This is going to be a slightly unorthodox review. Since Zojoi decided to release all four of the ICOM Simulations MacVenture games for iPad on the same day, we figured it would be best to review them all in one shot. While the games aren’t precisely equal to one another, they’re using the same engine, and have been ported similarly, so there’s a great deal of overlap in terms of what they offer. So what I’ll be doing is first covering the shared elements before devoting a little section to each game. For all intents and purposes, you can read the score on this review as applicable to all four of the games, however.
By this point in the evolution of game design, we’ve got a lot of genres sorted out, but it took a long time and a lot of false leads to get there with most of them. The adventure genre in particular had many forms early on, and what we now consider to be the generic example of an adventure game was the result of bits and pieces from several different approaches. ICOM’s MacVentures, released on the Macintosh yearly from 1985 through 1988, contributed a few crucial elements that are still seen in many adventures games released today. They were some of the first adventure games to entirely eschew text parsers in favor of an entirely graphics-driven interface, and handled objects in surprisingly complex ways given the period. The games benefited in popularity from being ported to a wide variety of platforms in the years following their Mac releases, with Shadowgate in particular drawing a big crowd via Kemco’s popular NES port.
If the NES versions of the games are how you are familiar with the series, you’ll be in for a surprise with these iPad versions. The games had to be dramatically simplified in their NES versions, with the only unambiguous improvement being the presence of some very well-done soundtracks. These iPad releases give you your choice of two versions of each game. You can play the Macintosh originals in all their black-and-white glory, or you can treat yourself to the lush colors of the Apple IIGS remakes. I’m not sure if these are modified emulations of the games or ports, but they’re quite accurate in terms of both function and appearance to the originals. You can even rearrange the windows, if that strikes your fancy. Of course, that means you’ll have to make sure you’re saving diligently, since the game has no interest in doing that for you, and if you need instructions, you’ll have to follow the in-game link to an internet page that outlines everything.
They’re very good versions of the games, and they take to a touch interface really well, but I did notice some issues with text wrapping incorrectly in the “Macintosh" versions. I think the games could benefit with some kind of auto-save function in case of emergencies, but I can understand how that may not have been possible. If the only thing you were wondering about is how faithfully the games were ported, you have nothing to worry about. These are fine ports, and I’d argue that the inclusion of two different versions is a step beyond expectations, so good on Zojoi for that decision.
As for the games themselves, what I can say generally about all four of them is that they represent fairly early steps in a genre that still had a long road ahead of it. All four of them are mercilessly difficult by modern standards, and frequently unfairly so, to boot. There were still a lot of things that weren’t sorted out yet from a design standpoint, and I’m no more a fan of the imposed time limits now than I was back in the day. Unless you want to relive some old memories or feel like peering into the history of the genre, it’s awfully hard to recommend any of the lot with much enthusiasm. Let’s take a closer look at each one, though.
Deja Vu ($1.99)
The first MacVenture has the most interesting premise of the lot. Set in Chicago in the early 1940s, Deja Vu has a wonderful atmosphere that evokes classic detective movies. You wake up in a bathroom stall in a bar without any memories, and before you can even sort more than the barest details out, you stumble across a murder that took place on the scene. Is it a frame-up? Or are you the murderer? Without being able to remember anything, it’s hard to say. You’ll have to gather clues to jog your memory and put together the truth of what happened at Joe’s Bar if you want to keep on breathing.
It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. Death is waiting around every corner, even coming if you so much as make too many moves before scrounging up a vital antidote. The puzzles are pretty limited in this one, with most of the obstacles coming in the form of figuring out where to go next and how you’re going to get there. You basically need to pick up and check everything that isn’t nailed down, and a few things that are. This game also features a weird sort of random encounter system when you’re out on the street, as you’ll be accosted by various lowlifes who want your money. You can give them what they’re asking for, or deliver a knuckle sandwich instead. It’s up to you.
This is probably the shortest of the MacVenture games, but it’s also the most appealing in a lot of ways. It has a strong set-up, is fairly straightforward, and the mildly sarcastic narration that is a staple of the MacVentures resonates with the hardboiled detective story really well. About the only way I feel it falls short of its successors is in the puzzle designs. ICOM’s puzzle designs got more sophisticated as they went along, but in Deja Vu, you’re basically just looking for keys to open locks. That said, if you’re only buying one of these, I’d say this is the one.
