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Adventure Gamers Awards
Everyone knows that before the modern day graphic adventure came the text adventure (back when you didn’t even have to call it Interactive Fiction). That’s Game History 101 stuff, but what’s often lost in this lesson is the illustrated text adventure that came between those two dominant eras. While the likes of Sierra and LucasArts ultimately moved the genre towards the format we know and love today, other companies like Legend Entertainment and ICOM Simulations were producing an intriguing blend of old and new that are all but forgotten today. Uninvited is just such a game. Unfortunately, this particular example also serves as a reminder of why some things are better left behind.
Following the success of the similarly styled Déjà Vu and Shadowgate in the mid-‘80s, ICOM released Uninvited across a variety of platforms, including the Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and both Mac and PC. In 1991, the unassuming horror adventure even made its way to the original Nintendo system. Having recently blown layers of dust off my old NES (in this case literally, as Nintendophiles know only too well), it is here that our particular story begins.
Not that there’s much story to tell. Uninvited begins with a brief description of your troubles, as you swerve your car to avoid a “shadowy figure” on the road only to black out as you crash into a tree. When you come to, your sister is gone, and your car reeks of gasoline. Car wreck, leaking fuel… this is your cue to get out, and so the adventure is underway. Or over, if you stop to poke around first. Assuming you escape the car in time, temporarily postponing what will be the first of potentially many, many deaths throughout the game, you'll find yourself in front of a large, eerie, and – you guessed it – uninviting mansion. Naturally you go in anyway, if only to find your sister, and as the door slams shut behind you, it becomes all too apparent that getting out will be a whole lot tougher than getting in.
If the basic premise sounds a little like Maniac Mansion, that’s true, though beneath the immediate surface the two games are nothing alike. Those who have played Uninvited may want to argue that it’s the player’s brother who disappeared, and that’s also true of versions other than the Nintendo port. For reasons known only to Kemco-Seika, the missing sibling has been changed here, though this fact has no impact on the game itself. Whether there are more notable differences between versions I cannot say, so be forewarned that this review deals explicitly with the NES title.
Beyond the simple mandate of finding your sister and hightailing it out of there, there’s a backstory to be sussed out in the odd document lying about, though it’s so sparse and vague as to be all but unintelligible. Something about a student becoming more powerful than his master and seeking magical power for evil purposes, only to be tricked and foiled in his attempt, though the final outcome still hangs in the balance. I’m not being deliberately evasive to avoid spoilers; the story is simply that obtuse. There’s nothing to explain why the house is filled with the undead, monsters, and other malevolent forces, or indeed why your sister is missing.
Of course, plot can be secondary when your motivation is often just staying alive. Now, Uninvited is an adventure game through and through, so while you’ll regularly confront zombies and ghosts in these unhallowed halls, there’s no fast trigger finger necessary. Better yet, death is forgiving (at least towards the player), so you’ll always be restored to a moment just prior to your untimely demise. Still, it’s obvious right from the start that the game comes from that bygone era before adventure death became all but taboo. Here it can come early and often, though usually you’ll have a fairly good idea when death is imminent. That doesn’t make it avoidable, often relying on trial-and-error to succeed, but it generally does steer clear of harmless acts leading to arbitrary deaths. There is one major exception, however, as picking up a perfectly logical item results in a timed countdown of insanity that will ultimately claim your life, with no indication of what’s causing it. It’s more annoyance than obstacle, as you’ll revive anyway, but all that does is start the cycle all over, again and again.
When not dodging death, you’ll simply wander through the mansion and its adjoining buildings, looking for clues and usable items, and overcoming a rather moderate number of challenges. Having said that, exploration in Uninvited isn’t all that simple, and you’ll find far more than just the items you’ll need. Interaction with the environment is done by moving the cursor (in this case using the D-Pad) to the appropriate verb button and then clicking the desired spot in the illustrated location. This first-person image, occupying only a quarter of the screen, shows each area in very basic 16-colour drawings that can only really be described as “functional”. You can usually tell what you’re looking at, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Actions include common options like Exam, Take, and Use, along with some lesser-used choices like Hit, Speak, and Open. You won’t be doing much chatting with the otherworldly denizens, so Speak is used mainly for reciting the few magic spells you encounter. On the other hand, you’ll be using Open far more often than you’d like, as any closed door, drawer, books, bottles, etc. will need to be opened before using. That’s perfectly logical, of course, just tedious drudgery to perform, particularly with the limitations of the gamepad in moving the cursor back and forth across the screen for redundant actions.
