Friday, 2 October 2015

Psycho (Box Office, Inc., 1988)

Designed for the IBM-PC compatibles by Craig Morehouse for StarSoft Development Laboratories. Programming by Scott Adams. Screenplay and graphics by Hal E. McCrery. Published by Box Office, Inc. in 1988.

Conversion for the Commodore 64 by Larry Phurrough, and released in 1988. Conversions for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST by Henry S. Bolley with additional graphics by Frank Haug, and released in 1989.



It's time to get our Halloween theme up and running again, and take a look at a few horror-themed games. Like last year, our first entry into the realm of horror is a questionable item at best, and a computerized adaptation of a classic horror movie, but this time, I have picked a fairly unknown game to start the month with. Trust me on this, it has so far been unknown for a good reason, and it perhaps should remain as such, but people must be warned - or at least informed - of bad games. Besides, I know there are plenty of bad game enthusiasts out there, so this one should be right up their alley.

The only DOS review or actual score that I could find was from the good old Home of the Underdogs website, which gave it a "Real Dog" badge and 81 of the website's visitors have rated the game 6.41 out of 10. Not as bad as it could have been, I guess. The C64 conversion has been given a nice, round 7 out of 10 at Lemon64, from a total of 8 votes. Not nearly as bad as it could have been. But once we get to the 16-bit conversions, things drop down like a cow's tail. At LemonAmiga, the game has a miserable 4.33 from 3 votes, and the Atari ST version hasn't been voted for any score anywhere. I guess it doesn't deserve such attention. Well, let's see how much of a bomb we are really looking at here...



To make things painfully clear, this is the game's plotline as it is written on the back of the box cover: "Precious jewels and an unwitting curator have been hoisted from the Metropolitan Showcase of Art. Tracing the crime to the menacing Bates Motel, you are the only detective willing to take the case..." Yada, yada. So, this is a joystick-controlled icon-based sleuthing adventure, in which you play as a detective, whose job is to find stolen jewels and a curator held captive by none other than Norman Bates from the movie. And you have a time limit to complete the game, which is to be more precise 6 am. Other than having Norman and his mother in here, the game has very little to do with the movie. But I have to say, it's a bold choice to make a licenced game on.

Contrary to popular opinions, I don't think this game is as bad as people want it to be known as. Sure, it's laughable in its meagre attempts at being scary, and the horrors of the original film aren't all that present in the game, but I think it needs to be considered as what it is, than what it's trying to represent. What it is, basically, is an adventure game in a similar spirit as Sierra's classic adventure serials, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and King's Quest, except you get a set of commands like you do in early Lucasfilm Games titles, Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken. If it weren't for the otherwise bad gameplay mechanics, this wouldn't have such a bad reputation, and it should be given a fairer attempt - particularly if you're an adventure game enthusiast. But I can't say too much about how good or bad the game truly is at this point, because I have yet to test every version out, so let's get on with it.



The game starts off with a title sequence, which consists of a varying number of screen depending on the version - none of which really give any depth to the game, but do show a rendition of the Bates Motel and its immediate surroundings, and something else as well, if you're playing the game on ST or Amiga. After the intro, you are given a choice of three difficulty levels, which I have no intention of getting into, unless I absolutely need to - the easiest mode should reveal any playability differences if there are any.

After the thankfully short intro of you driving to the Bates motel are, you find yourself in front of the house of Bates, ready for some snooping-type action. You control your rather stiff detective with either the cursor keys or the joystick, depending on your chosen version, and for the most part, you should be able to move in the four main directions. There is no need for using the fire button yet, but you can acquire a gun later on in the game, which utilises the fire button in ways you would never guess. Or perhaps you would. Anyway, there are already some notable differences when it comes to controlling your detective. The original DOS version works awkwardly, since it gives a familiarly uncomfortable pause every time you press down a directional button, before the machine allows your character to continue walking. The other possibility would be to tap the chosen directional key continuously to make smaller movements. Also, compared to all the other versions, you have less movement space, but then you're not required to use it as much, so it's really a matter of getting yourself used to the different kinds of areas for each version. But it's not as if any version utilising a joystick would be preferable - all three conversions actually play slower than the DOS version, and are just as awkward to control in their own ways.

Most of the actions, however, are executed on keyboard, by pressing the designated keys for the commands shown under the action screen. The commands are, in an alphabetical order: Clue, Dig, Eat, Fire, Leave, Open, Pull/Push, Read, Search, Take, Use and View. Also, you can save or load the game by pressing one of the function keys shown to you on the screen. It appears, however, as though the C64 version was left without a save/load feature. Considering that it's the only 8-bit version around, I guess it's only to be expected that something could be left out, but considering further that there were better games of its kind on the C64 that featured much more complex things than just a save/load feature, I'm forced to consider this a serious lapse in concentration on the job.

