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The Black Cauldron (PC) artwork

The Black Cauldron (PC) review


"Your throat is dry."


The Black Cauldron (PC) image


Okay, so we’re going way back to 1986, which is even a bit before my time. The Black Cauldron was an adventure game made by Sierra, based on the Disney film of the same name. It was not a very good movie, and a colossal failure at the box office, but for some reason Disney felt that the best way to recoup the losses of their crappy movie was to produce an even crappier video game. And so they did!

Anyway, this game follows the adventures of Taran, an assistant pig-keeper who works on a farm owned by a sorcerer named Dallben. Dallben has a magical pig named Hen Wen who, for some reason, can conjure oracular visions within bowls of water. One day, Hen Wen shows Taran and Dallben a vision of the evil Horned King, who wants Hen Wen for himself so he can use her magical powers for his own evil purposes. His ultimate goal is to locate an artifact known as the Black Cauldron, which can spawn an undefeatable undead army. That’s real bad, so Dallben elects to send Taran, who is basically a child and completely unqualified for the task, to escort Hen Wen to the fairy folk to keep her safe, despite the fact that the Horned King’s minions are out there actively searching for her. Naturally.

One thing I will say in The Black Cauldron’s favor is that it is somewhat open-ended, in a good way. Events do not necessarily unfold in the exact same way as they did in the movie. Hen Wen, for example, can get captured by the Horned King’s minions if you aren’t careful, and then you will have to infiltrate his castle to rescue her. If not, you will deliver her to the fairy folk as intended, and then you will see a scene that never happened in the film. Eventually you have to face off against the Horned King anyway, but there are different paths that lead to the same conclusion. There are also optional items and secrets that aren’t necessary to win the game, but contribute to your final score if you feel so inclined to find them.

The Black Cauldron (PC) image


The Black Cauldron is also serviceable on a technical level, though it didn’t really do anything special for its time. Graphically, it was about on par with other adventure games of the era, which means garish, highly pixellated EGA graphics. This was about as good as it got back in those days, as 256-colour VGA had not yet hit the market, and 16-colour graphics were still on the cutting edge. In fact, you were probably lucky to own an EGA monitor at all (I remember playing this game on a monochrome monitor, if that gives you any idea of how old it is). It was also released before the era of sound cards, and its screechy PC speaker music and sound effects are about as good as you might expect.

In terms of format, Sierra approached this game a bit differently than its other concurrent titles, such as King’s Quest. Since The Black Cauldron was ostensibly a kid’s movie (although it was one of the few titles in Disney’s portfolio to receive a PG rating due to its fright factor), they elected to do away with the usual typing prompt and made the game kid-friendly by having all of the game’s primary actions, such as “Do”, “Look” and “Use Item” activated by single key presses, conveniently located at the top of the keyboard in the function keys. Movement was basically the same as other Sierra titles. The number pad was used to move Taran in any direction, and pressing 5 would make him stop. While this simplification of controls was designed to make the game more appealing to kids like my five-year-old self, I distinctly remember hating the controls with a passion. I actually recall having more fun typing commands into Space Quest and Police Quest, despite the fact that I was five, possessed a limited vocabulary and didn’t know what I was doing half the time.

Anyway, they were trying to make a “simpler” adventure game for a younger audience, but they only ended up making it dull and boring as a result. This is evident in its lack of content, as there are maybe only a dozen inventory items in the entire game and even less puzzles. Yet, they decided to retain the Sierra hallmark of punishing you with instant death every time you made the slightest mistake. Thus, the game is not only frustrating, but also uninteresting, rendering it completely unappealing to both the young and old.

The Black Cauldron (PC) image


To make matters worse, Taran plods along at a remarkably slow pace. The only way you can speed him up is to increase the speed of the entire game, but doing so increases the risk of him accidentally tumbling off a cliff or drowning to death if he so much as touches the edge of a river with the tip of his toe. There are also maze-like passages and climbing sequences that serve no purpose other than to waste your time. The game world is also fairly large, perhaps even larger than King’s Quest, and if you go the wrong way or miss a crucial item, you will need to take the same trip twice as you laboriously backtrack.

And if you like having your time wasted, rest assured, there is plenty more where that came from. The inventory screen, which is the only method to switch between carried items, hangs the game for a few seconds as it forces your monitor to switch resolutions. Then, you are provided with a chunky text-based interface. Once you select your item from the list, the game hangs again as it switches back to EGA mode. So, if you need to do the usual adventure game process of trial-and-error as you try different objects in the world, you have to go through this menu over and over again.

This is complicated by the fact that there is a rudimentary combat system in this game. Once you find a sword, you will need to equip it every time you fight the Horned King’s minions, which happens quite frequently. In fact, you are potentially ambushed within every room of the Horned King’s castle. So, if you want to perform a simple action like open a door with a key, you will have to switch to the inventory screen to equip the key, use it on the door, go back to the inventory screen, equip the sword again, then fight the minion. And, because this is a Disney production, nobody ever dies, so when you give these creatures a savage overhand swing with your sword, all it does is stun them. The minions always come back, and you will be plagued by that damn inventory screen every time you need to ready your sword to defend yourself.

The Black Cauldron (PC) image


If that weren’t enough, Sierra decided to add a survival aspect to this game. That’s right. You need to keep Taran hydrated and fed at all times, or it's potentially game over. The game helpfully interrupts whatever you are doing to announce that you are hungry or that your throat is dry, foreshadowing your impending doom. Finding water isn’t actually that difficult; you can fill your flask from just about any river or swamp, but food is a limited resource. In fact, there are only a handful of food items in the game, one of which has to sacrificed in order to solve a puzzle. If you run out of things to eat, you will probably have to start the entire game over from scratch. The Black Cauldron is effectively on a timer, and for a game that involves a lot of wandering around as you try to figure out what the hell you are supposed to do, it certainly doesn't add any value.

All in all, there isn’t a lot positive to say about The Black Cauldron. It was a piece of crap in its heyday and does not hold up very well today either. Legendary developers Al Lowe and Roberta Williams were involved in this project, but it was certainly not one of their finest moments. I really can’t blame them for taking the contract, though. Any project from Disney is likely to be a lucrative one.

1/5

Nightfire's avatar
Community review by Nightfire (April 02, 2017)

Nightfire is a reclusive dragon who lives in a cave with internet access. Steam ID here.

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LeVar_Ravel posted April 03, 2017:

Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe of Space Quest also worked on the game. In an interview, Murphy said that he programmed an obscene response message into the game, just to temporarily amuse himself during a tiring work session. But before he could remove it, Disney wound up seeing it when Sierra sent them a prototype.
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Nightfire posted April 03, 2017:

Classic. I wish they'd left it in. Some obscene responses might have actually made this game interesting.

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