Monday 6 September 2010

Hocus Pocus

Often when you read people reminiscing about their DOS-based childhoods Hocus Pocus is conjured up during conversation. It doesn't make much of an impact, but it does result in a few nods of approval.

And indeed, Hocus Pocus played a minor part in my childhood too, but the difference is... I've never seen its appeal. Granted I've never been into the whole "magic" "fantasy" thing - I have a feeling that even the earliest of firearms could puncture a dragon's face, but Hocus Pocus always struck me as a very bland platformer that performs worse than games made three years before it. It's one of the few games out there that manages to be overrated and underrated at the same time.

Hocus Pocus was one of Apogee's late publications. Developed by Moonlite Software and released in 1994, the game boasted parallax backgrounds and VGA graphics as if they were something mind-boggling and new. Truth is it's yet another one of those overlooked PC titles whose future was distorted by the likes of Doom, and it was also at a disadvantage of not doing anything that hasn't been done before. It was Moonlite's best and last creation, and hasn't been heard of for sixteen years.

The best way to review Hocus Pocus is to compare it to one of Apogee's own works - Duke Nukem (as in, the original EGA sidescroller, not the 3D games). Duke was immediately popular because it was a fast paced action game which varied its settings and was one of the first games to truely challenge the consoles. It became Apogee/3D Realms' flagship product as a result, and still gets sequels to this day... though from the sounds of things it'll be Gearbox in charge of those.

Hocus Pocus is essentially Duke Nukem 1 with a 256-colour VGA wizard theme slappeed on its face and an unrelated soundtrack tied to its ankle. If you ever needed an arguement for "graphics aren't everything" Hocus Pocus would certainly deliver some blows for you. Your character, Hocus, is a gimped Duke Nukem, who can run, jump and fire lightning bolts. Sometimes you can fire more than one lightning bolt, but other than that he'll never change, never be upgraded and will never have the same charm as our old blond friend.

"But that doesn't have to be a problem", you say, and you'd be right - lots of games offer the same amount of freedom and still manage to be good. But Hocus Pocus is the very definition of repetitive. The enemies are repetitive, the graphics are repetitive and the music is repetitive. Most of the game takes place in castles which insist of having the same brick patterns. With 16-colour Apogee branded games there was always a fear of worlds looking bland and so background graphics were made as detailed as possible. Now that we're playing with 256 of those colours, Moonlite Software clearly thought this attention to detail wasn't needed anymore, and so we get bland, boring levels.

Your task is to obtain x number of crystals dotted around the map, and that usually involves navigating mazes collecting items and shooting enemies. It's possible that perhaps Hocus Pocus is one of the first non-linear platformers of its type as you're not forced to collect these crystals in a specific order, though don't be expecting tons of branching paths because you won't find them here.

Enemies are dotted around the map, though they only spawn when certain events have taken place. So for example, if Hocus decides to travel down a corridor, enemies will spawn. But if he sits there doing nothing, the world will be empty. I don't understand how this benefits the game in any way, and it actually hinders progress somewhat because you can't plan ahead. Most of the enemies are the same too, and as they take multiple shots to defeat, they're more of a nuisance than a challenge.

Despite having a "magic" theme there seems to be very little magic actually involved. There's not many fancy special effects, and although passageways will "magically" open up in front of you, there's not much to suggest that this was Hocus's doing. For the most part, the only magic I can see is the projectiles Hocus fires... and that's it. It's not even magical on a technical level - the game scrolls eight pixels at a time despite Commander Keen getting it down to one in 1990. Surely within four years someone else would have worked it out other than John Carmack.

The soundtrack in Hocus Pocus is rubbish. Yes it's nice to have one, but Hocus Pocus' tunes don't seem to fit the game at all. There are many digitized sound effects but when you compare them to what Epic MegaGames were flushing out with Jill of the Jungle or Xargon, these too aren't great either. Perhaps there's a nostalgic charm to this game I just can't understand, but it feels like a half-baked product and it's no surprise that it didn't sell.

But it stuns me that Hocus Pocus is as boring as it is. The lead designer was Tom Hall, the same guy who came up with Commander Keen and Doom and many of the staff working on this game went on to have successes with Doom sequels or Quake. There was clearly some talent involved in making this game, but it's safe to say it wasn't a lot of these peoples' finest moments. Don't get me wrong, it's far from being a bad game (and in fact it can still be an enjoyable one if you don't have a phobia of the alt key), I just feel it's far behind what was expected of the time.

But wait, hold the phone, the game's still operating under a shareware license in 2010. Yes kids, you're expected to dish out cash for the other almost identical volumes. What fun. I'm not entirely sure how long shareware licenses are allowed to last but seeing as 3D Realms occasionally re-release games as freeware, I can't imagine Hocus Pocus will be protected for much longer. It's difficult to imagine someone actually buying this game in its current state.

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