I find your lack of… ticket sales, disturbing

Disney, unaware that their bank-busting dopey-kid-dreamer-versus-evil fantasy animation, Black Cauldron, was to become their most regrettable mega-flop, commissioned the development of an accompanying computer game. They were impressed by Al Lowe’s Troll’s Tale graphical adventure – released in 1983 – and in particular appreciated the potential of adopting the simplicity of its action selection scheme and accessible mechanics. On the strength of their belief that this would perfectly suit an interactive interpretation of Black Cauldron, Al was offered the contract.

Happy to accept the challenge – along with Roberta Williams, Elaine Boulay, Nancy Casolaro, and Melissa Haldeman – Al began designing a rudimentary graphical adventure game aimed at young children. Exactly the target audience of Black Cauldron, despite being the first of Disney’s animations to receive a more mature PG rating. With good reason too; Black Cauldron is the darkest, most disturbing of Disney’s productions by a country mile. Featuring scenes of suicide, marauding, reanimated, fleshless zombies, drowning and threats of beheading and maiming by a red-hot, glowing lump of coal, it’s enough to give kids recurring nightmares well into adulthood!

They didn’t really understand video games at that time; the job was assigned to the same women who were in charge of educational film strips for the schools. They put out LP records with film strips. When the record went ‘ding!’ some kid would turn the knob to advance the film strip one slide. That was the technology they were used to dealing with! So for them to be in charge of us, at the time the cutting edge of computer games, was rather funny.

We realized quickly that they insisted on having input. But the longer we could delay them seeing the product, the less changes they could make! They never made improvements, just made things different. ‘I think it should be this way!’ And I was like, ‘Why?!’. ‘Well, we want it that way’. So I decided to hide out until it was all done, and then we would show it to them. (laughs)

They also had trouble playing adventure games; they couldn’t get through a game without help. We would often create several new versions of the software before they could complete a previous one!

– ‘Al Lowe Talks Early-Days Adventure Genre Challenges In New Book‘ by Philipp Lenssen (July 2010)

Developed shortly after Sierra’s first King’s Quest title, and by some of the same staff, it naturally borrows heavily from these foundations. Namely Sierra’s ‘Adventure Game Interpreter’. Given that two versions, plus a later re-issue of Black Cauldron were released, it represents the only game to have been created using all three AGI iterations.

“So,” they said. “We still want you to do a game for Disney. But we really don’t have a place. Why don’t you come and work at my house?” And so for months, many months of that project, I hauled my computer up and set up in Ken and Roberta’s game room and sat next to Ken and Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe. We all sat there and created the Black Cauldron game because there was just no money left to do it any other way. So, yeah, we became indie developers. We didn’t intend to. It’s how it worked out, though.

– Al Lowe, www.nodontdie.com (March 2015)

Scaling back the complexity of more widely known point and click adventures of the era, Black Cauldron dispenses with the text parser, instead relying on several intuitive function keys to execute commands. Taran – the star of the show – is similarly controlled using direction keys rather than the mouse. We can select and use objects, look at things and activate the ‘do’ command; a substitute for all those verbs you’d typically find in a Lucasarts adventure game driven by the SCUMM engine.

The whole idea was so you didn’t have to type … And so the Disney people liked that idea and said, “Could you do something simple like that?” Well, for a full-blown adventure game, it seemed a little simplistic, but what we came up with instead was the function keys were always on the IBM keyboards back then, so we ended up using the function keys. And it’s odd because the names that I picked for the function keys are the same names that we ended up using 10 years later for the icons on the verbs bar that we put across the top of screen. Remember when Roberta came up with the idea of using icons?

– Al Lowe, www.nodontdie.com (March 2015)

I think I got a mouse around 1984. I remember I bought a Macintosh in ’84 right after they came out because I was so enamored with it. But I did Black Cauldron entirely with the keyboard. I don’t remember mice for PCs until much later.

– ‘Al Lowe Talks Early-Days Adventure Genre Challenges In New Book‘ by Philipp Lenssen (July 2010)

Our environment consists of non-linear single screen scenarios with dialogue exchanged via text boxes. Accompanying the primitive aesthetics are sparse sound effects and plinky-plonky musical ditties. To what degree you’ll be driven to tear your own ears off will vary widely depending on the host platform… Amiga, Apple II, Apple IIgs, Atari ST, DOS, or PC Booter. A Commodore 64 port was touted, yet failed to materialise. Even Al Lowe doesn’t know why.

