Raven hair and ruby lips, sparks fly from her finger tips

Several years before the Amiga was born Palace Software published Cauldron and its sequel, The Pumpkin Strikes Back, for the 8-bit platforms.

In the original game – essentially Defender with a twist – you play as a broom-fueled witch. A ‘hag’ tasked with collecting keys to access the underworld in order to aggregate six ingredients comprising a potion with the gumption to snuff out the…

*melodramatic pause*

Evil Pumpkin.

It’s both a shoot ’em up and a platformer in one. A genre-bender that concludes with the message, “the pumpkin is dead, long live the pumpkin”. Speccy Cauldron is also noteworthy for having been released alongside a previously unseen version of Evil Dead. All for the bargain price of £7.99.

Cauldron’s bouncy follow-up has you playing as the last of the ‘innocent pumpkins’ whose mission is to defeat an…

*drumroll*

Evil Witch.

This you achieve by snagging a lock of her scuzzy hair, which once potionised in the Cauldron enables you to cast a spell to reverse the Evil Nastiness wrought upon the enchanted wood. Part deux ends with the line, “the witch is dead, long live the witch”. I assume Palace were either playing on the white witch/dark witch dichotomy, or… or… any ideas?

By 1991 Palace were working on a second sequel known as ‘Super Cauldron’, only 80% through its development regrettably they went bust.

Shockingly not much progress was made in the aftermath. Nevertheless, luckily Titus acquired Palace and their back catalogue lock, stock and barrel, granting them the rights to pick up where they left off. Hence in 1993 the Amiga was finally invited to the esbat, where it cursed the night away along with the Amstrad, Atari ST and a coterie of DOS-based beige boxes. Palace’s unfinished shoot ’em up, Hostile Breed, wasn’t so lucky.

Fundamentally Super Cauldron is a remake of Cauldron I rather than a sequel, tweaked story-line notwithstanding. Whisking the series back to its roots it’s your duty to…

“Help Zmira the friendly witch find her lost magic powers in a world haunted by jumping pumpkins, spitting gargoyles, slimy bats and many other bewitched creatures. Search for the source of evil and free the kingdom from darkness. Restore peace and happiness to the people of this land. Save the creatures of the forest from the demon’s curse.”

Wow, no pressure then! Shall we cure cancer and suss out the meaning of life while we’re at it? It’s no trouble, really.

Primarily a platformer, you’re able to collect broomstick icons conferring the ability to launch into the sky on your trusty floor sweeper… until it runs of steam and you plummet to the ground. Good thing there’s no fall damage with witch to contend (tee-hee etc).

Exploring four worlds Zmira dispatches baddies with her tweakable trajectory chucking stones (hold fire for longer to extend their range).

Pop their clogs and they deposit a frog, a spell-power-boosting amphibian no less. These top up our power bar, which determines how much mileage we can eek out of the currently selected option. Providing we’ve bagged each individual upgrade first that is. These encompass a profusion of helpful gizmos including…

– Straight-shooting fireballs, as opposed to the arc of your stones. Not especially potent.

– Napalm style flames hurled into the air that torch the earth when the inevitable happens. Another middle of the road weapon in terms of effectiveness.

– Terrain-hugging circular saws that wipe out anything in their path.

– Super-charged bowling balls. Ironically more powerful than the bona fide weapons. I bet that’s why Fred Flintstone always kept one handy.

– Bombs are fairly weak as a weapon (unlike bowling balls!), though do allow you to unblock critical pathways. Try blowing up walls composed of individual cube blocks without thinking ‘horizontally scrolling Bomberman’.

– Lightning that eliminates everything on the screen.

– A self-cloning spell, quadrupling your fire power.

– The magic staircase allows you to conjure temporary steps in thin air, enabling you to reach higher ground. Did we fall asleep and wake up in Lemmings Land?

– Magic bridges need little explanation, except to say that like the steps they’re an ephemeral arrangement.

– The metal melter takes care of any metal doors. Bet the manufacturers say that on the tin.

