01/04/2013

FORBIDDEN FOREST (C64)

The shocking truth - I'm not really an outdoorsy person. I'm an indoorsy person, happiest when hermetically sealed away from the outside world. Am I missing out on the grandeur of nature? Maybe, but I can get most of the experience through videogames while avoiding the forest fires, crocodile attacks and hayfever outbreaks that plague the natural world. For example, why visit your local forbidden forest - which, let's face it, is probably forbidden because it's full of used smack needles and semi-feral beast-men - when you can instead play the 1983 Commodore 64 game Forbidden Forest?


Alright, I know what you're thinking- it looks like a very unwell person snorted a load of Lego and then sneezed all over the screen. It's a fair point. Forbidden Forest's graphics are barely more advanced than those of an Atari 2600 game... or at least that's how they seem at first glance. Give them a chance, they might surprise you later.


Forbidden Forest is the work of a man called Paul Norman, a prolific author of C64 titles who seems to have stumbled into game design while trying to make "films" with the home computers of the day. His desire to create a cinematic experience will become obvious later, but here at VGJunk we're all about the "game" aspect, and with that in mind we must ask: what kind of game is Forbidden Forest?


It's a shoot-em-up, but with nothing so overcompensatingly macho as a giant plasma rifle or even a gun of any kind - your character has ventured into the Forbidden Forest with some sharpened sticks and a bendy stick to fire them with. It's a bow-and-arrow-em-up, then, and as soon as you start the game you're attacked by a swarm of vicious giant spiders. Yes, there is a spider in that screenshot and yes, I'm aware that for a colossal, nightmarish arachnid it's kinda hard to make out. Here's a clearer shot.


They look a lot more like spiders when they're moving, I swear. And move they do, desperate to reach our hero and eat his featureless head. That's where the bow comes in. Simply press fire to notch an arrow, move the joystick to aim and press fire again to release swift, pointy death upon your target. Hopefully you'll hit the spider, because if you miss then it'll have plenty of time to devour you before you can get another arrow ready.


All you really need to do is stand on the spot and turn left or right to shoot the oncoming spiders, but don't worry, things don't stay that simple for long. Once you've punctured enough spiders, you'll move on to phase two, which I have given the title Operation Oh God There Are Giant Bees Everywhere.


A little abstract, maybe, but certainly a bee or wasp of some description. If the yellow-and-black colour scheme didn't tip you off, you're treated to something that hints that Forbidden Forest isn't quite as primitive as it first appears: the contant buzzing noise that accompanies the bees' appearance on screen. It's not just a single tone, either, and it changes pitch with the bees' proximity. The bees can even move closer or recede into the background using a pseudo-3D sprite-scaling approach, which is impressive to see in any C64 game, and especially one from 1983.


See? A distant bee, not a tiny one. Still, they're just as vulnerable to arrows as the spiders so again, your best bet is to stand in place and shoot the bees when they flit into the path of your arrows. This is not a tactic that will hold up for much longer.


A downpour of giant, cheerful frogs will force you to get moving, because if a giant frog lands on you, you die.


Look at that happy-go-lucky grin, it's like someone grafted a French meal straight onto Kermit's head. He's found his true calling in life, and it's crushing adventurers between his feet.
So, you need to move to avoid the rain of frogs, and you can do that by moving your aim all the way to the left or right which lets you run around the gameplay area. It's an enclosed loop, so eventually you'll return to where you started. You'll also get to see something that impressed the hell out of me, something I was not expecting to see in a Commodore 64 game of this vintage: parallax scrolling.


Apologies for the crappy GIF, but you get the idea. Separate planes of background movement! I know your eyes will be drawn to the cascading death-toads, but it's there and it's mighty impressive. Look, things like that impress me, okay? I have the keen intellect required to say "never mind the endless cascade of demonic frogs, looks at those background trees!" I won't apologise for my intellectual rigour.
So, dodge the frogs but make sure you shoot some of them, because that's how you proceed. You can't just dodge them forever, because whatever is up there dropping frogs on our poor main character has an unlimited supply of batrachian paratroopers to do their evil bidding, and they'll only stop once you've eliminated the required amount.
At least you get a reward for clearing the section. It's the same reward you get for clearing every section, but it's a good one. Dance, Legolas, dance!


