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Eureka! - Review

Review by Gunness


Last edited:

This is going to be long-ish, so settle in with a mug of hot beverage.

A brief introduction
I have a very special memory of playing Eureka, because the game more or less kickstarted my 30+ year long interest in the adventure genre. So bear with me.

Having bought a C64 some time before (and only owning two games – let’s face it, Winter Games and Ghostbusters run out of juice after 50 replays) I needed something new but was woefully short on money. So in a shop, I came across Eureka!, heavily discounted. It said something about a prize and a deadline that was way past in mid 1985. The cover didn’t give much away, but it looked fascinating to my young, inexperienced eyes, and it had the tag “250K of pure mystery!” in large, friendly letters on the front. I was intrigued, bought the game (along with the terrible Ring of Power) and brought it home.

What a package! There was an introduction by the designer, Ian Livingstone - whom I knew quite well from the Fighting Fantasy series - and an endless fascinating booklet with tales of time travel. I still had no idea what the game – games? – was/were, but my interest was certainly caught. I then loaded the first game...which turned out to be a dull arcade game. What a letdown!

Surely there had to be more. Ah! The next game on the tape was called something with “ADVENTURE” (a genre I was mildly familiar with). Awesome! After much loading, the computer crashed. I tried again and again, each time with the same result. But then I discovered that there were more parts to the game – five total. The rest worked perfectly, and suddenly I was up and running.
At the age of 12, my grasp of English was limited to say the least, but the feeling of going to my dad’s place, pulling out my computer, hooking it up, loading Eureka! and arming myself with a dictionary led to endless hours of trial and error, death, frustration – and a growing understanding of a foreign language.

I’ve spent a bizarre number of hours on this game, far than it probably deserves, but it really learnt me the value of perseverance. Unfortunately time is too precious a commodity these days to ever sink this much time into a single game.

The present
Anyway, enough with the nostalgic reminiscing. What are we dealing with here?
Eureka! is a five-part game. The background story (which seems like an afterthought) tells you of a talisman which has been split into five parts, each landing in a different era in time. You need to travel to each era and pick up the various parts of the talisman. Do it right and you might win £25,000 – or at least you could back in 1984. Do it wrong and the moon will come crashing down on your head or something along those lines.

  • Part one, easily the weakest one, sees you trying to survive in a weird neanderthal/dinosaur setting.
  • Part two, the Roman era, clearly mimicks the plot of Ben-Hur, right down to the galley illustration in the booklet. Yup, Charlton Heston was the world’s first C64 afficionado.
  • Part three, which deals with Arthurian legends, is sort of a cross between Le Morte D’Arthur and Monty Python’s send-up of the genre, including a giant killer bunny and a puzzle based around coconuts.
  • Part four is a nod to the Great Escape, as you’re trying to make your way out of a German POW camp.
  • And finally, part five, which can’t be solved until you’ve gotten the passwords from the preceding four parts [quite tricky when part one doesn't load], takes place in the present on an exotic, tropical island where the last of the talisman bits is held by some rich madman. Who of course refuses to give up his prized possession unless he’s handed an obscene amount of money.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, sure, but... removing the rose-tinted spectacles it’s fairly obvious that a few things might be rotten in the state of Denmark.
The game was designed my Mr. Livingstone all right, but largely coded in Hungary under severe time constraints – and it shows. I remember reading that the two men behind DoMark had very little interest in adventure games but a lot of interest in making a splash with a huge competition – and it shows, too.

Apart from the various bugs in the game (none game breaking), the creators of Eureka! must have made a list of worst possible offenses to commit in adventure games and then decided to check each one of them – including, but not limited to:

  • No SAVE routine.
  • Very limited implementation of EXAMINE
  • Many, many instances of instant, out-of-the-blue death
  • Mazes. Lots of them. Sometimes unmappable, sometimes paired with insta-death (see above)
  • No QUIT. Really? Yes, really. Which means that if you are stuck in one of the game’s countless mazes (see above), and it’s not one of the deadly ones, you might roam around at random for a while before giving up and resetting your machine. Fortunately most mazes are littered with opportunities to meet your untimely demise.
  • Timed sequences. Whenever you see a flashing symbol in the lower corner, you know there’s trouble ahead, and you have around 12 seconds to do something about it. Otherwise it’s death for you (but not of the instant kind, because, like, you had about 12 seconds worth of warning) and then RESTORE your latest SAVEd game. You know, the game you SAVEd with the non-existant SAVE routine. Oh wait...

Some of these features (not bugs, mind you) were obviously added to up the ante and ensure that no-one won the game (and hence the prize) too soon. Some of it might be laziness. But why they wouldn’t offer you a QUIT option is a real head-scratcher.
So, back in the day I would drown in the swamp surrounding Rome time and again. I’d be killed by a mysterious beast while chasing the holy grail at least three dozen times. Each time it was back to square one and start playing up until that point again (maybe 20 minutes into the game). How time is plentiful when you’re a kid!

Anyway, it’s not all as bad as it would seem when playing the game now. The major offender – no SAVE – is easily handled with an emulator. You’ll still die, but there’s always a save state ready. The mazes are still a pain, though. But I’ve actually come to enjoy the timed sequences, in some twisted, perverted way. They lend a thrilling urgency to the game.

But whereas its technical merits are limited, Eureka! certainly delivers in the atmosphere department. Right from the richly illustrated manual, which may or may not gently hint you on how to solve a few puzzles. It really sells the concept that you’re a time traveler going up against a nefarious, Bond-esque bad guy who sends various henchmen to stop you. The Roman part is a sort of rags-to-riches tale (you start off as a slave and must end up befriending the emperor), whereas your escape from the POW camp, with lethal obstacles left and right, is never less than thrilling. And somehow each part manages to feel like a story which builds towards a climax.
Each part is preceded by a, frankly, terrible arcade game – a bit like Pacman without the fun bits. All five variants are essentially the same, and apart from a lot of extra tape (re)winding, the dangling carrot of the arcade games is to earn you extra vigour for the text adventures. See, a nice feature of Eureka! is that many of the puzzles – which range from weird to well-executed - can be solved in two ways. You can either do things the hard way (ie. fighting), which will lose you some vigour. Or you can do it the thinky way, in which case the vigour you get without the arcade game will do just nicely.

Parser/Vocabulary (Rating: 5/10)

Apart from the shortcomings (of which there are plenty), the vocabulary is okay. Nothing more, nothing less.

The parser has various shortcuts and is really fast - but it's two words only.

Atmosphere (Rating: 7/10)

Between the game text, jingles and manual, I think the game mostly delivers. But there's no getting around the fact that the atmosphere is somewhat let down by the parser.

Cruelty (Rating: Cruel)

Deaths aplenty and lots of chances for spending items in the wrong place.

Puzzles (Rating: 6/10)

Some quite clever ones which requires you to use objects in very novel ways.
Some of them are rather illogical (an Elvis inspired one jumps to mind), but at least there's a nifty HELP function which will often help you out.

Overall (Rating: 7/10)

I find it tricky to separate my backstory with the game from its more objective qualities. But even if you didn’t grow up playing a buggy version of it in the 1980s, give it a try. The prize has gone but at least some of the fun remains.