Back in the early '90s, the concept of shareware on PCs was about just as popular as the concept of buying a game straight from the store shelves. While a couple of professional companies worked with this business model - the first part of a game was to be distributed for free, acting as a long demo and an incentive to purchase the remaining portions - many times they were done by a single guy working in his basement. He handled all the graphics, sounds, and coding himself , and it more than likely showed when you played the game. The Hugo series, done by one British programmer named David P. Gray, is pretty much the perfect example of shareware before Apogee and Epic started making shareware a bit more professional.
Somewhere at a haunted mansion, a girl named Penelope heads over to babysit, but ends up being kidnapped for some unknown purpose by whoever lives inside. Hugo, her boyfriend, is the one who heads out to rescue her. That's pretty much the only kind of backstory you get, and in a genre where story is one of the make-or-break factors, that's seriously pathetic. The game basically plays out like the AGI King's / Space / Police Quest games from the eighties. You control Hugo with the arrow keys, and type out actions into the parser to pull them off. The fact that the game doesn't pause for commands means that you'll sometimes need to have a command ready as soon as you enter a room to avoid getting killed by something. The parser, while simple, tends to work pretty well for the most part, although there might be a few times you'll have to guess around for a verb.
The first part of the game is about finding the items lying around the mansion for later on. A huge majority of the puzzles are about picking up things and using them on other things, and the few puzzles that aren't inventory based tend to be even easier. At one point, you find a door locked with a combination lock. All you have to do to get past, however, is just enter the number you found conveniently written on the bathroom mirror. There's one wasted opportunity where a mad scientist's machine ends up transforming you into various things, and you can neither leave the room nor push the buttons to bring you back to normal. It's too bad the solution ends up being as easy to telling the helpful Igor fellow to push buttons until you end up back to your regular self.
Eventually, you manage to uncover and open a trap door leading to a cave under the mansion. The trickiest part of the game is right here, when you find a room with a mummy and a bag of gold. The mummy's way faster than you are, so you're supposed to maneuver around the various rocks scattered about the room so that it gets stuck on one of them and can't move. This is pretty much the only part of the game that requires any kind of precise movement, so you're probably want to keep your finger hovering over the save button until you manage to make it out.
The penultimate puzzle is where you come across an old man blocking your passage across the lake. Out of all the things David Gray could have ended the game with, he decided to end it with answering trivia questions. They aren't even questions about the game itself, either. Just be glad you've got GameFAQs by your side if you don't happen to know off-hand what the name of Roy Rodger's dog was, because there couldn't have been any other purpose for this scene other than to get hint books sold.
The graphics tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. The sprites are a little less blocky than the old Quest games, even though they tend to be even more pixellated. The biggest issue tends to be the outfit Hugo wears throughout the game: a sky blue sweater with purple pants. Even considering the sixteen color budget they were working with, it's still really hard to think of why those colors were chosen, other than to not make Hugo blend in with the backgrounds, which tend to be pretty dark and muddy. The game doesn't have any sound effects, but it does play a couple of songs through the PC speaker.
Even the writing tends to be sub-par. There are lots of grammar and spelling mistakes, and much of it usually ends up sounding really silly, like the game explaining that a "mystical force" keeps you from picking up a broom that's actually part of the background. Most of the characters you meet are pretty much there to either kill you, give you items, or both. Hugo's pretty much a blank slate with no dialogue, either. Even King Graham and Roger Wilco had some defining traits besides the fact they happened to have girlfriends.
Overall, the game takes about ten to fifteen minutes if you know what you're doing, and not much longer if you don't. The biggest thing you have to worry about is making sure you don't miss an item, because in classic Sierra fashion, missing anything means you're pretty much stuck. Since the game's so short, though, it doesn't slow you down as much as it would in a full-length adventure. There's quite a few ways to die, as you'd expect, some easy to see coming, and others more sudden.
It's not a completely terrible game, and it's important to remember this was just one amateur programmer working on the game. On the other hand, it seriously pales compared to pretty much any adventure game from around the same period or by any professional company. The writing's pretty boring, the puzzles are incredibly easy, and it subscribes completely to the worst aspects of old-school Sierra game design.
Hugo's House of Horrors was classified as shareware, but the funny thing is that the version you actually bought didn't have any difference aside from coming with a hint book, which is more or less useless now with the era of the internet. In 1995, three years after the original Hugo series ended, David Gray resold House of Horror and the other three games in the Hugo series for Windows. All four games are the exact same in terms graphics and gameplay, but now there's a simple mouse-based interface to interact with the game with. It's not as handy as the one in most Sierra games, but it's useful if you can't handle typing out every command. There's also a MIDI soundtrack and digitized sound effects. There was also a version made in 2001 with the Adventure Game Studio engine, but it was removed from the internet after a cease and desist order from David Gray.