Plotwise Sierra did a fantastic job replicating the progression of the cartoon. All the critical scenes are included and in chronological order, so if you’re familiar with Disney’s extremely loose fusion of the first two of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain novels you’ll have no trouble working out what it is you’re supposed to do. Likewise, if you spot a certain substitute parent mentor character reading ‘The Book of Three’ in his cottage abode you’ll understand the connection.

Even without this grounding – in contrast to King’s Quest – our main task is broken down into lots of subtasks, which are always logical and well signposted.

Mirroring the cartoon’s plot allows us to complete the game, yet not earn maximum points (230). Ah, the old dentist joke. I don’t suppose that’s remotely relevant so just pretend I said something staggeringly profound here, and then we’ll move along.

Solving puzzles that deviate from the script is actively rewarded, teaching us to think outside the box, whilst multiple endings are possible depending on how we’ve dealt with prior decision tree junctures. It’s just like one of those Ian Livingstone/Steve Jackson choose your own path game-books! There are even secondary variations within endings that lead to different finale animations. All of which was highly unorthodox for the time, and remains unusual today. With many retro games you’re lucky to be treated to one proper ending. If developers could get away with a single static picture, often they would.

Also unexpected for the period were the “seventy three-dimensional screens” the box claims can be found within the game. These were so rare in adventure titles that they don’t in fact exist in Black Cauldron. When did we rework the definition of 3D?

I started programming in 1978 and within a few years was creating games for Sierra. My first full-blown animated 3D graphic adventure game for Sierra was The Black Cauldron, in 1984. In ’87, the Leisure Suit Larry series began.

– Al Lowe, ‘Lettuce Entertain You: A Visit to Sierra On-Line‘ by Judith Shane

What it does include is several action sequences that rely on precision dexterity. Such as the Ork Attack style wall-climbing mini-game, alligator swerving and rope-shimmying segments.

As in the movie we assume the role of Taran, a young orphan with aspirations of becoming an intrepid soldier, yet is obliged to concede the reality of amounting to no more than a humble pig carer’s assistant, too young to join the army. Whiling away his days play-fighting on Caer Dallben farm under the guardianship of covert wizard, Dallben the Enchanter, little does he know that Hen Wen – the pig under his protection – is of the magical soothsaying variety, making his role paramount to the well-being of the free world.

The Horned King – a kind of cross between Skeletor and Sauron – unfortunately is more on the ball. He knows that if he can steal Hen Wen and coerce her into revealing the whereabouts of an ancient, supernaturally-charged Black Cauldron he can deploy it in raising an army of undead skeleton swashbucklers, become doubly evil overnight and enslave the world. He’s already a nasty piece of work and doesn’t really need any more encouragement so it’s up to us to thwart his dastardly plans.

The Horned King: Oh, my soldiers… Soon the Black Cauldron will be mine. Its evil power will course through my veins, and I shall make you Cauldron Born… Yes, yes, oh yes! Then you will worship ME! Me… Oh, my soldiers… How long I have thirsted to be a god among mortal men…

Anyway, the Horned King, really? I can’t keep calling him that. He must have a birth name of some sort, surely? I know, some Aberdeen Angus have horns (even if they are crossbred mutants) so I’m going to Christian him Angus. That’ll work.

As for why the Black Cauldron is such a pivotal game-changer, I’ll let the cartoon’s opening monologue – voiced by John Huston – explain…

Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil that even the Gods feared him. Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a great, black cauldron. For uncounted centuries, the black cauldron lay hidden, waiting, while evil men searched for it, knowing whoever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors… and with them, rule the world…

Naturally, while Taran is daydreaming about becoming a sword-wielding hero, Hen Wen is pig-knapped by a dragon sent by the Horny One. I mean Angus. Our clairvoyant charge is taken to Angus’s castle lair of iniquity to do his bidding, leveraging the valiant exploits of his keeper… who is soon incarcerated himself having failed to hatch a feasible rescue plan.

