[Mr Creosote] While many of us may still associate Robin Hood primarily with Errol Flynn swinging on a chandelier or the cheap imitation movies made in the 1950s and 60s, the early 1990s actually brought him back to the big screen in a high budget blockbuster movie starring Kevin Costner. Yes, he was a huge star at the time. The basic plot and characters not being copyrighted, maybe not quite coincidentally, in the same year, Millennium came out with a game calledas well.
[beranmuden] I think the popularity of Robin Hood was very beneficial for the success this game also had.
Interestingly enough, the developers first wanted it to be a game about cowboys in a wild west setting. Eventually someone suggested Robin Hood, so they went with that instead and threw in a lot of lore about the subject. They also created their own game engine, which was also used for their game.
In my opinion, the whole lore matter added so much more flavour to the game. The classic references and fantasy elements just lifted it up to a higher level.
[Mr Creosote] For sure, the game benefits strongly from using this very well known myth. People already associate a lot with these characters, there is little necessary to introduce them etc. Also, this setting suggests a sort of “natural” tone for the game. After all, believe it or not, the Kevin Costner movie (which prominently features a rape scene played for laughs) was actually one of the most “serious” ones compared to what previous generations were used to. What do you first associate with Robin Hood and his “Merry Men”? Probably hearty laughter. The game is appropriately goofy as well.
[beranmuden] Yes, it's something that really stood out when I played it again after several years, the game has some very funny lines and is absolutely not shy of messing around a bit.
[Mr Creosote] I always found this a bit weird in general (not just speaking of the game). At its core, the Robin Hood story is about oppression, brutality and not less than two political coups. Yet, someone decades earlier decided it should be harmless with nobody really ever getting hurt.
But anyway, this is for sure no fault of the game which fits perfectly into the general tone associated with the lore.
[beranmuden] For me the story was always about a true hero of the people, stealing from the rich, giving back to the poor. A self-made leader, battling the upper class to gain justice and equality. Speaking of going into battle, this game actually lets you hurt whomever you want. From the nobles to the villagers, heck, even Lady Marian is not safe if you decide to play a chaotic-evil version of Robin Hood…
The Fascination of an Open World
[beranmuden] For the setting of one of our most favourite heroes, Millennium Interactive decided to go with the open-world kinda game.
[Mr Creosote] This is an interesting aspect of the game which indeed could be considered an early precursor to today's “open world” trend. Around those years, the time seemed ripe for such experiments. Classic adventure games would typically only let the protagonist act and exclusively change the world state upon “correct” actions on their part. Though Millennium went another way and throws the player into a world which seems quite alive. Things happen, whether the player acts or not, and there are different ways to find one's role inside this world. With this, they were in good company of other game makers like Revolution (Lure of the Temptress) and Origin (Ultima 7).
[beranmuden]is indeed a very good example, it featured such ground-breaking NPC behaviour. In fact, that's something that is also implemented in , they programmed all the NPCs to have a set of behaviour parameters and let them go on their daily tasks and movements at hand. Never disappearing in the game, wherever you as a player are, all the NPCs go on with their own business. Whether that is hunting, begging for scraps, or burying the dead. For the NPCs, life just goes on.
[Mr Creosote] And indeed, this game came out before the other ones mentioned, so for sure, it is a true pioneer. Nevertheless, it does have a specifically scripted plot inside, unlike some other precursors, such as the randomly generated Murder or the mostly randomized Murder on the Zinderneuf. Both good games on their own right, also with NPCs going about their business, but in much less targetted and therefore much less natural ways.
[beranmuden] Well and I suppose that's also just the function of the NPCs, they are mere placeholders for the development of how you decide on what Robin Hood should do. Do you want him to rob the rich? Go rob a merchant that is on his way to the castle to sell his wares. Or do you want to shoot a Norman guard on patrol, just let those arrows fly. But if you are a person with lesser morals, you can just try a villager for your target practice. Don't get me wrong, for its time, they are wonderfully programmed NPCs, but maybe they don't cut it for this time and age.
