iPhone Life magazine

Adventure Games

The past is now present—and the future looks even brighter!

For several years now, the PC gaming world has been lamenting the death of the adventure game. The funny thing is that the genre is alive and well; it just doesn’t thrive as much in the commercial world. However, it appears that developers are interested in reversing that trend and, in part, are using the iPhone platform to do it. Over the last several months, quite a few adventure games have been ported to the iPhone, ranging from the first adventure game ever made, to one of the most beloved. I’d like to share my thoughts on some of these translations, and where I hope this trend is heading. This is my look at the state of the adventure game on the iPhone.

First there was text

Those of us that are old enough, remember a time when we had to type “N” to move north, or “take gun” to pick up a weapon. One of the most revered developers during that time was Infocom, who brought us the land of Zork and many other games. Epic adventuring existed before that, however, and the iPhone is lucky enough to have a version of the very first computer adventure game.

Then there were graphics

One thing I like about the adventure games that people have chosen to port over to the iPhone and iPod touch is that there are some nice “firsts” among them. Just as Advent was the first adventure game, Mystery House is the first adventure game to sport a graphical display. In this section, I’ll also cover Transylvania which, while not a “first,” was definitely one of the first graphical adventure games I remember playing.

More modern fare

Just because the gaming community wants to pronounce the adventure game genre dead, the developer community doesn’t have to agree. Most notable in its efforts to keep this genre alive, Malinche Entertainment is probably the only company still in existence that commercializes text adventures. The Adventure Company has seen several of their graphic adventure games ported to mobile platforms; the first one on the iPhone is Return To Mysterious Island.

This article just skims the surface of what’s available for adventure gamers. There are more games to induce nostalgia, such as Flight Of The Amazon Queen, Beneath A Steel Sky and a fan favorite – Secret Of Monkey Island. Then there are the iPhone originals like Soul Trapper, 1112 and Hysteria. These aren’t just some hack projects that developers threw together in a couple of months. It’s apparent that a lot of work went into these titles because the developers still believe in the magic of adventure games. With sequels to 1112 and Hysteria in development, as well as an upcoming iPhone version of Syberia from Tetraedge, the future bodes well for the genre. Now if we could just get some of the wonderful Sierra point and click games from the 80s…

Advent (original release 1976)

AdventLike a good con man, this game has had many aliases. On the iPhone it was published as Advent. The object of the game is to find a cave filled with treasures, collect the treasures, and return them to the house that you discovered at the beginning of the game. On the plus side, this is a very detailed game with a lot to do, even by today’s standards. On the minus side, you’re probably not going to appreciate it much if you didn’t experience the game the first time around. The game play is very crude compared to modern standards, sporting only two word commands with a maximum of five letters per word. That doesn’t mean you can’t enter more, but the game will just ignore the extra letters. This is no fault of the developer’s of course, as he was just trying to stay true to the original.

The only graphics in the game are the well drawn, but somewhat cheesy, images in the background. The author was kind enough to throw in some nifty sound effects in certain places, but it would have been nice if he spent more time on the game engine itself. Parts of a room’s main description are almost always duplicated two or more times, and at times items are listed in the description even after you have picked them up. Any description that ends up being longer than the allowed screen length automatically scrolls up so you have to scroll back down to read the beginning. Overall it feels like the interface was hastily thrown together. Thankfully, the game is free so if you can get past all the idiosyncrasies in the interface, it’s an interesting trip through the legacy of adventure games.

Overall Score: C, The game itself holds up well; the implementation needs some work.

Advent; Free; appshopper.com

Mystery House (original release 1980)

Mystery HouseThere’s not a deep story behind Mystery House. You’re trapped in an old house, and someone is slowly trying to kill all the guests, including you. It’s up to you to figure out who the murderer is before it’s too late. You will quickly discover that there is a bit more to the game than just deducing the killer. While not explored in much detail, it is interesting how the plot unfolds through notes left around the house. Gameplay is more about exploring than puzzle solving, though there are a few puzzles to be mastered, including the “who would have thought of that” kind, and the first graphical “forest that’s impossible to navigate” puzzle. Many of the staples of modern graphic adventure games came from this little gem.

On the down side, the game definitely shows its age after all these years. One look at the graphics in Mystery House, and the younger generation will wonder how us older gamers ever survived without a 512 MB video card and the latest Unreal engine. The game has no sound or music, so if you need some noise be sure you have the appropriate tunes loaded on your device (the game does allow you to listen to your own music). And, since this was intended to stay as true to the original as possible, it actually uses the same text interpreter as the original. There’s no point and click here, folks. This is part of the challenge. There is no way to get a full list of available commands, some of the commands listed don’t work, and some that you need to solve the game aren’t detailed anywhere.