Taran: (to a goat) His majesty, the Horned King. So we meet at last. Ha!
(Taran rattles the goat’s horns with his stick)
Taran: Even the Horned King shakes with fear. See, Hen? Everyone runs from the famous Taran of Cael Dallben.
(the goat butts Taran and knocks him down)
Taran: (pretending to die) Prydain’s finest warrior draws his last breath.

On route to the castle we meet a furry sidekick critter called Gurgi voiced by comedian, actor and impersonator, John Byner. He’s a sort of quirky bipedal sheepdog/mini Sasquatch/Gollum cross-pollination experiment with the voice of Donald Duck. Pungent too, as he takes great pride in informing us, without understanding the meaning of the word. Ignoring the popular pastime of hating the ‘pre-Jar-Jar-Binks irritant’, I think Gurgi is the most endearing character in the cast. Even if he does keep referring to himself in the third person…

“Oh, poor miserable Gurgi deserves fierce smackings and whackings on his poor, tender head. Always left with no munchings and crunchings.”

Whilst Gurgi is initially self-absorbed, fixated on securing new “munchings and crunchings” to keep his salivating chops amused, he soon becomes a loyal companion who goes on to play a crucial role in safe-guarding the future of civilisation. I suppose you could think of him as a kind of needy, insecure version of Scrappy-Doo. Incidentally he’s on my Christmas card list too. 😉

There was a puzzle in the game where you had to acquire some gruel. I was rather tired one VERY early morning, and to amuse myself I installed a response message that said something like, “Mmmm, this tastes like freshly roasted mule sh#t, just like mom used to make.” When I saw something I wrote actually displayed on the screen, I was totally f’ing hooked. What I didn’t know was that they were going to send that version of the game down to Disney for their perusal of our progress. They saw that message and pretty much shit themselves. Amazingly, I didn’t get fired and Mark and I eventually came up with our space comedy idea and convinced Ken to let us develop it. The rest is weird history.

interview with programmer Scott Murphy conducted by Adventure Classic Gaming (November 2006)

In the movie there are very few references to eating beyond feeding Hen Wen his unappreciated gruel, and Gurgi’s apple-stealing antics, so the game’s preoccupation with our nutritional status is a bit of an oddity. If we don’t keep our ‘wallet’ constantly stocked with food and flask topped up with water we keel over and die. It’s not as if the level of threat needed to be exacerbated to heighten the drama since Taran’s precarious existence is always at the forefront of the player’s mind; it’s possible to expire at any moment for all manner of petty reasons. This is a Sierra game after all! It was Lucasarts who pushed the tradition of the unloseable point and click adventure.

Our second trusty companion in the fight against the dark side is Princess Eilonwy, a fellow castle dungeon ‘guest’ who helps us to escape, deftly turning sexist gender stereotypes on their head.

Taran: What does a girl know about swords, anyway?
Eilonwy: ‘Girl’? ‘Girl’? If it wasn’t for this ‘girl’, you would still be in the Horned King’s dungeon.

Owing to her superior knowledge of the castle’s layout she proves to be indispensable, and of course, being a princess in a Disney cartoon, Eilonwy and Taran develop a romantic attachment to one another. Spotting this, Gurgi does his utmost to play matchmaker since the one thing he loves more than food is a happy ending.

Searching for the exit Taran and Eilonwy stumble across a series of catacombs beneath the castle, disturbing the original, usurped king’s burial place. Helping himself to his omnipotent, legendary sword gives Taran the premature opportunity to test his mettle against hoardes of the Horned King’s stooges, as well as playing a critical role in securing the Black Cauldron later.

Several twisting, labyrinthine passageways later, the pair encounter a third captive; a prattling old bard called Fflewddur Fflam (pronounced ‘Flu-der Flam’). You’d never guess the source material is Welsh! Sorry Gene Siskel if that stuck in your throat. I know it wasn’t really compatible with your American insularism.

I like the Creeper. I love the pig. If the movie were about the Creeper and the pig, fine. The human characters, the core human characters with their English accents… why not make it good old American? That’s what I liked about Snow White, it had a nice American voice. Then it would be fine.

The dullard at the center of The Black Cauldron, a film set in the Middle Ages, is a boy named Taran, who speaks with the kind of soft, proper English voice that belongs to insufferable goodie-goodies.