Then again, the game isn't all that long for it to have any serious downside of having no save/load feature. There are only about 30 different locations in the game, and it isn't difficult to memorize the Bates' mansion. Once you have found out the locations for all the necessary items to complete the game, the only thing keeping you from actually completing the game is sheer bad luck, which, unfortunately, can happen quite often. The mansion has a ghost wandering around, as well as a guard dog and Norman's dear old mother, all of which can appear at certain rooms at any given time. If you cross ways with any of them, you will fall asleep for a brief moment, and will have less time to complete your mission. Basically, I found that three or four times of dozing off will end the game. The worst thing about the game isn't the random monster appearances, however - it's the way the necessary items are hidden. You constantly need to be Viewing your immediate surroundings, whether there's anything worth the bother, and after you have found that there might be something, you will have to Search before you can Take whatever it is you're supposed to take, or perhaps Read an inscription or whatever. And all of this viewing and searching takes quite a lot of unnecessary time, compared to the "What Is" cursor highlighter command in old Lucasfilm games.

There are some anomalies worth noting here. The C64 version is, of course, quite slow compared to the other versions simply due to loading times and the fact that it is spread on two disk sides. But it also has some things gone missing, such as the message in the mailbox at the beginning of the game, and the different difficulty levels are quite a lot different in difficulty compared to the other versions. One problem is, that the game was originally made for the NTSC regions, so it doesn't work completely on a PAL C64 - PAL users are going to have to download a fixed version from CSDb. Another curious thing I found was, for some reason, the only AMIGA version I found from the internet took some attempts at loading to make it register any keyboard commands, so I'm not sure if the game works as it should on real hardware. But I shall have to assume it is supposed to play similarly to the ATARI ST version. The original DOS version has a rather irritating thing about it, in that you cannot quit the game in any other way than by resetting your computer - although of course, when using DOSbox you can just close the window... so back in the day, you would have REALLY wanted to play the game in order to go through the trouble of sticking the floppy disk in and load it, because you would have been stuck with it. With that in mind, perhaps it is no wonder that the DOS version is the only one that doesn't have a high score indicator.

Apart from the C64 version's problems that I mentioned already, it is the most easily accessible one of the lot, because it offers the lowest difficulty level comparatively. In all the other versions, not only do you need to get everything done in a very timely fashion for the main quest, but you are also required to gather all the clues in order to complete the mission properly. Also, your detective moves the quickest on the C64 - it's only the loading times that make it so slow. Still, the original DOS version is quite comfortable, and offers a nice challenge, because even in the lowest difficulty setting, you are more likely to have some action and perhaps even a jump scare or two, if you're overly sensitive to pixelated renditions of random monsters. So, simply due to its speed and relative lack of unnecessary depth of movement, I'm placing the original DOS version at the top. The AMIGA and ST conversions are a bit annoying with their ridiculously slow controls, but they are closer to the DOS version in keeping the content in tact, and they do their job well enough to give them a chance.




Most of Psycho's graphics are basic graphic adventure-type locations and character animations, and from a certain point onwards, it all happens on a rather small window on the screen. But before all the sleuthing gets to happen, we have an opening sequence to get through.

Opening sequences. Top row: IBM-PC. Bottom row: Commodore 64.
The first two versions feature a fairly brief opening sequence, featuring the publisher logo, the credit page and a picture of the location as viewed from the road. Since the original DOS version also shows a glimpse of the game engine as the starring detective is driving to the Bates Motel before showing the actual location picture, I had to feature it in the picture set. There is a weird anomaly in that precise picture, however, which I shall point out later on. Not that it being shown before the Bates Motel picture, as it is done in all the other versions, wasn't different enough.
Opening sequences. Top half: Atari ST. Bottom half: Commodore Amiga.

Naturally, the AMIGA and ST versions feature plenty of more graphics in the opening sequence. I'm not really sure I like any of it, though, since it's mostly just badly digitized and coloured screenshots from the movie, with cheap speech bubbles inserted into the frames, featuring slightly altered quotes from the movie. As if this made it any closer to the movie. In addition to all that, the actual credits and title screens have been reorganized, and the AMIGA version has its very own screen for crediting Starsoft, even though the actual credits screen mentions them - in all versions. One proper advantage over the two earlier versions on the 16-bits is that the picture with the motel and the mansion and the stormy cloud on top is animated. Not very much so, but still. One thing I don't know about here, if it's a bad disk image or a problem with the digitising process on the ATARI ST, but there's one picture that looks a bit too psychedelic compared to the AMIGA version. On the other hand, it adds some mystery to the opening sequence, but I'm guessing it's just a bad image.
Choose your difficulty. From left to right: IBM-PC, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga.