Credit where it’s due: this is a great early attempt at a horror-themed adventure game. Using the familiar set-up of a car that breaks down in the middle of nowhere in front of a spooky old mansion, Uninvited is surprisingly scary at times. I personally enjoy the writing in this one the most out of all the MacVentures, mostly due to how well it balances humor and horror. It’s probably my least favorite game of the bunch, however.
It’s a bit longer than Deja Vu and has slightly more interesting puzzles, but you’re still mainly dealing with lock-and-key inventory solutions. There’s once again a move limit, this time counting down to when you’ll succumb to the evil of the house and become a zombie yourself. The game relishes in killing the player off, but I have to admit that it’s pretty entertaining in this setting and context. It’s less amusing how easily you can find yourself in an unwinnable situation and have to start over, however. Make sure you look around thoroughly before you enter the house. You can thank me later.
Uninvited is the one I’d recommend least of the four MacVentures. Unless you’re into its specific brand of horror, it has little to offer over the other games, and while the scary setting was unusual at the time, we’ve certainly got no shortage of frightening games these days. While it offers a lot of freedom to the player, it’s probably the most stringent of the MacVentures about hewing to a Golden Path to success, too. It makes for a very frustrating blend.
Thanks to the NES version’s healthy sales and the fact that ICOM and its successor companies produced a few follow-up titles, Shadowgate is probably the most well-known of the MacVentures. You play as a young hero tasked by the wizard Lakmir to take out the evil Warlock King and save the land. The game picks up as you arrive at the Warlock King’s castle, the dreaded Shadowgate. This one is fantasy-themed, but there’s a strong streak of horror in it, too. Some of the situations you’ll find yourself in rival Uninvited in terms of sheer intensity, and the mechanism for the time limit feels a lot more tense. Keep those torches lit, friends, because if you don’t, you’ll meet your end rather quickly.
I like the puzzles a lot in this one, with a few particularly clever ones that allow for multiple solutions. The story’s a lot lighter in this one compared to the other MacVentures, but the writing is still pretty sharp. Shadowgate likes to toy with you more than the others, too, putting all kinds of red herrings and false exits designed to trick you into booking an early appointment with the Grim Reaper. Unfortunately, it also likes to walk you into doors pretty often, killing you with no warning whatsoever. There’s also one big moment where you can render the game unwinnable, so make sure you take advantage of being able to make multiple save files. You’ll be restoring your game a lot, I promise.
If you’ve got nostalgia for the NES version, you’ll probably get on well enough with this version. While the interface has been greatly streamlined, there were fewer essential changes with this game than the others. The biggest problem with Shadowgate is as it ever was, in my opinion. There are a finite number of torches in the game, and if you run out, you’ll have to start over, no matter how near to the end you are. None of these games are terribly long, particularly once you know how to solve the puzzles, but it can still be a real kick in the teeth since you probably won’t see it coming. Well, that’s how it goes in games of this vintage, I suppose.
Deja Vu 2 ($1.99)
You’d think it would be hard to follow up on the original game’s premise, and you would be right. That said, Deja Vu 2 puts a good foot forward. You wake up in a bathroom again, but thankfully, you know who you are. Unfortunately, you also know that a mobster is looking to you to cover a substantial amount of his missing money, and if you don’t find it quickly enough for his liking, you’re as good as dead. Interestingly, the only way you’ll survive this situation is by framing someone else. So instead of trying to clear yourself of a crime, you’re trying to pin one on someone else.
The game takes place in Vegas this time, at least for part of the story, and like in the first game, you can engage in a little gambling on the side. It’s perhaps the most difficult of the bunch, and the ending sequence is particularly ridiculous. The story doesn’t work quite as well as it did in the first game, in spite of its clever set-up. Without the amnesia hook, having to pick up and rifle through literally everything has less purpose behind it. There are more contrivances and instances of adventure game logic, and the game certainly doesn’t lag behind its predecessors in silly deaths.
It’s an easy choice as to whether or not to pick this one up. If you like the first game a lot, you’ll probably enjoy Deja Vu 2 enough to make it worth your while. It’s a lesser game in most ways, but its still got that unique detective story grit to it, and it’s fun to see how ICOM handles a direct sequel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they like to use your experience with the first game to trick you into dying in places you might otherwise get through safely. I can appreciate that kind of sadistic design from a certain angle.
That’s really what it comes down to with all of the MacVentures. With the transition to iPad being near-perfect, it’s really just a matter of how much you can appreciate, or tolerate, the cruel nature of 1980s adventure games. It’s impressive that the writing and graphics hold up as well as they do, and that really says something for how well-done these games were when they were first released. By this point, they’re antiques, but if you’re okay with that, these are certainly well-kept antiques.