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DOS Dungeon: Nitemare 3-D

Many old fans of DOS games probably remember the Hugo trilogy - a short lived series of adventure games which, while not top of their field by any means, provided some decent gameplay considering they were made by a one-man development team.

These were obviously modeled on Sierra's old graphic adventure system, utilizing a text parser for player commands and having a completely arbitrary score system in place to ostensibly give it some replay value.  Technology-wise they weren't exactly pushing the hardware to its limits considering they came out in the early 90s, but again, they were entirely designed and programmed by a lone hobbyist (a Mr. David P. Gray) so it was somewhat forgivable.

First up was Hugo's House of Horrors, a pretty basic game set in a "haunted" mansion where you were attempting to rescue Hugo's girlfriend Penelope from the clutches of a mad scientist (whom you never cross swords with over the course of the game).  It was rather short and had some silly obstacles like a giant dog, a mummy whom you have to get hung up on geometry to get past and a butler that decaptiates you with a big knife, but it provided a few laughs through its pixelated mayhem.  I actually did a playthrough of it a few years back to show off some of its stranger glitches.

Hugo II: Whodunit? was released the following year, and was a significantly larger and tougher game.  As the name implies, this is something of a murder mystery, having you (as Penelope) attempting to uncover the identity of the man who murdered Hugo's great uncle Horace.  In practice, though, this has little bearing on the events, as you encounter everything from  to an enormous hedge maze to a genie to stepping into a suspiciously-placed police box and being attacked by a Dalek (no, really). While still a decent game, it's not as fun to play owing to some very frustrating moments.  Two in particular come to mind - one where you must traverse a field of beehives and one where you must cross a bridge with a book of matches in hand.  Here, literally one misstep will result in you being killed or dropping the matches and making the game unwinnable, so your only chance at getting through is to either abuse the quick-save feature or have an impeccable handle on the controls and collision zones.  So yeah, just a tad annoying.

This was again followed up with a sequel the following year called Hugo III: Jungle of Doom. The premise is once again pretty silly, as Hugo's plane loses control over the Pacific Ocean, causing him and Penelope to fly about 6000 miles off course and crash-land in South America.  Penelope then gets bitten by a giant spider, requiring Hugo to find a antidote to the spider's venom in order to save her.  This is both the most well-designed and user-friendly of the three games, as there is no way to die (though it's still possible to get stuck in an unwinnable state if you aren't careful) and the graphics, while still EGA-based, are much more well-detailed.  The silly humor is still prevalent throughout, of course, as one puzzle requires you to make a voodoo doll of a deranged witch doctor and then stab pins in it to incapacitate him.  There are also no large mazes to get lost in or bizarrely cryptic puzzles like the previous game, so it's a much more user friendly experience in general.

That takes us to today's game, Nitemare 3-D.  Released in 1994 as the fourth game in the Hugo series, it once again stars Hugo as he attempts to rescue Penelope from the clutches of a mad scientist named Dr. Hamerstein.  It also represents a drastic departure in gameplay style as it goes from adventure-styled mechanics to more of a first-person shooter:

As in games like Wolfenstein and DOOM, you were now shooting monsters, collecting keys and navigating maze-like levels full of secrets and hidden paths.  The level design of the game definitely takes cues from Wolfenstein with 90-degree walls and sliding doors, though the environments aren't nearly as bland.  Instead of just the same plain wall and floor textures repeated, you'll see brick walls for dungeons, bookshelves and wallpaper in the house environments, and even nice environmental details like potted plants, paintings, chandeliers and television sets.

The curtain-doors are also a nice touch

Another nice improvement over Wolfenstein is the fact that levels aren't relegated to just one map.  Oftentimes, you'll need to go to separate upstairs or downstairs areas to find new items or progress through a level.  For instance, at one point in the first stage, you'll need to go to a dead-end path upstairs to find a red key, then come back downstairs to unlock a door so you can proceed back upstairs through another pathway.  It's not a huge feature, but it does add a nice touch of realism to the game.  The fact that pathways up or down come in numerous forms other than stairs (such as dumbwaiters or elevators) also serves to differentiate it.

Despite the genre shift, the game does retain a couple elements of its adventure roots.  You'll have to solve the occasional puzzle to progress past a certain obstacle here and there, such as opening a safe.  The official site also brags of a "seemingly invincible monster reception committee" whom you can get past with a correct prompt, though I haven't managed to see that part yet.  The game also strives to be as "non-violent" as its predecessors, with most enemies simply vanishing or turning into little cartoon tombstones when shot, and a cute little joke here and there like the aforementioned monster committee doing the Thriller dance when given the correct prompt.

A unique mechanic in the game comes in the form of its radar system(s).  By collecting a "magic eye" icon, one can toggle the minimap in the bottom-right corner on for a limited period of time by pressing F9; this will show the parts of the level you've traversed.  Similarly, collecting a crystal ball allows you to see the locations of all living monsters on the map by pressing F10.  Strangely, however, these can't be used freely once you've found a pick-up - they both run on a power gauge that slowly depletes whenever they're in action, requiring you to either pick up more items constantly or use them very sparingly.  I could maybe understand limited use for the enemy radar, but the mini-map is almost a necessity once you get a few stages into the game owing to the large and maze-like layouts of most of the levels.

The game also has a couple of other annoying aspects that make it an overly difficult experience.  First is that most enemies have hitscan attacks, meaning that if they can see you, they can damage you.  By contrast, only one of your special weapons has this feature, meaning that you're almost guaranteed to take a hit once an enemy sees you unless you're at close range and have impeccable accuracy.  Pair that with relatively scarce health items and the lack of a quicksave/quickload feature (dying means being booted back to the title screen) and you have a game that tends to get frustrating in a hurry.  Certain enemies are also immune to certain types of attacks, which makes sense to a degree (a robot not being affected by a magic wand, for example), but it can also prove problematic when you're out of ammo for a given weapon and an enemy that only takes damage from that weapon is stalking you...

The music for the game is also an odd case.  The level music is good enough, conveying a spooky and menacing atmosphere.  However, once you complete a stage, a more peppy tune starts coming up, and will not stop doing so, even once the next stage begins.  Even saving and reloading doesn't seem to fix it,  This may just be a bug with DOSBox, but it does kind of serve to ruin the atmosphere when you're shooting skeletons to a repetitive little guitar tune instead of spooky ambience...

In short, Nitemare 3-D is a flawed experience; it certainly tried to improve upon the game that inspired it (Wolfenstein 3D), but its attempts to innovate were a mixed bag that resulted in it being a relatively frustrating experience.  The fact that this game was also released after DOOM, a game which featured much more fluid gameplay, sharper graphics and a massive leap in level design probably didn't help its odds either.  Still, like the games that preceded it, Nitemare 3-D is certainly a valiant effort for a one-man team, and there's a part of me that can't help but enjoy it in spite of its problems.

So if you want to see some ambitious, if flawed, games, give the four Hugo games a whirl.  You can purchase the adventure game trilogy at GOG for $6 or pay $12 for Nitemare 3-D through the author's website.