puzzles appropriate to one of the game's classes. Once the party has assembled all the items, they will use them to challenge Lord Fear and "banish him from this earth forever."
The introductory screens invite the player to a castle.
In creating a party of four characters, you choose one of 8 "breeds"--man, woman, goblin, ogre, ghoul, elf, troll, and insectole--and one of 6 classes--adventurer, gladiator, samurai, wizard, priest, and genie. Of the advantages and disadvantages of these breeds and classes, the manual tells you precisely nothing, nor does it attempt to reconcile such races with the backstory. You assign a name and title to each character, then select sex, breed, class, and dominant hand.
Character creation.
I went with a male adventurer, female samurai, an elf wizard, and an insectole priest. The game began!

I played Captive over two years ago (starting here) and left the impression that I didn't like it. It was the sort of game that's confusing on your first trip, and it wasn't until after I'd finished playing that I realized I liked it better than I thought and actually found myself missing it a bit, so I didn't approach this one with any kind of dread. The interface has been simplified--there are no "monitors" across the top of the screen, among other things--and this coupled with the medieval setting actually feels a bit more like Dungeon Master than the original Captive. The engine has been modified to allow more puzzles, and my understanding is the levels are all created by hand instead of procedurally-generated as in Captive. Even in the first area, it was clear that Knightmare allows more things in the environment than Captive.
Yes, I know some of you think it makes perfect sense that you take damage from walking into a bush. We'll never agree on this issue.
Unfortunately, just as in Captive, the party takes damage from walking into things, and there are more things in Knightmare's environment (like small bushes) that it looks like you ought to be able to move through. These bushes, I soon found, are used to create mazes in the outdoor areas.

Combat is much the same: each character has two hands and can hold a variety of weapons and magic wands or staves in those hands. Right-clicking activates the attack or item use. When you first find an item, the first time you right-click, the game asks what action you want to execute. It asks this even if there's only one possible action. You want to do this right away and not have the pop-up menu show up in combat. Annoyingly, every time you toss a throwing weapon, the action re-sets, so you have to specify it again every time you pick up and re-equip the weapons. As if picking up all your throwing weapons post-combat wasn't annoying enough.
The party fights some kind of troll thing with its fists after exhausting its balls.
The characters start the game with no equipment. The opening area was small and offered only a couple of faces in magic mirrors (or something), one of which said "Welcome to your knightmare" and the other said "return the crown here." Through a nearby portal, I found a cubbyhole with three balls that work like the superballs of Captive. Later, strewn across the ground, I found various items of "armor"--shirts, shorts, and sandals. This makes me wonder what my characters were wearing, if anything, when they went exploring in the first place.
My character assembles a basic outfit.
The opening area consisted of three small rectangles, 6-10 squares wide and 6-7 squares tall. They were connected by a track with a cart that moves automatically. I couldn't walk on the track itself and I took damage when I tried (was I hitting the third rail?). Exploring these areas meant jumping off the cart at strategic times in it's rapid back-and-forth movement.

There was one enemy in the area, some kind of troll thing. Just as in Captive, it's satisfying when enemies finally die in a puff of blood.

"Take this shortcut to the forest" a floating head said next to a portal. This led me to a much larger map, about 25 x 25. "Your quest starts here," a nearby head announced. At first, I was hemmed in by hedges, but a switch on a wall opened one of the hedge squares. A "twig" found near the entrance served as a crude weapon.
The forest. You start in the bottom-center.
The larger area was crawling with little gnomish creatures, flying tree heads, and little rabbits, the latter of which seemed non-hostile. As I explored, I found a couple of penknives to serve as better weapons.

