Thursday, March 24, 2022

BRIEF: The Immortal (1990)

 
Immortality doesn't seem so great if you have to have a skull for a head.
  
The Immortal
United States
Independently developed; published by Electronic Arts
Released 1990 for Apple IIGS, Amiga, Atari ST, and NES; 1991 for DOS, SEGA Genesis
Rejected for: No character attributes or development
    
When I first launched The Immortal, I was hoping it was, in fact, a role-playing game. I like the look of it; I like the style of gameplay. I wouldn't like it for multiple games in a row, but it would have suited me nicely for a few hours this month. It would have been a nice contrast to Angband: a light, mostly action-oriented game with fairly simple controls, an oblique interface, and lots of mechanical puzzles. Kind of like a "lite" version of The Summoning
      
The game begins in a small chamber where you get a message from your master.
      
Alas, it is too "lite." The character, who you don't name, has no statistics. Combat is action-oriented, and the character only gains more power via inventory acquisition. It strikes me a lot like the UK's Cadaver (1990), released the same year.
   
The author, Will Harvey, was well known for his Music Construction Set (1984) for the Apple II, published when he was just 17. Before The Immortal, he wrote a shooter called Lancaster (1983) and Will Harvey's Zany Golf (1988). The Immortal was his first and only fantasy game, and in general, he's one of the most themeless developers I've ever seen. Throughout the 1990s, he mixed occasional game work with ventures into other technologies.
        
An enemy approaches as I consider looting a corpse.
      
The Immortal casts you in the role of a wizard whose mentor, Mordamir, has disappeared. The protagonist finds a message from the wizard on the top level of a dungeon, indicating he's being held prisoner at the bottom level of the dungeon. The wizard has to navigate through multiple levels, fight enemies, solve navigational puzzles, avoid traps, and collect spells, gold, and other useful items. NPCs pop up with hints or with goods for sale.
     
An NPC offers a hint.
      
Combat takes you to a special one-on-one screen with an appearance and control system that reminds me of Quest for Glory, albeit with a better sense of timing. You watch your enemy's actions and slash or stab when his guard is down (and fatigue is up) and dodge or parry when he makes his own attack. The opening combats are slow enough that you can time them perfectly, but I assume they get faster. Some versions of the game--not the DOS one that I played--have fairly gruesome enemy death animations. The wizard is shown causing their heads to explode, turning them to stone (which then crumbles to dust), and slicing them in half, spilling their innards on the floor.
    
The wizard's head is bowed as he suffers a hit.
        
Traps are more deadly than enemies. Arrows fly from the walls, pits open up beneath you, and solving puzzles the wrong way can result in instant death. My impression from online comments is that the game is known for requiring you to make multiple trips through each level, dying multiple times and learning from each death.
      
Arrows fly from the walls as the hero scurries through the room.
     
The controls are relatively simple: you either use a joystick or the numberpad as if it were a joystick. Although written originally for the Apple II GS, the game seems to have been designed with its inevitable console ports in mind. Even in the computer versions, you can't save; you can only record a "certificate" (a long save code) at the end of each level.
   
Just one final (spoiler) note before I move on: Even though there's virtually no backstory, the moment my character got the message from Mordamir, I guessed that Mordamir was really the bad guy and that instead of "rescuing" him from the bottom of the dungeon, you'd discover that he orchestrated the whole thing, and he'd be the final boss. I was right. It turns out that Mordamir is tricking you into killing a dragon so that he can access the Fountain of Youth that he drank from a thousand years ago. You have to use a bunch of items and spells exactly right in the final sequence to avoid the dragon's attacks and Mordamir's spells, and then get the dragon to kill Mordamir.
   
Not so "immortal," then. [Image from the SEGA Genesis version, courtesy of Tome's YouTube walkthrough.]
       
The puzzles seem a bit too deterministic for my tastes, but otherwise I wouldn't mind an RPG in this vein. Let's see what the next random roll brings me.
   

54 comments:

  1. I'm wondering why this game is as famous as it appears to be (and has so many ports) considering the whole game is blatantly, vastly unfair. It is full of trial and error puzzles (where every error kills you), "walking dead" situations whenever you've missed an item or used it in the wrong spot, and it has more random and unexpected deaths than a Sierra game. And this in the era before internet FAQs and walkthroughs...

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    1. I played this one several times because I was attracted by the moody visuals and detailed death animations. It's a beautiful game.

      I never got very far though because the death animations aren't the only brutal thing about the game... the difficulty is, too, and you can't even savescum to deal with it!

