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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 in terms of revenue, 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 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 was somewhat open-ended, in a good way. Events did not necessarily unfold in the exact same way as they did in the movie. Hen Wen, for example, could get captured by the Horned King’s minions if you weren’t careful, and then you would have to infiltrate his castle to rescue her. If not, you would deliver her to the fairy folk as intended and see a scene that never happened in the film. Eventually you would have to face off against the Horned King anyway, but there were different paths that led to the same conclusion. There were also optional items and secrets that weren’t necessary to win the game, but contributed to your final score if you felt so inclined to find them.

The Black Cauldron (PC) image

The Black Cauldron was 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 meant 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 were 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 one of the few titles in Disney’s portfolio ever 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 - or even 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 clearly trying to make a “simpler” adventure game for a younger audience, but they only ended up making it more dull and boring as a result. This was evident in its lack of content, as there were 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 was 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 plodded along at a remarkably slow pace. The only way you could speed him up was to increase the speed of the entire game, but doing so would increase the risk of him accidentally tumbling off a cliff or drowning to death if he so much as touched the edge of a river with the tip of his toe. There were also maze-like passages and climbing sequences that served no purpose other than to waste your time. The game world was also fairly large, perhaps even larger than King’s Quest, and if you went the wrong way or you were missing a crucial item, you would need to take the same trip twice as you laboriously backtracked.

And if you liked having your time wasted, rest assured, there was plenty more where that came from. The inventory screen, which was the only method to switch between carried items, would hang the game for a few moments as it forced your monitor to switch resolutions. Then, you were provided with a chunky text-based interface. Once you selected your item from the list, the game would hang again as it switched back to EGA mode. So, if you needed to do the usual adventure game stuff of using different items on the objects in the world, you would have to go through this laborious process over and over again.

This was complicated by the fact that there was a rudimentary combat system in this game. Once you found a sword, you would need to equip it every time you fought the Horned King’s minions, which happened quite frequently. In fact, you were potentially ambushed within every room of the Horned King’s castle. So, if you wanted to perform a simple action like open a door with a key, you would 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 was a Disney production, nobody would ever die, so when you gave these creatures a savage overhand swing, all it would do is stun them. The minions would always come back, and you would be plagued by that damn inventory screen every time you needed 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 needed to keep Taran hydrated and fed at all times or it was potentially game over. The game would helpfully interrupt whatever you were doing to announce that you were hungry or that your throat was dry, foreshadowing your impending doom. Finding water wasn’t actually that difficult; you could fill your flask from just about any river or swamp, but food was a limited resource. In fact, there were only a handful of food items in the game, one of which had to sacrificed in order to solve a puzzle, and if you ran out of things to eat you would probably have to start the entire game over from scratch. The Black Cauldron was effectively on a timer, and for a game that involved a lot of wandering around as you tried to figure out what the hell you were supposed to do, it certainly didn’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 even in its heyday, and it does not hold up well today either. Legendary developers Al Lowe and Roberta Williams were involved in this project, but it certainly was 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.


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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