The Adventures of Robin Hood

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Still less wooden than Costner.

“Explain why Robin Hood is one of the most enduring European legends, yet most of the Western world is vehemently opposed to communism.”

Thus asked a friend of me in school, and I reply: “Because Robin Hood was a bumbling cretin who robbed a minstrel, drank nine pints of ale, then accidentally shot Maid Marian and got built into a wall.”

Your confusion indicates that you have not played Millennium Interactive’s adventure game, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Exposition Jim had a problem, and everybody knew it.

Released in 1991 on the PC and Amiga (identical, but the latter version, as usual, has better sound. Less usually, the difference here isn’t vast), it was, like almost all games I played on the Amiga, pirated, and thus there was no manual. I’ve no idea to this day whether the manual gave much away. I hope it didn’t, because figuring out all the hidden secrets of this game was half the fun. The other half is, quite simply, playing with it, in the traditional, much-neglected sense of simply mucking around. It’s a non-linear adventure with RPG elements and AI teammates. That’s a hell of a lot of design to cram onto a single floppy disk.

You are Robin of Loxley castle, and you begin by cavorting with your happy people in a merry courtyard dance. No, really. It’s a nice little tune. Then the sheriff pops up, accompanied by armed guards, and introduces himself. He claims he’s the rightful owner of the castle, and demands that you leave. You refuse, of course, and in a genuinely funny moment, all your people abandon you. They just plain walk away. No conniving uprising while you’re away on a crusade here. No defiant, roaring Brian Blessed nor Alan Rickman drawling a sinister ultimatum. The great folk hero loses everything when some dude just strolls in and tells him to piss off. And he does.

True companions.

“Norman swine!”, shouts Robin, once the guards are safely out of earshot, “You’ve not seen the last of me!”. Then he walks out of the castle and sits on the grass. And that’s his plan. To sit there, in plain sight of his usurpers, moping.

This sets the tone, and reveals a defining feature of the game: its sense of humour. It’s a great aversion of the usual pattern, of the mewling, useless peasants waiting and begging for the Heroic Hero to save them. Here, Robin is a dumbass and the people are cowardly, venal, needlessly sarcastic gits. The only thing they do faster than fleeing or betraying you is slagging you off, shouting abuse at the very sight of you. It’s hard not to root for the Sheriff a little.

You control Robin directly by clicking on arrows (or keyboard shortcuts, which make it more natural and comfortable than you’d think) or directly on the map, and less directly via a string of icons, in typical adventure game fashion. Rather than a string of static screens, the world is cut up into more granular isometric squares that scroll relative to you, giving a stronger feeling of control. There are secret items too, which open up extra abilities ranging from convenient to game-altering, and you’d be ruining the fun if you used the internet to find them.

There’s room for 7 graves. It should be enough, but, well.

It’s pleasant on the senses, despite the jerky animations, with limited but satisfactory sound effects, and occasional event music, such as for the druid who tends a shrine to Herne the Hunter (which doubles as the place for NPCs to enter the world, replacing the dead) and gives out cryptic advice to a curiously disturbing tune. Character models are tiny but distinctive, and go about their routines in a way that puts many later games to shame. Even Robin himself might get into a micro-adventure all on his own if you sit back and relax.

Villagers hunt and forage, guards patrol and chase criminals. The sheriff will occasionally pop out to outlaw something, unless you’ve murdered the guards, at which point he’ll complain about how unreliable they are. The monks will gradually build an entire monastery, stopping only to collect and bury bodies, complete with a funeral service and hymn (“Ashes to ashes, mumble to mumble”). Once or twice, I’ve been captured by a Norman after a prolonged chase, only for him to lie down and die of exhaustion. Better still are the beggars (ordinary villagers with no money – possibly because you robbed them) who gladly accept your charity, then walk around in a circle, sit down, and continue begging. In another game I’d call this a bug.

Our hero.

So why should you help these jerks? Well, fine. Don’t, then. Become a villain instead, robbing and killing and harassing the villagers, guards, and clergy alike. There’s no reason you can’t suck up to the guards, or the sheriff – do it while he’s trying to issue a proclamation for maximum passive-aggressiveness. Or you could wander into the inn for a lovely pint, or try to befriend a deer and watch as Robin runs after them like an eejit, eager to be within earshot for any sign of a response. It could easily be retitled “Robin makes a complete div of himself”, and it pulls this off without raising ire – the people are too funny and Robin too lovably gormless. If he’s not being bullied by the Norman guards or shouting “There is a smell of burning in the air” while staring directly at a bonfire, he’s being threatened by his own merry men, or having robberies thwarted when a victim simply runs away.

The only villainous thing the Sheriff actually does.

