In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She also appears in a few videogames, which range in quality from "semi-decent" to "insert cartoon fart sound effect." Which end of that spectrum do you think today's game falls on? Here's a hint: it was released for mobile phones in 2004. It's Indiagames' surprisingly-little-slaying-em-up Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Quest for Oz!
Even though I am sure it's going to be terrible, I'm tentatively excited about playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Quest for Oz. This is because I am an unabashedly huge fan of Buffy, a fact that I have mentioned before and which is only going to mean that this game is even more of a crushing disappointment than it would have been based on its gameplay alone.
I'm not sure about the title, though. "Quest for Oz" makes it sound as though Buffy has been tasked with a holy errand, one where she seeks out a Grail analogue called Oz. For those of you not familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz is one of Buffy's friends. She's not on a quest to claim Australia for herself or anything. No, Oz is a mostly-human person who only turns into a wolf on a couple of nights each month, on account of him being a werewolf.
Getting The Quest for Oz to work in any playable form was a real pain in the arse, so you'll have to excuse the odd emulation error. They're mostly confined to these text screens, however, so if you can ignore a bit of cropped-off text then you're still going to get just about the full experience.
Storypwise, the set up is simple: Oz has been kidnapped by the evil vampire Drusilla, and it's up to Buffy to infiltrate Drusilla's trap-filled mansion and get Oz back. You might wonder why Drusilla didn't kidnap one of Buffy's friends who doesn't sometimes turn into a slavering, bestial engine of carnage, but that's probably because Drusilla is actually insane. It's strange that Buffy thinks Drusilla would have better taste than to live in an old mansion because, as mentioned, Drusilla is insane and she also spent part of the show living in a derelict factory. I'd say "old mansion" is definitely a step up from "abandoned factory with only the lingering odour of hobo urine to distract you from the lack of heating and lighting."
"Demon-butt" looks really weird when it's hyphenated. A mastery of grammar is not included in the Slayer skill set, it seems, but never fear: Buffy has her good friend Willow, witch and borderline genius, to guide her through her quest.
Given that Buffy was known as much for the snappy, quippy quality of its writing as for anything else, it's a shame that (predictably) the developers of this mobile spin-off couldn't be bothered to make even the smallest effort to capture that spirit in the game's dialogue. Thus, Willow sounds less like a slightly dorky teenager and more like an NES manual. Look out for spikes, Buffy. No, not your vampiric sworn enemy / love interest Spike, actual sharp bits of metal. The cursed statue holds a mystery. Join the Nintendo Fun Club today!
The adventure begins, and Buffy is immediately attacked by a swarm of cyan bats that thirst for the blood of the Slayer. Bats should not be a problem for the Slayer, I thought to myself as I pressed the attack button - which, as this is a mobile game, was originally the number 5 on the phone's keypad. Buffy flicked out a half-hearted punch, followed by an equally unimpressive kick. One bat broke free of the pack and fluttered downwards, bumbling into our heroine in an almost apologetic manner and costing her some health. More punches and kicks followed - inaccurate, lethargic attacks more at home in the first lesson of an over-sixty's karate class than in the arsenal of a legendary warrior - before the bat became so overwhelmed with ennui that it flew into Buffy's fist just to bring an end to the whole sad charade. Then the second bat flapped down, right into Buffy's foot. Poof, another bat eliminated. The third and final bat, the sensible, pragmatic bat, the bat who realised he's not getting paid enough for this, made a hasty retreat. Buffy emerges triumphant and only lightly nibbled, giving me all the information I need to surmise that the hand-to-fang combat is not going to be The Quest for Oz's strongest suit. At least I bloody well hope it's not, if the rest of the action is somehow less fun than fighting bats then I'm in for an extremely rough ride.
