Tuesday 12 January 2010

Dark Ages

Hey kids, time to open that box of DOS once again

Dark Ages, a 16-colour platforming legend, released in February of 1991 by Apogee Software. It was paired with a musical score that relied on a Adlib sound card - a first for the shareware market of the time. Yet despite being somewhat groundbreaking, it's often overlooked in favour of later platformers such as Duke Nukem or Commander Keen, most likely because it never recieved any sequels.

It's worth noting that Dark Ages makes no sense to me, despite having been able to play it since 1994/1995-ish. The player, known only as "the prince" who may have been fresh, goes on a mission to defeat future Wayne's World star "Garth", a crazy father killing wizard thing. However, when you're five years old all you see is a heavily tanned man firing strange blue things at butterflies and spiders, and when you get older and notice the metal bridges and killer sludge, you realise the game's not as quite as serious as it thinks it is.

Before you point it out, let me confirm that Dark Ages hasn't aged brilliantly. Though the music is still nice, the graphics and sound effects (which still rely on the internal PC speaker) are poor in comparison to later games Apogee published. Scenario Software of Monuments of Mars fame are to blame, though at the time DOS game "artists" would have been rare, especially those who had played with a larger colour palette than four. Thanks to the likes of the Lion King, for years I thought the beating heart in the bottom left hand corner was some sort of insect, but when you think about it, it was probably first 16-colour beating heart ever made.

Gameplay usually consists of finding strange items for some seemingly random man while shooting anything that moves. After giving the man an item, he will transform into a butterfly (no joke) and a door will appear. You've got health, though in order to restore one hit point you need to find 10 coins. At certain points in the game you do recieve a weapons upgrade, but like so many other shareware games of the time, this is all lost when playing the second or third chapter in the story.

I do admire parts of the level design though. In the first level of Jill of the Jungle on the left hand side of the screen, there is a series of tunnels that you would not be able to visit until the third game in the series. Dark Ages does this as well in an attempt to suggest the levels are actually linked. Forward planning's great isn't it?

Despite being ahead of the competition graphics wise with the SNES and Nintendo 64, Nintendo fans who once grouped against Sega and Sony have recently adopted a "graphics isn't important" stance as they side with the underpowered Wii and DS consoles. Not a problem with that, but it means there's no excuse to pass on Dark Ages on the basis that it looks crude. Gameplay, like the later Duke Nukem and Commander Keen games, is just as good, if not better than what console games were offering at the time. It's also proof that you don't need smooth scrolling to create a good platformer.

Of course, this is only because it recieved a February 1991 release - six or seven months later the competition would have been the mighty Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World, and compared to those it's small beans. However saying that, it's freeware now, so it doesn't cost a penny to play.

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