I wonder if the erstwhile Jonathan Cauldwell had any idea what he was starting as he was putting together Arcade Game Designer (and Platform Game Designer)... It feels almost like there was a time pre-AGD, in which Spectrum owners got a handful of new games a year, and a time post-AGD, in which Spectrum owners got a million of them. Mage Rage is an overhead maze game and the first AGD game I've seen which features good old 8 x 8 CHR$ definitions. Ah yes, I remember them well from wargames and Basic type-ins from the early Eighties. I could get all bleary-eyed just thinking about them, were not almost every game created using them perennially crap.
Hold on a minute though. Spectrum owners have been blessed with some beautiful things done with CHR$... There was Bob Smith's subliminal Splattr, which still gives me goose-bumps when I play it... and there was Lumascii, also by Bob Smith, which is like a living work of art. One of Cronosoft's very earliest games, Fun Park, was also almost solely reliant on CHR$ for its graphics. So these little 8 x 8 blobs doesn't necessarily always equal tosh. Sometimes the games themselves play really well, even if paused screenshots seem to indicate otherwise.
Mage Rage screenshots look pretty uninspiring, but the game is actually better than they suggest. The AGD engine means that all the sprites scuttle smoothly around the playing area, whilst the game is complemented by a bouncy in-game tune. As for what you have to do, well it's a cross between Halls Of The Things and Captain Fizz; you're in control of a tiny mage and must find the stolen swirls. You have to avoid all the spiders that inhabit each of the sections of overhead maze that you cross too. It's a game all about finding your way about, and you'll definitely need to make a map to figure out how to complete it.
Littering the maze are arrows (up, down, left and right) and squares which look rather like a dice face. The arrows open doors at the top, bottom, left or right of the current maze section, allowing you to pass to the corresponding section. The dice face tops up your ability to fire energy bolts at the spiders. If you use all your energy bolts, you're at their mercy until you find more.
And, well, that's about it. Each screen has a unique name and, although I've lumped all the enemies together as "spiders", they are redefined differently in most rooms (even though they behave in exactly the same way). As you touch the arrows, and then journey through the doors you've opened, the screens change... but it's basically more and more of the same. It's also pretty difficult to predict which way the spiders will move. When you get close to them, they seem more likely to attack. However, from a distance they seem to just mill around, meaning it's hard to judge when and where to shoot at them. If indeed you think shooting is worthwhile; more spiders appears to replace those that you kill.
Mage Rage isn't the type of game I would usually play, so I persevered with it for an hour or so just to get to grips with its unique style of gameplay. With its incredibly small sprites, the game has a very strange feel indeed. The exploration element is good, with the game feeling like it has a lot of nooks and crannies just waiting to be explored. And it's actually pretty satisfying when you do loose off a laser bolt and pick off a spider from what feels like an incredible distance away. However, ultimately the lack of variety stifles the fun there is to be had here and sadly it's not in the same league as Splattr or Lumascii.
Nevertheless, it is sort of a novelty. When it first started, and it told me "travel eastwards if you dare, young Wizard", it put me in mind of Ultima...! The CHR$ look cheap and nasty when paused, but in motion they do give the game a unique charm and it may be that, if you take the mapping element seriously, you could have quite a lot of fun puzzling it all out. All things considered, it's free and it plays well and sounds great. Whether or not its charms ensnare you, it's definitely worth a click to check it out.