According to the manual spells are selected using the function keys, F1 to F12. That would be handy except the Amiga only has 10 so I suppose this must have been a quick copy and paste job from the PC version. Instead they can be accessed from within your spell book via the return key.

This Atari ST player’s spell book is nought but a bare vessel, home only to a cold, dead stone. What? I’m not suggesting any sort of parallel to real life here.

Initially though we must take on the world armed only with an unlimited supply of rocks. Some enemies can absorb a ridiculous number of hits before perishing so it can be hard to tell if they’re invincible, as certain specimens truly are. It might be worth the effort to stick around and separate the wheat from the chaff if it wasn’t for their ability to regenerate as soon as you scroll away from their habitat and back again.

This it should be noted is continuous for the horizontal sections, yet vertical scrolling is of the push variety and feels quite disjointed. Horizontal scrolling we’re led to believe by the critics of the time is jerky, though I didn’t experience that at all via emulation using a standard A500 configuration.

You’ll encounter the vertical kind most prominently whenever you drop down into a secret area via the hollow tree stumps that substitute for pipes. On route to the exits we spend much of our time below ground, the underworld being the natural stomping ground of the witch (well in this trilogy anyway).

Zmira joins Jamiroquai Deeper Underground in the Atari ST version.

Occasionally these exits will actually allow us to finish a level and progress to the next; those that don’t transport us right back to the start.

*Shakes fist at defunct game studio.*

Yes, Titus are also no more, having stumbled into bankruptcy in 2005. You’d think the dire Superman 64 would have contributed greatly to their downfall, except it actually shifted over half a million units, making it the third most popular N64 game in summer 1999. Titus’s IP has since been swallowed up by Interplay Entertainment.

Unfairness seems to be a running theme now that spurious exits are under the microscope; Super Cauldron is not especially consistent. Certain volumes of water kill you, while other equally wet areas are perfectly safe.

Concordantly some objects you’ll be certain pose a threat, yet can be walked past like background scenery without enduring so much as a scratch. Which lulls you into a false sense of security… until you’re jolted out of your comfort zone by a genuine foreground hazard. It’s all a bit – you know – like, random. And stuff.

Die and you may end up having to retrace many steps since restart points are so few and far between. That’s at least one mechanic that’s predictably reliable thanks to the relentless waves of foes that exist purely to terrorise Zmira. Poor ickle white witch who never done nuffink to no-one.

It would be annoying if re-spawning entailed a lot of disk swapping since the game refuses to recognise a second drive. Thankfully disk 1 seems to be mostly occupied by a demo of Crazy Cars III (aka Lamborghini: American Challenge) so not to worry.

On a positive note, you’re free to take it easy, one step at a time since there are no artificial limits. No egg timer, no rising damp a la Rainbow Islands. Nothing like that.

Disappointingly for a late era Amiga game you must choose between music or sound effects. There’s no simultaneous option. Pascal Evrard was responsible for the audio, substituting for the late, great Richard Joseph who contributed to the first two games. This is the only Amiga game Pascal worked on, and possibly the only game full stop.

That’s a period for any Americans reading, who would have felt right at home with Super Cauldron since it was specifically translated from French into ‘American’. Not English, but American. Does that mean it’s full of sneakers, pacifiers, sweaters, diapers, realtors, jello, faucets, soccer, catsup… (alright, we get the point, put a sock in it – Ed).

Controls are pretty solid and responsive, as they need to be where this kind of twitch gaming is concerned. You’d really be up the creek without a paddle otherwise.

Pressing and holding the fire button to extend the reach of your stones works well, though it has to be said they’re especially feeble for a default weapon. In effect you end up avoiding more enemies than you kill, making the inclusion of your extensive arsenal a bit pointless.

Without fancier graphics than non-Super Cauldron the revamp would fall flat so it’s nice to see they match the quality of Titus’s other cutesy, cartoony winners; Blues Brothers and Titus the Fox for instance. While simplistic for a 1993 release, sprites and backdrops are well drawn and endearing, the odd oversized foreground object scrolling by at a different rate to the other layers producing a convincing parallax effect.

