Monday, March 13, 2023

The Thor Trilogy (1990)

The closest thing these games have to a title screen
Name:The Thor Trilogy
Developer:Scenario Software
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:1 hour 40 minutes
Won:Yes (64W/58L)

In 1993 we'll be seeing the first FPS released by Epic, back when they were known as Epic MegaGames, a game which in a cruel twist of fate would provide longtime rival Apogee/3D Realms their primary reason for existing past the 20th century. As such, and because Epic tended to rip-off Apogee's earlier titles, talking about the two together feels necessary.

So to talk about Ken's Labyrinth, we need to talk about Jill of the Jungle and ZZT. To talk about ZZT, we need to talk about Kroz. I haven't played Kroz. Ever, so I fired it up. Apparently my assumption that the two were related is based in folly. Kroz is more of an Lost Tomb style game, minus a gun and with highly limited whips, whereas ZZT is a shooter. On a personal level, Kroz confused me for the two minutes I played of it before realizing it wasn't for me. It doesn't help that the approach to sound in that game is less...sound and more BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Checking a bit, I find myself here at The Thor Trilogy, quite possibly the most obscure Apogee release. I also didn't get this one back when I was adding in games to my list, but I did get a few Kroz games and Pharaoh's Tomb, games which don't actually fit what I consider to be shooters. Funny. This doesn't even seem to have had a shelf life, even compared to other early Apogee titles like Monument of Mars and Pharaoh's Tomb. I guess ZZT was inspired by this, but even if true, ZZT was a lot better.

The story is simple, you're in the caves of Thor, find treasure, get out. The arrows move, space the direction you last moved...A activates a potion, which destroys enemies around you. D pauses, and C saves. I'm also told the game is non-linear, which is interesting.
After a screen showing what everything in the game world is, the game begins. And I'm on a timer, my health slowly runs out. Lovely. It more or less throws you into the thick of it. Enemies approach, and there is only the one enemy, but sometimes they come out of spawners you can destroy. Speaking of shooting things, the controls are horrendous. Firstly, the movement is stiff, you have to hold down the arrow for a moment for your character to move. Be careful you don't run too fast or you'll outrun the screen. It's neat to see a scrolling screen for a few moments, before it turns into a liability.

Your shots are stiff and awkward to pull off, press the fire button and a shot will slowly move out. Hold it down and a shot will appear in front of you. Because you can only shoot one shot at a time. And don't forget that you shoot where you last moved, so factor in the stiff controls in aiming. This means that something simple in another game, like shooting a line of enemies slowly walking towards you turns into a terrifying situation. There is one small boon, if you outrun the screen enemies don't move. Good luck controlling that though.
I kind of see where the author was coming from, as this means the player can't just spam shots while also ensuring he isn't screwed if he shot in the wrong place.

You're not as defenseless as I imply. You have health, which you're given a fairly generous amount of and find more frequently in the form of trees/food. You can also pick up shield potions, which give you 50 shield points which don't count down. (it also protects against the lava I mention later) Enemies are also not really dangerous despite the limitations of the controls. Only when they refuse to come to you from some angled hallway. Yes, the AI in this game is so simple it ONLY goes straight to you, it won't walk to the side of a hallway even if it would in any other game.

Destructible walls are also a thing. Nothing really major, but its neat regardless. Question marks on the ground indicate mystery items, walk over it, you might get a potion, you might get an enemy spawner.

With that said, the game is kind of designed around these handicaps. Its fine. Which after a statement that everything else is either simplistic or bordering on broken isn't a great thing. Its your usual key and door game and the whole non-linear design doesn't actually do anything for the game. I'd say it makes it worse. There are these giant water rivers throughout some of the areas you have to go through, and they're just a pain to move. Each arrow automatically moves you in a certain direction, and while you can walk against the current, its annoying.

The other big environmental hazard is lava, it hurts when you walk over it, but mostly its just on the side. The only time its really something you have to work to avoid is this lava area. You can walk through diagonals so you can enter it, but its very tricky since the author set it up so its very difficult to make any ground without getting hit. This immediately leads to...

Since I didn't capture the creature itself, it looks like a fancy T
The weird monster spawner. Is this the dreaded Thor Beast the instructions warn me about? Yes, but it just spawns monsters and changes the music. While shots kept flying that seemed to hit me, that was more my imagination plus a combination of the floor's bouncing walls, which are very annoying. No, this just takes a ton of shots to take out. Its just there.
Eventually I end up on floor G, with two of the artifacts you see on the left side of the screen with nowhere to go. I wander up and down, for a while, before restarting. There was one area I didn't unlock previously that I couldn't see all of, but surely that wouldn't win me the game? It leads to another floor, and it has the final artifact. Kind of feels like what the game should be, a mix of terrain and situations rather than a focus on one situation at a time. This does mean that the artifacts are required, and that it's possible to make the game unwinnable.

