In this week's show we have a tale of terror originally published in Weird Tales magazine. It's a story of a boy and a monster from the late great Manly Wade Wellman. DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Up Under the Roof by Manly Wade Wellman
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In this episode we look at the last of the books on the weird and the wonderful written by Daniel Farson for Hamlyn. In this colourful volume, the kids of the 1980s could learn all about assorted monsters from dinosaurs to the xenomorph! DIRECT DOWNLOAD - MICROGORIA 54 - The Hamlyn Book of Monsters
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Welcome once more dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Or rather welcome back to Asgard and the world of Valhalla! Published in 1983 for the ZX Spectrum and ported to the Commodore 64 in 1985, Valhalla was, as we have previously discussed, a ground-breaking and ambitious game. It was worlds away from the legions of Jet Set Willy clones which were clogging up game shelves back then. But was the game itself any good?
It certainly sounded like it was going to be amazing - hanging out in a world of Norse gods and monsters, undertaking epic quests, and generally being allowed to do what the hell you liked. Well, provided you could get the bugger to load that is - for the first drawback to Valhalla was a long loading time, which greatly increased the chances of it crashing. However once you listened to the five or so minutes of electronic screeching - surely a formative influence on a generation of kids who would grow up to invent acid house, techno and jungle a decade or so later - the first thing to strike you is the scale of the world.
The game plays out in three distinct realms from old Norse cosmology, Asgard (the world of the gods), Midgard (the land of humans) and Hell (realm of the dead). Traditionally in Norse legends there were nine worlds, with additional realms for giants, elves, dwarves and so forth, but here three worlds work well enough. And just like in the old sagas, brave heroes could physically travel between the worlds. Now in the game, theses worlds of possibly exciting adventure where comprised of some 81 different screens, each one a separate location - as can be seen here map of Valhalla. Now travel between the locations was accomplished in the usual text adventure fashion i.e. typing into "go north", "go south-east" etcetera. And there were some short-cuts available too - some screens/locations had hidden "ringways" - magic portals that teleported you to another location if you possessed a magic ring.
But there were two downsides to all of this. Firstly you really needed to make some kind of map if you wanted to avoid becoming hopelessly confused and lost. But more importantly, travelling to another location meant the game had to draw another scene. Now the Movisoft engine did so by drawing in layers - first the background, then the midground, foreground, buildings, people and any items there. Hence travelling was a bit on the slow side as it tended to take about half a minute or so to render everything. Now playing Valhalla now, this kind of thing makes the game very slow and tedious indeed, however in fairness back in the day people didn't expect things to happen super quickly quite as much, and this kind of waiting for the computer to render a new screen wasn't exactly uncommon in the early adventure games. Plus it's easy to forget now how impressive the graphics were back then, for it was only a couple of years earlier than game graphics had consisted of basic shapes such as rectangles and squares moving about. And of course there was a novelty value to watching the computer draw in each scene layer by layer too.
Now as for doing the quests, while the instructions which came with the game were good, it took so long to travel anywhere or get anything done, many players soon got distracted and started just having fights for the hell it and generally running amuck. Which is arguably closer to how real Vikings might have behaved... Well, that was my excuse anyway. But anyhow, historical accuracy aside, the game itself had a certain sense of mischief to it anyway. To begin with you could spend many happy hours egging on various gods and monsters to fight each other, but Valhalla had some mischief of its own up its sleeve too.
Firstly as the program had a limit on how many items could be in any one location. There could only ever be eight items in one place, whether on the ground, in a chest, or in a cupboard. And if this limit was exceeded, the game had a novel and amusing solution. For the very second a ninth item was dropped, a character cheekily named Klepto appeared and stole one!
Which item got pilfered by Klepto was entirely random, and hence it was very possible he could take one of the much sought magic items you'd been questing for if you weren't careful. Of course, should this calamity befall you, you may very well ended up typing in "Klepto is a little shit" into the game... Although in fairness, given the freedom offered by Valhalla, and bearing in mind the general character of kids, if you were playing this back in the day, you'd no doubt already been typing in every rude word you could think of.
However this would reveal another of Valhalla's little jokes. For swearing elicited the cryptic response - "Mary is not amused". And a small figure would march on the screen and come and give your character a slap! Now if you are thinking "hang on, I don't remember a Mary in Norse mythology!" you'd be quite right. For this character was named after a very familiar and often hated figure in 1980s Britain - the self-appointed moral guardian Mary Whitehouse.
For many years Mrs Whitehouse campaigned relentlessly and fearlessly against swearing, sex and violence in our media, and as a result was seen by many as being more terrible than all the monsters and demons of Valhalla, mainly of course by kids who were mad keen to see all that swearing, sex and violence. Ironically, many of us only learned about the existence of some erotic TV series or violent movie in the first place thanks to Mrs Whitehouse protesting about it. Naturally when playing Valhalla, it was great fun to just bait Mary, albeit in a pixelated form. And of course, a new unintended subgame emerged - and that was trying to discover exactly how many and which swear words the game's text parser recognised!
Now of course, it would have been child's play to have the game's text parser not to recognise any swearing at all, but a generation of kids are very glad that they did. After all, anyone who played The Hobbit really wanted to the game to recognise the command "Tell Thorin to shut the fuck up about gold". Quite clearly, the programming team behind Valhalla had played more than a few adventures and what's more understood the mindset of their target audience. Hence Mary was a fun way to allow you to swear within the game, but, and this is the clever bit, in such a way so that boring grown-ups, who had a massive downer on computer games anyway, couldn't kick off about it. Now that's real genius!
