Ballyhoo (Apple II) review
"Infocom's text adventure Ballyhoo turns a circus into a deadly kidnapping mystery, never sacrificing reality for dramatic tension. Chelsea Munrab, the daughter of circus owner Thomas Munrab, has been kidnapped. As a straggler from the show's crowd, you hear a conversation between Munrab and the detective in your town. Munrab blames the locals and suggests the detective do the same. "
Infocom's text adventure Ballyhoo turns a circus into a deadly kidnapping mystery, never sacrificing reality for dramatic tension. Chelsea Munrab, the daughter of circus owner Thomas Munrab, has been kidnapped. As a straggler from the show's crowd, you hear a conversation between Munrab and the detective in your town. Munrab blames the locals and suggests the detective do the same.
This would be a red flag outside of a game, but you need evidence. That means meeting with all the members of Munrab's circus and even a few animals. Some take a few moves before kicking you out, even turning you over to the police as a trespasser. You may even die attempting some of the circus stunts or tasks you'd expect to have to perform. Feeding the lions or placating Mahler the monkey with music is lethal if done wrong. So is crossing a tightrope.
Ballyhoo tempers this danger with humor and even pathos: instead of dying after a big mistake, you can turn into several types of circus freak after emergency surgery. Strategically getting in and out of lines gets you an overpriced refreshment, a fat lady is looking for diet food, and a bizarre half-man half-lady fights with himself and blocks and helps you. The detective is a clueless drunk. One of the clowns, Comrade Thumb, is a midget who helps you with tight areas if you help him early on. The blind turnstile guard is most interesting; you have to change your voice to fool him, but he gives hints about everything in the game (ask him about the elephant for laughs) and is the first to congratulate you.
It's what you'll remember more than the puzzles, which revolve more around received knowledge than most Infocom games: there's a mousetrap in one tent and an elephant in another. Guess what you do? Many also double as copy protection. What to do with your ticket, or what to turn the radio to, are included in the "feelies" that come with every Infocom game. This makes Ballyhoo easier than the biggest Infocom games, if less fantastic.
There's still enough drama, though; Chuckles the clown is not a nice man, and blocking Munrab from his trailer while you search it feels fast-paced even if you take a couple minutes to find the answer. Every character, whether in on the kidnapping or not, takes notice of you and is seen as more than just a carnival employee. Once you've collected all the evidence, a circus animal takes center stage in the kidnapping, which works in a way graphics could not have on such an old computer. Today, it might be too cute.
Ballyhoo, while it doesn't hit the heights of Infocom's very best games, provides some of the best characterization to make up for workmanlike puzzles. It's one of many Infocom games that take a popular book genre and successfully transform it into a text adventure. The plot combines menace and drama with several light-hearted scenes, and the parser never gets in the way. Even messing up gives an interesting story branch. As a result, I remember Ballyhoo as a bit above average for Infocom games, and when I replay it I'm reminded how very good that is.
Community review by aschultz (August 15, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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