From what I can tell, there is no commonly agreed-upon collective noun for a group of dwarves. This is a shame, because it would have come in very useful for this article. The best suggestion I've seen is "a shortage of dwarves," but I can't use that because there is most definitely no shortage of dwarves in today's game - Incal and Ubisoft's 1989 Amiga adventure Sir Fred: The Legend!
Blood-red light illuminates a forest clearing. A foreboding castle stands in the distance. An armoured knight, who must have trained in combat under Mike Haggar because that's clearly a steel pipe and not a sword he's holding, towers above a pile of corpses. If I kept describing this scene long enough I'd accidentally write the lyrics to a heavy metal epic, but there's no time for that because a dragon is swooping towards this scene of carnage, possibly to play a totally sweet guitar solo.
The dragon promptly casts an evil spell on the knight, turning him into a tiny, weedy little homunculus. The corpses, who are not corpses at all but just a bunch of guys huddled together for warmth or something, begin to point and laugh at the former knight. What a bunch of dicks.
Then a dwarf jumps out the bushes and starts going "neener neener" at the knight. The world of Sir Fred has quickly become much less grim than was promised by the game's opening scene, but I'd say it's a very effective introduction because now I really want to get into the game and give that dwarf a battering, the cheeky little shit.
Live on Broadway for one (k)night only, it's FRED! Yeah, although the game is called Sir Fred: The Legend on the boxart and advertisements, in-game it's just called Fred. He's like Cher or Madonna, he only needs one name.
Confused as to why this particular knight was singled out for transformation from hero to zero - the ol' reverse-Hercules, as I call it - I consulted the manual. It turns out that Fred was in love with a beautiful maiden, but his romance was doomed once it caught the attention of an evil dwarven sorcerer. Consumed with jealousy, the sorcerer turns Fred into an "ugly half-pint," causing Fred's lady love to abandon him in search of someone who doesn't look like a scrawny child playing dress-up as a Roman centurion. The sorcerer's name is ULTIMOR. I assume he chose that name after seeing it on some gardening equipment or similar product.
Thus Fred's quest to regain both his love interest and four feet of height begins in the forest of the dwarves. Everywhere is "of the dwarves" in this game: castle of the dwarves, graveyard of the dwarves, toilet of the dwarves... but I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, Sir Fred sets the player the task of making their way through the dwarf-infested woodland, battling enemies (dwarf-sized) and collecting keys (normal-sized). The action plays out in mostly the same way as every other Amiga platform / hack-n-slash adventure: diagonally-up on the joystick to jump, hold the fire button down while you move the stick to attack. Attacking is where Sir Fred is a little different from most of its peers, because Fred has two weapons to work with. Holding fire and moving the joystick makes him swing his trusty sword (which looks much more like a sword and not construction material now I can see its hilt) to deal short-range damage, while simply holding the button makes him throw long-range daggers from either a standing or crouching position. The daggers are limited in number, although it's surprisingly difficult to run out. You can keep track of them in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, although annoyingly seeing three daggers doesn't mean you have three daggers - you actually have three sets of daggers, and there are quite a few in a set. On the other hand, while it might not be the most practical it is definitely the prettiest status bar I have seen in a long time. Funnily enough, it shares the non-specific ammo display with Jurassic Park on the SNES, which is one of the ugliest status bars I've ever seen.
Fred can also roll along the floor. It is as impractical to use as it is embarrassing to watch, because if you touch anything while you're rolling Fred falls to the ground stunned and says "oy-oy-oy!" while you wait for him to recover. I heard Fred saying "oy-oy-oy!" so many times during this game that I suspect when my soul is consigned to Hell and I ring Satan's doorbell it will make that very sound.
Of the two combat styles, the throwing daggers are by far the preferred option. Enemies can be rather tricky to hit with your sword because they have a tendency to stand right on top of you, and because Fred's turning speed is noticeably cumbersome by the time you've turned around to strike the enemy has either wandered past you or stabbed you, meaning most single combat devolves into Fred spinning around on the spot like a dog chasing its own tail while the dwarves saunter about. No, the daggers are definitely the way to go, and with a bit of distance between us and plenty of throwing knives at hand, Fred will have no trouble defeating the three enemies pictured above. Yes, there are three enemies in the last screenshot: a dwarf, a snake and a bird. Can you spot the bird? It's black and has a red pixel for an eye, that should help you spot it. In Sir Fred's defence, they're a lot easier to pick out in motion.
The other plus-point of the daggers is that on every successful strike they make a "thunk" sound effect as though you're throwing them into a dartboard. It is every bit as satisfying as the "oy-oy-oy!" is infuriating.
David the Gnome does not take kindly to trespassers. I'm not sure whether all these dwarves are working for ULTIMOR (all caps, all the time,) or if they're just trying to kill Fred because he's a weird, lumbering monster (compared to a dwarf). This dwarf does have a flaming torch, that's definitely got a "the villagers attack Frankenstein's monster" vibe to it.
