Paul Norman’s Forbidden Forest was one of those games that blew me away when I first saw it. It was quite unlike anything else I had seen before and was one of the first games that really seemed to deliver on those promises of a true cinematic and arcade-like experience.
The game saw you take on the role of a lone archer trapped in a hideous forest packed with terrible, mutant creatures (spiders, snakes, frogs, dragons etc.). Each level featured a single type of creature and it was kill or be killed. Survive them and you have to face off against the forest’s most evil presence – the dreaded Demogorgon.
It was the graphics and sound that instantly struck me the first time I played Forbidden Forest. Distinguished them from other titles of the time fantastic (the bowman’s end-of level victory dance still makes me smile!). For its time, the game was also surprisingly bloody. If a frog landed on you, you were turned into a red smear on the floor, whilst the frogs jumped up and down on your remains; if a spider caught you, it would use its long, pointy legs to eviscerate you. Sure, it’s nothing compared to the fatalities in Mortal Kombat, but in its day, this was gruesome stuff. Match those chunky but effective graphics with atmospheric tunes and impressive sound effects (the eerie screech of the ghost sent a chill up your spine) and you had a game that was deeply immersive.
The variety between the levels was impressive, too. The creatures were imaginative and beautifully designed, and some were genuinely scary. From spiders that came at you to spear wielding skeletons and a plague of frogs raining down from the sky, everything in this forest was deadly and had to be either killed or dodged.
It’s true that the difficulty level was a bit up and down. Some (the bee and snake levels, for example) were incredibly easy (although they could still catch you out if you took victory for granted); others were pretty tough, requiring precision shooting to finally vanquish a monster. Whilst your supply of arrows was generous, it wasn’t infinite, so care and attention was needed to how and when you fired. Yet, whatever the difficulty level, you still felt a surge of triumph when you beat them.
There were some nice touches that made the game surprisingly tense whilst providing a genuine sense of progression. The longer you played, the darker the skies became as day gave way to night, making for a more ominous and tense atmosphere. This culminated in the final apocalyptic level against the Demogorgon that was played in utter darkness, illuminated only by occasional lightning flashes. It was tense stuff that used to result in genuinely sweaty palms when playing.
The game also showed a few innovations when it came to how creatures could be killed. Some were pretty straightforward –just shoot them; others were more imaginative. On my favourite level you were chased by a spear-wielding skeleton whilst a large phantom floated in the sky above. Although you could shoot the skeleton, the only way to progress, was to fire an arrow where into the ghost’s face – not easy to do with that skeleton chasing you and it required split second timing, fast reflexes and a high degree of accuracy.
Similarly, the final level against the dreaded Demogorgon was played in utter darkness. Only occasional lightning flashes revealed its location, making the level a tense game of cat and mouse. When the lightning flashed, you had to quickly loose an arrow (hitting it between the eyes) before it moved to a new location. Take too long and the beast would come down and eat you.
Thankfully, the controls were easy to master. Firing an arrow initially sounded a little complicated, but within a few shots you soon picked it up and the control system gave you a surprising amount of control over the arrow’s trajectory. Timing was everything and the well-thought out controls did everything possible to help you survive. It’s noticeable that the 1986 sequel Beyond the Forbidden Forest changed the control mechanism for a more sophisticated one which, to my mind, upset the perfectly balanced controls of the original. If you’re only going to play one Forbidden Forest game, make it the original.
In the end, Forbidden Forest was not a particularly challenging game. Once you worked out the rudimentary AI of the enemies, you could use it against them to ensure victory on most levels (the exception was the final level which always required a combination of skill and luck). I’m no great shakes as a gamer, but I could probably beat it 8 times out of every 10. Despite this, I never tired of it. It had a simplicity that made it easy to pick up married to gameplay that was addictive and fun. Add in a superb atmosphere, incredible (if chunky) graphics and a good old fashioned dollop of 8 bit gore and this remains one of my top C64 games.