My earliest memory from an adventure game is trying to figure out which sequence of dialogue options would allow me to avoid death by gunshot in one of the early Indiana Jones games. This was before I knew any English. I also applied the same trial-and-error approach to a demo of Curse of Monkey Island to smooth talk myself off the pirate ship. However, as much as I wanted to play these games the language barrier proved too steep. It wasn’t until The Longest Journey, which came out in a Swedish version, that I could fully experience the wonder of an adventure game and I’ve been a devoted “point and click” fan ever since.
Recently though, thanks to the brilliant Lo-Fi Let’s Plays series by Leigh Alexander, my eyes have been opened to the strange and wonderful world of text parser based adventure games. It became clear to me right away that my new passion in life must be to collect old computer machines so that I can experience these games in all their original Lo-Fi glory. However, that’s still a bit into the future so meanwhile, I will have to make do with emulators like Virtual Apple and DOSBox.
The first game from this era that I decided to try was Transylvania 2: The Crimson Crown by Antonio Antiochia / Penguin Software. It was a truly magical, eerie, frustrating and charming experience and I wanted to share with you a little of what I discovered. It’s important to know, if you like me only have access to emulations of this game, that there are at least two quite different versions out there. The one found at virtual apple is, I think, superior when it comes to evocative graphics and atmosphere but ends abruptly around halfway through the game. The DOSBox version has more text over all, is a lot more humorous and best of all, complete. You will need the physical scroll of riddles when playing the DOS version. I started with the virtual apple and highly recommend experiencing them both. There are some gameplay differences as well between them.
The premise of the game is that you and your companions, princess Sabrina and prince Erik, must defeat the evil vampire and return prosperity to the land, basically. You can read the whole story in this journal that came with the game.
When I started playing I knew a little bit about the game thanks to the Lo-Fi Let’s Plays but I quickly got lost anyway. And those first few hours when I just roamed around, trying things, wondering about what was going to happen, feeling like the possibilities where endless in this mysterious forest I found myself in, are the hours I will always treasure most with this game. Eventually I got stuck in a dark annex and just couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get out. The makers of the game must have anticipated this because they let me vent my frustrations by both screaming and crying, however laughing and smiling was not recognized by the parser.
It’s also possible to ask your companions for their opinions on most locations and situations you find yourself in. Sabrina’s and Erik’s participation is in fact crucial to the success of your quest so you need to know how to talk to them. With the Apple II version, finding that out proved to be very difficult. Because just typing SABRINA, CAST SPELL like you would any other command doesn’t work. (Yes, the Apple II version needs caps lock, DOS does not.) Eventually I stumbled upon a forum thread explaining that you need to use quotation marks for companion commands. So “SABRINA, CAST SPELL” works just fine. (But the emulator will assume you are using an American keyboard, so keep that in mind.) The DOS version is not picky at all, so you should have no problems communicating there. Some of the most enjoyable actions that can be triggered by companion commands is Erik using his sword in the clumsiest ways imaginable. (It’s wise to stay waaay back.)
Another amazing feature of this game is what happens when you die, because dying is a big part of old adventure games. Often it’s just instant game over but in Crimson Crown you get around five actions to hopelessly struggle against your unavoidable fate. It might seem grim but it really adds to the experience, I found myself wanting to try out all the different deaths just to see what the flavor text would be like.
These old adventure games are by design made to be extremely difficult and obtuse to figure out. So in all honesty, after many, many hours of trying my best to progress on my own I felt that a little help was needed. So I started to look around for walkthroughs but quickly realised most of them are just awful “write this this this this and you’ve completed the game” spoiler fests. I was starting to lose hope but then I found a site called The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History and to my great joy, the most amazing hint sheet ever! It’s encrypted so getting a hint becomes a little puzzle in itself, making it feel less like the easy way out. Togheter with my hint sheet and the company of a good friend I eventually managed to complete the entire game.
Overall this game is absolutely worth playing and I highly recommend it, though the ending was quite frustrating and frankly a bit disappointing. Even so, the atmosphere, the interaction with your companions, the magical bottomless bag that helps you manage your inventory, clever riddles and beautiful artwork etc. etc. makes this a true gem!
You should also really go ahead and watch the Lo-Fi Let’s Play Crimson Crown episode!