After the opening sequence, you get to choose one of three difficulty levels. This is the latest point where you get to see how the game engine looks like. The action window takes about 30% of the full screen space, and the currently empty area to the right of it is the inventory. The bottom half of the screen is occupied by the commands, the message console and the status console, all of which are fairly important to keep an eye on. The order and layout of commands is a bit different on the C64, but it doesn't matter once you have learned the commands. At least there's more colour in the C64 version. You also might have noticed that the DOS version doesn't feature the high score indicator that you find in all the other versions. Also, while it's not very important, the High Score indicator is separated from the Status Console for some reason on the 16-bits.

The weird anomaly in the DOS version I mentioned earlier is in the commands list. In the picture where you are approaching the Bates Motel, you can see functions for three function keys instead of the regular two, and only one of them was kept as is. As it seems, F1 was supposed to show the objects (I'm guessing this means inventory), and F2 was supposed to make you examine something. Also, Get and Say commands were dropped in favour of Search and Fire. Why did they ever leave the old list of commands in that one opening sequence screen, I have no idea, but it seems like a funny oversight.

Only now, I get to talk about the actual in-game graphics. Already from this options screen, we can see that there are some notable differences in detail, colouring and even layouts, but all of this will only be magnified later on. Although I didn't really notice all the things in the picture when actively playing the game through, now I find it funny, that the detective on the 16-bits is holding both magnifying glass and pistol, and that the Bates mansion doesn't look all that much like the mansion shown earlier in the opening sequence.
Screenshots from various early game locations. Top row: IBM-PC. Middle row: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Amiga/ST.
I think we have seen enough of both AMIGA and ST pictures to see how little they differ, but if it hasn't come across well enough yet, let's just say the only difference for the rest of the game between the two versions is the very slight differences in palette. The picture above features only one Amiga picture somewhere between the ST pictures - see if you can figure out which one it is.

Anyway, here are some locations from the early parts of the game, along with your detective shown from every possible angle - with his trusty old magnifying glass, of course, as well as some of the hazards that can be seen in the game. The 16-bit versions have a different enemy replacing the skeleton: a giant wasp. Or perhaps it's supposed to be a giant killer bee, but it looks a bit more like a giant wasp-like insect to me. The 16-bits also have some of the rooms reorganized in order to give more walking space, which is nice, because the collision detection is a bit horrible in all the versions, and in most cases, you really need to seek your way through the furniture, which are more rectangular than they appear on the screen, and block quite a lot of that seemingly empty space in some of the rooms.

Naturally, the C64 version has the blockiest graphics, and thus feature less details than any other version, but at least they're more colourful than the CGA graphics in the DOS version. Even more naturally, the ATARI and AMIGA graphics look the prettiest by far, with the most colours and details and even animation frames. The biggest problem with the DOS version, in terms of graphics, is the room indicator text situated within the action screen, blocking some of the actual graphics, instead of showing it under the action screen, like it is in all the other versions. But that's what you get for releasing a game before you have thought every bit of it through.

Screenshots from various later game locations. Top row: IBM-PC. Middle row: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Amiga/ST.
One of the more interesting concepts in the game is getting to utilise the dumbwaiter, which really is an essential part of the game to the point that you can't really get anywhere without it. The dumbwaiter is a lift of sorts, which can take you to three specific rooms on different floors. When you're on board the dumbwaiter, you are given a first-person view of the situation, with your view being towards the current exit, if there is any. There are also some stairs, which you need to manually walk up and down, but there is only one set of stairs that you can find useful. Speaking of being useful, the least useful room in the game is the Game Room, located on the second floor. The DOS version even features a very bad bug: if you walk up to where the water cooler is and walk between it and the pool table, you get stuck.
Screenshots from near the end of the game, from left to right: Commodore 64, IBM-PC, Atari ST.
For your final hurdle, you have to find your way to the attic, where you will be facing Mrs. Bates - although if you're playing on the easiest level on the C64, she won't be there. I will not give any more spoilers regarding where to find the attic, or where to find the stolen jewels, or even how the movie ends, because these kinds of things should be found out each for themselves. But for this particular room in the game, it's interesting how they changed the room's contents for all the versions after the original. The DOS version features no-one sitting on a chair at the back of the room, while the others do; this has quite a lot to do with the movie's plotline, so I won't spoil it for those who for some reason haven't seen it, but let's just say that the conversions are more in line with the movie in this sense.
Degrees of sleep. Top row: IBM-PC. Middle row: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Amiga/ST.

In terms of animation, the most interesting thing in the game has to be the gradual darkening of the screen, when you are getting sleepy due to collision with an enemy. The DOS version has a very quick "fade", in which the action screen fills up with black lines in two parts - both times for every other pixel line. In the C64 version, the screen shows every solid thing in the room as white, and turns gradually to black through a couple of shades of grey. For the two 16-bit versions, they pulled all the strings and made it look a bit more psychedelic; the action screen closes up with curtain-like things coming from top and bottom, gradually obscuring and darkening the room completely... in a way, as if someone was pulling curtains down, really. It's the curtains being drawn from both top and bottom that makes it look a bit weird.

