Kingdom O’ Magic

I’ve been going through my remaining point-and-click adventure CD-ROMs, but between SecuROM DRM, 16-bit executables, and just random display bugs, most of them aren’t playable under Windows 10. I really am going to have to get a Windows 98 or XP machine working again if I’m going to make a serious go of clearing the Stack. 1Actually, come to think of it, I do have a working Windows 98 machine at this point. It can’t access its video card’s 3D features, but that’s not always necessary for these games, particularly the ones with the 16-bit executables. Until then, there’s one thing that I can always play: go back far enough, and we get DOS games, which can be played under DOSBox.

Kingdom O’ Magic was designed by Fergus McNeill, who’s better known for his work on text adventures during the 1980s, particularly satirical text adventures such as Bored of the Rings, an adaptation of the Tolkien parody novel of the same name, and The Boggit, a send-up of the classic Melbourne House Hobbit game. KOM is largely an extension of those into the world of graphics. It makes some pretense of the setting being just a typical generic fantasy world, but really, the whole structure and content of the place is very specifically modeled after Tolkien, with random additions. And it’s got randomly-wandering NPCs that you can pick fights with in a very Melbourne-Hobbit way.

The Tolkien-ness is fairly overshadowed by the wacky surrealism, though. In some places, the wacky has accreted in layers. Like, how does the player character arrive in the game world? Via an animation of a Star Trek-style transporter beam. But wait, that’s not enough. We have to show a cutscene of the player’s ship arriving. And once we’ve done that, we might as well make it shaped like a toilet, and make a flushing noise when it engages its engines just in case the player hasn’t noticed that it’s shaped like a toilet. That’s what the game’s sense of humor is like: always embellishing jokes with details, sometimes even when it hasn’t actually told the joke yet. That, and throwing in random anachronisms, like a car broken down by the side of the road in the middle of the Lothlorien analogue or whatever. The latter is actually funnier, to my mind. There’s a special half-trolling humor that consists of letting people notice absurdities on their own without dwelling on them.

The game runs at 640×480 resolution with no anti-aliasing. Characters are pre-rendered sprites made of ugly blobby bits, scaling badly with distance and running extremely cheap-looking animations. There’s one bit where the player character wins a dance contest, and the dancing is ludicrously made of just the character being moved around like an action figure and running bits of their walk cycle backward, while the camera cuts around and zooms in and out like it’s showing off amazing moves. This isn’t just a low production budget. This is camp. This is a game that’s willing to be bad for humorous effect, and it actually works a lot of the time.

This works into the puzzles, too. They’re extremely un-subtly clued, with the narrator breaking the fourth wall to compliment himself on how deftly he wove clues into the narration and the like.

One joke I’d like to describe before signing off for today: the day/night cycle. Day and night are of course crucial to any decent Tolkien adaptation; you don’t get trolls wandering around in the daytime. Here, the transition from night to day is marked by a cutscene of a wrecking ball swinging in to shatter the night sky into a thousand pieces, revealing the daytime sky behind it, and the transition from day to night is a matter of a new night sky backdrop dropping into place and taking a moment to settle. It took me a while to realize that this isn’t just more wacky surrealism: it’s puns. Day breaks. Night falls. Even when he’s working with graphics, McNeill is still thinking in text.

1 Actually, come to think of it, I do have a working Windows 98 machine at this point. It can’t access its video card’s 3D features, but that’s not always necessary for these games, particularly the ones with the 16-bit executables.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 30 Aug 2019

    VirtualBox runs very well these days — you might as well get a copy of XP going on that rather than trying to set up a dedicated computer. (One streamer I know who specializes in mid-90s games seems to do most Windows things through VirtualBox, although he also has a Japanese PC-98 computer.)

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 1 Sep 2019

    I set up VirtualBox last year when I was trying to run Galaga: Destination Earth, but judged it a failure, for reasons that I don’t remember. I guess I should try it on other games.

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