There are certain things I need to tell you before we get into The Pawn. Firstly, assuming we’re all playing the Amiga version of this sprawling graphical text adventure, don’t be too hasty to get off the slightly crappy title screen. The music really picks up if you leave it a bit! Okay, it’s also slightly crappy, but as a whole, together with the image of the angry wizard dude, it’s quite a hypnotic affair – like a chip-tune prog rock version of the Miami Vice theme, with flutes and everything! Secondly, what you thought was an impossible feat of new-fangled 16-bit computer graphics back when you were reading the exclusive preview and review in Computer & Video Games magazine back in 1986 is actually nowhere to be seen when you first boot up the game. Just a black screen full of white text in a font that could credibly have started the black metal band logo movement.
And we’ll come back to just how impossible those graphics look in reality later, and not least after you’ve eventually worked out you need to hold the right mouse button down at the top of the screen then drag it down to reveal these graphical wonders above. Which are now sitting awkwardly on top of the text! All the same, using that virtue of patience you demonstrated a few seconds ago on the title screen, do make sure you let the initial batch of text play out before you try that or you might spend half an hour trying to work out why the screen is full of a load of random pixels rather than what is just about a view of two snow-capped mountains to the north. Just like i did! I’m sure it will all work itself out though – as long as you also read the instructions but more on those later too – so let’s go back to the beginning, and that preview and review in C&VG.
We’re looking at the April 1986 issue, and after your eyes are done with the mouthwatering screenshots on display, they might well wander to the scores that accompany the exclusive review that’s also part of the same double-page spread as the exclusive preview, because they’re tens across the board! Now, we should also consider that we’re talking the C&VG Adventure section, and while I’d been mostly skipping that for several years now (and so, no doubt, missed the original 1985 text-only release of The Pawn on Sinclair QL), I was aware it had always done its own thing when it came to scores, and we’re currently talking Vocabulary (10), Atmosphere (10) and Personal (10). Not sure about the Personal one when the game is being measured in only three categories, but I do appreciate the other two at least. Tens though? Well, we’ll find out for ourselves later! In the meantime, there’s a few really fascinating insights to pick up from the accompanying preview here, which chronicles a visit to the London HQ of developer Magnetic Scrolls at Rainbird Software by C&VG’s Keith Campbell…
He got a peek at the Atari ST version of the game, which I’ll assume is similar to the Amiga one for our purposes here, but at the time is where I’d also have been playing it; well, about three years later when I eventually got one, which I guess is why I never did play it a bit closer to the time – old hat by then! However, back then there’s no denying this must have seemed pretty special, and as he says, a glimpse of the shape of the genre to come, although having recently done a review of Bitmap Books’ The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games as I’m writing this, it’s also fascinating to note how he sees that as the evolution of the graphical versus text mix as hardware also evolves, rather than the evolution of the genre itself. Anyway, what anyone who saw this stuff at the time can also appreciate is how he thought he was looking at a photo when he saw the loading screen – a rendition of the box art – which amazingly took 80% of the ST’s processing power just to maintain on the screen! It also took five hundred colours to create it, which was a cool bit of black magic when the ST was only supposed to be able to handle sixteen at a time too! It goes on to explain that while the game has a hundred locations, there was only room for thirty-five of these fancy pictures on the disk on top of the 96K game program. 96K!!! And on that bombshell, I think we’ll leave the preview there, with Keith’s mind being boggled by the graphics being dragged up and down over the text like a roller-blind (if only I’d had a developer to tell me how to make them do that earlier!) and head over to the instruction manual to set the scene for the game itself!
I’m always a great advocate for reading instructions – can miraculously make something as impenetrable as the original Legend of Zelda, for example, approach being approachable! And in this case, it will give you a brief but very useful bit of backstory that was obviously also too much to fit into 96K of game! Or maybe they were just anticipating the piracy that was about to run wild on these new platforms and spoil the fun just a little bit! Actually, they had both properly covered already with the 58-page novella and fully-ciphered puzzle solutions that also came in the box! Totally insane, but if you don’t know the third word on page ten when it randomly asks you about an hour in, it’s game frozen and game over with no warning after all that illicit effort! I’ll mention that cipher thing again later too because I’ve never seen anything else like it in a game! In the meantime, our adventure is set in the magical world of Kerovnia during a period of tremendous social upheaval. King Erik is losing his grip on his subjects and can no longer be relied upon to support him “through times of war, famine and personal bankruptcy.” And here we’re already getting a taste of the humour and general mischief that’s going to be transported across to the screen when we pick up the tale there very shortly, but first there’s more to come here as we’re introduced to the puzzlingly named Roobikyoub dwarfs, who were blamed for the assassination of Queen Jendah II then banished en-masse and haven’t been let back in since; in fact, Erik’s refusal to reinstate their citizenship is attributed to his decline in popularity in some quarters. They weren’t just of immense economic importance, you see, but they also made the best whisky this side of the Obakanga valley and are sorely missed in these troubled times!