Fflewddur tends to ramble on indefinitely without actually saying very much whilst being unnecessarily polite. Even to those who are hostile towards him and should really be kicked into touch, not mollycoddled. This makes him far more annoying than Gurgi. Even the appropriately named Creeper – a purposely unlikable, obsequious boot-kisser – is more charismatic than Fflewddur! Even after we’ve spotted that he looks suspiciously like a miniature Green Goblin.

Speaking of whom, Creeper is the star of one of the funniest scenes in the movie. He’s screwed up again and knows he’s going to get a thorough kicking from His Lordship, so to placate him Creeper proceeds to strangle himself to the point of near asphyxiation. If you weren’t listening closely enough to the dialogue you’d think this was a parody of a similar scene in Star Wars involving Darth Vader and telekinetic throat-squeezing. You never know, it could still be, regardless of who’s tightening the noose, so to speak.

That was a long, unplanned meander. Meanwhile, Fflewddur! In the game his dungeon prison is where you’ll find Black Cauldron’s only known Easter egg. Walk over to the east wall, examine it and you can peak through to the other side to spy on someone playing King’s Quest III. I wonder if Disney signed off on that? I wouldn’t put money on it!

Largely courtesy of the advantage conferred by the king’s sword, the three prisoners escape the castle. Next on the agenda; setting off in pursuit of Hen Wen, who Taran helped to clamber over the tower wall to safety earlier. Albeit tumbling into a rat-infested moat all on her lonesome. It could have been worse I suppose – they’re alligators in the game.

Trailing the scent through the forest we’re sucked deep beneath a swamp, spiralling in descent, ensnared in a fervent whirlpool destined for the underground sanctuary of the luckily benevolent ‘Fair Folk’.

Equally fortuitous, they’ve been harbouring Hen Wen, awaiting our arrival. Even better, their genial king, Eidilleg, knows where to find the cauldron; nestled within the Marshes of Morva, guarded by three obnoxiously repulsive witches.

You may wonder why our miraculous fortune-telling porky pet couldn’t have led us right there from the outset, dodging any metaphorical landmines along the way. I suppose even Wonder-Pigs have their limits and sometimes crystal balls can go on the blink, becoming murky and clouded. Plus it would be an extremely short, unspectacular fairy tale if the path to salvation ran that smoothly.

Making an entrance as inconspicuously as a rhino in a fine bone China boutique, Taran has no option other than to barter with Orddu, Orgoch and Orwen, reluctantly agreeing to exchange the king’s precious sword for the Black Cauldron.

Through their tutelage we learn that the cauldron’s power can only be vanquished should someone voluntarily climb into it, perishing in the sacrificial act. While this renders it useless as a world-conquering despot’s toolkit, the cauldron itself is indestructible. Before Taran has chance to comprehend the implications of this, the Horned King’s henchmen intervene, commandeering the cauldron and once again taking Taran and crew hostage. It’s not explained how they managed to find them so easily, without the benefit of an ESP-gifted pig.

Once back at the ranch, Gurgi breaks the trio free in time to head off the Horned King’s scheme to employ the cauldron in raising his flock of zombies.

The Horned King: Now I call on my Army of the Dead; the Cauldron-born! Arise, my messengers of death! Our time has arrived!

Taran decides the only way to end his tyranny once and for all is to commit hari-kari by leaping into the cauldron. Dawdling however, he’s forced to re-think when Gurgi pips him at the post, reaching the conclusion that he has less to lose and a duty to redeem his previous cowardice and egocentrism.

Gurgi: No, master. Not go into evil cauldron.
Taran: If I don’t, we’re all lost. Out of my way.
Gurgi: Gurgi not let his friend die. Taran has many friends. Gurgi has no friends.
Taran: No, Gurgi! Don’t jump! No!
(Gurgi jumps into Cauldron)
Taran: No!

The Horned King’s bedraggled army crumbles into a mass of disjointed fossils as the cauldron violently erupts. Before he can wreak vengeance upon Taran, Angus is selectively sucked into the cauldron and eviscerated. It must know he’s been naughty this year… as Santa always does.

The Horned King: No! You’ll not have me! My power cannot die! Curse you!