In this episode Mr Jim Moon takes a trip into some very deep dark woods with The Ritual. We have a spoiler free review of the new movie directed by David Bruckner and also discuss the original novel by Adam Nevill. Plus there's a spoiler-filled discussion at the end for those who have seen the movie. DIRECT DOWNLOAD - HYPNOGORIA 91 - The Ritual
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Hello dear fiends! Welcome once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now then, last time we were adventuring in the long lost lands of home micro gaming, searching for treasure, slaying dragons and wishing Thorin would stop singing about ruddy gold all the time. As we discussed at some length, the home micro version of The Hobbit back in 1982 was something of a milestone in computer gaming, and a newly formed company called Legend was very keen to pick up where Bilbo and Gandalf had left off...
Now Legend, a spin-off company from business software outfit Microl, were not fly-by-night (or should that be type-by-night) games publisher. Unlike dozen of other software houses that sprang up around the same time - for there wuz gold in tham thar gamin' hills - Legend didn't release hundred of titles which most consisted of titles that looked suspiciously similar to other hit games. Rather they released a handful of high quality titles, with their first offering Valhalla setting the bar rather high.
Written for the ZX Spectrum, and later ported to the Commodore 64, Valhalla was a game that came in a big box that screamed "QUALITY PRODUCT", and with a price tag to match - a very very expensive for the time £14.95. Although it was re-released a few years later as a classic title, in more modest packaging and at the pocket money friendly price of £2.99. Valhalla was created by Richard Edwards, Graham Asher, Charles Goodwin, James Learmont and Andrew Owen, and was mostly written in the common language to home micro's BASIC, with the game engine being dubbed "Movisoft", which sounded very futuristic and interactive. In fact it's a very early example of a game having a named software engine.
And very impressive it was too. Like The Hobbit there was a vast world to explore, a large cast of characters to interact with and you played the game by typing instructions into the game. The downside of this ambition was that the game notoriously took bloody ages to load - well over 5 minutes to load - which a long time even in the era of the home micro when loading a game took several minutes. As one reviewer of the day quipped "I only just had enough time to load Valhalla - let alone review it". And as with many of the larger home micro games, a longer loading time meant increased chances of the game glitching and not loading properly. I know of several folks who never got the darn thing to anything by display the loading screen. Which was admitted rather nice, showing a digitised version of the famous 7th century anglo saxon helmet found at Sutton Hoo, but not exactly as thrilling as hanging out and fighting with Norse gods and giants.
So then, provided you got the game to load properly, what did Valhalla offer the player? Well, the goal of the game was to collect six magic objects - Ofnir (a key), Drapnir (a ring), Skornir (a shield), Skalir (a sword), Felstrong (an axe) and Grimnir (a helmet). These magical treasures could only be collected in order, hence to get Drapnir you had to have Ofnir first and so forth. And while the items were in particular locations, if you died, any you had would be taken from you and hidden a random somewhere in the game world. On the upside however, dying was not a big deal in a world of gods and monsters, for if you were slain, you found yourself in Hell. However in accordance with the old legends and sagas, the land of the dead as just one of nine worlds in the old Norse cosmology, and hence just as you could travel from the world of men (Midgard) to the realms of the gods (Asgard), if you had died, the adventure wasn't over, you could just walk out of the Hell and continue your quest.
Valhalla also had some rather clever features too. Those of you have know your Dungeons & Dragons (whether as a tabletop game, or one of the many computer RPGs that use its rulesets) will be familiar with the concept of a player's character having an alignment - that is to say, a defined trait which maps out their philosophy and morals, whether good or evil, an upholder of law or a devotee of chaos. Now in Valhalla, your character doesn't have the usual RPG style character sheet with stats and traits, but very cleverly the game does take note of how you behave in the game world. When you begin your character is neutral - that is to say he is classed by the game as neither good nor evil. However as play progresses, your actions are noted by the game engine and other characters in the world of Valhalla will react accordingly. Hence if you are helpful and friendly to characters on the side of good such as Thor or Odin, all characters on the light side of the Force as it were will be inclined to be more helpful to you in your quest. Likewise being chummy with the likes of Loki will earn you favour with the forces of darkness. A very cool bit of programming I'm sure you will agree, and very ahead of its time.
However Valhalla has an even bigger claim to fame, for it was one of the very first true open world games. Now The Hobbit is often hailed as being a pioneer of open world gaming as you could head off anywhere into Middle Earth, but at the end of the day if you wanted to get anywhere at all in the game you still had to follow a linear plot that mirrored the journey and adventures in the original book. Now normally in RPG games, the world waits for you to do something and then reacts, but things were not like that in Valhalla. Here the world of the game carried on regardless of what you were doing, characters would go about their business without waiting to react to you - they would travel between the world, eat, drink, and fight as they pleased. In fact, once the game started it would essentially play itself. Obviously that's not to say it would make choices for you and you could sit back and watch the game do the quests for you. But on the other hand, events in the game weren't tied in the slightest to you doing the quests, and indeed if you just wanted to explore, hang out with the gods or get into fights - i.e. generally doing what the hell you liked - you could.
Now all of this is obvious very impressive... But technical cleverness doth not a great game make. After all, there have been many titles down the years that boasted, revolutionary concepts, groundbreaking coding and super new spanky graphics, but in terms of actual playability have sucked harder than a Hoover on overdrive! Next week, we are dusting off the old Spectrum, praying the rubber keyboard hasn't perished, and will be playing Valhalla!
This week Mr Jim Moon is delving once again into the Stoneground Ghost Tales by EG Swain to uncover a cautionary tale that may serve as a lesson for anyone foolish enough to be doing a bit of gardening this weekend...