Now for some platforming, which makes up ninety percent of the game and, I'm happy to report, is much better than the fisticuffs. It's not good, especially when compared to a "proper" console game, and you're never likely to mistake it for for such, but it's simple to understand and designed at such a scale that the tiny mobile screen doesn't hamper the action too much. Here, Buffy has encountered one of Drusilla's moving saw-blade traps, a jagged blade that moves back and forth at neck height. One of the things that outright kills vampires in the Buffy universe is decapitation. Drusilla is a vampire, and a terrible interior designer.
Getting past the blade trap is easy, because Buffy can curl into a ball and roll under it. This move has two frames of animation, looks utterly goofy and I was so enamoured with it that I spent a lot of the game rolling around when walking would have been more than sufficient.
Another enemy shambles into view, and this time it's a zombie, weakest of all the foes Buffy will face on her quest. I know it's supposed to be the tattered remnants of their clothes, but all I can see is a zombie wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Anyway, killing zombies is best accomplished by standing still and whirling your limbs around like a lunatic. Eventually the zombie will walk into said limbs and die. I wish every enemy in the game was a zombie. A radical surfer zombie.
Time for some honest-to-god platforming, with real platforms and everything, and it becomes clear that the game Quest for Oz most wants to be is Prince of Persia. There's a lot of hanging from ledges to be done and lethal traps to be cautiously sidled past, with precision very much being the skill most needed to progress. It mostly works okay - better than I was anticipating, anyway - because while the controls are often unresponsive, the game is kind enough that it doesn't get too frustrating for the most part. Ledge-grabbing hitboxes are generously sized and Buffy has infinite lives, spawning from the last checkpoint activated when the controls inevitably throw a strop and ignore you for long enough to see Buffy swan-dive into a spike-lined chasm. So, very much like Prince of Persia, then, although with the gloomy castle setting I suppose it'd be more appropriate to compare it to Nosferatu.
Holy water will reveal the secret of the cursed statue, says Willow. And what is that secret? I have no idea. To un-curse the statue and get a piece of a sacred key, in each stage you have to find a bottle of holy water and cart it back to the statue. I played through this game twice and each time there was a stage where I forgot to do this, and so the secret of the statues will remain (here at VGJunk, at least) undiscovered. Maybe that's the curse of the statue - forgetfulness. If you're really curious, you'll have to play through the game yourself because there's no way in hell I'm going through it a third time.
At the end of each stage is a locked door, for which you need to find the key before you can leave. The locked doors feel a bit pointless, and not just in the usual videogame "why do you care about the door being locked when you have superpowers / a chainsaw" way but because smashing through the door without unlocking it is something Buffy would do. It is very much in her character to kick the shit out of that door and leave the key resting unmolested on a nearby plinth. So far the only elements of Buffy the character that have made it into the game are that she's got blonde hair and she fights monsters, which also describes about fifty percent of all videogame protagonists.
I hate to break this to you, Willow, but this magical key is not getting reassembled. We'll just have to hope it's not important.
Stage two begins, and it looks identical to stage one There's no changes of scenery in this game, no trips to the local trendy teen hang-out or the school library or anything - it's all spooky trap-filled mansion, all the time. There are new monsters now and then, however, and here's the Familiar. It's the same as a zombie, except it can launch hadokens at Buffy. To even the odds, Buffy can also launch hadokens if you find the right power-up, and the ability to attack from a distance changes the fights from "awkward and frustrating" to "pointlessly simple". I am more than happy with "pointlessly simple" having experienced the melee combat. Speaking of pointless, do you know what Buffy doesn't do in this game? Kill anything with a wooden stake. She didn't even bring any stakes to this, the lair of a known vampire. That feels like an oversight.
I wasn't kidding about rolling everywhere.
That thing on the wall - close inspection leads me to believe it's some kind of winged cross with a heart in the centre, although I'll admit it's open to interpretation - is a checkpoint. The thing is, it doesn't register your progress if you just walk past it, you have to press attack in front of it. Do not forget to do this. I am speaking from bitter experience here. The Quest for Oz is not afraid to kill the player in an instant for the smallest mistake, and even the enemy grunts can overwhelm Buffy if she decides, as she sometimes does, to ignore your fevered hammering on the attack button. The infinite lives make this less annoying than it sounds, but if you've neglected to activate the checkpoints then you'll be sent back to the start of the stage, where you will face the toughest challenge in the entire game - giving enough of a damn to try again.