Yes, between each section a jaunty (and extremely catchy) tune will play and your character will jerk around like a marionette whose puppeteer has just had a high-voltage cable introduced into their lower intestine. It goes on for a while. A bit too long, even. You're watching this archer twitch about, and you soon begin to think "okay, he's had enough now" but then the music starts up again and still he dances, stomping out a tribal rhythm as he gives thanks for the pile of spider / bee / frog carcasses that lay before him. Personally I love it, as it adds another layer to Forbidden Forest's veneer of slightly off-kilter madness.


Then a dragon flies in and sets you on fire. Ah, the glorious cycle of nature. I don't feel to bad about it. It's hard to bear a grudge against something that looks like a hot dog rendered in Lego. I don't want to keep harping on the Lego connection but I am almost certain I built that exact dragon from the good old three-by-two Lego bricks when I was a kid (except mine couldn't breathe fire, obviously.)


The dragons (okay, fine, so they're technically wyverns because they don't have arms, geez. What do I look like, a scribe who compiles medieval bestiaries? Gimme a break) mostly swoop in from the left and right, but sometimes they come right down the middle. This is your chance to play a game of Chicken that is really the only way to complete the stage - you've got to wait until the dragon is directly above you and then fire straight upwards, hopefully killing it before it can barbeque you.


Ha! Not so much fun when you are the one sufering the horrible agony of a death by immolation, now is it?
It's also perhaps worth mentioning that our hero can take out a dragon with one solitary well-placed arrow. That's mighty impressive, and it fills me with the confidence that I need to face any foe that lurks in the deciduous underbelly of the Forbidden Forest. Bring it on!


Of course, the second I began to think like that was the moment of my downfall, when out from the forest appeared a cyan lich and his endless horde of skeleton minions. This is really where Forbidden Forest clicked with me. To beat this section you have to shoot the lich right in the hood, where his face should be, while at the same time not falling prey to the unlimited supply of skeletons that are trying to stab you up. You can defeat the skeletons for some breathing room, but the challenge here is getting the lich in the non-face. As well as moving your aim left and right, you can also move the joystick up and down to adjust the power / arc of your shots by watching two black boxes that move up and down the side of the screen, giving you a greater degree of control over your aim that you'll need to hit the lich. It's a little hard to explain, but intuitive once you realise it's there.


Don't get distracted by it, though. Judging by the way my head has exploded, the skeletons' spears are tipped with dynamite. And hey look, there's blood! Yep, Forbidden Forest is one of the bloodier C64 games I've played. Some of it is even animated! Sort of. It trickles a bit. That's still a great leap forward in the field of computer game blood dynamics, so if you're the kind of person who only plays games for their gore content then A) you really need to broaden your horizons, champ and B) you could do worse than Forbidden Forest.


Another thing that impresses - there's a day/night cycle! Okay, "cycle" is pushing it a bit - it only goes from day to night, but still, that's very impressive. It's not tied to how far you've progressed but how long you've actually been playing, and I'm very glad it got so dark during the lich fight because it really enhanced the mood, a touch that was to undead hunting as some candles and a Barry White CD is to the tender art of lovemaking. Forbidden Forest may not by a gameplay revelation (although it's certainly well-made) and it might occasionally look rougher than a badger's arse, but it oozes atmosphere. The music is simple but evocative, the encroaching darkness is a touch of real class and all of the little details - the between-stage dances, the twinkling stars - coalesce to create something pretty unique. The cherry on the top of this bizarre cake came when I managed to shoot the lich, and it screamed. For fifteen full seconds it screamed, a noise at once high-pitched and deeply roaring, a noise that is one of the most disturbing sounds I have ever heard. The only way I can describe it is, right, imagine if there was was a robot boss powered by human souls in a Silent Hill game. Now imagine the noise that boss would make when killed. That's pretty much the noise.


