A total eclipse of the heart

There’s nothing worse when you fall in love than discovering that you can’t be with your partner because while you’re human they’re a hawk, and while they’re human you’re a wolf. It’s a dilemma as old as the sun and one that works perfectly on screen because everyone can identify with being in the same position. My marriage to Wile E. Coyote suffered a similar fate. I still miss him *sniff*. This may be leading somewhere, who knows…

Licencing existing IP for gaming adaptations costs money. Tweaking something from pop culture a bit and rebranding it as something fresh as a daisy doesn’t, hence all the unofficial spin-offs that were easier to slide under the radar back in the ’80s and ’90s. In Spain the situation was much the same, giving rise to… oh I don’t know, name a totally random sci-fi platformer. How about ‘Sol Negro’ by Opera Soft, published in 1988, available for all the blinky-bleepy gaming contraptions of the time.

Well, except the Commodore 64. Speccy users were actually treated to two versions; a standard one, plus a more vibrantly coloured upgrade. Very snazzy it is too, colour clash notwithstanding.

Despite sounding like something you don’t repeat in politically correct circles for fear of being accused of racism, the title actually means ‘Black Sun’. I think it’s still OK to call something black as long as it’s not a person, or should I refer to it as a ‘sun of colour’ just to be on the safe side? I don’t want to give any non-entity politicians the pulpit to make a name for themselves off the back of an issue that doesn’t remotely exist.

It’s neither here nor there since the sun featured in the movie on which Sol Negro (aka Soleil Noir) is based doesn’t radiate from any particular race or creed. It’s only ever black due to an ephemeral solar eclipse. Phew! Social faux pas neatly averted.

Ladyhawke is a 1985 medieval fantasy film directed by Richard Donner (of Superman and Goonies fame), starring the recently late Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and master thief Ferris Bueller on his day off. Only Matthew Broderick wouldn’t go on to become the most notorious high school slacker ever until the following year. This was his practice run. He plays a similar – albeit highly diluted – wisecracking character, resulting in just two genuinely funny lines of dialogue.

As a tame, bloodless, PG-13 romantic adventure romp, racism isn’t an issue. Which leaves plenty of room for extra helpings of acute misogyny! It’s amazing women’s liberation groups didn’t hijack the production in protest.

On the run from the Bishop of Aquila having escaped captivity from his castle dungeon, Phillipe ‘The Mouse’ Gaston (Broderick with his English-American-English accent) is rescued from re-apprehension by Etienne Navarre (Hauer) and his pet hawk (played by several different birds, one called Spike II). A hawk that turns out to be Navarre’s missus, Isabeau of Anjou, in disguise, spitefully metamorphosed by the Bishop’s curse having spurned his amorous advances.

Aquila is the Latin word for eagle, if anyone is interested? Also any morphing it should noted only really occurs in the viewer’s mind. This was three years prior to the first implementation of the breakthrough CGI technique, as seen in Willow. Here the trickery is executed by way of several slow dissolve transitions and jump cuts to simulate a gradual transmutation from one form to another. They’re fairly convincing even today, you know, if you do a Mulder… you want to believe.

Upon learning that Navarre had developed an infatuation with the same “face of love” beauty and she for him, the bishop extends his malevolence to her Romeo by transforming him into a wolf.

Imperious: On one day, on a drunken confession to his superior, he committed a mortal sin. He revealed the lovers’ secret vows to the Bishop. The old fool didn’t realize what he had done at first…

…or the terrible revenge the Bishop would exact.

His Grace seemed to go mad, he lost both his sanctity and his reason. He swore, that if he could not have her, no man would. So, Navarre and Isabeau fled from Aquila. The Bishop followed, ever more ardent, ever more persistent than a hound. An evil man, a powerful man, hated and feared; rejected even by Rome itself.

He called upon the powers of darkness…

…for the means to damn the lovers.

In his fury and frustration, he struck a dreadful bargain…

…with the Evil One.

The dark powers of hell…

…spat up a terrible curse, and you have seen it working.

By day, Isabeau is the beautiful bird you brought to me. And by night, as you have already guessed…

…the voice of the wolf that we hear…

…is the cry of Navarre.

Poor dumb creatures, with no memory of the half-life of their human existence, never touching in the flesh.

Only the anguish of a split second at sunrise and sunset…

…when they can almost touch…

…but not.

Always together…

eternally apart…

As long as the sun rises and sets, as long as there is day and night, and for as long as they both shall live.

You have stumbled onto a tragic story, Phillipe Gaston.