Buffy swings from a pole, and here's where the controls totally shit the bed. For starters you have to constantly be pressing left or right to swing, otherwise Buffy's gnat-like attention span means she forgets what she's doing and lets go of the pole, which is almost always fatal. Swinging is the easy part, though: it's the dismount that's the problem. You have to press attack while you're swinging to leap off the pole. Personally, I'd have mapped this jumping motion to the jump button, but what the hell do I know, I'm not a games developer. Okay then, the attack button it is... except Buffy really doesn't want to let go of the pole once she's swinging, and on average I had to press the button six or seven times before she'd make her move. Sometimes it was many, many more than six or seven times, Buffy swinging and swinging and swinging like a trapeze artist with a jet engine rammed up their backside. Maybe there's a really tight time-frame in which you can press the button successfully, but if there is it seems to change every time you grab a pole. The thing is, it's not even game-breakingly bad - when you're swinging on a pole you're always safe, so you can just keep tapping the buttons until Buffy gets her act together - but the fact that it wastes so much time makes it feel worse, somehow.
Oh, and swinging from poles made me realise that hey, I've been comparing this to Prince of Persia but it's most like that horrendous Zorro game I played. Whatever flaws it may have, this game is vastly superior to The Mask of Zorro. The Quest for Oz is just bad, it doesn't make me question whether mankind deserves its continued existence.
"Beware of the vampire's fangs!" cries Willow, who has apparently forgotten who she's talking to.
Buffy will have to give Willow a stern talking-to when she gets back, because it's not the vampire's fangs she needs to worry about - although they can grab Buffy and drain her health - but rather their ability to shoot magical blasts of energy. I'd be more annoyed about the lack of a heads-up if you couldn't roll under their projectiles. I am already way ahead of the game on that one.
I'd have had more trouble with the vampire if I hadn't picked up a crossbow somewhere along the way. It has limited ammunition, sure, but it's useful for both long-distance vampire perforation and activating switches, like this one that unlocks the door above and allows Buffy to reach this stage's key. I'm not entirely sure whether the game's attempts to force some exploration and puzzle-solving on the player is a good thing or not. I'm sort of glad this isn't just a linear left-to-right hop-n-slap adventure, but on the other hand the stubborn controls mean that traversing each stage just isn't much fun, especially if you pick the wrong direction and reach the locked door before finding the key, leading to the joyless trudge of retracting your steps.
"Yes, yes, I like the wooden pole jutting out of the wall, it really brings the room together, but it just doesn't have quite enough pop, you know? I've got it, we should frame the pole. There, perfect. Oh, and chuck in a few more spiked rollers that shoot in and out of the walls at regularly-timed intervals, they go great with the random hodge-podge of brickwork that makes up our walls."
Willow, you're great at many things but guiding me through this monster-infested death-trap is not one of them. I think I could have figured "be careful" out on my own, especially now we're getting towards the end of the game and any misplaced button press results in Buffy getting a spike in an uncomfortable place. Again, I mean a real metal spike, not the character Spike.