Before I get to the second two episodes, I want to point out that the sound is kind of strange. Its all PC speaker, but there's something kind of charming from where I'm sitting. Its all classic pieces and they're, not that bad. Not enough for the whole game, obviously, but good enough that I had it on for longer than I normally would.

The second episode, Realms of Thor, adds food limits and something that confuses enemies. That's not helpful. That's actively making the game worse. Enemies are faster and spawn quicker, but its not yet worrisome. I've hit upon an awkward flow which means I generally don't die to this things. I was going to say the game is sort of exactly the same as the first episode, right down to the annoying water level.
But we have an annoying lava level. Walk over these bridges. You only get damaged by lava when you walk over it. Enemies are plentiful on the bridges, but they're not that much of a problem. The game seems to want to keep putting you back here with alarming frequency. Its fine, its not great, there's just not much to talk about. There are occasional interesting bits, but mostly its walking down boring corridors doing boring shooting.
As I continue through this episode, I find myself unsure of where to go next. Not because I've done everything, but because I've gotten lost. Its becoming increasingly clear that the non-linear nature of the game is actively hurting the game. A level that pushes the player around and expected the player to come back multiple times is probably going to be on my hitlist next time.
Finally, Revenge of Thor, now we have breakaways and "intelligent" enemies. Breakaways are breakaway paths over lava. Temporary paths. Great. What are intelligent enemies? I dunno, I didn't see any. In seriousness, these are enemies that actually run around corners. Surprising new technology. This feels weird, did the guy upgrade the game as he went along but never bothered fixing the original episode? Whatever, its not important.
This is the closest the game gets to actually being difficult, but its just because the game overwhelms you with enemies and enemy spawners. Sometimes you just cut through slowly, others you can dodge, some are in lava. It just feels so boring. There's tension, of course, but I never died. Its more tense dealing with the large number of lava areas you have to walk around. But even that you can deal with if you're clever in managing the breakaway paths. The biggest difficulty in finishing this game is avoiding boredom.
When I finally won the last episode, after having managed to find the final item by luck, I was relieved. This final episode is just maze upon maze. It doesn't help the game seemed to mysteriously slow down a lot more this episode. That was not fun, and its very understandable why this game is forgotten. Its got more than a few half-baked ideas, like the slowly draining health, an item that allows your shots to bounce off walls and the things the game says causes confusion in enemies. I never saw that last one affect anything. Removing/fixing them wouldn't really fix the basic problem this game has, and I don't think anything would.

An awkward to use gun along with an interesting potion attack which destroys enemies within a certain distance. I do feel like the game never knew what to give out for the potions, I had just enough in the first epiosde, but too many in the second and none in the third. 1/10

Generic dude and generic dude spawner. The Thor Beast, the closest thing to a boss this game has, was basically an annoying bullet sponge. 1/10


A lot of the game is incredibly boring. There are moments its just there and occasionally moments it shines, where you actually have to navigate around the lava. Its just, its not very interesting 90% of the time. 2/10

Player Agency:
Its very stiff, controlling the main character often feels like an exercise in futility. Going any distance accurately is basically impossible, but at least the game manages this by making enemies ignore the player so long as they're waiting for the screen to catch back up. 2/10

Simple wall destruction. 1/10

It did a good job at building a mysterious aura at first, before squandering it in endless tedium. 0/10

Simple ASCII. It isn't the most attractive, but everything is immensely clear. 2/10


The sound here is interesting. You have the standard PC speaker of course, but you also get music. It isn't annoying music, which I find surprisingly good, for longer than I normally would PC speaker sound. I also didn't think the lava sound effect had any weight to it. 2/10

That's 11.

This game really feels like it was someone's first game. I can see where the author tried to fill in the cracks of where the game had issues, but it feels like it was too little, too late when the game would have been better off being redesigned from scratch. Irrespective of whether or not ZZT did rip off an Apogee title, it certainly did it better.

This was developed by future Duke Nukem developer Todd Replogle, and I'm genuinely surprised. Because I remember liking his future work, at least Duke 2. We'll see how his next game, Monument of Mars, stacks up soon enough.

Sidenote, the 1990 Psygnosis game Infestation is proving to be troublesome to get running right. The DOS version works, but the Amiga version doesn't. Which wouldn't be a problem except the save system is one of the most awkward I've encountered and I can't seem to get it working in DOS, so its likely at this point that I'll end up skipping it. Its basically another game like The Colony, except with that Psygnosis touch and a decent framerate. And no, I can't use DOSbox-X's savestate system, that just crashes the game because of course it does. If I can't get it working right, I'm just going to skip it.

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