[Mr Creosote] About twenty years ago, I would rather regularly meet with a friend to spend an evening at a pub and we would equally regularly discuss about how to make “the perfect game”. One proposal we kept coming back to went approximately like this: you are just a guy in a world, and you have to rise up within this world's hierarchy. You have full choice of how you want to approach this. You can either run around threatening, robbing, killing people and get rich that way (the “action route”). You can start gaining influence in other ways, having your goons do the dirty work, get into official posts, such as mayor, judge etc. This game is a bit like this, if you look at it on a drawing board. You can be the action hero, ambushing the Normans. You can even snipe the evil sheriff right at the beginning of the game if you're fast! Or you can recruit some Merry Men and send them on missions on your behalf.
[beranmuden] For me that was implemented in a great way. Once you have a bunch of Merry Men, you can give them orders or even summon them whenever you are in a pickle. The open world setting, however, also comes with its drawbacks. Since not all actions are scripted, it might just happen you will lose a potential member of your Merry Men, because of, let's say, a fire breathing menace that wanders the local forests. I remember playing this for the first time and the most charming part was just figuring things out, “Ooooh… I rescued this guy from the gallows, and now it turns out he's the famous Will Scarlet”. These encounters with other characters and the lore involved, is what ignited a spark of recognition for me.
[Mr Creosote] Back when I first played this game 30 years ago, I found this incredibly fascinating. This level of freedom was unheard of, I spent my time just walking around, watching things happening. Following other characters. Seeing the construction of a new church in different stages of completion. Listening to those announcements of the sheriff. I was so taken that I never actually achieved a thing, but nevertheless kept coming back to the game. I was completely content just “being there”, without even trying strongly to achieve anything.
[beranmuden] Oh, I totally forgot about how indeed you could just watch things get constructed. Again, just a small detail that makes the game lift above so many other titles. Apparently, I missed that one this playthrough, because I was too eager to put an arrow into the sheriff’s heart. Also, another wonder for me to behold was the changing of seasons. After the passing of a certain in-game time, the season would change to the next one, make the landscape look all snowy or wonderfully green during the spring and summer.
Even the NPCs reacted differently during the seasons, especially during winters they were more in need of money and begging because of the lack of food.
[Mr Creosote] Indeed, this was a great thing to realize! At first, I assumed a season change just to be a new colour tint for the graphics, but no – there is an actual impact on the gameplay. Similarly, I really liked how there are small side-quests hidden inside the world which you can optionally follow and fulfilling which can have some advantages later on, but which are definitely not a must. Such as wooing Maid Marian or dealing with the dragon…
[beranmuden] It soon became clear to me, that I needed to pursue all those side quests first. As the purist gamer I am, my desire was to gather all those icons on the sidebar, before even deciding how to play the endgame. Give me that disguise first, so I can mingle into the townsfolk during the announcements. Let me talk to Marian so she can give me her “object of affection”. In fact, Marian in this version of the old tale, is the sheriff's daughter. She will give you a ring allowing to see into the hearts of other characters, thus learning what they think of Robin. Unlike real life, you just need to talk to Marian for a couple of times for allowing her to become absolutely smitten with our hero.
[Mr Creosote] Marian is where things do show their age in this game, however. As you said, the interaction with her feels extremely mechanical. The limitation to what the engine can do became quite transparent there.
[beranmuden] Still, those typical characters involved with Robin Hood, really won a piece of my heart when playing this game.
Little John has a hideout in the south corner of the map. Going there will also help Robin get some rest, which will restore his health. Be prepared to be a bit humiliated first. Since Little John will give you a proper beating if you try to cross his bridge, I tried shooting him first. I can tell you that in fact that's a sure way to win the fight…
There is Aelfstan, a priest with cryptic advice, which when able to decipher, will offer a helping hand for Robin. Although I don't think Aelfstan is an existing piece of the lore, yet he does mention he's a priest of the Sacred grove of Herne the Hunter. Now that one certainly rings a bell…
The Pitfalls of Execution
[Mr Creosote] All those small things really make the game finally worth exploring. Nevertheless, when approaching it again this time around, with a more analytical view and making an actual attempt at beating it successfully, I did realise quite quickly how small the game is in fact. 30 years ago, it felt vast, the world, the plot and the number of characters. Now, my feeling almost did a 180°. How many screens left to right, top to bottom? How many people who actually matter? How many events which are relevant from start to finish? Once you know what you're doing, and what you have to do is actually rather transparent, it feels like an express train through the Robin Hood lore.
