Kingdom O’ Magic: Wot I Thunk

So, is Kingdom O’ Magic a good game? No, not really. It’s more playable than certain other point-and-click adventures I’ve played lately, and the wandering monsters were a good attempt at keeping the walking-around bits interesting, but I actually think the multi-path nature of the thing backfired somewhat. See, not only are there three quests, there are a number of optional puzzles and alternate solutions to puzzles. For example, there’s a whole complicated chain of actions that culminates in obtaining a palantir. This was one of the last things I did in the game, and by the time I had done it, I had already solved the puzzle that uses the palantir by other means, effectively short-circuiting a large portion of the game and leaving me wondering what the palantir was for and why I had devoted all this effort to obtaining it. My expectation was that any puzzle I left unsolved in the first two quests would become important in the third, but that’s just not the case.

(One strange thing: I distinctly remember certain aspects of the palantir from my earlier attempts at the game, like that it’s dangerous to hold directly, because the Dark Lord can sense that you have it, so you have to carry it around in a box. So I feel like I must have gotten it before, but there were steps along the way that I didn’t recognize at all. Maybe I got further into this game than I know.)

The humor varies — it manages some really good gags, but it’s basically an r-strategy comedy, going for quantity of jokes over quality in the hope of overwhelming the audience with the cumulative effect, like an old Leslie Nielsen film. And it skews low-brow. Full of silly voices, cartoon sound effects, and occasional full-screen stock black-and-white film footage. I haven’t emphasized this enough before: toilets are a major recurring theme. There are at least four of significance, including one that’s just sitting out in the open next to the road. Can you flush them? No, but you can plunge them, using a plunger that, like the palantir, is somewhat complicated to obtain and only used in a completely optional puzzle. My last goal of any difficulty in the game was to obtain a lost grail so I could trade it for some toilet paper.

Then there’s the stereotype humor. There’s a gay-coded hairdresser, pink of shirt and limp of wrist. They don’t even really make jokes about this; you’re basically just supposed to be amused at how stereotypically gay he is. Next door, there’s a wig maker, who is, quite at random, a comical Nazi — that is, he’s not explicitly a Nazi, there’s no swastikas or anything around, but he’s got the whole Hogan’s Heroes schtick. Again, the game is just throwing out any and all potentially comic situations the authors could think of, but stuff like this can actually suck humor out of its surroundings. At one point, the player character actually tells a lawyer joke that I remember from the bit in Escape from Monkey Island that makes fun of lawyer jokes.

I’ll give it this: Coming straight off a game that really wanted to imitate Monkey Island‘s sense of humor, it was quite refreshing to see that this game’s sense of humor was completely different.

And it’s kind of mean-spirited, too. It would come off as more so if it weren’t so wacky; there’s a whole lot of killing of things you can have conversations with, sometimes electively. There’s a sort of new-age hippie peacenik character who seems to be included in the game specifically so you can kill her if you’re so inclined. (Meanwhile, the comical Nazi is not killable.) The first thing that made me really think “Wow, okay, this is kind of mean” is the gnome-stomping. There’s a trio of gnomes in one of the quests, and you’re expected to jump on them, squashing them into pointy-hatted pancakes. They re-inflate after a little while (to provide a bit of challenge in getting all three down at the same time), but it’s a grotesque moment, and you just have to decide whether you like the game being mean and grotesque or not. I don’t particularly.

I can imagine a lot of this bothering me less in a text adventure, where it’s all a little more abstract. As it is, I really cannot recommend this game. I stand by what I said before about the game being campy and reveling in its own deliberate badness, but on the whole, I think it’s better to be playing a game that isn’t bad.

Not that I’m going to take my own advice. I’ve got some momentum going here, and I’m not going to stop while I still have some crappy MS-DOS point-and-click adventure games on the Stack.

Kingdom O’ Magic: Pulling Strings Out Of The Executable

A cursory prodding at cheat code sites didn’t tell me how to access the in-game hints, but it did set me on a path that would lead to that destination. There are, in fact, a few well-known cheat codes, which you access by typing “SCI” (the name of the company that made the game), followed by the code and any parameters, followed by ENTER, despite the lack of any feedback that your typing is having any effect. But that’s cheat codes for you. The whole scheme, with the company name as prefix, is plainly modeled after the cheat codes in Doom, which also didn’t have any kind of explicit prompt for them.

The codes known to the web at large are: DAY and NIGHT to shift the day/night cycle, and STUF, followed by the name of an item, to get that item. Peering into the executable, I found also the following:
HEALTH restores your health. You’d think there would be a code to restore your magic points too, but I didn’t find one.
SMKEY gives you the key to the Mordor-analogue. Presumably you could also get this with STUF, but I suppose this was an item they needed a lot in testing so it was worth it to have a shorter version.
WSHEET gives you a white sheet.
SNSHEL gives you both the key and the sheet.
PAC activates a slightly-Pac-Man-like mini-game that you’d otherwise have to go all the way to the Minas Tirith analogue to access.
SNOWON and SNOWOFF toggle an environment effect normally found only in the mountains.
BIG enlarges the player character to twice the normal height.
NARONSPEED makes the narrator talk faster and at a higher pitch.
HOTDOTS displays a blinking pixel at the foot of every character, which was presumably useful for debugging.
SCUTS by itself crashed the game. I speculate that it needs a parameter, specifying a cutscene to play. There is another code, SMK, that displays the same behavior and may simply be a synonym for SCUTS. (SMK is the file extension for Smacker video clips.)