See. this is why I needed that collective noun. I have no idea what to call that group of dwarves. A nuisance of dwarves, maybe. That feels appropriate given how annoying it is to deal with them in clumps. "But VGJunk," you might be saying if you're the kind of weirdo who talks to websites, "surely dealing with that pack of dwarves is easy because they're over at the other side of the screen where you can just throw daggers at them?" Oh, if only things were that simple, my hypothetical friend. you see, one of Sir Fred's gimmicks is that the action takes place on three separate planes - a background, a foreground and one in the middle, which you can switch between using up or down on the joystick. You can't hit enemies that aren't on the same plane as you, but the real problem is that it's often extremely difficult to tell what plane you're on because there's so little visual feedback.
As you can see, the difference between planes is only a couple of pixels - it's fairly obvious here, but when the game's in motion, you're under attack by dwarves and there are three planes to deal with it's just another frustrating mechanic strapped onto a game already struggling under the weight of stodgy controls and annoying enemies. Restricting Sir Fred to only two, much more clearly defined, planes would have made things a lot less aggravating, but removing the concept entirely would have been the ideal solution because it adds nothing to the gameplay. Nothing good, anyway. It adds an extra layer of misery to trying to climb the game's staircases, like a bannister made of electric eels.
Finding himself in a desolate graveyard, Fred crouches behind a headstone while throwing knives at a headless dwarf. Even decapitation cannot stop the dwarf race from rising up to destroy Fred. It's as though they have an extra, ectoplasmic head made of pure spite.
This scene brings two thoughts to my mind: one is that throwing daggers at the undead in a graveyard is making me want to play a Castlevania game. Maybe I'll treat myself to some Castlevania III when this is all over. Secondly, as Sir Fred is a game about a goofy, ineffectual knight who moves with the grace of a tuna sandwich, throwing knives and making awkward, lurching jumps, a game in which the graphics are far and away the most appealing aspect, it reminds me a lot of the NES version of Dragon's Lair. Dragon's Lair is probably my most hated game of all time, so that might go some way towards explaining which I'm having such a miserable time with Sir Fred despite it not being that bad.
Here's a boss, of sorts. It's a floating, squinting, demonic samurai head... thing. I don't know what it's called. Probably HEADLOR or FLOATEETH. Something in all caps, anyway. FLOATEETH drifts around the screen, a serene presence completely disinterested in anything that's going on around it, including Fred chucking dozens of knives into its ear. We should all strive to attain a level of inner peace equal to that of FLOATEETH, the blissful tomato spirit.
Level one complete. Fred sits on a rock, disconsolate, tortured by the memory of the man he used to be. A brave knight, a mighty warrior, a wearer of chainmail mittens. Will his extremely shiny armour ever again rest upon his broad shoulders? Will he ever manage to perform a complete forward roll without bumping into something and flopping to the ground like freshly-landed trout? Will he be responsible for murdering every dwarf in the world? Tune in for stage two to find out!
And we're back with the second area - the dwarf village, or possibly just one big dwarf house. Very high ceilings, for a dwarf house. Must be a Victorian property.
The dwarf pictured attacking Fred is a Kung-Fu Dwarf, a tough opponent who is even harder to hit than usual and who has substantially more health than most dwarves. Dwarves. Dwarves. Yep, I looked at the word "dwarves" too long and now it doesn't look like a real word any more. Anyway, the Kung-Fu Dwarf's toughness marks it out as an important target, and defeating them is necessary to progress because they drop the all-important keys Fred needs to continue his assault. I will admit that the dwarves do have a lot of personality, and there's a nice variety of them - the headless dwarves were fun, and Kung-Fu Dwarf is smoothly animated as he practises his deadly martial arts.
Less threatening is Dwarf Who Just Got Out Of The Bath. You know how irritating it is when you have to rush out of the shower to answer the telephone or a knock at the door? Imagine how much worse that would be if you replaced "the phone is ringing" with "someone is slaughtering my family." I hereby rename "Dwarf Who Just Got Out Of The Bath" to "Justifiably Aggrieved Dwarf."
He's not scrubbing his back, he's about to throw a knife at Fred. Let's not think too hard about where the naked dwarf is storing all his knives. Instead, I direct your attention to the bottom-right of the screen where you will see, as mentioned earlier, the toilet of the dwarves. There's only one toilet and dozens of dwarves, it's like a sitcom joke about teenage sisters arguing over bathroom use waiting to happen.
More dwarves! Alcoholic dwarves regard their empty wine glasses with a mixture of sadness and anger, while at the top of the screen the barrel-throwing Dwarfy Kong is biding his time, waiting for me to stand on the staircase so he can knock me off it.
There was no boss at the end of the dwarf house, which I think was Incal showing the player some mercy before Sir Fred's true villain was revealed: stairs. The Devil's Elevator, the Thousand Steps of Agony, the thing that separates the magically-enfeebled men from the boys. Yes, like an old lady with a bad hip, stairs are Fred's nemesis, and simply climbing from the bottom of this tower to the top is an exercise in fusing frustration and tedium into a new and terrible emotion. One problem is that the multi-plane system makes it way too hard to see at a glance whether you're lined up with the staircase or not. If you're on the wrong plane, or you accidentally press down on the stick once too often, then you'll fall past the staircase and land all the way at the bottom of the tower.