Next, a giant snake. The giant snake is an absolute pushover. I actually killed it by accident the first time I saw it - I was trying to notch an arrow but I already had one on the string, so instead I fired an arrow in the wrong direction. The snake, presumably raised by a strict snake grandmother who survived the rationing of the war and thus considered wasting things to be a crime on a par with cold-blooded murder, slithered across the screen and took the arrow right between the eyes.


God speed, dopey snake. You were too dense - or far too committed to arrow frugality - for this world.
Honestly, the snakes aren't much of a challenge even if they aren't frantically dashing in front of your projectiles. Just remember not to stand in one spot for long because otherwise it'll gob acid on you, and no-one wants that. Don't get to cocky, though. The snakes were just a brief respite before taking on Forbidden Forest's final opponent - the mighty demogorgon!


Erm, he's around here somewhere, trust me.


Yup, there he is. This is what you see when the demogorgon decides to kill you. He may look like a dragon wearing a red crab as a fake moustache, but, uhh... not sure where I'm going with that sentence. That's exactly what he looks like, and sometimes you'll see his big mug when he attacks. Most of the time, though, he floats around in the background, being completely invisible. Luckily the gods are on your side and every now and then, they'll illuminate the battlefield with a flash of lightning.


A crab-wearing dragon with the body of a cockroach. Sure, I can accept that. That's the kind of inhabitant that'll lead to a forest being labelled as "forbidden." So, the lightning flashes reveal the location of the boss, giving you an opportunity to shoot him. A very brief opportunity, because lightning flashes are not know for their lengthy durations, but an opportunity none the less. However, most of the time during this battle will be spend moving sideways through the darkness, waiting for the demogorgon to put in an appearance. It very nearly descended in painful farce, as I scuttled this way and that while the lightning illuminated fuck all, but eventually I noticed something: you can sort of tell where the demogorgon is in the dark because his (black) sprite covers up features on the middle layer of the background. If you move past a tree and the tree goes black, that's where the boss is and am I ever glad I figured that out. I think I'd still be looking for him now if I hadn't.
With a little patience, you'll eventually get the shot you need and the demogorgon will explode into a shower of magical Koosh balls.


Bang, job done, we can all go home. Except no man can escape... the Forbidden Forest!, duhn duhn duuuuhn. The game just keeps looping, I mean. No ending, just do it again but harder, and it does get pretty tough on the later difficulties. I met my match against the liches of the third difficulty level, but that's okay. I think I'd seen enough by then.


Forbidden Forest is a decent game. All there is to it is "move and fire," but the moving is smooth and the firing, for the most part, is accurate, so it's already head and shoulders above a lot of C64 games. The gameplay isn't Forbidden Forest's big draw, though, and that honour goes to the feel of the thing. it's basic, sure, but for something so basic it really does conjure up an aura  of... I'm loathe to say dread, because there's only so scared you can really be of a blocky crab/beetle/dragon monster, but there's a definite edge to it, a subtle weirdness that'll make Forbidden Forest stay with you much longer than you'd think. The music is oddly haunting, some of the sound effects are downright terrifying and while gory deaths are de rigueur these days back in 1983 they were probably quite shocking. It might just be me and my overactive freak-o-meter, but the whole thing just feels weird. Anyone out there looking to start an internet hoax about a haunted computer game - and I know you're out there - could do worse than to use Forbidden Forest as a jumping-off point.


One thing I didn't expect was the level of technical achievement hiding behind the chunky, drawn-by-an-infant-robot graphics. Parallax scrolling? Daytime fading into night, complete with twinkling stars? And a final boss fight where the villain can become invisible but which still remain tense and exciting instead of devolving into frustration and pain (once I'd figured out his tricks, at least)? Truly masterful. If Paul Norman really was trying to create miniature movies on the home computers of the early Eighties, I think it's fair to say he got about as close as anyone could. Forbidden Forest will stick with me for a long time, and not just through my memories of that dumbass snake - although it was pretty funny.