Navigation is done in a similar way, by choosing Move and then selecting a doorway on the main game screen or the mini-map, which shows only available exits in a given room. The latter seems far preferable at first, until you incredulously discover that the orientation of each room is different than the actual illustrations. Click the west exit on the map in one room, then exit that room to the east, and you may find yourself in a completely different room than the one you started in. Ridiculous and infuriating. I’m sure the mini-map has its own internal logic, but I hope whoever designed it isn’t working for Google Maps these days. The good news is, while inside the game’s sizeable maze, the mini-map switches to standard compass logic. The bad news is, there’s a sizeable maze, and you’ll be in it.
Apart from maze mapping, a few riddles, and one code-based combination to decipher, puzzles in Uninvited consist of single-object inventory application. That sounds easier than it proves to be, as this game predates the “take everything that isn’t nailed down” philosophy of modern day adventures. Employ that strategy and before long you’ll find yourself with at least eight pages of inventory items to constantly scroll through. Add to that the issue of hotspots having no highlight indicators, and you can throw the “try everything on everything” concept out the window as well, unless you want to try using 50-odd items on every wall, lamp, or scriggly line you think might be an object but can’t quite tell.
To the game’s credit, there is an area where you can discard unnecessary items. Better yet, it won’t let you throw away anything you absolutely need, preventing any nasty dead ends from hasty decisions. This feature lets you indiscriminately collect away and let the game decide what’s important for you. To some, that will defeat the purpose; to others, it’s a welcome relief from unwanted clutter. The catch is, you aren’t made aware of these facts in either the game or its documentation, so first-time players will likely suffer under the excess burden throughout. (Except you, now that you know.)
Whether lugging a lean, mean inventory or the better part of a garage sale with you, another annoyance is the inconsistency of its use. Thwarted by locked doors and sealed jars throughout the game, only once can you use the big axe you’re carrying. Meanwhile, a magical object that the game tells you can ward off the undead will work on some and sign your death warrant with others, and take your guess which is which. There are occasional linearity issues as well, with certain actions allowed only in certain areas when other areas would have worked equally well. Call me crazy, but to me one fire is as good as another, but not so here. And then there are some just plain illogical solutions – not many, thankfully, but some.
It’s not an issue of missing clues, either. Surprisingly, Uninvited offers very little in the way of contextual clues. Or “textual”, I guess I should say. While performing actions always provides you with some sort of text response, the descriptions are often bare-bones. The better text adventures of old would provide subtle hints at what’s important. Here the game seems to rely too much on its visual presentation, opting to skimp out on written feedback. Like the graphics themselves, then, the text tells you what you absolutely need to know and that’s that. Not even that, in some cases. As a result, instead of being the best of both worlds, it ends up feeling more like a compromise between the two.
And really that’s the bottom line when it comes to Uninvited. It’s dated, to be sure, but that’s par for the course with any old game, and it’s a bit cumbersome with a gamepad, but I don’t hold its format against it (and wouldn’t be a concern when played on PC anyway). The bigger problem is simply that it doesn’t do what it could have done all that effectively. Instead of a rich and enticing text adventure with pictures, it’s a watered-down graphic adventure with print. I haven’t even mentioned the sound yet, as there are no voices or notable sound effects, and the less said about its staggeringly repetitive MIDI-style music the better. The game certainly has its tense and spooky moments, to be sure, and the depth of interaction may well please those who rue the one-click-fits-all mentality of today’s adventures. At a modest length of four-plus hours (apart from any major stumbling blocks), some might find it worth a look as an old school “haunted house” precursor to the likes of Dark Fall and Scratches. Short of its nostalgic value, however, for anyone else there’s little here to warrant dredging up the horrors of Uninvited anymore.