There are a couple of points where Quest for Oz thinks about including a block-pushing puzzle but chickens out at the last moment, leaving Buffy with the task of pushing a brick or two off a ledge and, erm, that's it. Not exactly a lot of deep thought required to succeed in this one, folks, although now I've reached this specific point I might need some kind of gumshield to stop me grinding my teeth down into dust through pure frustration. I didn't get a screenshot of it, possibly an attempt by my subconscious to help me forget I ever experienced it, but just below these blocks is the one point in the game so hateful that it made me, however briefly, recant my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You have to make a jump and grab on to a chain hanging above a spike pit. Sounds simple, and it would be if Buffy's normal jump was enough to cover the distance. It is not. Instead, you have to use a somersault jump. Bear in mind that this is the only place in the entire game where you have to use the somersault jump. Willow - dear, sweet, useless Willow - tells you that to perform a somersault jump, you press jump while running. Funnily enough, I had already tried a running jump thanks. It didn't work, and pressing jump while Buffy was running either caused her to do her normal jump (straight onto the spikes) or to ignore my command entirely and keep running (straight onto the spikes). After some time spent practising the jump in a less-deadly area of the level, I came to the conclusion that the somersault jump was activated one out of every, ooh, fifty or so attempts - unless I was running towards the spikes, in which case the odds were a flat zero. I tried every timing possible, every combination of button presses, every remapped control scheme but nothing worked until eventually I had to open the emulator's virtual keypad, use the keyboard to start running and then click jump on the virtual keypad using the mouse. That eventually worked after another ten attempts, and the moral of this story is that I now know what it means to suffer for your art.
On the lighter side of things, it's charming that Drusilla decorated her mansion with that famous picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out.
Just out of curiosity, what would my back-up plan be if I didn't have the magical key? Please say it's punching.
Thankfully the final stage contains nothing so intensely unpleasant as that somersault jump bit. All the threats are by now very familiar to the player, and to get this far you'll have had to get used to the game's many quirks, such as Buffy's extremely horizontal motion when leaping from chains and the tendency for moving platforms to forget about the whole "being solid" thing, amongst others. As always, my advice to you is to roll under as many hazards as possible. Vampire fireballs, saw traps, protruding wall maces that look like something from a cross between Saw and Total Wipeout, Buffy's ability to emulate the humble hedgehog has them all beat.
After much rolling, it is time for the climactic final battle with Drusilla, and I have two observations. One, even if you take into account the very limited number of pixels the developers were working with, that looks nothing like Drusilla and two, they used quite a lot of their scant pixel resources to give her a weirdly prominent bosom. As for the fight itself, Drusilla stands there while Buffy throws the stack of fireballs and crossbow bolts she's managed to accumulate at her. Somewhere, Blade watches on, both his human and vampire sides feeling vaguely embarrassed.
But wait! After taking some damage, Drusilla transforms into a swarm of bats! Which work exactly the same as all the other bats Buffy has already fought. It's like if Bowser turned into a Goomba for five seconds at the end of a Super Mario game, except I'm sure Nintendo could make that charming somehow and not have it be as disappointing as it is here. Also, ahem, let me adjust my oversized nerd glasses and bow-tie for a second here, okay, vampires in the Buffy universe can't turn into bats. Well, Dracula can, but he's a special case because, y'know, he's Dracula. All right, I'm done. And so is Drusilla - she goes through the vampire-to-bats-back-to-vampire shuffle a couple of times, but she's not much of a threat in either form and soon The Quest for Oz is over!
Here's your "ending," now get out and don't come back. I was going to mention that "Destructo-girl! That's me" is a line taken directly from an early episode of the show but it's too late, I've already taken off my novelty nerd apparel. Looks like the magic key was, in fact, completely irrelevant.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Quest for Oz is a victory for low expectations. Being a mobile phone game from 2004, I had assumed it was going to be so bad that playing it would be an experience somewhere between "having dead spiders injected into your nasal cavity" and "having live spiders injected into your nasal cavity" on the scale of not-fun-osity, but instead it just turned out to not be very good. It's dull, repetitive, has nothing to do with the source material and the controls are very poor, but it works, I guess? I did extract some fun from it, even if it was only a little, so I'm going to chalk this one up as a win. That is in no way an endorsement, however. Don't play this game. Didn't you just read the bit where I said it's not very good?
Now that's over, I'm off to figure out exactly where this game fits into the Buffy timeline, but first let's check in on the Halloween-O-Meter!
It's a game where you can beat a zombie to death with your bare hands, so anything less than a seven out of ten wouldn't feel right. That said, it's just barely a seven out of ten, which is a sad thing to say of a game about fighting vampires in a spooky mansion. C'mon, developers of decade-old mobile crap, it's time to step up your game!