And now, whether you like it or not…

…you are lost in it, with the rest of us.

Making their acquaintance Philippe understandably fails to connect the dots seeing as Navarre is currently in his human form and he has yet to meet the non-avian Michelle Pfeiffer.

As Etienne is a wolf by night and Isabeau a hawk by day they morph at dawn/sunset, only sharing a fleeting moment of human to human interaction. Neither creature is capable of comprehending or recalling anything that transpires during their cursed state, ensuring that any kind of meaningful relationship is beyond reach. Ooh, what a mean trick. That Bishop must be proper evil.

You know, they shouldn’t stand for it, and they don’t. Recruiting Philippe’s assistance they intend to storm the bishop’s castle, duff up Marquet (the head guard) and his lackeys, and give the purveyor of injustice a good telling off.

Insane Prisoner: The Mouse? He left our house. No mouse today, he’s run away. To ease the pain, he… he’s down the drain.

‘The Mouse’, so-called because he can squeeze through tight spaces – hence his usefulness in breaking and entering (and thieving) – is to serve as a sort of Trojan horse. As well as an exposition auteur for the dumb audience who apparently require everything to be spelt out for them through his one-sided conversations with God. These McGuffin moments are supposed to provide light relief… erm, from the light fairy-tale. Supposed to.

Phillipe: Sir, the truth is, I talk to God all the time, and, no offence, but He never mentioned you.

Actually that one’s pretty funny. Bad example.

As Isabeau’s existence is validated purely by her breathtaking beauty, it’s decided by Navarre that should he fail to kill the bishop – indicated by the commencement of the religious ceremony and bell-ringing he intended to Shanghai – Isabeau should be euthanised by the local monk, Imperius. When I casually threw misogyny into the conversation earlier I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Navarre: If Phillipe has done his job, I can kill the Bishop now or never. No, Etienne, this chance will never come again!

Imperious: You’re right.

Navarre: If the service ends peacefully…

…the cathedral bells begin to toll…

…and you will know I have failed.

Imperious: But Isabeau?…

Navarre: I… beg you, take her life… quick and painless.

Imperious: I can’t do that!

Navarre: Yes you can! I beg you.

The cruelty would be to damn her to a half-life like this, that is not what she wants.

Yes, Navarre following no discussion with Isabeau takes it upon himself to make the arrangements for her to be ‘put out of her misery’ assuming they can never be together. Maybe it’s not so bad spending half your life soaring through the clouds over Italy’s picturesque alpine meadow of Campo Imperatore-Abruzzo? Perhaps he should at least raise the topic of whether or not she’d like to wake up tomorrow and continue to exist? Just a suggestion.

That’s the best/worst example of extreme sexism found in Ladyhawke, though far from the only one. We could explore the symbolism of tethering Isabeau with a falconer’s jess, or the weirdly off-kilter joke that arises from mistaking Navarre’s Friesian stallion Goliath for a mare. If we didn’t have a dodgy unlicensed game to check out.

Philippe: All right. Come on, old girl. Come on. Stubborn little lady!

What’s her name?

Navarre: His name is Goliath.

Philippe: His name? Pretty name.

Navarre: Go with him, boy, he didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.

Philippe: Goliath, before we get to know each other better…

…I feel I should tell you a story about a tiny little man named David.

One day…

Black Sun – the game’s title – alludes to the solar eclipse seen during the movie’s finale that purports to the potential for the curse to be broken, allowing the forlorn couple to live happily ever after. As A-list Hollywood actors without fur or feathers. Which they do after a bit of a climaxy type scuffle with the bishop and his guards. They don’t put up much of a defence to be honest.

Ladyhawke revolves entirely around the tricky circumstances of an interrupted relationship between a ‘princess’ and decorated soldier (he was previously the bishop’s head guard) so unsurprisingly the game’s premise too zooms in on this aspect of the story. Padding out the action with running, jumping, shooting, jet-packing and scuba diving.

You might have guessed that the movie’s medieval setting was supplanted with something more contemporary and sci-fi during the transition to pixels. Ironically it’s not that jarring considering the movie’s incongruous semi-synth-rock ’80s soundtrack courtesy of Andrew Powell! Much of the critics’ disdain relates to this bizarre choice alone.

Without permission to adopt the likenesses of our two leading actors, these too were reworked, swapping them for something much more AD2000 in style. Substitute characters, names and even one of the creatures into which they transform was modified. It makes you wonder why Opera Soft bothered evoking the movie at all, and why I’m covering them together.

