Simon the Sorcerer Review: When Greywolfe Met Pixels

So, I'm going to confess to something right away:

I was intensely worried about replaying this game, twenty years along.

I was worried about it because I'd played a bit [and got stuck] a couple of years ago.  And I remembered the conversation with the Billy Goats Gruff.

Essentially, it turns the fable into a commentary on worker's rights - and that - really - says all you need to know about the first game.  It's in a somewhat surreal and slightly twisted High Fantasy world.

Simon's world is filled with tropes. Here's a dragon. But like everything in this world, the dragon's twisted just a little to the left. Sure, he's a man-eating beast, but he has a cold.

Simon isn't quite a jerk, but it is fun to get him roasted by the dragon.

And then there's Simon.  In the first game, you can run the gamut on how Simon actually behaves.  Here, he isn't quite established as the jerk he finally became in the series.  So here, he can almost [but never quite] be polite or he can be a little witty or He can be downright nasty.  Very often, these three options are capped with a "I'm bailing on this conversation, goodbye," line that doesn't ever really fall into any of these camps.

If you've played any adventure game at all at this point, you will recognize most of the User Interface trappings:  Simon follows the then-established Lucasarts variant of verbs on the left, inventory on the right and small play-screen up front and centre.

I am reviewing the disk version here and if there's one thing the disk version sorely lacks it's sound effects.  Which is a pity, but completely allows the soundtrack to shine.  Simon has some beautiful tunes that are rendered masterfully by the MT-32.  Unfortunately, this is the disk version [and the DOS era] when space mattered.  So these tracks aren't always terribly long, and you'll absolutely be able to hear the loops when they start.

Up on top of the dragon cave, Simon goes fishing. He finds what he's after and the scenery is certainly evocative - purple sky and pink clouds - but the green of the base palette is here, too.

Even high up on the mountains, with a surreal and beautiful backdrop of clouds, that green still shines through.

The same is fairly true of the graphics.  Though they're beautiful - and somewhat colourful - the base of the palette is a mossy green, for the most part.  And this works it's way into almost every screen, somehow.  Given that this is the DOS era and that - for the most part, the artists had 256 colours to work with, they've made startling use of their palette, with some dreamy looking backgrounds that beg to be framed as paintings.

So, it's a shame that all these wonderful elements are somewhat let down by the story, which is about as plain as the King's Quests and Kyrandias before it.  Here, we have ordinary Simon living in the regular world who has a mischievous dog that finds it's way to the attic of Simon's house.  There's a chest here, you see, that contains a book of spells.  The dog - somehow - trips one of these spells into working and opens a worm-hole between our world and this slightly bent fantasy land.  Of course, Simon wants to rescue his dog, so he follows along.

It turns out that this world is dominated by an evil wizard named Sordid.  The only way to beat Sordid [though, it's not explained how this will work] is to do a Guybrush Threepwood, become a migty pir- I mean, wizard and use your wizarding skills to clean up the fantasy land you're in.

Simon's about doing little tasks that have neat animated rewards as a payoff. In some cases, this might be a visual gag. In this particular case, there's a surprisingly intricate scene of a barkeep tending to his bar.

This game is about little puzzles that have payoffs in some intricate animations. Here, you've swindled the barkeep out of his prize beer. So he tips it all out in a /very/ ornate little scene.

And that - alas - is about as dense as the plot gets.  Most of the game is about solving all the little puzzles that block off paths so that Simon can eventually proceed to Sordid's lair and finish the dastardly wizard.  Problematically, Sordid isn't really even painted as a "bad guy."  Sure, he's flouted wizard convention, and certainly, he's trying to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, but he's a cardboard cut-out.  Which is a problem, by the by, that extends to every character.  They're all a couple of lines of text with some kind of subtle joke to carry them.  Gollum exists, for example, but is part of a "Tolkein Society Get Together."  Likewise, Rapunzel can be met, but her origin story is...a little different, again.

This, though, is a function of the size the game had to be at the time.  And while all of these characters are cardboard cut-outs, they're kind of fun in a way that won't necessarily make you laugh, but will make you smile.  This is a slight failure to launch for the series, [since it is billed as a comic fantasy] however, I do think it sets about the right tone for the game.  Just adult enough that it cannot possibly be a kid's game and just silly enough that you can't take it too seriously.

And that, ultimately, is the crux of Simon's first outing.  Adult, but fun.  Not quite adult in the way Larry is adult, but certainly slightly better for it.  After Larry became a bit of a sleaze in the fifth game, it's interesting to see another take on an almost-but-not-quite jerk.

Do I think you should buy this game?  Oh, absolutely.  Especially if you played it in the nineties and are now old enough to appreciate some of the finer points of the more-adult humour.  Yes, it has pixel hunts.  And sure, those are incredibly frustrating [and a couple of timed sequences, too] - but that should not deter you.  Simon has a relatively sane set of puzzles, [that have fairly obvious solutions] a pleasantly bent world and some beautiful pixel art and wonderful music.  While the game play is very ho-hum, at least the world building tries something a little different - even as it leans on a very, very creaky trope.


I did a play through of Simon the Sorcerer.  You can watch it here.