17 comments:

  1. Wow, this game actually holds up rather well today! How surprising!

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    1. I was certainly surprised, but in a pleasant way.

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  2. My first thought was that this was a retro game, and that someone went to great pains to make it authentic. This is a really nice piece of work and more people should be aware of it! Thanks for pointing it out to me.

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    1. No worries, hope you enjoy it if you give it a go!

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  3. Wow, I had to look up a video after reading this and it's honestly stunning! Creepy in a weird way too, as you said. At first I thought "we need a remake" but the cool thing about it is that this atmosphere could never be achieved using good graphics and music.

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    1. Yeah, I'm not sure that wonky dancing music of the lich's scream could ever be captured correctly with modern technology.

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  4. This is a very cool and bizarre find! I think you're right about the all-over-the-place tone creating the unique atmosphere; one second you hear the most blood-curdling scream from an unthinkable demonic evil, and--what's that? You're break-dancing now? Sure, why not. It seems like old games excel at this kind of stuff... I love it. Thanks for shining a spotlight on this one.

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    1. I have no idea what that dancing is about, it's all very odd...

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  5. This was one of my favorite games growing up. I actually played it's sequel (Beyond The Forbidden Forest) before trying this one. I remember the first time I shot the lich in the (non)face. HOLY HELL! That scream haunted me at bed time. I remember lying in my bed and that scream just echoing in my head.

    The above mentioned sequel is even stranger and (dare I say) a bit more graphic. It also allows you to travel into the background of the forest, adding a completely new dimension to the gameplay.

    There are only four monsters in the forest....but after you beat each monster, you get a golden arrow. Collect enough golden arrows and it's time to descend into the caverns beneath the forest! The monsters just loop in the forest. First up is a giant scorpion. Then a giant man eating worm that pops out of the ground. Next up is a giant mosquito. Finally a bear/gorilla hybrid that is an absolute pain in the ass. Once you descend into the caverns, you are first assaulted by bats. The only way to destroy them is to shoot a golden bat. After you find and kill the golden bat (making all the other bats explode in a shower of blood!) it's time to search for the four headed Hydra. This is hands down my favorite part of ANY C64 game. After defeating the Hydra, it's time for a rematch with a revamped Demogorgon, who emerges from a giant pit in the ground.

    The game is pure awesome-sauce slathered on a rack of radical rib roast and you MUST check it out if you loved Forbidden Forest!

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    1. I read about the sequel after I'd written this article, and I'll definitely be checking it out at some point in the future - Forbidden Forest really left an impact on me.

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  6. I still play Forbidden Forest at least once a month. It is truly ahead of it's time and is truly something special.
    I have very fond memories of sitting in front of my C64 on cool grey autumn afternoons battling the denizens of the forest.
    After beating the game multiple times, I started to try and ratchet up the difficulty. To this day, I have not killed the Demogorgon on Crazy Mode. But you know what, I think I'm gonna give it another go again tonight!

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  7. Thought you might be interested: I just found a Forbidden Forest rip-off game on the C64 called Amazon Warrior. Total rip-off....but still oddly fun. It's actually kinda hilarious because the guy who programmed it (Geoff Sumner) copied to look and sound of the game almost to a T. Still very playable though!

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  8. Awesome. Used to play this at primary school. Never got as far as you did, but the game made a lasting impression for sure.

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    1. It seems that Forbidden Forest made an impression on *everyone* who played it, which is pretty understandable.

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  9. Hm. Never heard of this one... I'll give it a try. You should review Turrican next, that game is sick.

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  10. Not only was there the sequel Beyond the Forbidden Forest but there was a 3rd game released many years later on PC that was truly terrifying and that was just the crappy graphics and horrible controls. Same music and Still did a dance at the end of each level though :)
    http://youtu.be/I7ZBwgpPO9Q

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  11. Hi, superbe review and superbe Tumblr, I loose myself into almost everyday.
    I wonder if you're italian (since a couple of covers you posted) but it doesn't really matters (just curiosity).
    Keep on with the terrific work

    ReplyDelete

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