[beranmuden] I couldn't agree more on that. Some 30 years ago, the play field seemed huge, I even remember getting lost quite often. “Dear oh dear, I lost one of my Merry Men in battle! Where are those magic mushrooms, when you need them?!”. But now, I was surprised about how easily I found my way across the map and even remembering all the spawn points of those mushrooms I mentioned.
However, that is probably inevitable when looking back at how things where when you were younger. The experience of gaming at a younger, more impressionable age leaves an impact which might be very different when experiencing the same game at an older age.
Also, I was almost a bit shocked to realize how easily I won the game this time round. Maybe I've played 15 minutes max to win with a fully respected Robin and getting all the side quests items.
[Mr Creosote] Absolutely. It's just that this is where the “drawing board” aspect I mentioned on the side earlier creeps in. On that level,is an amazing game. Though without the nostalgia of having played it at such a younger age, I fear execution must seem rather limited and even clunky to today's players. Case in point, already mentioned limitations aside, the controls from hell!
[beranmuden] Oh, don't get me started about the controls. Even back then, I wasn't a big fan of them. You can either control Robin by pushing the corresponding arrows in the intended direction, or you can place a pin on the map to make him walk that way. Placing the pin, will make Robin awkwardly try to maneuver through the buildings and trees and other objects, so I quickly gave that up. But the arrows pushing isn't a daisy either. Especially if Robin is in danger and starts his panic run, you'll have a hard time trying to alter his direction with the arrows… Let's just say controls are a pain in the so-called arse.
[Mr Creosote] Even when not using the map, but just clicking on the main window in normal view, Robin will just blindly stumble off to completely stupid directions. This leaves the arrows as the only semi-usable way of navigating around the world, and they are not exactly efficient.
Then there is this set of action icons, which isn't much better. The game expects you to react quickly in key scenes, and with sprites being so tiny and moving about quickly, they are often hard to hit. Collision detection also seemed off in many places. Best I found were the unintuitive, but at least reliable keyboard shortcuts to get things done.
[beranmuden] Have you stumbled on the same annoyance as me, when trying to talk to people? Wooing Marian was particularly difficult, “Let me click the lip icon so I can talk to Marian. Oh darnit, she just took a corner and now Robin says he tried talking to someone who isn't there. I'll try again… oh crap, now Marian has already left my current view”. Same when trying to take out a Norman guard, you have to place Robin in such a crazy precise fashion with those pesky arrows, so he can fire one of his own. Just dreadful…
[Mr Creosote] These things almost drove me crazy. Being stuck on such purely mechanical issues while being completely clear on what you actually intent to do, where is the fun in that? It is truly a pity.
[beranmuden] Then again, when you eventually do manage to land that perfect shot and freeing a villager from those annoying Normans, you feel that sense of achievement. The controls don't help, but in the end, you might get the job done with them.
A Legendary Game?
[Mr Creosote] Overall, for sure, the game is playable. Would I recommend it to anyone who has never played it? Honestly, and it pains me to say it, but I find it unlikely that anyone will find it entertaining without prior acquaintance. It should be clear from most of our discussion that I believe this is a conceptually excellent game which paved the way for many things to come. It was a highly fascinating experiment at the time. Yet, the ideas are not yet fully formed and the mechanical execution leaves a lot to be desired. Not that I could have expected a perfect “open world” game at that point in history. My recommendation to those not initiated: learn about it, but you can give it a miss as far as active playing is concerned without feeling bad about it. Myself, I will probably give it another go after talking about it now, and I am kind of curious now how the spiritual sequel plays, which indeed I have never touched so far.
[beranmuden] With pain in my heart, I'm afraid I also must admit that this game does not stand out that much for me to recommend it to someone else. Although I had fun playing it after so many years, it was a bit of a disappointment to realise how short of a game it actually is. All the charm it had back then seemed to have worn down almost completely by now. Yet, having played it for weeks on end back in the good old days, it will always have a special place in my heart.