Games both sinister and taxing in equal measure come this way in Bum Fun's physical release of some forgotten Rafal Miazga gems
Bum Fun Gaming do a curious thing with some of their physical releases of Spectrum games. They emblazon the box with the name of the game they're selling - in this case, Skyscraper Of Doom - and, in tiny little text underneath, they add "includes bonus game" - in this case, Safecracker. If the bonus game was just some Basic ten liner, you'd doubtless actually disregard it as a legitimate part of the purchase. However, the bonus game included here is just as much fun as the promoted one, effectively making the tape a compilation rather than a standalone release.
The first game, Skyscraper Of Doom is a dark, brooding graphic adventure. It pits you in the role of an investigator in the near future (year 2031), living within the titular skyscraper. Initially you're confined to four rooms with an opening puzzle to solve; the solution, however, is rather obscure and this sets the scene for what follows.
Now I like graphic adventures, and the more imaginative they are, the better. Rather coincidentally I was recently introduced to Clock Tower (on the SNES, originally only available in Japanese but recently "ROM hacked" to English), and Skyscraper Of Doom, like Clock Tower, is a graphic adventure where seemingly innocent actions can quickly lead to gruesome deaths that you weren't expecting. Hotel on fire? Check. Fire extinguisher nearby? Check. Then pressing the action key to grab fire extinguisher seems the obvious solution. However, it's not... "I tried to grab the fire extinguisher with my bare hands but cut an artery on the glass surrounding it. I bleed to death. Game Over."
Yes, Skyscraper Of Doom is one of those games where, to get things right, you firstly have to get them wrong. This is an approach I don't really like and what's worse is that it's coupled with English language dialogue that often leaves something to be desired: "Now I understand... A laser shot hit wall and damaged old cable it caused short circuit and started fire in chain reaction all around the building." Hmmmm. Alright, it's comprehensible, and the author's command of English is certainly much better than my command of Polish. However, the combination of "mmmm, I'm not quite sure if I understood that correctly" dialogue and "mmmm, I'm not really sure what to do to solve this puzzle now the obvious solution just killed me" does lead to quite a degree of frustration.
Now by no means is Skyscraper alone in such a respect - classic graphic adventures such as The Happiest Days Of Your Life, Hopkins FBI and even Garfield: Big Fat Hairy Deal often required you to solve puzzles in quite baffling ways. And, in some respects, I even feel a begrudging admiration for Skyscraper Of Doom because of the risks it has taken with its subject matter. By being clearly destined for an adult audience, it includes features that add to its dark overtones - explicit pictures hanging on the walls, dead bodies littering the corridors and even a "hero" who seems something of an unsavoury character...
Many authors would have just churned out a castle-based generic family-friendly graphic adventure with one of the plethora of Spectrum tools available. Skyscraper is really something quite different. It has - provided you can get out of those initial four locations - an atmosphere. An intensity. Perhaps it's the burning corridors. Perhaps it's the claustrophonic elevators. Perhaps it's the animated introduction that alludes to all manner of gangsteresque/supernatural goings-on. Perhaps it's the dark coloured palette of the game itself. More likely however, it's a winning combination of all of these. And when a game is quite this unique, those rather frustrating inclusions tend to take on a significance rather than lead you to just give up on it.
Graphically, Skyscraper Of Doom looks very nice, although there are a few attribute clashes, particularly on the balcony scenes where the central character is very difficult to even pick out against the blue background. Sonically, it's mostly silent. In all other respects, it's a pretty difficult game to review. I can imagine many Spec-chums finding wandering the corridors of the hotel an exercise in existential boredom, and finding the obscure solutions to puzzles to be murderously vexing. One thing's for sure though, it's not a game you'll complete within a few days. Even solving that very first puzzle may well take you at least half an hour, and when the whole hotel is opened up to you, you'll find items need to be transported a fair distance across it in order to be used. I suppose you'll really get the most out of this if you're the type that likes graphic novels, or games with a story.
On then to the bonus game, Safecracker, which literally thunders into life with one of the most boppy AY tunes I've ever heard. This game invites you to take on the role of a master criminal. Your task is to open a safe which is equipped with three distinct safety mechanisms.
Basically, this translates to three sub-games, all of which are puzzles to tax the old grey matter. The first is a sort of "push the bales" variant, in which you need to move "knobs" around a very cramped area. If you can position them as per the map top-right before you run out of moves, you'll proceed to the second. This is a fruit-machine dials variant, in which you must get all dials to display a picture of the sun. However, you cannot rotate them one by one, but only in tandem, hence you need to work out what dials are rotated by what number key, and attempt to figure out the solution that will see all the pictures line up as you intend. Again, before you run out of moves.
The last puzzle is undoubtedly the most difficult and involves picking the final lock of the safe by means of a lock-picking kit that must be used to gingerly slide every pin of the safe's lock to a position out of harm's way. Unfortunately, despite hours of trying I never managed to achieve this and always ran out of moves just when I thought I was getting somewhere.
As noted earlier, it might be tempting to conclude that Skyscraper is the big draw of this compilation, but Safecracker is a worthy game in its own right. The puzzle games are well-presented, respond well to controls and are all done in machine code with high resolution graphics (no attribute clashes here!) and superior sound. The only real drawback is the obvious one: Once you've managed to solve the three puzzles you probably won't return to it again.
Overall then, the two games together are a bit of an odd combination - particularly so given the case that there is in fact a sequel to Skyscraper Of Doom (called Streets Of Doom), which might have made a more natural B-side. Still, what's not in doubt is that both games are very good. Apparently Skyscraper and Safecracker were initially released between 2009 and 2010 (as public domain games), so a fair while before the Spectrum came back into fashion. It's a pretty "safe" bet (Sorry!) therefore that a lot of you may not have seen either of them and two quality games for the price of one makes this one of Bum Fun's strongest releases so far.