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ICOM MacVentures

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by Kurt Kalata - May 5, 2010

The text adventure was one of video gaming's earliest genres, starting with Colossal Cave, eventually moving onto the birth of Infocom and Zork, on to Sierra and Mystery House, and even further. While many computer users were enamored with the sense of freedom they provided, by nature, they could only target a fairly small audience. The average person, however interested they may be in the subject matter, is going to get hung up in one way or another, whether it be the frustration that comes in struggling with a poor parser, or the lack of typing skills, much less dealing with the stark-to-nonexistent visuals they provide. Early computers in general were very intimidating, especially IBM PCs, relying on a dark, unfriendly screen with the arcane DOS interface.

Usability was a huge factor with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which not only implemented a unique visual operating system, but also popularized the means to navigate it - the mouse. Not only did this make boring tasks like word processing or spreadsheet creation much easier, but it also opened up a whole new avenue for gaming, especially when it came to evolving the text adventure. And thus were born the MacVentures.

Developed by ICOM Simulations, who had previously developed other applications for the Macintosh, the MacVentures games were completely integrated into the Macintosh window interface, and were navigated entirely using the mouse. Fundamentally, they're written and structured exactly the same way as a typical text adventure, but the new interface makes playing them much breezier. When their first title, Déjà Vu, was released in 1985, graphics were not new to adventure games, but they let the player directly interact with the visuals, clicking to open doors or travel between locations, or picking up and dropping items by dragging them with the cursor. Although most actions are context sensitive, a series of commands at the top of the screen can be used for other commands, including hitting objects or consuming items. The graphics inhabit a small window in the middle of the screen, with another window for inventory, the text description window at the bottom, a box with all possible exits, and an extra icon on the right side to allow the player to use items on their character. Although inventory space is limited, and can indeed get a bit cluttered, certain items can also be opened and used to store other items, opening up a new window for each. You can, for example, keep track of a plethora of coins simply by sticking them all in your wallet.

Apart from the great innovations in popularizing a fully point and click based interface, the MacVentures are devastatingly well written, on par with even Infocom's better games. Although each of the four games has a fairly serious plotline, the second person voice always has a vaguely snide sense of humor, whether it comes from the dry observation of the various locales or the snarky tone it takes whenever you get killed. The MacVentures grew a reputation for all of the elaborate ways in which your character could be disposed of, often described in a grisly, darkly humorous tone. Some elements have not aged particularly well - many death scenes are quite sudden and force a reloading of an earlier saved game, and all of them have some kind of built in time limit, usually to counteract the fact that they're all pretty short.

There are four games total in the MacVenture line: Déjà Vu, Uninvited, Shadowgate, and Déjà Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas. Like many computer games at the time, they were ported to competing platforms with various degrees of success, although obviously under different labels, like AmigaVentures, PCVentures, and WinVentures. Most of their lasting popularity came with their ports to the Nintendo Entertainment System, which, despite some alterations made due to the limitations of the console, managed to maintain the spirit of its computer forbearers remarkably well. Shadowgate was the most popular of all of these, having been the first released on the platform in North America, and has earned a place in the hall of classic NES titles. In response, ICOM continued the line with two more sequels for the TurboGrafx-16 and Nintendo 64, although neither bore much resemblance to the original game.

Déjà Vu (Macintosh)

Shadowgate (Macintosh)


Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True! - Macintosh, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC, Apple IIgs, NES, PC-98, Windows, Game Boy Color, PocketPC (1985)

Apple IIgs Cover

NES Cover

You are waking from a stupor that feels like a chronic hangover after a week in Vegas. There is a throbbing bump on the back of your head, big enough to make your hat size look like an Olympic record. You notice your right palm is covered with dried blood, but you neither see nor feel any open wounds on your body. You see yourself reflected in the mirror. The face stares back at you as though it belonged to a stranger. You realize with horror that you can't remember who you are!

ICOM's inaugural game pulls the oldest trick in the book - amnesia - as a way of driving forward the story. Although terribly overdone in literature, as a narrative mechanic for a video game in 1985, they pulled it off remarkably well. Here, you wake up in a dilapidated bathroom stall, with a handful of your personal effects and one helluva headache. Upon exploring, you find yourself in a bar, one that happens to be deserted. Except for the bullet-riddled body on the second floor, anyway. And the BMW parked outside, with a bomb under its hood and a fat, unconscious woman in the trunk. Things certainly look fishy. Of course, you can't go to the police with any of this, because all of the evidence implicates you as the prime suspect. Your only hope at redemption is by finding the real criminals, gathering evidence, and clearing your name.