In their absence, the local drinks market has been sewn up by the Romni gnomes with their refreshing spring water, and the Farthington Real Ale Company, who seem to be guilty of some dodgy dealings with a certain Boris Grunchkev O.K.B. who is also a reminder that you really should read those forty-plus pages of novella that came in the box too – not only will it give you a far better idea of what’s going on here, but it’s genuinely funny! Back to our much briefer synopsis in the instructions though, whoever he is, obviously neither of these two want the dwarfs back on the scene but the people of Kerovnia, who increasingly suspect the dwarfs were innocent of the assassination, are not in agreement. By the way, “dwarfs” or “dwarves” you might be wondering? Apparently dwarfs is the proper plural for a bunch of dwarfs, where dwarves was popularised by Tolkein for a bunch of dwarves, so despite the former being used in the instructions, my guess is it actually means the latter! Dwarfism or not aside, King Erik is stuck in the middle and becoming more unpopular by the day the longer he doesn’t make a decision, and to make things worse there’s a general election on the way too. And this is where we or me or you comes in, with this story further unfolding according to your actions. From there we get a very nice summary of the text adventure… “The program will describe where you are, who (or what) is there with you and what they are doing. It is then up to you to choose what you wish to do and tell the program in plain English (well almost!). You’ll have to discover the goal of the game and the best way to achieve it by utilizing the items you find on your travels, conversing with characters and exercising your imagination.”
You then get a really impressive amount of detail on how to talk to the game, from movement (NORTH, N, GO NORTH, EXIT NORTH, QUIETLY EXIT NORTH…) to actions, which can also become impressively complex, for example, anything from “GET PAPER” to “GET ALL EXCEPT THE CASES BUT NOT THE VIOLIN CASE THEN KILL THE MAN-EATING SHREW WITH THE CONTENTS OF THE VIOLIN CASE. REMOVE THE SHREW’S TAIL AND USE IT TO TIE THE POLE AND THE NOOSE TOGETHER.” Old habits die hard though, and I have to admit to keeping things broken down to very mostly shorter and simpler commands throughout my playthrough! Possessive construction and the like will never be something I demand of a text adventure, and for all the text adventures I’ve played over the years I’ve never really thought about how the text and the parser might have evolved from the likes of Pirate Cove or one of the 450+ commercial games like Dick Turpin on the ZX Spectrum created using The Quill Adventure System, with its primitive verb-noun interpretation. Going back to our C&VG preview again though, apparently this parser took a team of three over two man-years to develop, and you can stack commands twenty-five deep, which lends itself to some very creative puzzles, but also demands its own intelligence – “PUT ALL IN BARROW IN POCKET” gets a “strange concept” response because it knows you can’t put the pair of jeans in you really need, which are currently in the barrow, into their own pocket! That said, those cagoules you used to get in the eighties managed it! Anyway, there was very little re-phrasing required as far as I was concerned though, and in retrospect much less so than in earlier games like those I just mentioned; our man Keith Chambers also confirmed all of this in his review as being a total game-changer, which I mainly bring up because this philistine here would never have spotted that without the prompt!
Ten out of ten for vocabulary then, so let’s head back to the start of the game proper and see where it takes us. Just to set the scene a bit more now we’re here, you’re waking up on a sunny August morning but you’re feeling a bit stiff and not in your bedroom as you’d expected. All you can remember is you were walking home from the supermarket when you noticed a stranger in a white overcoat heading your way. You also noticed he was wearing glasses and had a thick, bushy beard as he passed, right before you heard him laugh then felt a sharp blow on the back of your head. And here you are now, on a gravel path heading north to those two snow-capped mountains from our picture earlier, with a dying forest to the west, a vast grassy plain to the east or more gravel path to the south. And you’re wearing a silver wristband you don’t seem to recognise….
