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.Continued on the next page...