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8-Bit Adventure Anthology: Volume 1

"Each game looks and sounds like it would running on NES hardware, and there's even a range of display settings to emulate different types of CRT TVs and monitors for that old-school feel."

Kemco's ports of ICOM Simulations' MacVenture games always felt like an odd fit for the Nintendo Entertainment System. They were clearly meant to be played on the Macintosh: their shared engine was made up of a series of discrete Finder windows optimized for navigation via mouse — no coincidence the series' shared engine was created by Darin Adler, lead developer of Apple's System 7 OS. Furthermore, during a period in which Nintendo of America's content rules were at their most stringent, the MacVenture titles were surprisingly dark. Each title was a send-up to a different cinematic genre: Shadowgate, a dark fantasy; Déjà Vu, a hard-boiled film noir; and The Uninvited, an occult-tinged Hammer Horror homage. Each game saw the player forced to take some dodgy actions to complete their quest, and gruesome deaths lurked around every corner. There was definitely something unique going on with these titles, something almost illicit.

I remember salivating over the coverage these games received in the magazines du jour until I finally got my hands on an NES and all three of them many years later. Strangely, they gave me an uncanny sense of nostalgia for a past that I hadn't actually experienced — a state of déjà vu, if you will. I always enjoyed playing through these games, and not always with the intent to complete them; the player's verb set is wide-reaching, and the developers accounted for a number of imaginative actions. Sometimes it was just fun to go off-script in these worlds and see just how much of a mess you could make, as if the role of protagonist had been filled by Harpo Marx.

Although the original MacVenture titles would see themselves ported to Windows and eventually Steam, Kemco's interpretations have been historically less accessible, seemingly resigned to the NES and Game Boy Color, with Virtual Console releases nowhere to be found. Abstraction Games have sought to remedy this with 8-Bit Adventure Anthology Vol. 1, a tidy little bundle of Shadowgate, Déjà Vu, and The Uninvited for PC and modern consoles. And they've done a good job, too! PC is just about the best place for these games — frankly, they were a nightmare to navigate with the NES d-pad (I can't vouch for the PS4/XOne versions), so mouse input is a very welcome feature. In addition to navigation being greatly improved, Abstraction have expertly reproduced the titles' charming 8-bit audiovisual aesthetics here. Each game looks and sounds like it would running on NES hardware, and there's even a range of display settings to emulate different types of CRT TVs and monitors for that old-school feel. You can make those pixels as crisp or blurry as you want; I like 'em nice and blurry, so these options were very much appreciated.

Upon firing up Déjà Vu, I was instantly hit with a wave of nostalgia. Seeing Ace Harding Private Eye wake up in that seedy men's room stall as gloomy chiptune jazz played brought a huge smile to my face, and I found myself fully absorbed in solving its noir mystery. I was similarly excited to jump into The Uninvited and immediately began to seek out its myriad gruesome deaths. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Abstraction Games appreciate these as much as I do: the achievements in this package are mostly death related, as if to reward your suffering.

However, the games themselves arguably have limited appeal. Although the two aforementioned titles are those that I have the most affection for in this package, neither are particularly groundbreaking. They both succeed at their goals to pastiche their chosen genre, though they lack the strong writing or ambitious mechanics of, say, their early LucasArts contemporaries. The true classic in 8-Bit Adventure Anthology is Shadowgate, a lonesome trek into the titular castle to defeat the wicked Warlock Lord. Virtually every room within Castle Shadowgate is a puzzle in itself, some more fiendish than others, and any missteps are likely to result in the protagonist's (sometimes amusing) demise. The solutions are a mix of brainteasers and old-school trial and error, and fortunately the penalty for death in all three of these games is very light, as the game plops you back right before your fatal move.

The main thing that makes Shadowgate more difficult than its siblings is its torch system: the player begins with a single lit torch, and must have a lit torch in their inventory at all times, lest they stumble in the darkness and break their neck. A torch's light diminishes slightly with each action taken, and although Castle Shadowgate contains many torches, they are a finite resource. This means Shadowgate essentially operates under a time limit, or a turn limit more precisely. While the game can be completed with torches to spare, it does feel as though it unfairly punishes the trial-and-error experimentation that it is so firmly entrenched in.

That doesn't mean this package isn't worth playing, though it likely won't have a lot to offer those who don't have a vested interest in...well, 8-bit adventure games. You don't necessarily need to have played these games previously to enjoy them now, but their enjoyment does benefit from some familiarity and patience with the often unfriendly tone of 1980s point-and-click adventures. There are several bologna design decisions in these games that wouldn't fly today, though depending on your good will, that's part of the fun.

It's very curious that Abstraction have chosen to title this package Vol. 1: there were only four MacVenture titles, so what could a prospective future volume hold? The Game Boy Color port of Déjà Vu 2? Falcom's Tombs & Treasures? Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom?! (Be still my heart.) No matter what they throw together for Vol. 2, I'll be there, as Abstraction Games have proven they have the chops for it.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

© 2017 Abstraction Games. All rights reserved.

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