Written by  :  Cor 13 (174144)
Written on  :  Aug 21, 2003
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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British adventure highlight

The Good

Monkey Island conquered the adventure genre like a storm, and many companies all over the world began to study and imitate the mechanics of that seminal game, trying to recreate its success. Simon the Sorcerer by the British developer Adventuresoft (which previously focused on horror hybrids such as the Elvira series) is one of the most successful and influential comedy adventures that followed that formula.

Like Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer largely relies on dialogue to convey its jokes. You may dislike British humor, but it can't be denied that this game offers some of the best examples of it. Personally, I liked the fact that it wasn't as malicious as in many other works of British comedy; but the origins of its peculiar dryness and amusing haughtiness are unmistakable. The game is particularly fond of breaking the fourth wall - one of my favorite bits was Simon telling the wizards he recognized them because the game called them "wizards" when he hovered the mouse cursor over them. The relentless parody of fairy tales and Tolkien is not always successful and sometimes a bit too intrusive - but the humor is constantly kept fresh by the funny responses you can choose for your hero.

The puzzles are conceived with the LucasArtian "no death, no dead ends" ideology in mind, meaning that the developers got free reins in stuffing the game with items you'll need to use in creative, wacky, and often illogical ways. This does boil down to "try everything on everything" kind of thing more often than not, but for the most part the puzzle design is solid and amusing. Turning a princess into a pig for an ingenious solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem was one of my personal favorites.

What I like most about Simon the Sorcerer is its non-linear, open structure. You can access a very large portion of the game's world right in the beginning, and only a few actions prevent you from uncovering the whole thing. The world consists of interconnected screens, which means you'll have to explore it on your own - something I always welcome in any kind of game. The game also elegantly solves the problem of potentially tedious backtracking by marking any previously visited location on your map, allowing instant travel. You are encouraged to talk to everyone, gradually figuring out what tasks to work on. The game doesn't give you clear goals right a way - you'll have to study its world and discover everything on your own. In that respect, Simon the Sorcerer pays tribute to King's Quest games, though avoiding mazes and other unpleasant events.

Simon the Sorcerer looks great. Generally, the visual style of early 1990's belongs to my all-time favorites, and this game embodies its spirit with its lush, gorgeous backgrounds full of warmth and detail. The forest alone is almost magically beautiful, with butterflies and birds flying around; smooth transitions between bright meadows and ominous surroundings of the swamp capture the atmosphere perfectly. This is complemented by charming MIDI music and goofy voice acting. I think hearing those funny accents makes tracking down the CD version worth your while. The only downside is that it doesn't display subtitles; I solved that by playing the Hebrew version with original voices still intact.

The Bad

Like most British comedy, the humor in Simon the Sorcerer might not be everyone's cup of tea. At least it's not obnoxious like in its own sequel, or tasteless like in Adventuresoft's later Feeble Files. But some of the long-winded conversations may come across as forced, persistently reinforcing a jocular point beyond necessity. Yes, I understand that the stereotypical wise owl turned out to be a complete idiot, but there is no need to rub the poor bird's nose in it every time it speaks.

There is very little plot development in Simon the Sorcerer. The vast majority of the tasks you'll have to perform have little relation to each other or the overarching Sordid-defeating story. The world of the game is static, with only solved puzzles marking your progress. I certainly wouldn't trade the game's non-linearity for a more dynamic progression, but perhaps it would have been possible to have both. As a whole, the game lacks the typically American sweetness and warmth, the main protagonist being somewhat of an indifferent passer-by - albeit by far not as repulsive as he becomes in the sequel.

The main problem of Simon the Sorcerer is its lack of originality. What we have here is a legitimate Monkey Island clone. If you already had any suspicions arising during the "I want to be a wizard!" introduction, they get quickly reaffirmed once you visit the local bar and find a group of wizards in the back room. The puzzle system and the reliance on dialogue choices for humorous effects only shows how much LucasArts' design philosophy has influenced the British developers.

The humor is almost entirely confined to dialogues and some amusing puzzles. Text descriptions are rather plain, and Simon will usually refuse to perform an action that doesn't directly lead to a puzzle solution. Hot spots are reserved almost exclusively for "important" objects. This makes most of the game's verbs redundant - what's the point of potentially creative commands such as Consume or Wear if the game allows you to use them only a couple of times? The complete reliance on heavy inventory-based puzzles coupled with a lack of thinking outside of the box makes Simon the Sorcerer one of the progenitors of endless nonsensical LucasArts-wannabe comedies (such as for example Discworld), overloading the genre with formulaic puzzle schemes, contrived item combinations, and interminable self-centered dialogues.

The Bottom Line

Simon the Sorcerer is most certainly a derivative game, and its by-the-book design is not always inspired. Still, with its wonderfully open structure, abundance of inventory-based puzzles, beautiful visuals, and (admittedly hit-and-miss) humor, it distinguishes itself as one of the best LucasArts-style adventures that came out just slightly before this design philosophy became cloned and abused everywhere.