Below the Root (1984)

belowtheroot ccs3

Below the Root is basically the fourth and final part in a three-part book series from the late 70ties by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It’s a trilogy of books that read like children/young adult fantasy fiction but are rather some kind of stealth science fiction.

I read the first at the end of 2013, planned to read the other two in short succession to then start with the game, but man did I hate that experience and stalled after I started the second. I recently tried again and it’s just as terrible now as it was then. So instead of trying to push myself through them (mind you, these are short volumes, shy of 200 pages each, but man does reading them feel never-ending), I just read a summary and be done with it.

apple2 booter

The game was developed and published simultaneously in 1984 for three computer systems, Apple II (left picture), the C64 (right beside the cover) and a PC Booter (right picture). The Apple II and the PC Booter had a similar momentum-based movement scheme as other earlier platformers, to move right or left you start walking, to stop you counter it with pressing the key of the counter-direction.

The C64 has a more modern control-scheme, though I assume this is more born from primarily being joystick-controlled, not from actually thinking of improving the control scheme. Jumping is handled terribly in all versions, though JoyToKey helps with that. The C64 version is also the only one with good sound and the best graphics (worst were the ugly CGA graphics in the PC Booter).

As for gameplay, this is basically an adventure with a 2d perspective and traces of platformer games. I almost want to go as far as saying it’s a typical 2d-action-adventure, but in truth, the game is missing on the action part. You can’t attack or even kill the few enemies that turn up in the game, likewise, you can’t die either from attacks or falling from the tree or falling into the water. All it does is set you back day, and since there’s a time limit of 50 days to finish, not advisable.

The game is really impressive as early example for an exploration-driven 2d game sporting a large continuous world and lots of elements that came to later mark the whole metroidvania genre: you have to get new abilities to get past certain obstacles and reach new ground, you have stats right out of cRPGs and the world in front of you is truly massive. With the game came a map of some of it (the white square is your starting screen), but the real size of the world is even bigger.

Given all that, it’s not a game I see myself ever finishing. It’s not the antiquated control scheme and I quite like the graphics of the C64 version, it’s just that some of the things that irked me in the book series make me stop here as well.I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the setting and I can’t stand the overall attitude to everything, the hippy and vegan vibe I get.

Also, I like action in my games, and if there are enemies I want to defeat them. And the whole point of moving from the typical loose approach adventures have, perspective-wise that is, to something more rigid like in a platformer is to facilitate this kind of action. It’s a game that is almost where I want it to be, only to stop in front of the finish line and not go the last 5% percent. It gets so many gameplay elements right, but the things that really matter it gets completely wrong.

Another thing that really annoyed me in the books, the inflationary usage of made-up words for various things, feels just as pretentious here as it was there. It forces you to deploy mental capacity on things that should be clear-cut and part of the background, not standing out and call attention to themselves. Call it fucking mindreading and teleportation.

That said, I assume that if you approach the game coming from the adventure genre, it does well enough. I’m not the biggest adventure fan, but I assume a big world to explore with strange lingua might be just the right mix of elements to satisfy typical adventurer gamers. Me, I prefer to rack up kills during exploration, but then I’m coming from the cRPG side, so that explains that.

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