1866. Fenimore Fillmore, lone young gunman stumbles across the mystery of the– artefacts which some bad guys are willing to kill for. 1996. The adventure game genre still sees a large amount of new releases, of which the fictionalized accounts of Fenimore are one. 2020. Years have passed since the game's release and I'm playing it again, with the advantage of hindsight wisdom.
One thing we've learned, of course, is that it was already the beginning of the end for the genre of graphic adventures.wasn't a big success even at the time, but it somehow managed to stay semi-known over time. Today, it can be seen as a poster case for how such games were in the mid-1990s. For better and worse.
The big duopoly of the late 80s and early 90s, the rivalry between the genre veterans of Sierra and the well-funded newcomers of Lucasfilm, had come to an end – and the challenger had won. Carefree, humourous adventure games with no death, no dead ends etc. had become the norm. All built based on the Lucasfilm blueprint. At least that is how it looked on the surface.
At first glance, thehave it all. Until you realize that the designers chose the lazy way to fill the void left by getting rid of what had been re-interpreted to be player annoyances by that time. Why had older adventure games routinely featured mazes and dead ends? They were an easy way to increase play time, of course. What did the designers of the typical mid-90s adventures do? They filled the endless space on the CD with tons of (recorded, obviously) dialogue. Meaning they exchanged interactive gameplay for non-interactively feeding their “players” what they hoped to be entertaining.
The quality of entertainment therefore obviously depends on the quality of writing. In this game, it ranges from incredibly boring to brain-damagingly stupid. Giving the player no option to skip lines, of course. Even if this had existed, it would have been a tough trade-off between accepting to listen to those inane lines and just skimming over the written variants in this unreadable font consisting of characters bending wildly forward and backward at random. It doesn't help things that talking is indeed the player's main activity. A large portion of the puzzles are solved by exhausting dialogue options and carrying some bit of information gained to yet another character and so on.
Speaking of characters, the world is obviously inhabited exclusively by genre caricatures whose design is very hit-and-miss. Offering the cliché of the “lazy Mexican”, as if this were still the times of Speedy Gonzales, in the mid-1990s – ouch! The gambling addicted sheriff somehow works, but his moronic deputy turns annoying within seconds, on the other hand. The priest without a flock who cannot finish a decent sermon? Not laugh-out-loud funny, but alright. Tastes may differ on this, but one thing is for sure: it's a clear overdose! Everyone having some “wacky” traits feels forced and tiring.
Object-based puzzles fare better overall. Solutions are generally solidly based on real world logic, with occasional cartoon logic sprinkled in. Nevertheless, experimenting – the big fun factor in those games which we regard as classics today – is hardly encouraged. The game has the bad habit of simply rejecting anything not needed for the narrow intended solution path. Whether it makes sense or not. Wasting huge amounts of gag potential and risking player frustration. Major pickiness with respect to which objects can be used for which purpose (allowing for no alternative solutions) or which of the few available verbs to use doesn't help exactly either (remember to USE the well's crank handle, please, not MOVE it).
Visual appearance is another mixed bag. The high-resolution cartoon style is one which hasn't aged much. Some colour choices are somehow a bit off, though. And then there are the animations. Great care has obviously been put into some, such as the protagonist's fluid walking, the swinging horse tails etc. Only that there are so few of them that they are re-used at a ridiculous rate. Climbing up a ladder? Sorry, no animation for that available. You'll just “walk” upwards. Between locations, you ride your dependable donkey. No real animation for that available, either: the player sprite is just moved up and down a bit. The big advertising claim of the time was that this game was produced by a professional cartoon animation film studio.
So what went wrong at the time? Why couldn't the genre sustain its success following the trusted formula? The answer is already there in the previous sentence. Entertainment shouldn't be formulaic. It needs an influx of creativity, but such a thing is nowhere to be found in. Neither in the cardboard-cutout characters, in the writing or the pedestrian puzzles. It also needs care, a willingness to entertain when the player is just looking around or even stuck. ignores its player's attempts to have fun with a literal shrug of its protragonist's sprite.
The thing with these games was: although they weren't horribly broken and remained somehow playable, they just didn't have many things going for them, either. Nevermind those complaints about details. Absence of negative aspects would be a virtue, but still not nearly sufficient to be considered good. Absence of positive aspects is what makes this game so totally forgettable.