Taran and crew escape just in time to see the castle brought to the knees it doesn’t have… because personification doesn’t work like that. It’s really-properly-totally wasted anyway, making a lie of all those ‘wish you were here’ tourist board Prydain postcards.

When the witches return to reclaim the inert cauldron Fflewddur manages to negotiate a shrewd deal to have Gurgi resurrected in exchange for Taran’s sword. Taran agrees, realising that Gurgi’s life and friendship is more important than his glory-hunting, delusions of grandeur. Thus the team is reunited, skipping off into the sunset to confirm that the balance of power has well and truly been restored and the future’s looking bright. Orange even!

In the game this is just one of the multiple ways the game can conclude. It’s also possible for Taran to altruistically commit suicide in place of Gurgi, or to use a mirror to deflect the Horned King’s attack, causing him to become disorientated, retreat and fall into the cauldron to his doom. If we’ve previously befriended Gurgi by offering him a cookie, he becomes the Samaritan. This creates the possibility for further finale branches depending on what we offer the witches in return for his resuscitation. Pretty impressive for a seemingly austere adventure game released way back in 1986!

It’s hard to tell if the game suffered the same fate as the largely shunned movie. Released in 1987 right on the cusp of the first popular Amiga computer model, no English reviews are available. Those based on the slightly older Apple and DOS editions are equally thin on the ground.

Only C&VG seem to have put the game through its paces, stopping short of assigning an overall score. It received an 8 for ‘atmosphere’, ‘personal’ and ‘value’ and an n/a for ‘vocabulary’. Personal what? Also, it includes plenty of dialogue so why the n/a? I don’t get it.

Assessing only the Atari ST version C&VG concluded…

Altogether a very clever and varied game, with some outstanding Disney style graphics.

Notwithstanding a lack of PR, YouTube is host to various commentaries and complete play-throughs and the game has since been made available online for free by Al Lowe himself. Just as the movie has undergone a cult revival (and reappraisal) of late, the accompanying game has hardly been forsaken. Aside from the original incarnation, it has been remodelled (twice) to introduce point and click mouse operation/an icon-based GUI and can even be played instantly in a web browser.

What is clear is that Sierra should be commended for managing to successfully evoke the plot and ambience of the source material with the exceedingly limited resources at their disposal. You’d expect nothing less with eleven people working on it!

In the cartoon Taran is a bland, cookie-cutter excuse for a heroic lead. He’s all talk with nothing but artificial (almost sentient sword) power to back it up. Had he not been rescued by Eilonwy and bailed out by Golgi he’d be a lifer serving time at His Majesty’s Leisure or dead.

Sierra’s interpretation kind of gets a free pass in contrast; with a game this basic you’re forced to rely on your own imagination to flesh out the cast’s personalities. They can be whatever you make of them. You could even picture the unworthy Welsh upstarts with superior American accents if you can’t bear the thought of people existing and breathing beyond US shores.

Providing you save your progress every three and a half seconds to avoid having to start again from scratch, Black Cauldron is an enjoyable diversion. As long as you assess it with 1980s expectations, and from within the context in which it was intended.

Aimed at a pre-teen audience its simplicity represents a solid bridge between purely text-based adventures and point and clickers such as Monkey Island. Without Sierra’s early contributions to the genre the more memorable entries in the pantheon may have been unrecognisable as such today. If nothing else their assorted Quests taught us that death is no fun and best avoided at all costs.

2 thoughts on “I find your lack of… ticket sales, disturbing

  • December 1, 2018 at 10:33 pm
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    Wow, a GREAT read DK! I was a fan of Black Cauldron back in the day believe it or not..the movie not the game. I don’t even RECALL a game…to think those classic adventure game luminaries all huddled around a table at someone’s house programming for months…helluva deep look man. My hat’s off to you!

    • December 3, 2018 at 9:05 am
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      Cheers. 🙂 I was surprised by how much I enjoyed delving into the movie and game since I’m not a big Disney or Sierra adventure fan. Then it’s not much like a typical Disney cartoon, and the theme of the game is different enough to your typical Quest title to keep me interested. As dull as the lead character is I think Creeper, Gurgi and Sauron are entertaining enough to carry him.

      I think there’s supposed to be a remake coming soon, though I didn’t get chance to look into that. At least with a movie most people hate Disney wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers if they screwed it up.

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