As you stumble around, you'll eventually trigger memories of your identity and your surroundings - this is Chicago in 1939, and you are Ace Harding, formerly a boxer, now a private eye. As such, exploring and piecing together facts plays a huge role in the game. There is very little actual puzzle solving, at least in the traditional sense. Most of your quest requires being carefully meticulous, reading all of the notes you can find, and uncovering keys to unlock new locations. Although a good chunk of your investigation takes place at Joe's Bar and the surrounding area, you'll also discover several addresses of other locations around Chicago, which can be accessed by taking a taxi cab. Money is important, mostly because you need it to pay the cab drivers, and the only source of cash is from the slot machine hidden in the basement of the bar. There are at least enough fail safes to keep you from getting stuck - there's always some loose change to find if you run out, and one of the taxis will even give you a free ride if you find yourself stranded.

It's pretty strange that, given your current state as a wanted criminal, the police aren't actively chasing after you, although they will apprehend you if you happen to walk through their front door. The biggest threat is the drugs flowing in your system, which will slowly kill you, unless you discover the antidote. This hard time limit is plenty annoying, but since the game isn't terribly long, it's not a huge deal to play it through again more efficiently if you die. As you explore the streets, you'll also be ambushed by bums, hookers, and a particularly persistent mugger. These folks can be dealt with by either slugging them in the face or giving them some cash. Of course, any good private eye carries a firearm, although it's more used to break down doors than kill people. If you try to shoot someone, they'll either beat you to the draw, or the police will immediately show up to put a damper on your day. In keeping with the pulp detective vibe, every time you hit someone, the words "SOCKO" fill the screen.

In its brevity, there's no doubt that Déjà Vu feels a tiny bit insubstantial, but the plot is well told for what it is, and the writing is surprisingly funny. "One could admire the quality of this chair for hours on end," the narrator replies dryly when checking out a random piece of furniture. "This table has four legs," he astutely observes in another. Try examining yourself and you're told that "You surely need an examination the way you play this game." It's pretty clever how the game manages to balance the humor with all of the murder going on around you.

The computers ports are very similar to each other. The original Macintosh version runs in a relatively high resolution window and is completely integrated with the system interface, using the same dialogue boxes and fonts. However, the visuals are entirely in black and white, although they're quite attractive in their minimalism. The Atari ST, Apple IIgs and Amiga versions have color graphics, which are different from the original Mac visuals, and while they technically look better, the rest of the interface isn't as crisp, since it runs at a lower resolution. However, in these versions, there are some sluggish load times between every action. The DOS version is by far the worst, taking the graphics of these color versions but downgrading them to eye-piercing four-color CGA graphics. This version also does not allow you to resize or move the windows. The Commodore 64 version has unique graphics as well, and while they're quite pixellated, they're still a bit better than the DOS version. However, this version lacks mouse support and is troublesome to navigate. The PC-98 version was ported and published in Japan by Pack-In Video, and is similar to the Amiga version, although the graphics have been reduced to 16 colors.

The Windows version, published in 1996, over ten years after its initial release, is fully integrated into the Windows interface, like the original Mac version. The visuals have been completely redrawn once again, with crisper and more colorful graphics than any other version. Despite the technical improvement, the art style is pretty gaudy, and most of the characters, Ace in particular, look remarkably ugly. This version was used as the basis for the PocketPC port, released in 2002. There's no real music in any of these versions, as the game is played almost entirely in silence. Most have some digitized sound effects, at least, the quality of which also varies amongst ports. Naturally, they sound horrible coming through the PC speaker.

