Sunday, August 28, 2022

Catacomb (1990)

Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Won:Yes (47W/48L)

Back when I was thinking up what I wanted to cover here besides FPS, there were about 5 titles I had in mind for what else I wanted to cover. Abuse, Catacomb, Heretic II, Postal and Star Wars: Battlefront. This reasoning all being that these are games that play like FPS games, but in a different perspective. Catacomb I have a very good reason for playing, its the start of the Catacomb series, which I already covered the FPS titles of. I plan on replaying those, so let's see the series before it went into the most famous FPS progenitor.
Now, the issue with this is that the Catacomb series is weird. REALLY WEIRD. The iD FPS, then the trilogy from the Blake Stone guys. These are the simple titles. The series starts with Catacomb on DOS, at least by year, then we have Catacomb II/The Catacomb. Sounds simple enough? Catacomb, Catacomb II, then Catacomb 3D. Only, the Apple II and II GS versions of the game are supposedly different to the original version. It gets worse, while SoftDisk was publishing the FPS titles as shareware games, they were also publishing Apple II & IIGS sequels to Catacomb with unusual names like Sylvan Idyll and Ether Quest. I applaud the effort, if it wasn't a pain in my ass.
I'm going to slowly work my way through these, but these are surprisingly obscure games. Sand Trap, the final game in the series period, is a colossal pain to track down. It was supposed to be released in SoftDisk G-S #72, but alas, that is not available to my knowledge. Supposedly it exists, someone has actually played it, but where is a mystery to me. Versions on the Apple II exist for all of these titles, so hopefully I can find them one way or another.

The story is, master wizard Petton Everhail is hired by Terexin, High Wizard of the Kieralon, to find all his treasure in the ruins of the Kieralon Empire. How all that treasure has remained there for 200 years? Because it is quite naturally held hostage by goblins, ogres, skeletons and gargoyles. All mainstays of the series, except for the gargoyles. Its been a while, but I don't remember any of those. There might even be a dragon!

When I said Catacomb plays like a FPS title, I meant it. It has the same general control scheme as the FPS titles iD would make over the years, not surprising considering this is one of Carmack's first action titles. Instead of turning with the left and right arrows, pressing a direction moves you in that way. Ctrl shoots, while alt holds you in the direction you're in, while you still look in the same direction. Find keys (generic, not specific color) to open doors. Its okay, a bit loose, but it mostly works.
Compared to twin stick shooters I find this control scheme slightly lacking, however, this had to work with joysticks and mouses of the day, alone. With that handicap in mind, its fine.
You have four methods of attack, plus a healing potion. Pressing the attack key unleashes a single fireball, which can be spammed for a rapid fire attack. This takes out the smaller enemies in one hit. Something to note is that shots alternate each of the two tiles Petton is on, as if he's alternating hands. You can hold it down to create a more powerful shot. This takes out everything weaker in a direct line of where you're at, equaling Petton's 2-square wide frame. This takes out bigger enemies in one hit. Its also very useful for destroying secret walls.

The other two attacks require various scrolls. The first is a bolt, which fires a series of fireballs at a much faster rate than you could possibly do without resorting to a rapid-fire button on a joystick. This is useful when there are large numbers of the bigger enemies.

The final attack is a nuke, which throws a bunch of fireballs around you. This is less useful than in the 3D entries since you can generally see where enemies are ahead of time and force them into a choke point.

Defending the treasure chests are the aforementioned creatures. Goblins are the simplest, they're the red enemies, they walk towards you, usually to a cardinal direction, and damage you if they touch you.

Skeletons are a pain in the butt. Unlike the goblins, they are aware that you alternate hands, and go in your corner areas. They also damage on touch and are incredibly annoying, but if you hug a wall they tend to just walk towards you.