Hugo II starts shortly after the events of the first game, with Hugo and Penelope deciding to take a vacation in England to recuperate. They stop over at the mansion of Hugo's uncle Horace, where Penelope quickly settles in for a nap and Hugo fetches a book to read. In the most expected of clichés for this game to pull, however, Hugo ends up triggering a secret passage and goes missing. Penelope wakes up just in time to witness Uncle Horace being murdered by an unknown assailant. So, as a slightly interesting twist, this time around you take control of Penelope. Kind of strange that it's still Hugo's name in the title, but it's sort of like a "Legend of Zelda" situation, keeping it for name recognition.
The engine is exactly the same as the original game, and the graphical and sound quality is unchanged. Some of the backgrounds are pictures digitized then recolored into EGA, and these tend to look a lot better than the backgrounds that were actually drawn. There's a much bigger area to explore this time around, and not only do you have the mansion to deal with, but its nearby grounds, too. The fact that the game is so much longer means that starting over from a single mistake is even more of a hassle, so it's even more important that you watch what you're doing and make sure you keep a lot of saves. There are a lot of objects that don't serve any particular use, but the police won't come by to gather up the suspects until you manage to get enough stuff.
The thing that makes this game such an absolute pain to play are two scenes requiring very precise movement. Shortly into the game, you come across a field full of Venus flytraps, with a magnifying glass in the middle. What you're supposed to do is maneuver around the plants to the other side of the field. The problem is that the collision detection is VERY sensitive, and you don't even have to be touching the plants for the game to kill you. There's another point where you need to cross a bridge over a river while carrying a box of matches. Touching the edges of the bridge will drop the matches into the river, making them useless. In both of these situations, the only possible way to get through them is by walking pixel by pixel and saving your game every single time you can take a step without dying. And that's not even mentioning the hedge maze, where you have to wander around looking for four items with no kind of hint for navigation.
There's also this one really strange scene where Penelope ends up on the surface of an alien planet through a phone booth, where she has to blow up a robot by shooting it. Then a man who calls himself "The Doctor" thanks her and offers her his "sonar screwdriver". If you're not familiar with British television, none of that sentence will probably make any sense to you at all. Even if you are, it's a seriously jarring part in what was already a pretty weird series.
While the game advertises itself as a murder mystery, that doesn't even actually come into play until about the last third, when the game starts throwing implications that various characters committed the murder at you. Eventually, you gather everyone (including a snake from earlier in the game, weirdly enough) and make your guess of who the murderer is. It turns out the correct answer is nobody at all, which the game really doesn't give you any real justification. It turns out Uncle Horace and Cousin Harry were practicing for a play, and Hugo ended up locked in the laundry room. Of course, the game tells you this after Penelope has been nearly been stung, bitten, fallen, blown up, poisoned, and exterminated to death. Hilarious!
The sad thing is that in terms of personality and character Penelope is basically just Hugo in a dress, and her pea-green outfit doesn't make her a whole lot easier to look at than he was. This time, though, at least there are more characters in the game that won't try to kill you on sight. Some of them even have something almost like a personality, even if it's just things like "The maid has a bad French accent" and "The gardener is always lusting after Penelope." Penelope also comes across the old trivia man from the first game, although the fact she's not as patient as Hugo means things go a little differently this time, in what's undoubtedly the greatest moment in the entire series.
The length of the game compared to the other Hugo games, about 45 minutes or so, combined with all the unwinnable situations and the scenes requiring a quicksaves with every step, make this pretty much the worst game in the series. On the other hand, the writing's much improved, so at least it's worth playing through at least once for that.
Hugo III begins with Hugo and Penelope returning home on a plane from England, when a freak magnetic storm causes them to crash somewhere in the Amazon. Penelope wanders off to explore while Hugo works to get the plane fixed, but ends up being bitten by a spider. A native informs him that the only thing that can save her is water from the Pool of Life.
After wandering around the jungle and picking up a few random things, Hugo ends up in a village of friendly natives. After trading his bouillon cubes for a blowgun and pipes, Hugo ends up being captured by a witch doctor before paralyzing him with a voodoo doll and taking his things. Eventually, you come across the old man one last time, but he thankfully decides to go easy on you this time around and guesses if you have certain objects in your inventory. After healing Penelope, the game ends with their plane flying off into the sunset. The game never actually DOES tell you if they ever made it back, though.
This third entry somehow manages to be even shorter than House of Horrors, although the difficulty sits somewhere between that game and Whodunit. While unwinnable situations are still possible if you miss items, there's actually no way to die, which really makes the game a whole lot more fun than its prequels. While the puzzles still aren't that difficult, at least there's more variety on them than "use this on this". The most difficult part to deal with is on how to lure a mouse into a cage, but that's more a matter of positioning than anything else.