A bit of exploring and a few pretty pictures later (if you remember to right click at the top and pull them down), you’ll come across a magician with a task for you, and if you ask him about your wristband he’ll tell you he can free you from all worldly bondage if you can kill the man who rides the horse with no legs and bring the dead body to his room in the northernmost mountain. Then off he pops! Left to your own devices again, a bit more exploring will quickly reveal a one of those now iconic locations we saw in C&VG, and it was while here that I think I first realised that despite having only seen five of the thirty-five location pictures so far, I was increasingly absorbed by the text and virtually forgetting to pull down the blind and see what I was looking at instead! I guess we’re fifteen minutes in at this point and the writing is already the highlight! Something else I really appreciated, not long after, was being able to type “EXITS” at any time to be told where I can go next – those gravel paths can get confusing to someone like me with no sense of direction… Which is why you’re supposed to get a pen and paper and make a map of these things, and why any self-respecting mag would publish the popular game maps sooner or later, although sooner or later I’d have been looking for more than a map to help me with this one!
Eventually you’re going to come up against a boulder blocking your way, and while it turns out you don’t necessarily want to get around it straight away after all, at some point you’re going to have to move it. And could I move it? I’m trying to avoid spoilers here while still giving a general feel for what’s going on, but this one was Monkey Island obscure, so skip to the next sentence if you don’t want to know that a peek at an online walkthrough video later told me I needed to take off my shirt, use it to tie together the hoe and rake I’d pilfered from the place where I said I was getting more and more absorbed by the text just now, and then use it as a lever on the boulder to get rid of it! What on Earth did we do before walkthroughs? Well, in this case you might recall something about a 58-page novella and fully-ciphered puzzle solutions! The last ten pages or so are a set of questions relating to difficult bits, each with three lots of encrypted answers, although the key is pretty simple – you just need to type in the gibberish you see there for three levels of hints, from cryptic to an actual hint to the answer, which might only be accessible if you’ve reached a certain level of competence within the game, although even then you might just get some flippant nonsense back at you. Very clever, totally bonkers, and just use an online walkthrough if you get really stuck!
Also very clever in the case of our boulder was that immediately after all that, right around the corner, you’re confronted by the next rockfall but rather than starting to tear your hair out again (or type codes), this one is solved by simply saying you want to climb over it, and I thought that was a really cool juxtaposition! A bit further on you’ll get this again when you enter the endless maze that has a sign outside telling you it’s irrelevant to the adventure – of course you go in regardless, then you panic, then you might eventually realise you simple need to “EXIT MAZE” and carry on as you were! Before we get to that though, I want to talk atmosphere, because this all happens at the culmination of a particularly tense exploration of a labyrinthine and often claustrophobic cave complex where danger always seems imminent – especially when you get off your magical lit-up horse so you’re wandering around blind! Again, this is all before you even think about pulling down the graphics – in fact, in this section I’d recommend not pulling them down at all to maintain the immersion created by the writing alone! It’s not all about foreboding either; early in the game you find yourself in a tool shed, and even though it’s not glamorous enough to make the cut for its own graphical scene, it doesn’t need it – it’s just a nice, quaint place to be without it, like the shed on your grandad’s allotment you might just about remember from the seventies! While the locations do become increasingly abstract, theres almost no let up in this sense of immersion, even when the game is literally dragging you down to hell! Ten out of ten for atmosphere too? Maybe, but again, I want to reiterate if that’s the case then its down to the quality of the storytelling over the inclusion of any fancy graphics!
I’m running hot and cold on the graphics, simply because they run hot and cold on themselves! While not exclusively, those screenshots in C&VG were picked for a reason, and for every palace garden or rope bridge there’s a pile of boulders and the weird laughing guru! I also think there’s a reality with the best of them that they were only very fleetingly as mind-blowing as we might remember. That graphical jump from 8- to 16-bit was the biggest ever in my opinion, so while we might have been more easily impressed at the beginning, it was only until the next mind-blower came along, and if we’re talking more or less like-for-like and contemporary then I can’t put Defender of the Crown (pictured above) out of my mind, where all of its immersion came from its richly detailed, and almost lifelike (even by 2023 standards) static imagery, whether a siege engine attacking a distant castle or a close-up of your fair maiden. On the contrary, The Pawn looks good today but not that good – it’s lacking the detail to make it “lifelike” but mostly just lacking life and warmth. And yes, I know I’m looking at it on 2023 tech as well as 2023 eyes, but as said, Defender of the Crown doesn’t suffer from this. Nor does Monkey Island or Loom, or, to get really like-for-like, The Pawn’s 1987 sequel The Guild of Thieves. Lucky we’re not relying on graphics for immersion here then, but even at worst they do give a bit of flavour.
