The Shareware Era was an interesting time for PC games. The computer mouse wasn't common enough to demand its presence in almost every game on the platform. Nor were joysticks, let alone decent gamepads. As a result, the games that emerged were an odd assortment of console-style action games, RPGs trying to recapture the magic of Wizardry, newly emerging genres such as the First Person Shooter and spreadsheet simulators. Travel to Japan and you'd have observed the steady transformation of the humble Detective Game into the modern dating sims, visual novels and nukige (unashamedly porn-oriented) products that keep so many artists employed. There still wasn't a set of rules determining what a game must be, nor had enough time passed since the 80s for people to intentionally be making callbacks to the games of their youth in their design.
As a result of all this, a small team called Adept Software (now Chaostorm) made a few interesting games. They made a puzzle platformer called Jetpack which they're currently constructing a sequel to, a traditional puzzle game called Squarez, and a 2D Legend of Zelda. That last one's want to talk about today. It's called...
As its title and artwork might well suggest, it is a game about our beloved Norse god of thunder Thor and his quest to vanquish Jormungandr, Nognir and Loki while collecting points items that serve no real purpose and dealing with sassy villagers along the way.
Gameplay is what you'd expect from a Zelda clone. Top down view, enter houses, do fetch quests, solve puzzles and fight enemies that either fire projectiles or nudge you to death. In place of a sword you naturally wield Mjolnir as a throwing weapon that returns (think a Zelda boomerang that can travel full screen) and an array of secondary items that cost magic. The game is a great deal more obviously linear than the sprawling world of most Zelda games, which is something I really like.
Why do I like less exploration if this is mimicking a series known as much for its sense of childish wonder and exploration of holes? Because it means the game is focused. As I said earlier, Adept Software were puzzle designers. Rather than finding items that open dungeons, this game spends a great deal of its time operating as a series of single-screen puzzles that one must solve in order to proceed. The first episode does a mighty fine job of introducing the various tools in steady succession, then starts putting them together to create screens that really do get your brain ticking. By episode 2 they're doing this while also making you contend with conventional enemy combat as well.
Here's an example of a puzzle in the first episode. There's about five or six components that could all make puzzles of their own being used here. It's a bastard.
Something else intriguing about this game's design is that its approach to death is light years ahead of the curve. If you die, there's no Game Over or lives. You simply restart the screen with the exact same resources you did when you first entered it. This game was doing modern checkpoints in 1993. If it were an easy game, this would feel rather dull. However, enemies can deal pretty high damage and there's a lot of instant-kill enemies worked into the puzzles. On top of that, you can simply press D on your keyboard to kill yourself if you've stuffed up a puzzle to the point where it's completely unsolvable.
The game's got a quirky personality. There's the occasional pop culture gag (mostly to either Marvel's Thor or Star Trek) and a fir number of self aware characters. There's a running theme of creepy old men playing with dolls, but most importantly there is a single villager in the first episode who has the most natural response to the hero barging into their house I have seen in a game. If you speak to him he simply exclaims "What are you doing in my house?" and punches you continually until you leave. Doubly funny is that it's one of the few houses in the village that's important to finishing the game.
So all in all, it's a fun game to pass a few days with and I should totally map out a speed run route for it some day. The developers released it as freeware a number of years ago, and you can acquire it here. It works fine with DOSBox and even supports SOUNDBLASTER!