All right, friendos, it’s time to get pumped, get psyched, get positively giddy at the prospect of yet another videogame about rescuing a princess. Yes, another one. As we all know, being the female heir to a royal linage is a job second only to “salmon salesperson at a bear convention” in the danger stakes, but at least today’s game casts the emotional response to a regal abduction as something besides “heroic dutifulness” - it’s Atlantis Software’s 1989 ZX Spectrum waddle-em-up Heartbroken!
Looks like our hero was in love with the princess and her kidnapping has hit him hard, but he’s not going to sit around and mope. He’s going to… erm, what is he going to do? The loading screen suggests his plan involves putting star-shaped stickers in a blank book, making his own keys using a casting process and drinking a strange blue liquid that I’m going to assume is one of those soft drinks you might remember from your childhood. You know, the ones that were described with worrying vagueness as being “bubblegum” flavoured, although a more accurate description might be “Bertie Bassett’s bathwater.”
For a ZX Spectrum game, Heartbroken gives you some surprisingly in-depth information before you start the game. The plot is exactly the plot you think it is – evil warlock kidnaps princess for ransom, young hero / love interest sets out to save her – but at least you’re given a little more information than that. For instance, we learn that the hero is the direct successor to Merlin himself. Quite the impressive pedigree, and the upshot is that Merlin has given us his spellbook. He’s also given us his “firebolt,” and as that’s listed separately from the spellbook I have to assume the firebolt isn’t a spell at all and Merlin’s legend came about because he was the first person to invent a gun.
The warlock is not the imposing villain I thought he would be. It’s difficult to be intimidated by a floating dressing gown.
You even get a page for each of the game’s enemies, all packed with vital facts. Hang on, let me write this down, I might need to refer to it later. “The castle guards guard the castle.” Okay, got it.
We’re underway, and the action begins in the always-compelling environs of a moonlit graveyard. We’re in control of the stocky chap with the Ramones haircut in the centre of the screen. When the game first began I assumed I’d be in control of the bloke on the left, but disappointingly that’s not the case. That person is merely an aesthetic flourish, providing no danger or utility but simply enlivening the scene as they struggle to haul themselves out of their coffin. Undead creature rising to hunt warm flesh in the moonlight, or victim of a less-than-thorough autopsy and premature burial? I suppose we’ll never know. I’d go over there and check, but the grey tombstone is blocking my path and our hero can’t jump. There’s no jumping at all in Heartbroken, and it honestly took a while to get used to being so totally grounded.
And so we walk, travelling through Heartbroken’s game world by beating feet and achieving vertical movement solely through the use of ladders. The “mostly a platformer with collectible items and the slight tinge of puzzles” is a staple of this era of home computer games – think of titles such as the Dizzy games or Olli and Lissa – and frankly it’s not a genre I’ve ever really enjoyed all that much. I put this down to my own lack of focus, and I’d rather have a platformer or a graphic adventure without the two being smushed together. Heartbroken’s doing okay so far, though. Our hero moves around quite quickly, and the backgrounds have that spooky, Halloween-as-filtered-through-the-Spectrum’s-aggressive-colour-palette look to them that I never tire of.
While climbing up this small tower, I encountered the first monster with the temerity to get in my way. This chunky ogre might seem like a threat, but it can’t do anything except walk back and forth. Touching the monster is immediately fatal, of course, but you can launch your firebolt by hitting the space bar and there’s nothing the ogres can do to get out of the way. In fact, the closer they are to you the better, because you can only have one projectile on screen at a time, so the closer you are the faster you can fire.
It took me a moment to open the door that my memory was furiously hammering against, but eventually I realised that this section is just stage two of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I mean, it’s really easy as opposed to GnG’s vicious difficulty level and the protagonist is somehow even less manoeuvrable than Arthur the human anvil, but the inspiration is clear.
There’s a spellbook at the top of the tower. You might think finding a book of spells is redundant when you already have the ability to shoot fireballs out of your hands, but who knows what fiendish traps and diabolical creatures the evil warlock has waiting for us?
Well, there are these flying monsters, for one thing. Based on the previously-noted similarities to Ghosts ‘n Goblins I suppose these are Heartbroken’s equivalent of the hated Red Arremer. They do indeed attack by swooping down towards the player and when you can’t jump to shoot them in mid-air that could be dangerous, but thankfully they’re not nearly as intelligent as the Red Arremer and can be mostly avoided by walking past them at a brisk pace. If that doesn’t work, you can try leaving the screen and re-entering. A lot of the monsters appear in fixed positions by most of the flyers seem semi-random, so if you move back and forth between screens enough they might not appear at all. Definitely one of Hell’s lesser demons, then, but they’re trying their best, bless them. Okay, not bless them, they’re still demons.
Roughly at the centre of Heartbroken’s game worlds stands another, larger, tower, identifiable by its extreme blueness and the skull decorations on the walls. Those skulls look like they have two sets of pincers instead of teeth, which is a fun design for those of you out there who like to draw monsters. What else have we got in this room? There’s a large red statue that the intro calls a “giant troll.” Supposedly they stop you from entering the catacombs, but so far I’ve only been able to travel upwards and you can’t call somewhere a catacomb if it’s above ground level, right? I don’t think that’s allowed. Oh, and the warlock is also here, hanging around at the left of the screen. The warlock’s deal is that he appears out of nowhere from time to time and fires a magical death-bolt at you. You can’t harm the warlock, so once again the best solution is to move back to a previous screen when you see him. When you return, the warlock probably won’t be there any more.