The NES conversion, published by Kemco/Seika, however, differs substantially in many ways. The basic storyline, locations, text and puzzles are the same, but all have had slight tweaks. The 16-color graphics are completely unique, although similar in style to the Amiga version. The interface introduces some niceties that add to the atmosphere. It uses a warping effect, complete with sound effects, to transition between rooms, while all of the text is displayed as if it was typed by a typewriter. The interface has been altered to remove the drag and drop inventory system, instead adding "Take" and "Leave" verbs, and getting rid of the "Consume" action. (You instead just "Use" items on yourself.) Your inventory now shows up as text on the right side of the screen rather than visual icons. The "Leave" action is almost entirely useless since you can only drop items in a specific place instead of leaving them randomly strewn around, but since you have unlimited inventory space in this version, this is never an issue. While you can still save your game at any time, getting killed will simply rewind time and send you back to the prior screen. It's much friendlier than the PC versions, which constantly forced you to save and reload.

On the downside, navigation is something of a pain. Moving the cursor with the controller is sluggish compared to the mouse. Furthermore, the computer versions let you open doors, look at items, or move simply by double clicking on the screen. The NES interface is not context sensitive at all, so you need to select from the verb window for every single action, making the whole game feel much slower.

The computer versions had several instances where you needed to discover and remember addresses to give to taxi drivers, which needed to be typed in. Since the NES does not have a keyboard, these have been simplified into an "Address" page in your inventory, where addresses are automatically recorded when you learn them. While much of the text maintains the same flavor as the PC version, the writing had to be simplified and edited to save ROM space. It also falls victim to Nintendo's censorship policies. Instead of a shot glass of gin and a pack of cigarettes, you'll find a glass of seltzer and a pack of chewing gum. Instead of a syringe to administer drugs, you need to use medicine capsules. Of course, this causes an inconsistency with the intro text, which still says that you have puncture marks from a needle.

Some scenes have been taken out, too. In the original version, when you beat up the hooker (who, to be fair, was going to shoot you if you don't act first), if you try to hit her again when she's down, you get a flashback of your priest warning you not to do terrible things. In the NES version, it just displays a general "you can't do that" message. The NES version also never explicitly refers to her as a hooker - she's just some random lady. When you die in the computer versions, you either get a shot of a morgue, with a close-up on your toe tag, or pictures of creepy ghosts. This was perhaps a bit too morbid, so it was changed to a tombstone with an "RIP Ace Harding" message on it. It doesn't quite make sense at certain points, since you can technically get killed before you ever learn your name. The death text is also amusing - "From the beginning the odds were against you. It was only a matter of time until you reached the end. You're history!!" Certain actions are required in order to force the plot to progress - you can't even leave the bathroom in the beginning until you've looked in the mirror first. All of the computer versions also greeted you based on its internal clock (i.e. "Good afternoon, welcome to a nightmare come true"), which was removed from the NES version of Déjà Vu, as well as all the others ICOM games. The Japanese version suffers from a bit less censorship – the Game Over screen is a creepy skull with the words "Rest in Peace" below it, closer to the original Mac version, and the dead guy in the bar is soaked in blood, where he is clean in the NES version. The seltzer is also now Ramune soda.

Déjà Vu was also re-released several years down in the line for the Game Boy Color, where it was bundled with its sequel. It's similar to the Game Boy port of Shadowgate, although the interface has been slightly altered to use icons for the commands rather than text, saving valuable screen real estate. While the Game Boy version of Shadowgate used the NES graphics as a basis, the visuals here appear to be completely new, and actually look quite a bit better. However, it is not backwards compatible with the original Game Boy. The music is mostly the same as the NES version, although the drums aren't quite as crisp. The text is almost entirely identical, although the inconsistency about the puncture wounds in the opening has been fixed, and the bar is now referred to as "Joe's Place" rather than "Joe's Bar".

Quick Info:

Developer:

Publisher:

  • Mindscape

Genre:

Themes:


Déjà Vu (Macintosh)

Déjà Vu (Macintosh)

Déjà Vu (Macintosh)

Déjà Vu (NES)

Déjà Vu (NES)

Déjà Vu (NES)

Déjà Vu (NES)

Déjà Vu (Game Boy Color)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


Déjà Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas - Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC, Apple IIgs, Windows, Game Boy Color (1989)

Apple IIgs Cover

Game Boy Color Cover

You wake up from a stupor that feels like a chronic hangover after a wild week in Vegas. There is a throbbing bump on the back of your head... As you come out of the fog, you breathe a sign of relief as you realize that you still know your own moniker, Ace Harding. With that, the events of the previous 48 hours start to float back...

