The Black Cauldron

I first started playing Sierra adventure games almost as soon as I got a PC back around 89/90. The Sinclair PC200 I was using at the time was behind the times in most ways but ahead of the game in the sense that it only had a 3 1/2 inch disk drive at a time when most games still came on 5 1/4 inch floppies. Sierra were one of the very few companies to include both disk types in their boxes as well as supporting CGA graphics and I played my way through most of the AGI engine games back then.

One game I never did get around to was one of the earliest AGI titles, The Black Cauldron, an adaptation of the Disney movie headed up by Al Lowe but also worked on by plenty of familiar Sierra names. The game is now about 30 years old so lets put that right.

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This is the original PC booter version and the box is a good deal smaller than the later Sierra releases than I’m more familiar with.

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What it lacks in size it makes up for with a folding flap on the cover with an illustrated booklet on the inside introducing the game. It’s distinctly similar to the Infocom boxes in this respect.

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There is no neat little tray at the back of the booklet though and instead the contents have to be pulled out of the box conventionally. Note the sticker at the back to cut up and stick on your keyboard so you don’t forget the keys. It’s not strictly necessary as the interface isn’t much more complicated than any other AGI game.

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I’m using scummVM to play this + the version I’m playing is a later release than the one I’ve got on floppies. The game is actually free to download from www.allowe.com for anyone who wants to give it a go. I can’t compare this to the movie as I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it. I just about remember it coming out as a kid but it doesn’t seem to have been anything like as popular as some other Disney movies.

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First things first, this does use Sierra’s famous AGI engine but it’s not quite how most of us will remember it. You still move your character around the world with the cursors but instead of typing commands the game uses F4 to use an item, F6 to interact with whatever you are stood next to and F8 to look with no typing required. The keys chosen are unnecessarily awkward when you have a whole keyboard of non function keys that could have been used instead but ignoring that it works well. Not having to guess the verb does make the game a good deal easier and I’m sure this was aimed at a younger audience that many other AGI games.

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As the game begins, Taran is an assistant pigkeeper and not too enamoured with this state of affairs. Nevertheless life continues as normal and the first task in the game is feeding what would appear to be the farms only pig Hen Wen.

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After eating, Hen Wen immediately trots off to your master and I soon learn she has the power to see far away things. She has a vision about the Horned King searching for Hen Wen in order to make her find the black cauldron and hence rule the world.

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In the space of a couple of paragraphs of text, Taran’s life is uprooted and he has to take Hen Wen off to the fair folk and save her. Of course the moment I step outside the Horned King’s goons start swooping down trying to capture us both.

Anyone who has played King’s Quest will be very familiar with the mechanics in this game with the semi-random monsters. Step off the screen and they vanish again so it’s just a case of sticking near the edge of the screen for a quick escape.

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My master wasn’t helpful enough to tell me where to find the fair folk but they are only a handful of screens away from the house. I do have to go behind a particular bramble bush to get to the right exit.

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With Hen Wen safe, I can explore the rest of the map in peace. The world map is largish and rolls over at the top and bottom just like in Kings Quest. Playing this game is very much a trial and error approach at first with plenty of deaths and restarts along the way. Sierra got a lot of criticism for this sort of approach but since you can complete these older games in no time at all once you know what you are doing I never saw a problem in it. When the games got larger and the dead ends longer then it became more of an issue.

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With my newly discovered magic word, I eventually figure out how to open up a secret passage by the water fall to find the King of the Fair Folk who wants me to destroy the black cauldron. He doesn’t offer to help as such but does give me a magic mirror + 5 portions of magic flying dust, one of which I need to use to get back out of the cave I just fell into.

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From here it’s off to the scarier West edge of the world map where things get spooky and dangerous. I have to scale a cliff in a screen that would be nearly replicated in Kings Quest 3 before finding the Horned King’s castle. On the way to that, I carefully walk through the adventure game equivalent of one of those games where you have to move a metal hoop around a wire without touching it. I’d forgotten how many of these sorts of things were in these early AGI games.

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The arcade like nature of the game continues on the next screens where I have to swim across an alligator infested moat (without meeting the alligators) and then climb up the castle into the window without falling off or getting rocks dropped on me.

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Once in the castle, I get to spy on the Horned King before being captured by a henchman and thrown in a cell.

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Escaping from the cell is simply a case of rattling the cup on the door. A trap door opens up in the floor and I’m rescued by a princess and her pet bauble.

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She expects to be rescued in return. After walking through several dungeon screens, I find a suspicious looking wall which leads to a tomb and a magic sword. The princess takes the opportunity to sneak through a gap that is too small for me.

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Now that I’m armed, I can escape the dungeon. The magic sword is less effective than I might have hoped but does stun the henchman for a couple of seconds. I take the chance to free one of the prisoners in return for a special harp that it occurs to me now I never actually used for anything.

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I escape the castle, climb back down the cliff and head for the one area of the map I’ve not managed to achieve anything yet. This is across a swamp. You may notice that there are loads of little rocks across it. It is possible to jump across these which is how I tried it on my first attempt through the game but now I have the flying dust I take the easier option and bypass this particular subgame. This leads to a witches cottage and a chest full of frogs.

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At first the witches try to add me to the frogs but after waving my sword around they agree to swap it for the black cauldron. Before I can destroy the cauldron and beat the game, one of the Horned Kings minions swoops down and grabs the thing meaning I have to traipse back to the castle once again.

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The Horned King is busy raising a skeletal army with his new cauldron. I flash my magic mirror at him, showing him his true self which is apparently horrifying enough that he jumps in the cauldron committing suicide. As the castle starts to fall down in true end of the film/game fashion, I float off on a log and escape.

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There is one final puzzle as the witches offer me various exchanges in return for their cauldron back. After turning down their first offers, the last of these is the return of my magic sword which I now find grants me immortality and a happy ending.

I really enjoyed playing Black Cauldron. I can’t say how much of that was pure nostalgia but I expect a large part. I may not have played this particular title but it was quite the novelty to play a new AGI game that I was entirely unfamiliar with. The colourful graphics really suited the subject matter and within the low res constraints of the AGI engine have never looked a whole lot better than this despite it being one of the earlier games.

As a game it’s a little hard to categorise. It’s certainly not an adventure game in the normal sense of the word. There was a large portion of arcade-like elements at times with walking along narrow pathways and bashing henchmen with swords. Sierra did this sort of thing a lot with their games, including things like driving through the city of Lytton in Police Quest, or the infamous arcade sequences in Space Quest.

There was a smaller quotient of puzzles than other AGI titles and the largest aspect of beating Black Cauldron was simply exploration and coming up with a plan of attack once you knew where everything was. There is a time limit of sorts with the game requiring the player to eat and drink throughout but it’s certainly simpler to play than any other AGI game that leaps to mind (short of Mixed Up Mother Goose). There is still a reasonable if brief challenge coming to this fresh. There are supposedly extra points available for taking different routes from the movie but I never found any alternative solutions other than the option to allow a minor character to sacrifice themselves at the end of the game instead of using the mirror.

I can’t say I’m entirely clear on many elements of the story actually. No doubt it would all make more sense if I’d read the books or watched the film. It didn’t get in the way though and it made just about enough sense to keep me playing. On the whole this would be a nice gentle introduction to the world of Sierra adventure games and definitely one I recommend. I wish I had some more AGI games to catch up on but this is the final one as far as I know, outside of fan games. There are several SCI titles that I still haven’t gotten around to and will no doubt be having a go at in due course.

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