Plus there’s this yellow monster, just hanging around and not threatening the player or anything. Naturally, I threw a firebolt at its head. Nothing happened. It appears that this monster is nothing more than background flavour, and that’s fine. I shouldn’t be projecting behavioural patterns onto this thing just because it looks like Satan’s bedbug, I don't know anything about how it lives its life.
The blue castle is mildly maze-like in design, but it all boils down to picking the correct ladder to climb and it’s not big enough to get lost in, so it didn’t take me long to find the “bottle of elixir” that was presumably the entire point of venturing into this monster-infested edifice.
Over on the far-right of the game world now – that is, about three screens away from the centre of the game world – and there’s another castle. I know it’s a castle, because the castle guards are guarding it. See, I did pay attention. Although not enough attention, apparently, because I now found myself completely stuck. The castle gates are closed and didn’t seem inclined to open even after I firebolted a full regiment of the infinitely-spawning castle guards. I wandered back and forth through the previously-visited areas for a while before giving up and looking up a solution.
You know how people say “it’s obvious once you know the answer?” Yeah, that doesn’t apply here. I knew exactly where I was going and I still got lost because you see that gravestone on the left? Okay, do you see that small patch of differently-coloured dirt below it? Turns out you can climb down at that spot as though there were a ladder there. I would never have spotted that, and I’m the kind of person who is naturally intrigued by disturbed earth at the foot of a tombstone.
Underneath the grave is Merlin’s magic cauldron. So this is Merlin’s grave, then? I thought he was trapped inside a rock by the Lady of the Lake. Whatever magical prison has become his tomb, I’m sure Merlin won’t mind us making use of his cauldron, and by walking up to it we can cycle through a list of spells. The spells cost points to use, so it’s a good job I took the time to shoot all the ogres I saw rather than avoiding them.
The most obviously useful spell is “portcullis,” which had better open the bloody castle doors otherwise I really will be stuck. There’s a “shield” spell that gives you an extra life, and a few other, less immediately obvious incantations. Snapdragon, alchemy and banishment are a little vague but hopefully I’ll figure them out. For now, though, I’m going to hit “teleport” and see where I end up because the game sure isn’t telling me.
Oh, it teleports you back to the castle. That’s actually really useful. And yes, the castle gates are now open, so I can simply walk inside and start blasting away at the castle guards, who have no way to defend themselves from my magical onslaught. Unlike the other enemies they respawn continually, but all that does is further increase my mystical powers by giving me more points to spend on spells.
Up and down the castle we go, most of the time spent climbing ladders and pausing to throw a few firebolts at the guards. It helps to keep them on their toes. One thing of interest in the castle is this room labelled “prison” where a monster has been locked away in a cage. Makes you wonder what crimes it committed to be incarcerated in a world where most monsters are free to roam the streets and... okay, so roaming the street is about all they do, but they’re free and this one isn’t. And imprisoned without food, too, it must hve been one hell of a monster crime.
There’s also an impassable dragon – although I’d also accept “fancy crocodile” as a description – blocking my path to the castle’s upper reaches. It’s deadly to the touch but it doesn’t actively try to hurt you, and why would it? It’s a dragon, it’s got nothing to prove to you. Unfortunately I need to get past the dragon, and now I’m regretting not casting the “snapdragon” spell while I was at the cauldron because I bet that’s what you have to do and now I have to walk all the way back to the second screen of the game.
Yep, that fixed it. The dragon will now let me pass unmolested, and I even managed to reach the kidnapped princess, who is caged high atop the castle. It’s a ruddy good cage, too. All these magical powers at my command and I still can’t force it open. I definitely need a key, even though I can shoot fireballs out of my hands, soothe savage dragons and remotely operate the castle portcullis with the ease of someone using a garage door opener. I guess the princess will just have to wait while I find a key. She looks comfortable enough in there. With that pointy hat, she also looks more like a wizard than any of the wizards in this game.
In a different, less locked part of the castle, I found the mould for a key. I’m sure that I can use the elixir and the key mould to free the princess, but I need some kind of forge to heat up the components. Maybe the fire underneath the cauldron will work, he muttered to himself as he trudged back to the start of the game again to cast the alchemy spell. That’s how you make the key, which is rather cheapening the art of alchemy. Transmuting base metals into gold or a creating a homunculus is alchemy; making keys is called “being a cobbler,” or at least I’ve never had a key cut somewhere that didn’t also repair shoes. Anyway, it’s a bloody good job you can use the teleportation spell to get back to the castle otherwise Heartbroken might have started to grind on my patience a little.
The princess is free, the lovers are reunited and the warlock’s plans are thwarted before he’s even had time to cut enough letters out of the newspaper for the ransom note. It turns out that our hero’s main powers are briskness and efficiency.
“Well done,” says the talking sword. Thanks, talking sword. Then the game gave me the rank of “Excalibur” and Heartbroken is over. Unless you want to play through it again, in which case you can go back to the start and enjoy a second loop where the locations of the items you need to collect have been shuffled around. That’s one way to add a bit of longevity to a game that is very short and not particularly complicated, but don’t take that as a criticism. I enjoyed Heartbroken and I mostly enjoyed it because it took me about half an hour to complete, and it would have been half that if I’d known about the hidden tombstone ladder. It’s a very simplistic game, but I got some pleasure from scuttling through its nicely spooky backdrops and baiting enemies into more advantageous positions to make up for my lack of jumping ability. A fun way to pass a little time, then. It’s like a nice cheese sandwich: unlikely to break into your list of the greatest meals you’ve ever eaten, but a satisfying and wholesome choice none-the-less. I say wholesome, one of my favourite things about it was the little animation of the noose swaying in the wind.
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