Well for starters, the movie is much more appealing than the feeble, school-programming-project quality game I’d be embarrassed to charge money for. And two… and two, see number one, it’s a really good point. That’s really saying something since the movie is a bit of a snorefest itself.

It doesn’t look like the game was ever translated from its native Spanish, though it hardly matters since it contains so little narrative. Luckily the rehashed movie plot (found in the skimpy manual) translates reasonably coherently so we can get the gist as to what we’re supposed to be doing and why…

“A difficult mission, full of obstacles and enemies, almost impossible. Only you can help them get it. Do not abandon them.

An ancient spell, transmitted from parents to children, turned the muscular Bully into a fish and the indomitable Monica into a hawk. Each plenilunio (full moon) one of them is transformed and the other recovers its normal form, which prevents them from being together.

Only an extraordinary phenomenon can break the spell, something as extraordinary as an eclipse of the sun … the BLACK SUN.

To break the spell, Bully must first release Monica (the hawk) from his cage to turn him into a fish, arrive together in time to the sacred underwater temple of the sun, a cave located beyond the confines of the submerged city of Hydrionis, just at the moment when the moon embraces the sun, and the shadow looms over the planet.

The objective in this first phase is to free Monica, turned into a hawk, for which you must locate the key to her cage and go to rescue her and with her go through all the dangers until you reach the magical palace.”

Given that the game can be completed in about ten minutes (if you’re a longplay ninja!), there’s no time to waste on a complex reconnaissance mission. Walk a dozen steps past her cage and we stumble upon the key in plain sight. Grab it, double back and she’s free to tag along by Bully’s side.

“A modern reactive propeller allows you to soar through the air, but be careful! Do not overheat or you will lose it. You also have an M-92 automatic laser rifle as the only defensive weapon. The enemies are many and deadly: murderous gerbils, hungry vultures …and the most dangerous of all: Jaco, the guardian of the spell, whom you must shoot multiple times to eliminate him.

You will cross deserts, forests and swamps to reach the palace where you will complete the first of your mission.”

Ammo is infinite although auto-fire remains prohibited – our rifle freezes whenever we attempt to shoot continuously for more than a few seconds so it must be used sparingly. A nightmare since enemy critters respawn thick and fast with no let-up, forcing us to keep moving or die. More likely keep moving and die. There’s no room to squeeze between them and if your gun is currently smoking/incapacitated you’re a sitting duck.

Some enemies extend to fill most of the vertical real estate making the jetpack essential for fly-overs. Those Monty Python-style gaping mouths of doom for instance. Not that there’s much room for manoeuvre in the first place – look at the size of that HUD.

I’ve cropped a third of the height that was just a black void.

 

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the toothless, false-teeth-shooting head-stumps were inspired by the same source.

And that lizard on a hoverbike looks familiar too. I’m having flashbacks of some eighties cartoon. Battletoads maybe. Oh, except that didn’t put in an appearance until 1991.

 

“This phase takes place in the ocean’s foothill. Monica must protect Bully in his fish form and the two together reach the underwater grotto. Monica has a water propeller and a water repellent gun with which she must defend herself against underwater enemies.

Think hard before shooting. Some allies can become dangerous enemies.

With much skill and some luck you will reach the cave with Bully at the time of the eclipse…”

Wolfless and now underwater, eh. Despite the expected increase in inertia the two characters barely control any differently in practice and there’s no benefit in having a sidekick. Considering this is the crux of the whole exercise you’d imagine that this aspect could have been evolved a bit further. A simultaneous two-player option perhaps, or something like the one player scenario found in Shadow Dancer and similar ninja games.

No such luck. It’s purely a single-player affair with a choice of two characters; a decision we commit to from the outset. To get back to the selection screen the game must be reset, otherwise, it will restart using the same character should we kick the bucket. It’s not a major issue – I’d be surprised if many people went back for second helpings.

Had the movie been lavished with an official gaming adaptation, the cash-sink box office turkey would likely have gone unnoticed. Operating at a loss Warner Bros wouldn’t have wanted to waste any more money suing game developers for copyright infringement, if indeed they’d even noticed the existence of Sol Negro.

Awful graphics, music non-existent and sound effects perfunctory. There’s one speech sample throughout and that’s almost indecipherable. I think our lovebirds shout ‘animal’, or is it an automatic reflex brought on by jellyfish-induced anaphylactic shock? It’s impossible to tell. Whatever it is, it doesn’t compare to the sting you’d have endured if Sol Negro unexpectedly drifted into your submerged grotto as the ill-omened moonlight descends.

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