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    2. I owned this for my NES in the early-90s. The reason I bought it was that it looked very 'realistic' compared to other NES games. Of course, it wasn't much fun to play and I never got far. I guess the game was easy to market because of its graphics (certainly worked on teenage me).

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    3. Had it on the Amiga. I never finished it because of the difficulty (the pits that opened under you were a particular annoyance). But the graphics and variety were excellent and I didn't regret my time with it.

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    4. It is curious how this was Will Harvey's best known game. Its the sort of thing that sounds like something that wouldn't work and I guess technically it didn't. Action gamers don't really like having to think things out and adventure games tend not to work with action sequences, let alone a primarily action half. Must be like Uninvited where the appeal lies exclusively in the violent death scenes.

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    5. not really unfair. it was a trial and error game, the fun was in discovering what to do and failing snd suffering cool deaths until you beat the game. lots of people played to the end in those days.

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    6. Oh I seriously doubt that "lots of people played to the end in those days" :D Got any credible source for that?

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    7. I was a teen in those days but anecdotally speaking, the game was well-regarded and the ending was well thought of.

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    8. It clearly is/was well-regarded, but that does NOT mean that a lot of people got to the end or even to the halfway point.

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    9. "lots" is pretty vague. "lots" in percentage of players that played this game? Hardly. "lots" as in "significantly more than noone"? Likely.

      If this game had made the rounds among my friends back then, a few of them would have finished it. The ones that stick with hard games until they beat them. It doesn't sound inherently unfair - you just need to invest the time and be willing to repeat things over and over again. It would be unfair if walking dead situations would carry over into save codes and levels.

      Just looked at the ending in the linked video, pretty neat.

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    10. So while I agree this certainly isn't an RPG, is it really that different from a game like King's Quest?
      Yeah, KQ is a lot more complex but it too has a lot of trial & error, an inventory to juggle, unforgiving death traps, walking-dead situations. AFAIK, The Immortal is as close as the Genesis might get to a game like KQ.

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    11. Not sure what could ever be gained in debating unfalsifiable claims like "lots of people finished it". Barring an automatically-populated online leaderboard, we have no way of knowing how many people did or didn't.

      On the other hand, unforeseeable trial-and-error instant death traps abounded in games of the era, ranging from text adventures to laserdisc FMV games to cinematic platformers to anything else, so it's pretty clear that it wasn't a dealbreaker for sales purposes (which is the consideration that overrules all others for most publishers, i.e. making money: in a very real sense, the definition of a successful game is that it's a successful business venture).

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    12. well, me and a lot of friends played to the end in dos,amiga and genesis versions. we were average players and had fun with immortal. the claim that it was terribly difficult and blatantly unfair seens absurd, you just had to be patient and try again and discover what to do. it was not like shadow of the beast and other unfair arcades, it was just a matter of learning how to beat the puzzles. of course there was a lot of trial and error and repeating, to make the game last, or else you would beat it in one hour, wich can be done after you learn everything. it has just a different style from modern games, but its not terribly unfair or hard for 1990.

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    13. objects and what you could try were very limited, narrowing the solutions. a lot (fonts. needs proofs.) of sierra adventure puzzles had crazier, dumber and more absurd solutions and were more unforgiving then immortal puzzles.

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    14. I don't really have a problem with trial and error gameplay as long as it doesn't waste a tremendous amount of the player's time.

      One horrible offender is the Conan game for NES (an adaptation of Myth for C64 et al., but I've only played the NES reskin). Get to the end of that taxing game and you're faced with a "place these items in exactly the right sequence" puzzle that, as far as I know, isn't foreshadowed or clued earlier. It's a total time-waster designed to extend the life of a short and joyless game.

      Certain shooter/shmup games do this kind of thing too, with unforeseeable dead ends or boss patterns that deliberately leave no time to react, making the game dependent on memorization more than skill. (The cleverness you feel once you've memorized the pattern is illusory, as no skill has been developed and nothing has really been learned. The one thing we can never get back is time, and any game mechanic that depends upon a person's willingness to squander their life borders on the unethical.)

      But if a game allows for saving, passwords, etc. then it's a different beast entirely. Or if it's just super-short in such a way that it's very easy to get back to where you were, e.g. some text adventure games, then it's generally OK too.

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    15. I'd say the comparison to Sierra is good. Most Sierra adventure games are rife with dead ends, but nowadays dead ends are commonly considered poor game design. In other words, dead ends are normal in 1990, and "unfair" by 2020 standards; and 1990 games that rely on dead ends have likely "aged poorly".

      For instance, King's Quest 5 was groundbreaking by 1990 standards, but nowadays is mostly remembered and mocked for its poor puzzle design (and for Cedric). Rival game The Secret Of Monkey Island has aged much better.