Four exits from this area were blocked by living trees. After they thoroughly whomped me in combat (that I started), I realized that they're not even hostile. If you click on them, they talk. Lesson learned--don't just attack every creature on the screen. Each tree wanted something. "Have you seen my cup?" one asked. Another wanted his weapon, a third his "cover." None of these corresponded with items that I'd found.
The fourth said he was missing his "child." I tossed the twig at him and the tree disappeared, leaving a magic wand in his place. His disappearance unblocked a path to a portal. A nearby head announced that this was "Quest One, the Shield of Justice." I assume that on this quest path I'll find an object to give to the tree blocking Quest Two.
In the northeast corner of the map, I found an iron key. I nearly missed it; my colorblindness hurts me a bit in games with small items on top of such detailed features. Anyway, the key opens a door in the northwest corner, behind which three ogre-like creatures are lurking. They killed my party in a hot minute. I reloaded and tried combat-waltzing them, but one mistake led to the death of a character in one blow. I guess I'll save them for later.
I suppose this gate was probably closed for a reason.
When party members die, incidentally, their--yuck--hearts are left behind. I don't yet know if there's any way to raise them.
A gnome manages to kill two characters while I thought "pause" was active.
The manual for Knightmare is unforgivably sparse. In addition to not covering anything about races and classes, healing and resurrection, it doesn't indicate if there's any downside to resting or standing around (both of which, unlike in Captive, heal damage). It's very thin on how the magic and character development system work. Rather than offer skills and experience points as in Captive, the game seems to copy Dungeon Master by assigning skill levels to the various character classes and by leveling you up based on how you use those skills. Various weapons, wands, and staves are aspected to particular character classes.
My lead character has an adventurer and a gladiator level.
Finally, I'll note that after playing Fate, with its rich background sounds, Knightmare is a bit eerie in its silence. A jaunty tune based on the TV show theme plays when you first start the game, and there are sounds to accompany combat and accidentally walking into walls, but otherwise nothing. There won't be many more games that are so quiet during exploration.
The Quest One portal takes me into a more standard dungeon-looking terrain, and I suspect the puzzles there are going to get harder, so I'll leave off for now. It's not bad so far, but I wish I wasn't playing and mapping two large, first-person Amiga games at the same time.

Time so far: 3 hours


  1. "Yes, I know some of you think it makes perfect sense that you take damage from walking into a bush."

    I for one sure don't. I don't know if there are secret walls in this game, but looking for them by bumping is annoying already, getting damaged in the process makes it doubly so. I wonder who came up with this dumb idea in the first place? The Dungeon Master guys?

    The whole game feels like a less streamlined, more convoluted DM clone as it is.

    "It's not bad so far, but I wish I wasn't playing and mapping two large, first-person Amiga games at the same time."

    Too late now. These are trying times, be brave. :)

    1. Personally, I think it's far more logical to take damage from walking into a bush (many of those have thorns) than a wall.

    2. Both suck. In an RPG, moving "forward" is generally a way of testing whether you can go that way. Is there a secret door? Is this bush really impassable? Am I misinterpreting the perspective, or do I have an extra step before that wall? By dealing damage, the game assumes that your method of answering these questions is to charge ahead at full speed.

  2. I wonder if this mechanic didn't evolve out of old arcade games where you had to train your muscle memory for the correct path.

    When you are fleeing an enemy and run into a wall or bush at full speed and are forced to take damage, it feels a lot like an arcade game where you are punished for not remembering the exact key sequence/path.

    I think this mechanic works better for pits, traps, fire. It makes more sense for a game to punish you for forgetting where these are.

    1. Also I remember wanting this game badly but unable to find it on any local game store shelf (my only source of games when I was a teenager). I believe this is one of the couple dozen games that uses the Amiga's 64 colour mode, extra halfbrite. I am thrilled to see this game covered.

  3. I had no idea the show got a game. My wasted youth just got a coda.

    1. If you'll deign to create a handle for yourself, I'd love to hear your recollections on the show, it's ineffably bizarre tone, and it's deadly-serious British youths.

    2. I've only seen parts of a real episode of the original show but I have seen a full length parody. IIRC, the seriousness was there as was near constant prodding by the hosts and NPCs, totally clueless children and an awful lot of face palming as the kids were unable to give and follow instructions.

