In a previous post I wrote about the responsibility of choosing the very first game for my Commodore 64. I was choosing not just for myself, but also for my sister and my dad with whom (technically) I shared the machine.
I now have a confession to make: when I wanted a new game, I had no money. Christmas and my birthday were an eternity away and the pocket-money: game price ratio meant I’d had to save up for a long time before I could afford one. And I wanted something new NOW.
Then I hit on another idea. Get my older sister (who still had some Christmas money) to buy one. After all, it was her computer as well, right?
So the next time we were in Boots the Chemist, I tried to persuade her that she should buy a game. To my amazement, she proved receptive to the idea and so we went off to look at the shelves. And in case you’re thinking I’m a little mean, I’m not: I let her choose any title she wanted and promised faithfully that yes, this would be her game; yes, she could play it whenever she wanted to; and yes, I would load it up for her whenever she asked. In fairness, I kept this agreement faithfully… mainly because shortly after this she discovered boys and lost all interest in the C64, leaving me a free run at the computer and a game up into the bargain.
As it turned out, she chose rather a good game in the shape of Hunchback – an early title from soon-to-be Manchester giants, Ocean Software
The plot sees everyone’s favourite Hunchback Quasimodo setting off to rescue his beloved Esmeralda who has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a castle. To do this, he has to climb onto the castle walls and overcome a series of single screen challenges. These involve leaping over fiery pits, timing jumps to avoid arrows or leaping over ramparts containing knights thrusting their spears upwards (which can be very nasty if you time it wrong.) Oh, and just in case you are tempted to dawdle, an enemy knight follows ready to stab you if you are too slow. To end a level, Quasi has to ring a bell (what else?) at the right hand side of each screen.
This sort of tricky task would probably be pretty daunting for most people, but it doesn’t faze Ol’ Hunchie who sets off with a real spring in his step, skipping along below the castle walls to the opening bars of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Once there, he sets about his task.
Hunchback is a cheery little game with a real sense of fun. Whilst the bland title screen didn’t do much to inspire confidence, once the game started, its cheeky character started to come out. The in-game graphics might look a little crude today, but they exude a certain charm. Quasimodo is nicely animated and you really feel bad when you get him killed (particularly when an enemy knight thrusts his spear into your groin as you try to leap above him – OUCH!). Graphics are fairly typical of early C64 games, but maintain a sense of fun. The chasing knight, for example, appears to be an expert bricklayer. When he reaches a gap that you had to leap over, he simply builds himself a walkway without breaking stride. The first time we saw this (we deliberately waited to see what would happen) my sister and I laughed so hard that we accidentally let the knight catch up with us and lost a life!
This sense of fun infected the player. I used to “taunt” the computer by standing right by the bell and waiting until the chasing knight caught up. If you timed it right you could leap up and ring the bell JUST as he was about to stab you. This was great fun and you really felt like you’d got one over on the computer (times were so much simpler back then and we had to get our entertainment where we could!)
Sound effects were pretty sparse, but worked well. Bells made a nice dinging sound, Hunchie made a boinging sound when he jumped and there was a nasty, painful sounding splat when he came acropper, all of which added to the sense of fun.
Whilst the basic components of level design were established fairly early (leap over gaps/knights/arrows/fireballs), they were combined in a way that made each level feel different to the previous one. What was particularly nice was that as Hunchback made his way to the castle at the start of the level, he bounced past some of the screens, so you got a sneak preview of what was to come. I remember one screen where you had to use several bell ropes to jump across a pit – my sister and I got very excited when we first reached this level and it great fun to play (even if it was one of the easier levels).
Like many older games, Hunchback could be a little unfair. On some levels arrows or fireballs would come from immediately behind you as soon as the level started, and they might come at head height or at your feet. So you had to make an instant guess (based on nothing) as to whether to jump or not. Guess right and you had a chance of clearing the rest of the level; guess wrong and you lost a life before you’d even got started. Yet Hunchback never became frustrating; its charm and sense of fun saved it. You simply shrugged your shoulders, started the level again and hoped that this time you guessed right. It was a different world back then and you simply accepted that such deaths came often and not always fairly.
Hunchback still stands up surprisingly well today. It’s not the most graphically sophisticated of games, nor the most innovative. But it thanks to its nicely designed levels, sense of fun and strong sense of progression it’s still worth playing. It was one of those games that rewarded practice – the more you played, the better you got and the further you progressed. I can still remember the first time I completed the first castle and rescued Esmeralda (only for her to be whisked off again). The sense of achievement was massive and with my sister and her then boyfriend watching, I felt like I was a gaming god.
This was the only game my sister ever bought for the Commodore 64, but she showed good judgement and spent her money wisely. So, somewhat belatedly, I’d just like to say “thanks, sis” for spending your Christmas money on a game that I got a lot of enjoyment out of!