      A good RPG example is all those weird French games that Chet encounters. At the time they were written, nobody really knew that that's NOT how you write a good RPG. But now we do.

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    16. I have to say, I'm of the mind that an RPG should theoretically be winnable without dying once, and without resorting to spoilers or pure luck. Even though I almost never complete a game without dying, I like to think it's possible. Every time I have to reload, it feels like I'm continuing with a lesser, damaged version of the character.

      For this reason, I have a bit of a regard for games that make death and "reloading" part of the game world, explainable in-universe. Dark Souls is an obvious example, but so is the upcoming Wizardry IV. W4 requires a lot of trial and error, but when you die, you don't "reload" so much as respawn in a way that's explained by the backstory.

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    17. Isn't the PC in thr Immortal, immortal? Sure he dies many deaths but he keeps coming back to try again. Maybe he's cursed? Maybe he's pulling a Dr Strange and has locked himself in a time loop? You know, magic.

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    18. @Pavone no, "the immortal" is the game's antagonist. However, Planescape Torment is set up in th eway you describe.

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    19. In response to Chet: Modern adventure game/interactive fiction players ALSO prefer if those games are winnable without dying once, and without requiring spoilers or luck.

      Gamers back in the 90s didn't necessarily care, but 90s games that followed this principle (e.g. LucasArts) tend to be better remembered than games that didn't (e.g. Sierra). Indeed, at the AdvGamer blog, on average LucasArts games score much higher than Sierra, although this is not the only reason for that.

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    20. People had different standards back then. This was a beautiful game at its time, especially on the A500. People were used to difficulty and complexity, trange Ui's and had more of an attention span that todays mass market products are geared twoards these days. You'd be hard pressed to find a group of 14 year olds spending hours on a strategy game like Empire:Wargame of the Century on a single machine, taking turns. Its probably Mario Kart.

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  2. Never got to play it but I do remember reading raving reviews of it on my favourite games magazine. It seems it struck a chord with the critics of the time.

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    1. I was gonna say! I never played this game but the moment I saw the title I remembered reading about how cool it was, super hardcore with all these cool hardcore death animations! I was eleven at the time.

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  3. "I guessed that Mordamir was really the bad guy"

    I guess that name gave him away?

    Incidentally I skipped tried this game myself but skipped it since I decided it was an "Action game with bad controls".

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    1. That and "adventure game with bad puzzles".

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  4. For 1990, those are some gosh darn pretty graphics.

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    1. They really are and, to me, that explains why it became so famous and got so many good reviews.

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    3. And it wasn't even from Psygnosis...

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    4. I never understood this opinion. Even back then, seeing screenshots of this game I thought that it's visuals are boring. Just compare this with Cadaver from the same year.

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    5. I agree that Cadaver's graphics are better, but they're also a bit more cartoonish. I think Immortal's graphics are arguably more atmospheric.

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  5. I vaguely remember this game partly because it was so difficult. I moved on quickly...

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  6. Cadaver is one of my old favorites. Compared to the Immortal, Cadaver is MUCH bigger, allows more alternative solutions, and has much less sudden deaths (but still dead ends). That said, it's definitely not an RPG, as its only character growth is HP.

    The Immortal looks better, too; contemporary reviews suggest that its graphics are its main appeal. And the gratuitous gore surely helped; this is not far before the release of Mortal Kombat.

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  7. In Hall of Light's defense, they only ever get cited for a RPG where Mobygames doesn't mention it or doesn't have it. Obviously, whoever added the game there should have used the action-adventure tag they have instead of the RPG tag, but when it comes to games people rarely play everyone is in danger of not getting the genre right. Even Mobygames has possibly hundreds of titles under the wrong genre because nobody played them before checking. You've seen it several times yourself.
    (yes, I also know that the reason for this whole hub-drub is Space Hulk, no I'm not defending that)

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  8. Fun fact: This game was the subject of what's widely considered to be the first video Let's Play, the patient zero ancestor of the colossus that is modern-day personality-based game streaming.

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  9. Oh cool. I remember being interested in this when it made the Nintendo Switch nes online inventory. I didn't ever get far myself - clearly I'm not alone in finding it brutally difficult.

    It makes me incredibly sad to compare what Electronic Arts is today with what it once was. They used to prominently feature the name of the main game designer, and even when the designer wasn't in the actual title they prominently featured the main developers in the opening attract reel (is it still an attract reel if it's not an arcade? I think so.) I can still remember the names of the main staff behind Road Rash.

    There are ads preserved where EA played up the idea of being 'Electronic Artists', like a stable of recording artists at a music publisher, and featured the people behind their games in print ads. Computer Gaming World, for example, prominently featured Bill Budge (creator of Pinball Construction Set) and Dani (then Dan) Bunten, creator of M.U.L.E.