I know I’m jumping all over the place here, but The Pawn also came out all over the place and I quickly want to mention how some of them look for comparison. As well as that QL original we came across earlier (which, for reference, was the exactly the same game minus the graphics), and the ST one, it also came out on Commodore 64, 128K Spectrum, Amstrad CPC (and PCW), Atari XL, Archimedes, DOS and Apple Macintosh. Side-by-side the ST and Amiga versions seem identical, although the ST does also offer options for dither, stipple and freehand, which apparently change how it looks on a black and white TV, although I couldn’t check it out myself. I didn’t go mad looking at all the other versions, but I believe that aside from the Spectrum, which seems to be text only, the rest were all migrated from the original ST images, so for the higher end stuff it looks pretty similar, and for the other 8-bits there’s about 50% of the detail and even less of the colour. The C64 version is interesting though – there’s something about its colour palette that’s giving it a warmth I didn’t feel elsewhere. The cracked version I tried also had a nice self-congratulatory message on its splash screen for totally removing the need to look up words in the novella! Shame they couldn’t stop it being so painfully slow to play while they were at it!
As we saw earlier, C&VG weren’t rating graphics, so I’ll use that weird personal rating thing they had instead and say seven out of ten with the caveat that it would definitely have been way higher if I was rating from those screenshots at the time I first laid eyes on them, if not when I’d have actually got around to playing it. Before we get back to finishing off with some more gameplay again though, I want to quickly mention sound. Yes, sound in a text adventure! You see, what the Amiga lacks in settings for black and white tellies, it gains in having a bit of very 1986 voice synthesis to read out the text for you! It sounds like the shareware programs on magazine cover disks you’d type rude words into and have the computer say them back at you, so you probably wouldn’t want to spend your full play-through with it on, but it’s a nice gimmick for the time. And don’t forget about the loading screen music either. Ten out of ten for sound from me for sure, just for that!
I did eventually get to the end, despite a few more Monkey Island moments that needed a bit of external assistance, officially encrypted or otherwise, particularly the closer I got to the very unique conclusion, which also involved meeting Jerry Lee Lewis, getting past a dragon on a pile of gold with thirteen Hobbits, one particularly thankless task that I’m still annoyed I wasted my time doing, and lots more besides I wont reveal here! By the end I reckon I’d seen most of the hundred locations though, which did a great job of feeling both vast but also quickly familiar and easy to navigate, and I continued to embrace the more logical puzzles throughout, with the “aerosoul” one a particular highlight, but honestly was done with obtuse stuff when things got a bit too silly near the end! There’s some very unique and even more forward-thinking post-game stuff too but of course I’m not here to spoil that either, just like the rest of the story. I will say that the immersion didn’t really let up until things went south (in a literal way) very much later on, but on the way there were some more incredible moments of tension, not to mention vertigo!
The game’s impressive vocabulary never let up either, even if I didn’t always take advantage of the parser’s complexity given the choice. It wasn’t entirely without a few problems though, and I think most happened all around one place… There’s a lift down to a mine where you can’t simply “close door” but you have to “slide door” instead because suddenly “close” isn’t in its 3,500 (apparently) word vocabulary. Working out you need to keep typing “wait” until the lift arrives is also a pain! Then once you’ve negotiated the lift you might come across a safe and you might also be able to get it open, but “look” in the safe once you open it and it’s empty. If you “search safe” though, as if by magic there’s the item you need next to work out the puzzle in the next room. To compound all that I realised I’d left something I needed outside so had to do the stupid “slide door” thing and every other necessary command to get back up and down and up again twice as many times as I should have, but that was my own fault on several counts! There is a similar but even bigger frustration near the end where you can’t just type “up” because that will kill you; you have to “climb up the rope” instead to avoid a cheap game over. And we got so close, although you can save when you like, just like the instructions instruct you to do. As long as you read them like I instructed you to do! Hmmm…
The first time I wrote about a text adventure, which was the aforementioned Dick Turpin on the Spectrum, I was a bit worried about not having much to say. That was never really a concern with The Pawn, even from the very first few locations I explored – actually, I was more overwhelmed than anything! That soon sorts itself out though, and whatever you think or thought of the graphics, it was all about the words for me, and both the quality and complexity of the writing, and the same again for how it handled your responses. And providing you were being attentive, that was what it took to grip me and lead me through its massive, winding, very strange tale. As we’ve mentioned it a few times now, if The Secret of Monkey Island set new standards in its own offshoot of the genre in 1990, then at the very least this surely did exactly the same for the text adventure in 1986, or, graphics aside, even earlier, so I think I’ll give it its ten out of tens across the board after all. Even if I still don’t really know what they all mean!