Overall, I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with Mystery House. I really think this game will only appeal to two groups of people. The first are those that, like me, remember playing it the first time around. The second group is those that are more into gaming for history’s sake rather than for experiencing the latest and greatest technology. Everyone else might want to look into one of the more modern offerings.

Overall Score: B-, The game is interesting, but some of the puzzles are rather annoying to solve because the author chose to stick as close as possible to the original game.

Mystery House; $5.99; artsiness.com

Simon The Sorcerer (original release 1993)

Simon The SorcererThis game was quite well received when it came out on the PC, and after spending some time with it, I can understand why. While a bit clichéd, the story is solid fantasy fare and the dialog is quite humorous. You play a teenager whose dog comes across a book of spells in an attic trunk. The book teleports you and the dog to a world where you have to rescue a wizard named Calypso from the evil sorcerer, Sordid. You’ll meet lots of crazy creatures, some that you’ll recognize from childhood fairy tales, and others that you’ve seen in one form or another in other fantasy stories. You’ll have to interact with each of them multiple times in order to advance the story, but you won’t really mind a bit. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, but be warned that the game is heavily focused on story and dialog. The main problem with the game is the difficulty of navigating through the dialog with big fingers on a small screen. However, it’s worth the effort.

After nearly 20 years, the graphics have managed to hold up quite well. Everything is vibrant and colorful, and it’s clear the illustrators put a lot of work into the details. The characters are fluidly animated, and there are nice little touches like butterflies flittering around or squirrels climbing up trees. The audio is also top notch. This game was made when ambience in adventure games was of the utmost importance and it shows. When you’re walking through the forest, you hear birds chirping. If you’re standing by a river, you hear the water flowing next to you. Every area has music associated with it, and it sounds like something you could package on a CD and sell on its own. The dialog in the game is spoken as well as displayed as text, and they did an excellent job of casting the voices for the different characters.

Overall Score: B+, With a more robust UI and easier navigation, this would be an A game.

Simon The Sorcerer
; $4.99; iphsoft.com

Return To Mysterious Island (original release 2004)

I won’t dwell on this one too much since I’ve already written reviews on it for both the Pocket PC and iPhone platforms. I will say that this is probably one of the best adventure games currently available for a mobile device. The main downside is the interface. You have a nearly 360-degree view, but it’s easy to lose your orientation. The inventory system is also a bit quirky and the sound effects and music could use a little work. On the other hand, the game looks fabulous. In game play, everything is rendered in 3D and looks really good.

The game itself is not lacking in any way. Like most good adventures, there are plenty of areas to explore and a lot of items to collect. In fact, RTMI probably has one of the most extensive inventories I’ve seen in an adventure game. I really like how you can mix and match items as well as tear them apart, allowing you to use some things to solve multiple puzzles. And for those that might have been worried, there are plenty of puzzles to solve. The best part is that some puzzles can be solved in more than one fashion. There’s even a decent story that is mostly shrouded in mystery (since you don’t know where you are), but it’s enough to keep you wanting to know more. Finally, both you and your eventual animal companion have health meters, which, while not completely absent in the adventure game genre, is not common either. It just adds an extra element of “survival” to the game.

Overall Score: A-, The interface is a bit clumsy, but overall this is a stellar example of what’s possible on mobile platforms.

Return to Mysterious Island; $2.99; N/A

ScummVM

The iPhone versions of several games run on ScummVM, an open source implementation of the S.C.U.M.M. engine. If you’re not familiar with the engine, Wikipedia is your friend, but suffice to say, this ran many of the most popular adventure games in the late 80’s and early 90’s. ScummVM has been ported to most modern platforms that support heavy-duty gaming. I’m not quite sure how well I like the iPhone version of the engine. There are 12 main actions listed at the bottom of the screen. You select one of them, and then drag your finger around the screen looking for things with which to interact. There are two “cursor” modes, one of which provides you with a computer-like arrow cursor, and the other a small magnification window. Either way, when you can interact with an object, its name appears in the status bar below the playing area. Take your finger off the screen and you’ll find out if you can actually use that item or if you’re going to get one of those highly creative, “You can’t do that,” adventure game messages.

To use an inventory item, you first select the appropriate action and then tap on the desired item. To walk around, you click the “Walk To” option and select where to walk. Walk to an edge of the screen to advance to a different room. Selecting an item is a matter of swiping through the possible items until the one you want is highlighted and then letting go. It all appears easy enough, but everything seems so compact for the small screen and using your finger to navigate can be a bit tricky, especially with big fingers like mine. It doesn’t always seem responsive to the touch. And unless you get an object’s name on the status bar, it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what you’re magnifying.