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God bless Adventure Soft. At a time when older DOS computer games are either unavailable or unplayable on the newer high-speed systems, Adventure Soft has reprogrammed its classic line-up of adventure games (Simon and Simon II, Waxworks, Elvira 1 and 2) to run on Windows 95/98. If more companies had the foresight to take this step to preserve their gaming history, then maybe abandonware would not be an industry problem. I have been itching to play the Simon games for years, but as time and kidney stones passed, my abilities to configure my autoexec.bat and config.sys files had gone the way of my 32-inch waistline. Fortified by reruns of Mr. Bean and Benny Hill and midnight snacks of tea and crumpets, I thus prepared myself to enter that land of dry wit and slagging known as British humor.
Typical British humor usually consists of mustached women with shrill voices and hairy armpits. No, wait, that's my mother-in-law. The British humor (or humour, if you will) that we are familiar with are lumberjacks in drag, warbling in falsetto. Dry, sarcastic buffoonery that makes one titter (yes, I said titter). Either you like it or you scratch your head wondering what is so funny. Apparently a lot of us use dandruff shampoo based on the popularity of series such as Discworld and Legend of Kyrandia and games like The Quivering and Armed and Delirious. The Simon the Sorcerer games themselves could be seen as a predecessor to the wildly popular Harry Potter, which may explain the reasoning behind Southpeak's decision to distribute Simon 3D, the newest entry in the series, in the United States.
While Simon and Simon II can be considered minor classics, they are little-played outside of Europe. Simon was originally distributed in North America in 1994 by Infocom (which had been purchased by Activision) and featured 256 colors and digitized speech. (On an interesting side note, a fold-out advertisement in the Simon box trumpets the soon-to-be-released Zork Nemesis and Planetfall: Floyd's Next Thing.) Simon II was never released in the United States, though it has never really been made clear if this was due to a lack of a distributor, a belief that the game would not sell due to the British humor, or the lingering effects of the ice age upon the adventure genre (any excuse to not distribute an adventure game, you know). Both games are geared toward a teenage sense of humor (not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you) and presented in the manner of the classic Sierra games. Simon is often placed in situations that many younger gamers would surely find humorous: bellying up to a bar, uttering minor cuss words, or sassing elders, but adults also will not be able to suppress a chuckle or two at the numerous double entendres and political snipes (though the Dan Quayle joke is a bit dated).
What about Simon, though? Who is this young lad so revered abroad? Simon is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than a Gameboy for his birthday. Instead, a stray dog with a strange book in its mouth shows up at the front door during his birthday party. Simon's parents don't have the heart to tell him that the dog is not a birthday present and allow him to keep it as a pet. The book is forgotten in the attic. Much later (as we see in a wonderful opening scene), Chippy (for that is now the dog's name) discovers the trunk in the attic that contains the book, and Simon is soon thrust into a world of fantasy and magic sporting the required raiment of all magicians, a ponytail and a pointy hat. What follows is a mix of Fractured Fairy Tales meets Monty Python as Simon must rescue Calypso the wizard, the only person with the power to return Simon to his home world, from the clutches of soon-to-be arch-nemesis Sordid.
Simon and Simon II, while funny of their own accord, contain much of the one-liners and juvenility so familiar to fans of the Monkey Island series. In the few instances where the characters are fleshed out, it is more because their personalities are developed through extended give-and-take with Simon. In the tradition of a comic book, where the villains are always more interesting than the heroes, so it is with the supporting cast members of the Simon stories. The Woodworms (reminiscent of the talking worms in the movie Labyrinth) and the Swampling are both recurring characters that we look forward to running across in each game. Simon, on the other hand, never seems to capture our imagination. Maybe it is because his overreliance on smart-alecky comebacks and cruel pranks do not allow us to get emotionally close to the character. Or maybe it is because the voice of Simon--Chris Barrie in the first game and Brian Bowles in the second--while well-done, never quite sounds like a teenager. The voices of Simon are too much in command, too cocksure. It is difficult to root for a character you feel no sympathy for, and never once, in what I personally feel is a major shortcoming of both games, does Simon express dismay at his situation or feel alienated from his parents. Compare this to the character of Harry Potter, who, while very similar to Simon, instead manages to evoke heartfelt feelings of sympathy as regards his treatment in the land of the Muggles so that even when Harry misbehaves, the reader still silently cheers him on as a sort of redemption for his past as Harry's tribulations are not, unlike Simon, magnified by his jaded attitude.
On the other hand, both Simon games are models of efficiency in how a point-and-click adventure game should be constructed. Puzzles are well thought-out and progress from the simple to the difficult. The inevitable to-and-froing is eased by providing maps that allow you to visit any location with a simple click. The menu interface is representative of the period in which the games were originally released. Simon the Sorcerer has a list of verbs available at the bottom of the screen, such as Walk To, Give, Pick Up, etc., that allow the player to choose an appropriate command. Simon II uses icons in place of the action verbs, and though they look mighty purty, I constantly found myself thinking, "Now is the hand icon give or take? Is the mouth icon eat or talk?" Sometimes, simplicity is a step backwards.
Simon II does suffer some when compared to the first entry, not because it is a lesser game, but more because it is basically a rehash of the first. I do find it interesting that during a period when most computer adventure games were aimed at adults who had been weaned on the Infocom text games, Adventure Soft chose a 12-year-old boy as their lead character. Luckily, the writing is strong enough to overcome any limitations that could have been presented by the character's age.
Simon Woodroffe, the writer and creator of the Simon series, is masterful at constructing a plot that naturally evolves from a situation, not an easy task considering the abundance of puzzles, characters, and locations. In fact, without giving it away, the surprise ending of Simon II not only marks it as an classic game conclusion, but gives one hope for a wild ride in the upcoming, long-awaited Simon 3D. Both games are large in scope, rich in characters, and highly recommended for adventure gamers of all ages.
Final Grade for Both Simons: B-
If you liked the Simon the Sorcerer
Requirements (Both Games):