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  10. Advantages and disadvantages of having a skull for a face:
    - Advantage: No shaving/hair removal
    - Disadvantage: Presumably lots of moisturizer required (to avoid bleaching etc.)
    - Advantage: Don't need to update profile picture every decade or so.
    - Disadvantage: People confuse you with Skeletor (that guy's a jerk!)
    - Advantage: Small children run away screaming.
    - Disadvantage: Attractive people run away screaming.
    - Advantage: Brushing teeth is much easier.
    ...

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    1. Honestly, I'd really try to incorporate 'skull care' into my immortality spell.

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    2. If you've got enough power (and thus, probably, money), the attractive people will stay. Plus, there's always a weirdo who finds something attractive.

      Unrelated, those goblins look pretty sexy...


      (Is that even a skull? Looks purple and slightly reptilian to me)

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  11. In defence of this game, while it’s not aged especially well, it was great if you were a child at the time. If you get one game for Christmas and one for your birthday, and maybe one or two in the interim if you save up your pocket money, a really difficult game with beautiful graphics which will last you a long time was absolutely perfect. I have many fond memories of completing the game over the course of several weeks with a friend – the repeated deaths didn’t annoy us at all, thanks to the hilariously gory animations. I particularly remember us going nuts over the sequence of being devoured by thousands of tiny spiders. The puzzles are really obscure, but you could relatively easily pick up tips from word of mouth or from magazines of the time (i.e. using the blink spell to avoid the dragon’s breath at the end).

    Obviously, I can’t be doing with this sort of thing nowadays, but it was fantastic in the early nineties.

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    1. Ahhh yes... the old days... when I actually ran out of books and games and was bored...

      Now it is simply no time for anything except work and childcare...

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  12. This must be one of the only (non-shareware) games that debuted on the Apple IIGS. As a kid whose first home computer was the IIGS, and who felt a little envious browsing the comparatively huge library of IBM-compatible games at electronics stores, it was a rare treat.

    I want to point out two differences between the Apple IIGS version and most of the ports. Firstly, on the IIGS, battles occur on the game map itself, without switching to a separate screen with larger sprites. They don't (to my recollection) include any over-the-top gore.

    Secondly, the soundtrack in the IIGS version was composed by Douglas Fulton, and is entirely different from the soundtrack in the ports, which was done by Rob Hubbard. Hubbard's music for the game is very good, and I don't want to put it down, but Fulton's original score has a very haunting quality that really complements the setting and mystery of the game.

    Unfortunately, I can't find any videos of the IIGS version on YouTube. You can download MP3s of the music on this Apple IIGS preservation site:

    https://www.whatisthe2gs.apple2.org.za/immortal-the.html

    The only port of which I'm aware that is close to the IIGS version, and features a rendition of Douglas Fulton's original soundtrack (albeit using a different sound chip that isn't quite as effective), is the Atari ST version:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAoDO1TjR_g

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    1. Ah, Rob Hubbard, one of the greats composing or adapting music for the C64 SID. Monty on the run, Commando, International Karate, Skate or Die, ... . Amazing what he and others were able to get out of that chip.

      More on topic for this blog in general, since Chet does not care much for in-game music, I wonder if there could be a guest posting on it one day, covering e.g. some of the CRPGs written about by then or CRPG soundtracks in general.

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  13. I remember playing this one back in the day. Like Chet, I never got anywhere near beating it.

    In the 80's and early 90's, though, a lot of console action games were like this. You weren't expected to finish the whole game on your first try without dying, you were expected to keep hitting your head against the wall until you memorized the patterns of all the levels and bosses. (The phrase "git gud" didn't exist back then, but the attitude itself absolutely did.)

    That era also gave us Shadowgate, an adventure game famous for all the ridiculous, unexpected ways you could make a wrong move and die.

    I can't help thinking that this sort of game design informed The Immortal just a little too much.

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  14. But why did you even play this?
    It's clearly not an RPG, and anybody could have told you so.

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    1. Unfortunately, the Amiga Hall of Light doesn't agree with you. They were one of the sources I used to find RPGs, and they say this is an RPG. I don't agree, but I don't know that I don't agree until I play it.

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    2. Maybe you could ask people here, then. Make a special post for it, or something.
      Because, as you well know, these tags are often inaccurate.

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    3. Yes, the tags are often inaccurate, but not as inaccurate as dozens of my commenters offering independent opinions. And how would a special post asking for opinions be better than a BRIEF talking a little about the game?

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    4. It would waste far less of your time.

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