Anyway, when I was looking for promising text strings in the executable, I noticed a telephone number from within the game. There’s a cell phone you can find, and the phone number of a real estate office is on an abandoned tower over in the Mirkwood analogue, and it’s really easy to recognize, because it’s 011001111111. Which, yes, you have to tap out by hand. But near it, there was another phone number that I hadn’t seen in the game. It was, in fact, the customer support number listed in the manual. And that is how you access the in-game hints.

I really should have suspected that they’d pull something like that. The manual is really an extension of the game here — not of the gameplay, really, but of the humor. Pages that look like dry legal text at first glance are full of jokes. They really want you to read the whole thing.

Anyway, thanks to that, I’ve finished both of the remaining quests. But I’ll write up my thoughts in another post.

Kingdom O’ Magic: Cheating

Having beaten one quest, I’ve been switching freely between the other two. With just two scenarios, it’s relatively easy to eliminate the useless. This is basically one of those one-puzzle-per-item adventures, so once you’ve found a quest-specific use for something, you know it’s useless in the other quest.

Nonetheless, I’m spending most of my time stuck now. I’ve made a couple of significant conceptual breakthroughs: one when I realized that one of the spells could be used in solving a puzzle, another when I figured out how to combine inventory items (something that was never needed in the first quest). Each such breakthrough was followed by a flurry of progress, then I went back to being stuck. Maybe there really is something to the game’s difficulty rankings for the quests after all.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure that the wandering monsters are supposed to keep things interesting at times like this. If you can’t solve puzzles, you can always go kill stuff, right? You don’t get experience points or anything, but everything you kill stays dead, and sometimes they have useful items. Frequently, solving a major puzzle rewards you with a more powerful weapon or spell in addition to whatever else you were solving the puzzle for. The thing is, though, I’ve been stuck so much that I’ve already killed everything there is to kill. Finding a new weapon does nothing but heighten the sense of ennui.

The thing is, I used walkthroughs way too much in the last couple of games I played. I blame the games more than I blame myself, but all the same, I don’t want to start that up again if I can avoid it. But this is an old enough game that it’s inspired me to cheat pre-Internet style, by examining the game resources. I was delighted to discover that all the animations and cutscenes are simply on the CD-ROM in smacker format, and can be played using VLC. There’s even a “SECRET” folder full of dev-team in-jokes. Suddenly I feel like I’m playing Hypnospace Outlaw again.

But the real major discovery was HELP.BIN.

This is a file full of hints for the game. The hints themselves are plain ASCII, but there’s no newlines. Possibly they’re terminated by null characters or something. There’s a second file, HELP.IDX, that presumably helps some program access individual hints. And I have good reason to believe that the program that’s supposed to be doing this is the game itself. There’s a reference to these files in the executable, and the content of the hints themselves is clearly context-specific: each hint relates to a single room, and is phrased in a way that assumes that you’re in that room as you read it. In other words, it’s like the stuff you used to get by typing “HELP” in a Scott-Adams-era text adventure. But I have no idea how to access it within the game. The manual doesn’t say, and no single keypress does it.

I could unstick myself (and, indeed, have already unstuck myself somewhat) by just reading bits of the hint file and figuring out what rooms it’s relevant to. But I don’t want to spoil things by reading hints for rooms I haven’t reached yet! So it looks like I’ve got a technical challenge ahead of me: Figure out how to access these hints in their proper context. Possibly by tracing through the executable. This is the old-school hackery nonsense you read this blog for.

Kingdom O’ Magic: Fighting

As you wander around the Kingdom O’ Magic, various other beings wander too. Elves, orcs, ringwraiths, a few unique characters. The ringwraiths are a particularly sad bunch: they’re desperate to find magic rings, but there aren’t any in the game. You can talk to them about it, though, even tell them lies like “I’ve got a magic ring back home” and watch them perk up and ask if you’ll take them home with you so they can see it. But conversations with ringwraiths tend to turn into brawls if you’re not careful. Conversations with orcs always do.

Fights are simple: two characters are briefly replaced by a churning cloud with various “Pow!” and “Oof!” sound effects, and their health goes down by a certain amount determined by what weapons they’re packing. This doesn’t necessarily continue to the point of death, but if an enemy dies, they turn into a gravestone, which you can loot. You can initiate fights deliberately by selecting a weapon from your inventory and clicking it on someone. Sometimes an enemy will choose to fight with you just because it bumps into you. Sometimes the elves will fight with the orcs or ringwraiths; sometimes I just find a the gravestone of a ringwraith that I never even met in that quest. All wanderers seem to be confined to certain portions of the map, though; elves never venture into the Moria analogue, and the orcs there never leave it, so you can’t just wait for the elves to clear out Moria for you.