If you recall I mentioned in my articles on Titus the Fox and Blues Brothers that Titus had a habit of featuring bulldogs in their games. Ones that look conspicuously like Spike from the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Well guess what? Yup, you’re right.

Super Cauldron isn’t a game that’s renound for its visual prowess, however, a number of elements spring to mind that weigh in its favour, highlighting the care and attention the developers devoted to it. There’s the semi-transparent animated waterfalls, weather effects incorporating thunder, lightening and snow set against immersive copper trick backdrops, and Zmira’s toe-tapping idle animation.

Calling the animated opening sequence an ‘intro’ is ‘over-egging the pudding’ somewhat (there’s a phrase you don’t hear much these days). A few bats flutter back and forth across a dusky, foreboding clifftop vista before being joined by some more bats, and the game begins. All very atmospheric and beautifully crafted, it just doesn’t go anywhere, and does nothing to acquaint the player with the narrative.

What is well conceived is the way the finale ties back to this marginally animated backdrop, Zmira having duffed up the degenerate sorcerer who instigated all this misery and suffering in the first place. Illuminating the colour palette (or waiting for sunrise if you prefer) counteracts the gloomy aesthetic, while swapping the ominous bats for cute, fluffy bunnies suggests that the balance between good and evil has been restored. With very little input from the artists, shrewdly our quest is made to feel much more epic.

It’s easy to see why Super Cauldron wasn’t generally well received upon release (scores ranged between 27% and 80%). It’s a frustrating, unforgiving game produced by a company with a reputation for delivering ‘hit and miss’ titles. This one landed squarely between the two extremes, hence was lost amidst the burgeoning clamour for a slice of platforming pie.

Still, it is interesting if only because Super Cauldron features a female protagonist; a design choice that flowed against the tide throughout the first few waves of our hobby’s popularity. Samus Aran, the heroine from Metroid (1986) is believed to be the first playable female character, though she didn’t have much in the way of competition back then.

Also unorthodox for a platformer is the range of weaponry and power-ups at our disposal, as well as the means by which they are activated. Spells are typically intrinsic to RPGs of course.

Ultimately slaying Ming the Merciless leaves little opportunity to claim the witch is dead, mocked with the customary ding-dongs to seal her fate.

… or for that matter fathom how this joyous turn of events lifts the demon’s curse, thereby emancipating the kingdom.

Lamentably, once the confusion and novelty factor sheen has worn off we’re left with a game that’s too much toil and trouble to master. A largely generic ‘run and stone’ with little hubble and bubble to captivate us for more than five minutes at a time.

5 thoughts on “Raven hair and ruby lips, sparks fly from her finger tips

  • November 5, 2018 at 1:53 am
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    Very nice game, but also not so well designed. As You mentioned sometimes it is hard to find a way. Game do not tell where You can enter and sometimes water kills You and sometimes transport You into secret areas. Also while You get more spells game do not tell with is most useful for solving puzzles, sometimes it is easy to figure out when use bombs to destroy rocks, melt metal doors, or toss coin for teleportation, but sometimes You face boss and have no clue with one spell will work and with not.
    Still I enjoy this game, like Titus art style and think graphics in this game are very well made, I like those small animated details like moving bushes or weather effects.
    Did You know there is one naughty animation if You fail to kill wizard boss at end of each level? 🙂

    • November 5, 2018 at 3:12 pm
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      LOL. No, what does that involve and how did the devs sneak it past the censors?

      • November 5, 2018 at 4:29 pm
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        I have no idea too 🙂 but it looks like those censors do not play those old games for too long to notice that single frame of shame 🙂 I post my little discovery ages ago on EAB and people there also do not noticed that one until I made screen shoot. Maybe developers put something bigger as smoke screen for censors so they could easy find it and this one would be hidden better.

  • November 9, 2018 at 11:21 am
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    I spy two perfect titles for next year’s Halloween special! Hopefully the AGSC reads this! /

    Oh, and we spell it ketchup. 🙂

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