Ogres are just oversized goblins. They hurt more, and you can't kill them with a single fireball. Instead you need many small ones, or a bigger fireball, which will go through as many ogres as it can within its range.
Gargoyles are giant oversized enemies, and the only regular enemy that shoots you. Its not very intelligent, but more often than not its not placed so that they can't deal a good attack at you. Despite this they aren't any stronger than ogres in the defense department.
Dragons appear only on the final level, where there are two. Guess someone really enjoys having twin bosses at the end of a game. Its huge, and it shoots massive fireballs. Curiously, unlike other enemies, it harms each enemy too. Its not too hard, but because you're likely to be out of the attacks by the time you reach here its a better choice to just dodge him and reach the level exit that way.
One big element of this game's relation to FPS titles is the number of secret walls it has. I say secret, but the game requires you to find them to win. You can detect them from non-secret walls by a single pixel on each wall, and it is as tedious as that sounds. That's partially a lie, sometimes its not there at all! Even then its not a very fun experience.
And worse still, the game frequently puts the player in situations where if he does the wrong thing, he's just ended his game. Used a key in the wrong place, whoops, you're stuck like the kind of adventure game people whine about years later. Oh, but it gets better, not only do you have to deal with this, but sometimes the proper path is just the longest possible one you could take through the level, and keys are right next to the door you shouldn't enter at that moment. Meaning if you walk one square too far you're screwed. This is the kind of game where the controls don't have that precision. It just turns into a slog as time goes on.
There are a ton of strange references to the quality of disks. The version I'm playing was modified by an Australian floppy disk maker, so I guess they wanted to make fun of all their competitors. I can't say I've ever used a floppy that didn't come with a game already, so this is lost on me. Seems like typical advergame silliness anyway.
This game doesn't allow you to save to my knowledge, and if you die, that's it. This isn't something I care for, but the length of this game isn't long enough for that to be a terrible problem. I must admit though, I used the level select cheat a few times, simply because I got tired of the opening levels. Which is of course, the real reason why I hate not having save games.
The final couple of levels are just exhausting to deal with. Level 9 seems simple, just find one a labyrinth of endless, samey looking areas. At least the endless skeletons here are less obnoxious. Truely, this is the Catacomb. I got lucky when I played it, and found the key on the lower right side. Then the final level is mostly a maze of destructible walls, which you can't detect ahead of time. I'm really grateful that someone made the worst aspect of this game the focal point of a level.
What's curious about this game is that fighting enemies in wide open spaces is actually the worst thing that could happen. With basically unlimited firepower, all that really matters is your rate of fire, so having to deal with even two fronts divides up your firepower too much. If you're in a tight corridor, unless you're fighting against enemies with ranged attacks, your victory is assured.
Fun fact, that level select can be used to screw with the demo.
Before the rating, here's some footage of the game in action. I make no pretenses of being great at this game, but I did try to get a full run of the game. Died on level 7 due to my own hubris.

The charge up basic fireball attack is neat, as are the two attacks that need ammo, but the game rarely gives one good chance to use them. 2/10

The variety and simple nature of the enemies is appreciated, but they move a mit bit too fast. 3/10


Its very clear that this is someone's first time making these kinds of levels, and it feels very...bleh. It starts off decently enough, but it feels the need to pad its meager length to obscene levels with the difficulty and lack of a save system. 3/10

Player Agency:
Controls are a little loose, anything requiring precision takes longer than it should. Its also a bit tricky aiming at enemies who hit you at an angle. 4/10

You can shoot walls I guess. 1/10

This feels like an ugly version of Deadly Rooms of Death, somehow. 1/10

Somehow, this eye-searing pain is the EGA mode. Trust me, the CGA mode is worse. At least everything is distinct. Almost everything, anyway. 1/10

Take some treasure from an ancient forgotten empire or something. Nothing matters the second you open up the game. 0/10

Simple PC Speaker. 1/10

That's 16, the same score I originally gave Hovertank 3D.

I've seen this described as a Gauntlet clone, and that doesn't seem like an unreasonable comparison to me. The only reason why this is special is because this was one of the earliest titles from the boys at iD, and that exciting titles would result from their work. Its quite neat seeing the seeds of what would be their mark on the industry begin to form.


  1. Hey I played this game !
    It left me with such a strong impression that I had totally forgotten about it until I saw one of the screenshoots, which triggered the one remaining synapse with a recollection of it.

    1. I can definitely see how one would completely forget about this game. I feel like if this wasn't so connected to Id's first FPS titles I would have forgotten about it too, like a good chunk of the rest of the Id boys Softdisk works.