The engine is once again the same, although there's the minor addition of a few scenes having something like a scaling effect as Hugo approaches and walks away from the foreground. He also gets a new safari outfit that's a lot easier on the eyes from his usual blue and purple combo.
Jungle of Doom is pretty much the best way the adventure series could have ended. It's short, but that just makes it less painful to play through again if you happen to miss an item. There's no telling if the series could have been improved from beyond here if it continued, but Jungle of Doom is more or less the best it ever got.
After three graphic adventure games, you'd expect the fourth game in the Hugo series to follow the same formula as the other three, possibly with some updated graphics and sound. What he actually did, however, may surprise you. David Gray probably noticed the popularity of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, and ended up making his own version of it.
Penelope's once again been kidnapped and placed somewhere in a haunted mansion by a mad scientist named Dr. Hammerstein. This time, however, Hugo's taking a more direct approach to the situation by shooting everything that moves. Just like most first person shooters of the time, the story is split into three episodes with ten areas each. The game starts out in the mansion, through the caverns and dungeons beneath the mansion, and ends in a hellish alternate dimension.
The goal on every level is to find the keycard that will open up the transporter that'll bring you to the next area. As you'd expect, every level is full of monsters to shoot and ammo to collect, along with a good number of secret rooms. It's pretty difficult not to compare this game not to Wolfenstein right away, and the easiest way to put it is that what the first three games were to Sierra adventure games, this is to Wolfenstein.
To be fair, though, the game does have its own original ideas, even if none of them work all that well. The most noteworthy thing is how it handles the weapons. There are four weapons in total, one of them a faster-firing version of the first gun, and one of the gimmicks is that certain weapons work better on certain enemies. Robots don't take damage from the magic wand, for example, but it's the only thing that will kill a ghost. It's a nice idea, but the problem is that each weapon has its own ammo stock, so running out of one kind of ammo will mean you're probably doomed if you happen to have a lot of immune enemies hanging around. The fact that only one of the weapons does damage on hitscan means running low isn't unlikely, either, because you have to be aiming straight at the center of an enemy to do any damage.
Another slight improvement over Wolfenstein 3D is the automap, complete with an enemy radar. The drawback is that while it's activated, it drains power that you get from picking up magic eyes and crystal balls. While the magic eye is activated, a little icon of an eye on your HUD will light up any time you're near a secret wall, which is handy. Unless you're good at navigating, you will need this map, because the levels tend to be long, windy and maze-like. The fact that the map doesn't show you any obstacles like plants doesn't help, either.
One of the problems with the game is that it's just not really fair. Most enemies tend to do damage on hitscan, where it's either incredibly difficult or impossible to avoid damage. Health pickups aren't too common, and the most annoying part of it all is that the game will kick you right back to the main menu when you die. Not even a change in genre means that it's safe to take your finger off of the quicksave button.
The graphics and sound are a huge step up from the adventure games, with full VGA graphics and digitized sound. The engine is about on par with Wolfenstein, with flat levels and solid black ceilings and walls. The textures can get pretty repetitive at points, but a few rooms have extra detail that helps make it a little more realistic, like a kitchen with cupboards and ovens on the walls. The sprites are decent, even if they're pixelly and lacking in frames.
The entire game has a pretty thick 30's horror vibe, from the cheesy organ music on the first level to the gargoyles that border the screen. The game was apparently meant to be something small kids could play, so most of the enemies are things like Frankenstein monsters, ghosts, and witches, and there's no blood to be seen. Of course, if you have a child who wants to play an early '90s FPS for some inexplicable reason, you might as well get them Ken's Labyrinth instead, but it's nice that David Gray was trying to do something for all ages.
This was the first Hugo game that was actually sold in the standard shareware format, with only the first episode available to play until you bought the full version. Buying the game also gave you a cheat menu that let you turn on things like god mode, infinite ammo, and infinite energy for your map, which is something you should leave on at all times. The game ends with Hugo and Penelope escaping the mansion. Penelope mentions that she has to leave Hugo because after seeing Hammerstein's experiments, she has things she needs to do. Who knows if this was supposed to be a sequel hook, because after this game, David Gray switched over to making computerized jigsaw puzzles and apparently has no interest in continuing the series. It's a really anti-climactic way to end everything, but considering the overall quality of all four games, not all that surprising.
While the Hugo titles are fairly well known by PC gamers of the era, they aren't exactly sterling examples of the adventure game genre, ranking average at best. At worst, they're incredibly dated even for the time period compared to games like Monkey Island. While they do a good job of replicating the basic gameplay of what Sierra was doing, they just don't have the soul or challenge of any of their games. And while it's a decent achievement for only one person doing everything, it just hasn't aged well at all. All the games are still available for purchase from David Gray's site, with the Windows and DOS versions of all three games packaged together for $10, and Nitemare 3D for $12.