    3. The show was wonderful to watch when one of the 'good' groups was involved, when any of the other groups played, it was frustrating unless you took on an evil persona and laughed at their incompetence...

      The game was amazing at the time though, as someone who spent far too long playing Captive (I reached an infamous bugged level where the code for a door was behind the door), combining that engine with a smart Dungeon Master clone resulted in a game that ruined my first semester at college.

    4. You're right about the difficulty of the show. In the Spanish version, I don't remember any episode with a winning team, and some times it was painful to see the kids try to guide their teammate in such awful ways. As Mr.pavone says, there was a lot of face palming.

    5. The other amazingly frustrating part of this show was that they didn't keep episodes self-contained and had very little insight in how to maintain continuity. You'd watch a team do well throughout an episode, then get the dreaded 'continued next week'. This is a show which works far better on cable where they can do marathons (as long as they get the sequence right).

    6. I'm not surprised the kids looked serious. I can remember feeling the suspense at home.

      *Goblin approaches unsuspecting child*
      "Turn to your left!"
      *Turns right*
      [Everyone shouts conflicting directions]
      [Finally one child takes control]
      "Just run forward!"
      *Falls down ravine*

      Also Treguard was really sinister, especially in the early series when he didn't really give a toss what happened to the kids. "Eaten by a giant spider? Never mind, let's meet our next band of adventurers and they're from Norwich..."

    7. "The show was wonderful to watch when one of the 'good' groups was involved." Any chance you can point me to one of those episodes? I've tried a random sample, and almost all of them follow Jeremiah's script above.

    8. I can't access Youtube at the moment but if you google "Knightmare winning teams" you'll see them.

      Apparently the last team in every series was basically doomed because obviously there couldn't be another episode for them to continue in.

  4. Glad you're sort of into it, and the TV show. That show was a staple of mine growing up, and it could be pretty chilling for a kid. Some seasons had a "health bar" that saw a face slowly skeletize as they took damage, which I'm sure a few games have done too. Some of its early CGI creations freaked me out a bit too, like the giant wall faces that served as password barriers. The less said about the Catacombites the better...

    Treguard is the guy in the mirrors, by the way. Besides him and the intro music, though, the links to the show are fairly tenuous if I recall. I never could figure out if Mindscape were just working on a fantasy CRPG and the Knightmare license came in later, or if Tony Crowther did the best he could with the material he was given.

    I also thought this game looked incredible as a kid. Replaying it semi-recently, it's more that it was just going for a realistic vibe with a lot of dull earth tones. Even back then, impressionable youths were falling for the "brown = realism" gimmick.

    1. I would have been terrified to participate in the show. Maybe that's why the kids never smile. You're trying to figure out puzzles in a room you can barely see, while a health bar diminishes unrelentingly, and you've got Treguard standing behind you telling you how much you need to hurry up.

  5. Wouldn't it be cool if some of the old show participants turned up now in the comments? :) Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

  6. I had a demo of this when I was younger, and would be very interested to know if throwing your deceased comrades hearts at enemies was as devastating in the full game as it was in the demo. Also the TV show was GREAT. Strangely enough I now know the chap who played Folly the Jester in the first series.

    1. That's funny that you mention that, because I ACCIDENTALLY tossed one of the hearts at a foe while trying to pick it up, and it killed him instantly. I just assumed he was almost dead. I'll experiment with it later, but that would be a weird dynamic.

  7. I know the spanish version of the tv show: "El Rescate del Talisman" (Rescue of the Talisman, i think xD). And it was awesome:) The game doesnt look bad but only Amiga?? And finally, the zx spectrum Knightmare game (from Activision) is from the same series??? Thx for this new review and sorry my english :)

    1. I am not sure if this is related or not for sure, but it is so good I thought I would share. It is an orchestral piece that won an award in 2018. Maybe he was inspired by the show?

