Monday, 21 January 2013

Intermission: The Horace trilogy

In all their 16k glory.
I hardly collect games, but this time I wanted to acquire physical copies of the three original Horace games for the Sinclair Spectrum. They are not rarities, on the contrary, one of them is probably available at any one time on eBay for a reasonable price. The cartridge versions fetch good prices, though. Well remembered and surely nostalgic, Horace games hail from around 1982-1983. It makes me think how time has passed: at the time of their release, films such as "Rebel without a cause", "High Noon" and "Forbidden planet" were about as old then as these games are now!

These are pretty nice games given that they fit into 16k. I'll dismiss the fourth Horace game as it is not written by William Tang and thus is not "canonical". Let's see what the trilogy has to offer...

Hungry Horace:

I'm surprised they did not call it Hungry Horace 3D.
"Inspired" by Pac-man, Hungry Horace introduced the Horace character to the masses. The maze is simpler than in the Namco game, except that it has the occasional overlapping portion. In the first maze there is only one opponent, a park guard, chasing Horace. Horace eats flowers, but does not have to eat all of them. Ringing the alarm bell reverses the situation for a while: now the guards can be "thrown out" of the park. The instructions make it pretty clear that no one dies in this game: if the guards catch him three times he will merely not be allowed around the park anymore.

To distinguish himself from his yellow colleague, he has the dignity of having no gaping mouth. Horace is all eyes and feet, a kind of anti-pacman. As a further reversal Horace is also blue, which in video-speak is the opposite of yellow. The lack of mouth also cleverly symbolizes hungriness, as who could be hungrier than a man with no mouth? Then again, who says those two openings are eyes, as I've always assumed? Perhaps he has not one, but two mouths. Or maybe they are nostrils. Is that protrusion a hand, a tail, ponytail or some other appendage? The mystery remains...

Horace goes skiing:

One of the earliest examples of product placement in a video game: MH Hardware.
I always felt this was the quintessential Horace game, with the most rewarding overall gameplay and the best title: Horace goes skiing. These later Horace games were clever in that they "homage" not one, but two arcade hit games. HGS combines elements from both Alpine ski and Frogger. Horace has first to grab a pair of skis, conveniently placed on the other side of a densely trafficked road. The traffic is pretty fast and changes in density. Each type of vehicle has a different speed. Choosing the right moment to cross can be a nerve-wracking exercise, as the choice has to be made with intuition coupled with a grain of luck.

Should Horace suffer a traffic accident, an ambulance will helpfully drive to the rescue. The ambulance also patrols the road while Horace attempts to cross it, and it's not rare to get smackered by it, as it is the fastest of the vehicles.

It's karmic. No, wait, I meant kathartic.

After getting the skis, he has to return to the other side of the road. Then the downhill skiing, the "Hannekon run" (No I don't get it either) may begin. This is the more relaxing part of the game, but it is not wholly without danger. Should Horace break the skis, he has to rent another pair. All the collisions with the cars and the trees make pretty nasty viewing, in contrast to the strictly non-violent nature of the first game. But in fact there's really no ill-will demonstrated, it's more like educating the kids about the dangers of traffic and skiing. Don't go outside, it's a scary world out there. Better sit in front of the computer and play Horace.

The idea of a two-part game is successful as the good gameplay is rewarded with further, different gameplay. The later part is also easier and somewhat more relaxing compared with the hectic streetscape. This further reinforces the idea of the second part as a reward to the first.

Horace & the spiders:

"Hungry Horace and the spiders ... from Mars", one could almost say. By the third game, Horace's stature as a major British cultural export began to equal that of David Bowie. As a final tour de force, Horace & the spiders features three parts, completing the trilogy with a three-parter of its own. Thus the Horace trilogy is structured as an ever more intricate spiral of complexity, beginning from the humble pacman-like beginnings of the first game, and ending up with a metaphorical recapitulation of the trilogy itself: Wheels within wheels.

A spider.
I'm not sure if the first two parts of this game resemble any single game in particular, but I would not be surprised that it has some direct precedent, possibly Jungle hunt. (Another might be Smurf rescue on the Colecovision). Horace runs across a scrolling landscape, jumping over some spiders and trying to avoid getting tripped over by a cliffside. The first dash game, if you will. There is no clear conclusion to the part, the action instead "jump cuts" to the second part.

 Ironically, the spiders' best weapon contributes to their demise. 
The second part has Horace crossing a chasm, hanging from threads that descend from live spiders. Gripping stuff. The third part, however, "references" Space panic: Horace climbs the spiders web and stuffs the spiders into holes he has created by stomping with those two enormous feet of his. I've felt this is one of the best parts in any Horace game ever, but it was damn hard to get here, as the first two parts can be frustratingly annoying. In a way the format established in 'Skiing is also used here: the game rewards good gameplay with a better, more interesting game, which is also less stressful than the lead-in parts.

Although the instructions again stress that Horace does not die, but merely has to give up the hunt after all his "serum" has been lost, the game is hardly non-violent. Horace is set out to kill the spiders, stomping them with glee. So the Horace trilogy also represents an deepening spiral of revenge and retribution. Previously, the world was intent on squashing Horace, now it's payback time. One gazes into the abyss and so on.

The heart of darkness: the web thickens...

I do not think much of Hungry Horace, as the game goes nowhere, but the two later Horace games are pretty cool what with the multi-part structure. The combination of two different genres creates a surprisingly fresh and original atmosphere, almost like playing two different games in quick succession and pretending they belong together. The consistent graphic styling make nice use of the Spectrum platform, using the graphical limitations of the computer to convey a suitable abstraction rather than trying too hard for naturalism. The cohesion of the trilogy, both thematically and in appearance, contributes to a mysterious atmosphere that begins from the naive scenario of Hungry Horace and ultimately descends into the dark violent nightmare that is the final screen of Horace and the Spiders.

1 comment:

  1. Itse olen nähnyt Horacessa puolestaan ns. pääjalkaisen, jollaisia piirtävät 2–5-vuotiaat lapset: