Review by Johnny Cairo
"Picasso meets D&D meets Berserk meets Pac-Man. A bloody yet strangely sublime collision."
The potboiler Dungeon Crawl is a videogame genre older than the videogame industry itself; wherein a stalwart, steadfast, stiff-upper-lip hero bravely takes sword and buckler in hand and ventures deep into a subterranian catacomb for some purpose or another. Usually, any given scenario either involves a search for treasure of some sort or the procurement of some kind of magical object which will either Lift The Town's Curse or Give The Wielder Ultimate Power. Probably being a gamer yourself, you have most likely played at least five games that subscribe to this formula -- it can be done wonderfully, as in Vagrant Story or Diablo, or done with the competence of a skilled programmer in a coma, like Dark Cloud (horrors!!) or DarkStone. You can apply the ''if it starts with 'Dark', it is most likely poo'' mnemonic to many representatives of this subgenre.
Oh, how clever, I've given you a subtle hint already. Take that simple rule to heart, friends, whenever you scan the bargain bins for a promising time-waster. As for whoever happened to buy Dark Cavern back in the early '80s for their Atari 2600, I deeply sympathize with their plight. You see, here is a fantasy game in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons, only without any semblance of strategy, smokingly sexy elf maidens, or slobbering, overweight D&D freaks who miraculously are able to thrive solely on a diet of Mountain Dew. Good as that last part may sound, the outrageously offbeat aspects of Dark Cavern far outweigh the one genuine good point of the game. Call me calloused, announce to everyone that I am unaware to put myself in the shoes of a D&D player in the dawning years of the 1980s, shunned and forced into exile from his group. While he failed to protect the party from that rampaging Level 71 Umber Hulk, who turned both heat-packing Warriors into coleslaw and used the lone White Mage as a toothpick before flicking her away like a booger, there was solace in playing a psuedo-RPG in the comfort of his own home. Sorta.
While that last part has nothing to do with the terror that lays within the Dark Cavern of the game's title, I can hardly imagine the look on the ''lone wolf'' D&D fan's face when he, enticed by the fantasy-style art on the package, drawn by a very good but quite evidently slavish Boris Vallejo impersonator, plugs in the cart and finds out that he brought home not a hack-'n'-slash epic but rather an unorthodox Pac-Man clone. Hunh? Gamers are promised, more or less, nonstop slice-and-dice swordplay with hair-raising battle sequences and at least a servicable storyline. At least, that's what you were able to get out of D&D which, due to the fact that it required pen, paper, chucking dice, and an active brain, was now becoming increasingly passe with the advent of home video games. Getting back on the point, we have been left with what can only be described as ''spellbindingly weird''. The silly thing is that the damn game can actually grow on you like the way fungus grows on a sandwich you leave in the bottom of your backpack. Slowly.
Okay, you're this dude. The dude is, like, severely peeved over having been tossed in the slammer. When the game, like, gets its ass into gear and starts up, you're in your cell meditating or gathering up all your strength or something like that. Like, you're so pissed, you can tell from the way your hollow eyes stare out from your green face from between the bars on your cell. Whoever narc'd on you made sure you never came back and the fuzz tossed you into the only cell on the lowest goddamn level. And MAN are you furious, like you got sentenced to life for lifting a pack of Winterfresh from a 7-11 store. So then, I suppose after charging up for about 57 years to call the powers of the Super Mega Deluxe Ultra Butt-Destroying Kamehameha/Renzokuken/Omnislash Wave™, you unleash all your fury and FWAAMMM the door breaks open!!!! Well, the only thing you really see is an animation of your cell opening. Down with imagination. But then suddenly WHOOM all these bad guys suddenly start pouring into the lower level, where you're still standing outside your cell with the door wide open. Holy Steve McQueen, Batman! Are you really going to submit to authority at the hands of brutish prison guards and their various accomplices, many of which include twisted and hideous monsters who eat dumbasses like you for lunch and grotesque purple beings who resemble coiled springs? The worst that can happen is that you get tossed back into the cooler with your baseball (after the beasts bat your eyeballs around a little and play fun games with your bodily organs, of course).
And so your single-handed revolt begins. Since the warden and his thugs were too haughty and overconfident about the durability of your cell door, they left firearms, explosives, and other crude weapons lying about for the taking. Yes, I said FIREARMS. It seems that you were charging up your Super Attack long enough for guns to be invented and put into widespread use, even in countries where it is still commonplace to house prisoners in deep, dark underground passages. But, for the sake of courtesy, I'll consider that this is in fact an alternate universe represented in Dark Cavern, as opposed to a more traditional fantasy world. These are not unlike the ideas explored in the underlooked Arcanum, so I'll let the anachronisms slide. The level(s) is/are represented with the absolute minimum of effort required to make it/them recognizable as chunky platforms very much like Pac-Man's. Truthfully they look more like tunnels burrowed courtesy of Dig Dug's innate burrowing mechanisms. This makes sense. Also like Pac-Man are the two tunnels that extend past the boundaries of the left and right sides of the screen and deposit your dude on the opposite end. This is a handy tactic to use in Pac-Man when Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Sue are all ganging up on the hungry severed head that is that game's eponymous hero. Here it is almost senseless to do so.
At any rate there is a nice Glock up for the taking in the brief grace period before the sadistic, unseen warden's forces stampede in. You, as a green head with wildly swinging arms, have the power to jump to insane heights and wield any weapon you find. The Glock, being the most obvious choice on this first level, is outfitted with a bottomless clip. The warden's henchmen, which crazily vary in design from sideways representations of the letter M to dudes who look like they're tied in a knot to elephantine monsters with huge snouts. Put alongside the bland levels, which are totally gray and Army green, the imaginative enemies, which also display an incredible range of color, give the graphics a kind of ''abstract'' artistic feel; it could even be construed that the warden's thugs are in fact symbolic of something else entirely or that their individuality in design signifies that faceless thugs also have unique identities (just like everyone else). A breath of fresh air like that, compared to endless gore-fests which comprise the meat and potatoes of the Action genre, is something very few games can attain. No One Lives Forever would continue the tradition of not presenting cookie-cutter heavies for the gamer to massacre, but rather fleshed-out beings with quirky personae to boot.
Combat is the emphasis of the game and in this respect it fails to deliver. Get ahold of a Glock from the get-go and watch the wonderfully bizarre creatures fall prey to your constant flow of unstoppable projectiles. If you get touched, you die; like in all ''old-school'' action/adventure titles or those self-proclaimed ones. Should you be slain, weaker weapons like the Diagonal Green Stick, the Q-shaped throwing device or the } -shaped object which I can only hazily assume is a Boomerang. Of course, all your enemies will fall like wheat to a sickle with only one hit from any of your weapons being able to kill every one, even the most outlandish-looking of creatures. Combat is dull, and you must participate in it hand-and-foot -- it's the only way to advance to the next (highest?) level and get closer to bustin' out of jail to start your whole damn life over again as a fugitive. A timer unnecessarily ticks down in the upper right corner, but it should typically take around 20-30 seconds to wipe out a Stage.
I've progressed well past fifty levels in Dark Cavern, enduring the sadly limited beeps of my dusty Atari, and the enemies increase in number and sometimes surround you like starving zombies. I honestly, after much play, don't think that there is an end to this game. This kind of despairing hopelessness, like the gutwrenching undercurrent that drives Berserk along its hopeless path to your destruction, might be the developers' way of hammering home a point to those future Juvenile Delinquents -- escape from prison is hopeless.
So stay in school, drink your milk, and keep playing Dungeons and Dragons. You'll get more from it than any number of silly video games. At least until the 90s bite you in the ass.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 05/10/03, Updated 05/24/03
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