      The Rescue of the Talisman - Guillermo Ruano

  8. You haven't lived 'til you've gone on a naked hike with an insectole priest friend from school.

  9. Oh nostalgia whiplash - this seemed vaguely familiar and when I went and found a youtube longplay it opened up a whole set of intensely specific memories about the game...

    My memories of it are very disjointed and attached in some ways more to my own circumstances at the time than the game itself, so I'll be interested to see your analysis Chet!

    One piece of non-spoilery advice: don't neglect to hunt down a few of those rabbits - they're an important source of food.

    1. Yeah I used to farm a lot of rabbits, I think they respawn.
      Use the save game slots especially in quest 2 and later, I remember being walled/locked in some areas.
      It is possible to kill those trees that guard the quest areas though it took a long time. Probably not a good idea but I sometimes peeked at quests 3 and 4 that way when I was stuck on the 2nd one.

    2. What does food do for you? It doesn't seem to restore stamina or health--only resting does that.

    3. I think there's another bar on the backpack screen to show your food level. If it drops to 0, you start taking a hit to stamina at that point.

      From the Amiga manual:

      This is repressented by the coloured bar in the figure in the centre. [Of the backpack screen]
      As the character loses energy the bar will drop. If it gets to the feet
      the character is starving.
      If your stamina is reduced while you have no energy then it cannot be
      replenished unless you use magic."

    4. Food restores satiety value :) when this gets low you start losing stamina/health fast. So yes, you should expect food management being a major issue in the game. IIRC you get a spell which restores it using a high level priest wand.

    5. Okay, I see it now. That's extremely subtle shading.

  10. I do remember seeing the full page adverts in the magazines of the time (like Amiga Power) for this game, and they looked pretty great. But until recently i also had no idea it was based on a TV Show. While I played loads of Amiga RPG's, this one passed me by (probably because it never got to the game stores i used to go, which only sold pirated games)

  11. I recommend saving frequently. When I tried to play Knightmare, the game crashed on me often (this could be version-dependent).

    As for items being hard to spot, this time it's not your color-blindness doing it - the graphics in Knightmare make finding stuff really hard at times. There's a spell named GLOW that you get later that highlights objects on ground, it helps a bit in that regard.

    1. It does, but it doesn't last very long, so you have to cast it in almost every room. Still, it's helpful when you know there's something to find. I used it to highlight rabbit pies in the forest and keys in the first dungeon.

  12. Just read about something which I just have to echo in light of recent "fail" postings:

  13. There's an older Knightmare (based on the same show) released in 1987 for 8-bit computers, but it's more of a maze / adventure game (use this object there, solve that riddle, etc.), not an RPG. There are longplays of the C64 and Spectrum versions on YouTube, and both seem to last about 12 minutes, though that's obviously when the player has mapped the entire game and solved the puzzles before. Never played it back then, myself.

  14. Knightmare sounds similar to Nickelodeon's "Nick Arcade", a game-show of video games and virtual reality alongside punishing difficulty. I recall the contestants (kids) smiling and having fun though.

  15. "The party fights some kind of troll thing with its fists after exhausting its balls."
    I seriously can't imagine how this combat actually went without it getting really weird.

  16. Aaaaah, fresh meat... erm, sorry. Aaaah, Knightmare, my favorite cRPG and the one I managed to hate the most as well.

    I made a spreadsheet with all class/race/gender combination if you like to min/max:

    I never finished the game but went quite far (last quest IIRC). I'll probably try again someday. There's a nice youtube walkthrough which helps with the hardest mazes.

    1. Looks like you really want a ghoul for your mage. Oh, well. I'll suffer through with what I have.

  17. I really enjoyed this game back in the day. Came as far as level 4 , the part with the 3 wizards and pressure plates got the better of me at that time. Really thinking of replaying this little gem.
    Level 4 is a game in itself... a monster I still have to beat !


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