Ace Harding cleared his name at the end of the first Déjà Vu, but as this sequel explains, he's hardly out of trouble. It turns out that Siegel, the dead guy in the bar in the first game, had been running some cash for the mob, and a sizable sum has gone missing. Seeing that Ace was the last person in contact with Siegel, the Mafia figures he must've done something with it. Being that these Mafia folks aren't exactly the understanding type, they send a very specific message to Ace - find our money, or you'll be wearing cement shoes.

Ace starts the adventure in Las Vegas, where he must get together some cash to take a train back to Chicago. There he revisits Joe's Bar to hunt for clues before returning to Las Vegas to deal with the mob. Unlike the first game, the cops are of little use for saving your ass. Instead, Ace needs to frame another mobster by planting all of the evidence on him, causing the two factions to kill each other and leave Ace in the free and clear. If you take too long, the mob will make good on their promise of disposing of you, making this yet another ICOM game with a set time limit. It's a short game, though, roughly around the same size as its predecessor.

The events lead to a pretty clever twist on the events of the first game, but still, Déjà Vu II just doesn't feel quite as compelling. Ace has full possession of his faculties this time around, which means that unfolding the mystery of the stolen money just doesn't draw you in on a personal level without the amnesia gimmick. Still, it is pretty cool to muck around Joe's Bar again, and it heralds the return of the hooker from the first game, giving her a real name this time - Sugar Shack.

There's still a bit of gambling to be done in Las Vegas, although you need to do something to tilt the odds in your favor. Once you get to Chicago, you're still ferried around by a taxi, although it's completely free this time. You get to visit Ace's own apartment, too. Like the first game, most of the puzzles are barely puzzles, so long as you explore, pick up, and open everything you find, and most obstacles can be passed by using your trusty pen knife.

There really aren't too many ways to get yourself killed besides running out of time, or doing something stupid like getting lost in the desert (which you only ever need to venture to if you run out of money) but you can get accosted or even arrested by taking off your pants in public. At the alleyway of Joe's Bar you'll also randomly run into a crazy lady who spouts all sorts of crazy nonsense ("SAVE THE FURNITURE!"), including some references to famous movies like Soylent Green and Dr. Strangelove. The game takes place in 1939, substantially before any of these were released, but it's all in good silliness. Plus, the text descriptions are still as funny as before. Trying eating random objects and you'll be met with lines like, "The chair would probably give you gas pains."

Like all of the other MacVenture games, Déjà Vu II was released on the usual home computer platforms. Unlike the previous releases, the IBM PC version is substantially better than the Amiga versions, finally graduating out of awful CGA in favor of 256-color VGA. Déjà Vu I and II were bundled together for the Windows re-release. An NES version was planned, and copies were previewed in magazines around 1992 or so. However, it was never released, perhaps due to the waning popularity of the NES. Prototypes are said to exist, but none are currently available on the internet.

However, Déjà Vu II did end up on the Game Boy Color, on the same cartridge as the first game. This version is most likely based on, to some degree, the unreleased NES version. It's hard to tell exactly - the graphics in the Game Boy Color game don't match up to the pre-release NES shots - but then again, the first game's visuals were almost entirely redone for the GBC release, too. The revamped blackjack minigame seems to match the screenshots of the NES game though - in the computer version, it was very simplistic and never showed up a close-up view of the cards. The interface works the same way as the other GBC ICOM releases, and includes an "ADDRESS" section, much like the first game, to give to the taxi driver. This was probably unnecessary, but it does make things consistent with the NES version of the first game. In the computer versions, the taxi driver was supposed to be deaf, so you didn't need to type in the destinations anyway. Instead, you would just show the item that had the address, and he'd take you there. (The train schedule to go to the train station, for example, or your driver's license to get to your apartment.) In the GBC version, you can just look at the item, and the address is automatically remembered. Other than these small changes, the GBC game is very faithful to the computer releases. The cigarettes are changed to gum, and "Joe's Bar" is once again "Joe's Place", but otherwise it remains mostly uncensored. It shares much of its soundtrack with the first game, although the new music, played in the Las Vegas areas, is mostly forgettable.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Publisher:

  • Mindscape

Genre:

Themes:


Déjà Vu II (Macintosh)

Déjà Vu II (Windows)

Déjà Vu II (Windows)

Déjà Vu II (Windows)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


Unreleased NES Version Screenshots


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Uninvited

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Shadowgate

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Beyond Shadowgate
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