Disappointingly, swordfights aren’t much use. The villains are at least as strong as you, so your health will usually give out first unless they’re already exhausted from other fights. That only happens if they’ve just killed one of your merry men, so your main option is to assassinate people with the bow and peg it. Your men can’t do that, so their excursions – you can order them to rob and kill and donate – will often end in either death or capture, which means swift execution unless you happen to be nearby. It means there’s not much use to the ‘attack’ icon, but it does, on balance, contribute to the sense that Robin is less a dashing hero than a bungling, faintly Clouseau-esque figure of fun.

Each season brings new graphics and minute changes to AI.

Naturally, your goal is to kill the sheriff and retake the castle, which it’s possible to do in about 5 minutes by shooting him and sprinting inside before the guards realise what’s happened (there’s often a deadpan pause for a moment when you do something unexpected. Considering how little is scripted, it has remarkable comic timing). Some might complain that they can “beat” the game (urgh, how have we allowed that dreadful phrase to take over?) so soon, but more fool them for trying to win at Lego.

Besides, there’s another step first, unless you want the bad ending, of which there are several. Or more precisely, multiple small variations on two endings, decided based on what friends you’ve made, and where you stand on one of three character scales the game tracks. The other two are mostly for flavour, such as Optimism v Pessimism determining whether an idling Robin will wander off for some target practice, or sit around wailing “Oh woe is me!”. NPCs also have stats, which determine how they treat you (near universal contempt to start with).

Aelfstan the druid is metal. He scared me as a child.

This isn’t a game for winning, it’s a game to be poked around with. It’s a sandbox, really, from long before the concept had a name. And a roguelike too, thanks to the PC version’s save system. It’s playable today via dosbox, although apparently not on sale. If there’s an obstacle it’s the simple animation and sometimes slow pace, and a lack of scripted events after the first few seasons, but those are petty complaints. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a small, simple game brimming with detail and lively, imaginative humour that’s aged far better than its humble production values suggest.

Smooth like brick.

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House of Pain – A look at Constructor

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.

“Not sure if capisce.”

Unlike the great 90s-style management games like Startopia or Themes Park and Hospital, Constructor has never found much of an audience. That’s not a great games industry injustice, but it deserves some credit as a valiant attempt in a now fairly dormant genre.

It’s not as good, I’ll state that up front. Between a slightly awkward interface and a surprisingly complicated, esoteric … well, everything, this combined house building and landlord simulation was at a disadvantage from the start. The most successful strategy games of the 90s could list accessibility as one of their greatest strengths, something easily taken for granted now. Startopia and Theme Hospital were showcases of user friendliness, reducing complex systems to their most fundamental parts, and presenting new elements at a comfortable pace that neither overwhelmed or lagged behind the impatient player. That they did it with oodles of charm and personality certainly didn’t hurt.

Middle class tenants are mostly a pain in the hole.

Startopia is particularly interesting here, as its campaign has entire levels given over to different facets of the starport that could comfortably be spun off into complete games on their own. Space Trading station, Space Farm, Space Theme Hospital, Space Prison Architect… and that’s just the first handful of levels, before rivals get involved.

And it’s the rivals that may have sunk Constructor. While all the classic business sims had elements of competition, Constructor’s AI adversaries are a bloody nightmare. Actively interfering with your plans from the off, and not bound to any of the resource or scoring restrictions the player labours under, they’re less of a catalyst to improve than an incitement to extreme violence. Running your housing estate starts out as a race between disaster and catastrophe, with fickle tenants to please, workers to breed, resources to acquire, and the ever looming spectre of council inspections. Throwing a hostile force into the mix with no goal other than to make your life difficult is positively cruel.

Screenshots of this one often look dry and slow. This is misleading.

For all its shortcomings and extreme difficulty, it’s on the whole a very well-designed game. Its systems are intricate and esoteric, but with experience they make a lot of sense, and are impressively well connected. That alone isn’t enough, frankly. What pushes it into an interesting, fun place is its personality. The whole experience is dripping with character, from the grotesquely charicatured tenants and irreverent barks of your Liverpudlian repairmen, to the lovably dreadful skinheads chanting “OI OI OI OI” as they wreck whatever building they’ve decided to party in.

In the finest Bullfrog/Maxis tradition, there’s a rich vein of cynical, mildly satirical black humour underscoring just about everything you do. Tenants are reasonable people who just want somewhere pleasant to live, except when they get that, they’ll decide they actually want a bigger garden. And if they get that, they’ll want a tree. And if they get that, they’ll want a nice hedge like their neighbour’s. There’s nothing that won’t have a knock-on effect on something else – and it usually means more work for you.

The emphasis is on people, but stats and accounts aren’t neglected.

You start with a lumber yard and permission to build a few humble shacks. Get enough of these up and occupied, and the council will let you build a cement factory, a few more homes, and your first “undesirable” building. This pattern repeats itself, and each tier of buildings brings with it new classes of tenant and new resources for your beleaguered workmen to keep in supply. These are only manufactured when they occupy the right factory, which tires them out and generates tenant-irritating noise. It also takes them away from building and refurbishing rooms, so you’ll need a lot of workmen. How do you get more workmen? Well, you uh… you breed them.