Game Over screens, left to right: Commodore 64, IBM-PC, Atari ST.

There are two endings in this game: the good ending and the bad ending. Surprisingly, it's the bad ending (game over) that is the more interesting one to look at, but since it's something you will more likely be seeing if you ever bother to attempt to play Psycho, it will come as no surprise, and I can show it to you here. The game ends at 6 am, and if you haven't managed to find the curator and the stolen jewels by then, it's game over for you, and this is the screen you will get to see. The good ending will give you something a bit different, but I won't spoil it for you too much.

Each version has its own strength, if you count the AMIGA and ST versions as one, which you pretty much would, really. Clearly, the 16-bit versions are the prettiest in all possible manners, but I think the C64 version has the most atmospheric colouring, and in a strange and perhaps unintended way, the DOS version looks the most like the movie, in that the CGA palette restricts the graphics enough to make it look more like a black-and-white movie. But this is how I see these roll up:




Considering horror movies usually place much more importance on the ambience created by sounds and music, it's a small wonder that this doesn't come across in nearly enough of the earlier horror-based games. Granted, by modern standards, Hitchcock's Psycho feels more like a thriller at best, but it did set a standard of sorts at the time, and it does have a wonderful soundtrack. Then again, the movie itself is a loose adaptation of the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch, which wouldn't offer music or sounds anyway, but it does offer more gruesome violence and horror. Definitely a recommendable read, but now I got a bit too off-topic.

Unfortunately, the game adaptation doesn't feature much of anything in terms of sounds, not any version of it. There's a main title theme song that sounds more like a strangely modified version of the theme from the Twilight Zone, but that's all the music you're going to hear in the game. Well, there is that really small ditty you hear when you find the jewels, but that doesn't really count. Naturally, the DOS version being as old as it is, only features single-channel beeper music. The C64 version has a three-voice version of the title theme, featuring a bass line, a melody and the Twilight Zone-type chord progression between the two other lines, all in a different tone. The AMIGA and ATARI ST conversions feature a more staccato backing for the Twilight Zone thing going on throughout the tune, but set themselves apart from each other by featuring different degrees of tone clarity, the Amiga version being the more muffled one. Frankly, I like the C64 rendition of the tune the most.

Apart from the music, there are only a couple of sound effects in the whole game by default: a "ding" for picking up an object, and a shooting-type noise for shooting. In the C64 version, any sound effect played will pause the game for the duration of the sound, so you will be thankful not to hear anything once you have witnessed the length of the pause. On the AMIGA and ATARI, there is an additional sound effect for walking around, so there is some constant noise in those versions for those of you who require some more sounds. If you really have to choose your preferred version based on the sound effect for walking, I would suggest the AMIGA version for being less irritating in the long run. So, the two 16-bits win this round by a hair's length, but only because the C64 version pauses whenever it plays a sound effect.




Although certainly bad, it's not the worst adventure game ever, no matter what some reviewers have said in the past. At least it offers a clearly defined set of commands, some okay graphics, some interesting concepts not seen elsewhere at the time, and it's definitely possible to complete, unlike some text adventures I have had the misfortune of playing. Heck, I finished this game on the day I had my first proper attempt at it. The biggest problem with Psycho: ArcadeQuest is, that it barely has anything to do with the classic Hitchcock film, so it has to be considered as something completely different, if possible. Unfortunately, none of the versions are optimally good, so if you somehow got interested of this game, I can only recommend you to try every version out for yourself, and decide what's the least worst choice for you. The mathematical overall results are:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8
2. ATARI ST: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
4. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5

Honestly, I would choose the DOS version, because it plays the best overall. The C64 version offers the best compromise, and the 16-bits excel in artwork. As it happens, my personal order of preference would be the exact opposite to the mathematical results. Go figure.

Box Office, Inc. did a few fairly playable games for the IBM-PC compatibles in the few years of their existence, but didn't give much attention to other platforms. The most famous games of theirs must be the TV/movie-licence games for Jaws and Alf, as well as an adaptation of a TV quiz show, the $100,000 Pyramid. Home of the Underdogs still proves to be a very good resource for digging up some knowledge of these sorts of things, but it's very difficult to find any of the actual game files on the internet nowadays. Sometimes, piles of manure is worth digging through - perhaps you might find some hidden gems occasionally. Box Office has their very small share of those, but Psycho doesn't necessarily make that list.

Well, that's it for today. More horrific, and perhaps even horrible game comparisons coming up later this month, so keep your eyes alert. Thanks for reading, see you next time!

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