8-bit Adventures Anthology: Volume One Review

These days, when the hardware and software developers alike are pushing 4K for what they call "true immersion", how would you react if you were presented with an 8-bit adventure game from 30 years back? It would have an intriguing plot and exciting puzzles but crude graphics and weak sound. But what if you liked the game nonetheless? Would that make you sad, that you admit being thrilled by such a stone age experience? 8-bit Adventures Anthology: Volume One won’t make you sad. Instead, it makes you understand why the games were as thrilling with their big pixels and beeping sounds as they are today with their extended reality.

ICOM Simulations developed a series of point and click adventure games, under a common moniker MacVentures, for Apple Macintosh in the mid-80’s. The games were converted to several contemporary home computers and video game systems. Their graphic user interfaces were slightly different depending on the platform, either mouse or joystick/joypad controlled. 8-bit Adventures includes emulated NES ports of the first three MacVentures: the detective story Déjà Vu, the horror thriller Uninvited, and the fantasy adventure Shadowgate. Sadly, the fourth and last MacVenture title, Déjà Vu II, isn’t included in the anthology as it was never converted to NES. I would have preferred Amiga versions of the games, not only because they were graphically superior but Déjà Vu II would have been included too (though that would have made the collection a 16-bit Adventures Anthology).

All three games share a similar user interface. The screen is divided into a graphic representation of the current location, a small flat map depicting its layout, a list of available commands and an inventory screen. These adventures come from the time before points of interest, so everything that is important and can be interacted with on the screen must be perceived yourself. Graphics are clear enough so that shouldn’t pose a problem. The last used command stays active, which is handy in case you want to repeat the action, like “examine” several objects or “move” over a few screens.

Achievements aren’t scored by progressing in the adventures but for dying in different ways. As death looms over the player on many occasions, often in a humorous way, it’s a godsend the games can be saved anytime. It was an important option in the MacVentures from the beginning.

Curiously, the anthology doesn’t feature any history of the games, so it’s a trip to Wikipedia if you want to learn more. For a really old-school immersion, there are several filters that can be applied to mimic old CRT-screens. Cool as they are, I enjoyed a crisp image best. The NES ports have some differences to the other versions. Due to a lower screen resolution, some text descriptions have been cut and edited. Also, the original games had very little to no music, but the NES version boasts several tunes to enrich the experience.  The console was infamous for its feeble sound chip, though, so the results vary greatly.

Let’s go through the games in the anthology in their original release order. Déjà Vu is set in Chicago in 1941. You wake up in a bathroom, with no memory of who you are or why you are there. A trench coat and a holstered gun hanging in the wardrobe suggest you might be a private eye. With this assumption, you go about the city solving the mystery, not only of yourself but also of a dead body you discover. Soon, you’re tangled in a web of blackmail, kidnap, and deception. Told in wry humor, Déjà Vu’s hard-boiled film noir atmosphere is nailed with minimalist means. The gaming area may not be large but there’s a certain charm going through it by hopping into a cab (and paying for each ride). The music is surprisingly nice and moody.

Uninvited has the player again waking up after a mishap. Your car has crashed into a tree, and your big sister is missing. It’s better not to idle inside the car, though, as it’s in flames and about to explode. Where has your sister gone? Perhaps to the ominous mansion nearby. Soon, you’re lost inside of it too. The mansion is an exciting labyrinth of interwoven rooms with many tasks to complete. The script, albeit edited, is smart and unexpectedly detailed. Otherwise, the NES port of The Uninvited has the most differences from other versions. Originally it was your little brother who was missing and the game had a time limit in which to find the sibling and solve the mystery. The time limit is here but only if you pick up a certain gem. Even if you take it, you can always leave it behind and continue freely. Also, some graphics were altered, like pentagrams and other occult symbols replaced with stars and other neutral imaginary. Unlike in Déjà Vu, the music in The Uninvited can be quite grating.

Shadowgate sees the player as the last of the line of kings who’s tasked with saving the world by defeating an evil warlock bent on summoning up the demon Behemoth out of Hell. The playing area is larger than in the previous games, laid out with devious traps, but it’s often a confusing maze. Also, most of the puzzles can be quite obscure. The game mostly falls to a method of trial and error in order to eventually defeat the warlock. Still, there’s the trademark dry humor coloring the adventure. There are more animated sequences than before, depicting demises of several monsters standing in the hero’s way. Shadowgate has a sort of time limit. If your torch burns out, it’s a harvesting time for the grim reaper. The music intensifies as the flame dims, so you know when it’s time to light a new one. Remember to grab every torch you see!

The exciting thing about 8-bit Adventures Anthology: Volume One is that the games in it don’t only possess nostalgia values. Good adventures can stand the test of time better than many other genres because they’re held up by their stories and puzzles rather than a fancy presentation or tight controls. Of course, MacVentures are short by today’s standards, but they’re not linear. There’s a surprising amount of freedom given to do the needed tasks in each game, creating exciting prospects for the player. The gameplay can be slow as the controller can’t stand in for a mouse, but that’s nitpicking. Most of all, 8-bit Adventures Anthology: Volume One shows how little is needed to create immersing experiences. I had a blast going through these games again I had played almost 30 years ago on Commodore 64 and Amiga. For eight bucks, the anthology is a steal. Do yourself a favor and relax with crude pixels with cool stories.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.