Fill your estate with bikers. Invoke the Leathering.

Each tenant has preferred houses and amenities, and if these match up, they can perform services for you instead of paying rent, or if the right conditions are met, produce more tenants. Punks and Hippies have kids who join the police. Wayne and Waynetta Slob produce babies that grow into workmen, the backbone of your enterprise. Nerds run favours for the Mob.

Those undesirables upset locals and pay no rent, but produce characters who can also do your bidding – Mr. Fixit can “repair” houses, undoing your rivals with the power of spectacular bodging. Mob restaurants offer loans or have a spivvy mafioso attack your rivals (his aesthetic was later spun off into the spiritual sequel, Mob Rule). All these characters visibly go about their day, each with a funny voice clip and animation, be they hideous babie, happy-go-lucky, mildly cretinous postmen, or council house skinheads or their counterpart police thugs. It’s not just houses and resources you have to keep track of, it’s all these people and their movements, too.

Hoodlums trash a house, stressing out tenants. They’re my favourite.

The hippies don’t like their un-groovy, artificial fence. The scientist wants a shed. You gave one tenant a gnome and now they all want one. You don’t have enough yuppie tenants to replace the ageing ones. You’ve too much unoccupied land, but the only building that will fit requires more wood. Manufacturing that produces noise, which upsets the neighbours, so have the postman deliver double glazing from the gadget factory (send workmen there first). But that means the postman’s not delivering burglar alarms to the Major, and now the greasers are complaining because the workmen in your factory left their bedroom half done.

The Major demands an iron fence and the tenant you put in the new house left a bungalow vacant and it’s gone wrong and 6 foot insects are terrorising the neighbours, and now the council demand you constructively evict a rival’s tenants. But to do that and to kill the bugs you’ll need to generate more mafioso which means the Nerds aren’t paying rent. So you switch the Punks from producing cops to paying rent but now hoodlums are partying in your estate and you don’t have a cop to stop them and your workmen can’t get there to fight them off because they’re tired from working the factories and now the Major wants a hedge and the yuppies have died and left behind a squat and the biker bar’s on fire and AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH

This is Constructor at its best and at its worst. It is like spinning plates that hate you.

“Dear sir, FIRE! FIRE! There’s a fire! Sincerely, aaaargh.”

Without an active pause mode, or at least speed options, its unrelenting pace is exhausting. If you get into its rhythms it has a strong gravitational pull, but that takes a lot of practice, and it’s an all or nothing game – minor missteps or misfortunes can spiral very easily, and once you slip out of the right patterns it can be impossible to recover. What’s worse is that failure isn’t as entertaining as it needs to be. It lacks the voyeuristic thrill and glorious inevitability of the Dwarf Fortress tantrum spiral, and Sim City’s cathartic surrender to that “Burn it all” compulsion. Sometimes it’s simply unfair, as the council demands things that aren’t realistic (a little too accurate, really), and the dread of such a hopeless situation often leaves a bitter taste, and a disinclination to try again.

Although your business is (hopefully) an efficient well-oiled machine, that structure is absent once you finish a level. There’s no campaign or twist to the formula beyond a couple of even harder maps or win conditions, the latter of which wind up moot as they’re all conditions you’ll be aiming for in a regular game anyway. Several of its meagre handful of levels are restricted to harder difficulties, the thought of which is enough to make me tired even now. Its interface requires a lot of scrolling and micromagement, and those no-win situations can occur long before you’re aware of them.

Failing the council is usually game over. A robust infrastructure is vital.

I would probably hate Constructor, if not for its redeeming charm. We’re simple, daft creatures, really. We want to be entertained. We want to like our games, not just as things that are fun, but as things to personify and relate to as entities. Constructor is very likeable, but it falls short on the fundamentals, resulting in an amusing, novel game that never quite overcomes its flaws.

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White’s Privilege

If you’re going to talk about privilege, you should really look up what it means first. Yes, the guy had problems. No, that doesn’t mean he’s not privileged. Privilege doesn’t mean you never have problems or difficulties.

Before he does anything, Walter doesn’t have to prove that he’s not a criminal or illegal immigrant or terrorist. He doesn’t get turned down for jobs because his name sounds a bit foreign. He doesn’t get criticised for speaking his mind, or accosted in the street by people demanding he take time out of his day so they can leer over his body. He’s not blamed for other people’s crimes and abuse because of what clothes he put on that day. He’s not called “ungrateful” if he doesn’t simper and thank people who address him in similar terms to the people who threaten to rape him. He doesn’t get ostracised, threatened, or beaten up for displaying affection towards the people he loves in public.

He even – actual, slight spoilers (series 1) – turns down help from his multi-millionaire friends.

That is privilege. No, it doesn’t make him a bad person or mean he never suffers or has problems. Nor does it mean he’s a weak, bad, or uninteresting character. But there is a whole world of criticism, oppression and abuse that he will never have to face because of the lucky demographics he happened to be born into.

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