While you're down there, you'll have to fight some dwarf knights. It's far preferable to climbing the stairs, but eventually you'll have defeated the dwarves and there will be nothing left for it but to tackle the staircases again. But it gets worse: even if you line yourself up correctly and you're standing on the steps, taking any hit will knock you off the stairs and yes, you'll fall all the way to the bottom. The obvious solution to this is to not get hit, but that only works to an extent - I cautiously made my way up the stair, taking out the flapping skull-faced bats one at a time and making steady progress - until an axe fell onto my head from off the top of the screen, an axe that I couldn't possibly have seen coming until it was too late. All the way back down to the bottom of the staircase I went. Bite me, Sir Fred.
"Well well, if it isn't Sir Dead! What a bone-headed decision, entering our lair! Don't try to skull-k away, we've got a bone to pick with you!"
"Jesus, knock it off, Skeleton Steve."
"Oh, lighten up, Skeleton Carl. I'm just rib-bing the guy!"
"That's it, Skeleton Steve. After we kill this knight, you and me are going to have words."
Finally free of the staircase nightmare, Fred faces a whole new batch of costumed dwarves, including Executioner Dwarf. I guess that explains the headless dwarves from earlier. Also, I'm looking at the dwarves with crossbows and I know that's probably supposed to be a basic medieval helmet, but I can't see it as anything other than RoboCop's helmet.
Having reached the top of the castle and the latter stages of the game, combat is becoming tougher than ever. The enemies have evolved and become more challenging, while Fred has most assuredly not, and the gulf was amply illustrated by these heavily-armoured dwarf knights. The problem was that I could not hurt them. They blocked everything with their mighty shields, be it thrown daggers or sword swings. My solution to this problem was to ignore them and leave the room. It was nice to have skills I have honed in the real world be useful in a videogame.
As a side note, that table is way too tall for dwarves, unless they all use booster seats and high chairs, and you'd think the knights' martial pride would prevent that.
Hark, a fair maiden - presumably Fred's love interest - and a dwarf wizard! Have I at last reached the thrilling denouement of Sir Fred?
No, because the maiden was actually another dwarf wizard, one who was exploring some personal issues regarding their identity. Hey, you'll get no judgement from me, dwarf wizard. You'll get stabbed, but in a non-judgemental way.
Okay, now we're getting into it - a boss fight against a dragon! A very oddly-proportioned dragon, a dragon that's 70% head, but definitely a dragon. A dragon-pterodactyl hybrid at the outside. Given that both Fred and Stumpy the Dragon are malformed shadows of their true selves, I had hoped that they might reach an understanding based upon their mutual suffering, laying aside their enmity to, I dunno, start a support group for medieval fantasy weirdoes. Alas, the mending of troubled hearts was not to be, and the battle was joined.
It's an odd battle, too, because depending on the dragon's behaviour the fight can switch from trivially easy to extremely tricky in a moment. If it decides to get in your face, trying to burn said face right off your skull with its fiery breath, then you're going to have a tough time of it - Fred doesn't have all that much health, and because he's so slow getting out of the way isn't much of an option either. On the other hand, sometimes the dragon will spend ages flapping back and forth across the top of the screen, in easy range of your daggers (which you can throw diagonally upwards). The difficulty of the battle is entirely dependant n which of these two things the dragon decides to do.
But wait, there's more! Once you've stuck enough daggers in the dragon to turn it into a flying version of the Iron Throne, ULTIMOR himself realises his ill-thought-out and hastily conceived plan is about to go tits-up, and so he thrusts himself into the battle just as the dragon dies. ULTIMOR himself dies moments later, victim to the same tactics I used against the dragon. Well, ULTIMOR was obviously not a physical fighter, was he? Turning knights into smaller, skinnier knights was more his style, and his lack of physical prowess was what did for him in the end. That, and I never managed to run out of daggers. That certainly helped.
So, with ULTIMOR defeated, will Fred be restored to his usual rugged and manly state?
Yes, yes he will. His clothes, however, are not. That's it, that's the end of the game - a muscular and suddenly naked man hiding his shame. The end, roll credits. Oh, wait, the credits rolled at the start of the game. Just the end, then. Stop staring at me, Fred. You're creeping me out.
Much like myself, Sir Fred: The Legend - just Fred to his friends - is kind of annoying but not terrible. The graphics are very nice, especially the multitudinous dwarves and the Mona Lisa of status bars, but that's just icing on a gameplay cake made of stiff movements, ponderous combat and very limited scope. The action never falls to a standard that makes you wonder what kind of cruel god would allow mankind to develop thumbs, but never does it haul itself above "mildly interesting," either. The multi-plane system doesn't work, and that staircase tower section is really bad and makes up a fair chunk of a rather short game. A classic case of style over substance, then, as Amiga platformers so often are, but one that let me fight the resurrected corpse of a headless dwarf. That gets points for novelty, at least.