So, combat isn’t very strategically interesting. Adding magic spices it up a little. Spells you can find include the following: “Wiz Bang” does direct damage. “Dwarf” temporarily shrinks the enemy’s sprite and cuts their hit points and damage potential in half. “Cabbage” turns them into a cabbage, which can still move by bouncing around but can’t attack at all. “Left the gas on” makes them run back home. So there’s a decent variety of effects, but they all affect combat. If you’re playing Shah-Ron, you have enough magic points to kill the occasional orc without entering melee at all. If Thidney, that’s not a realistic expectation, but you can at least use spells to make fights a little easier and lose less health.

Certain specific places have enemies that fight you using the same combat system but which aren’t really supposed to be defeated. They’re just too strong and too numerous to take on directly, and are more easily handled through some trick, a puzzle to solve. All the important NPCs are simply unkillable. You can still pick fights with them if you like, but all that will happen is that you’ll lose some health.

You can tell which characters can be fought by examining them, which brings up a stats screen. Most of the stats are just jokes, and randomized each time you look, so they don’t have a consistent value per character. For example, there’s a “Made in:” slot that variously displays “England”, “Hong Kong”, “a motel room”, “a nice ceramic”, “just five minutes”, and so forth. But there’s a field for “Health”. If it displays a number, the creature is killable. If it’s something like “more than you” or “I work out”, it’s not.

Also of importance: the stats screen will show any item the person is carrying. Usually this is nothing, occasionally it’s a combat item like a better scroll or weapon. But in one of the quests, the leader of the orcs is holding a vitally important key, and it shows up here, letting you know that you pretty much have to fight him. Moreover, this applies to the unkillable NPCs as well. If you can obtain an item from them by talking to them or trading with them, it’ll show up here. This is a tremendous help for solving puzzles! That is, examining a policeman and seeing that his mirrorshades are an inventory item doesn’t tell you how to get them, but it does tell you that you probably need to do something with the policeman before venturing into the cave of the Gorgon.

Kingdom O’ Magic: Overall Structure

Kingdom O’ Magic provides a choice of two player characters and three quests.

The two player characters are Thidney, a “lizard bloke”, and Shah-Ron, a “girlie”. Thidney specializes in melee while Shah-Ron specializes in magic, and there’s at least one variation in the puzzle content based on which character you choose, but the differences are not great. So the choice is mainly a cosmetic one, varying the sprites and the voice acting. For once, I actually prefer the male character — if you’re going to be weird and blobby-looking, you might as well go for broke and be a weird blobby-looking lizard, right? Also, I think his comic delivery is better. But in the unlikely event that you play this game, I recommend giving them both a try to see how some of the sillier animations change.

The choice of quest, though, varies the game content significantly. I actually finished one of the three quests back in the day, but won’t consider the game truly finished until I’ve completed all three. The one I finished then, and re-finished in my last session, is “The Good Old-Fashioned Traditional Quest”, in which your goal is to steal the Smaug-analogue’s treasure. This is supposed to be the easiest quest. You can’t defeat the dragon in combat; the only way to get rid of it is to take out a mob hit on it, resulting in a cutscene out of The Godfather, with the dragon brought down in a hail of gunfire while buying oranges from a fruit cart. Then there’s “The Bizarre & Slightly Twisted Quest”, the alleged hardest one, in which you’re supposed to recover the Lost Lava Lamp of the Ancients and possibly defeat the Dark Lord, and “The Magnificent 7-11 Quest”, in which you recruit between seven and eleven warriors to defend a town from attack. All three use the same map, but switch things up within it. A door might be permanently locked in one scenario and not another. Items you’re used to from your last quest might not be available. Rooms that were guarded by monsters might be monster-free, or vice versa.

The thing is, though, a lot of the content doesn’t vary between quests. They’re three variations on the same adventure, not three completely different adventures. And this applies even to puzzles, including some puzzles to obtain items that are only useful in one of the quests. So in any particular quest, you’ll inevitably spend some of your time solving puzzles that won’t actually help you at all.

As a result, I’m a little suspicious of the given difficulty rankings. The hardest quest will be whichever one you attempt first, because that’s the one where you have the least information. That’s where you’ll solve puzzles for all three scenarios without any idea of whether they’ll help you at all. It’s also where you’ll run into obstacles you genuinely can’t overcome with the resources available and have no idea that you can’t overcome them.

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 name2Correction: The adventure game Bored of the Rings is not based on the novel of the same name. Apparently it’s just obvious enough as parody name that at least two people hit on independently., 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 Correction: The adventure game Bored of the Rings is not based on the novel of the same name. Apparently it’s just obvious enough as parody name that at least two people hit on independently.