Cave of the Word Wizard, huh? There’s a title to get the mind racing. But what could it possibly be about? A particularly lame Dungeons and Dragons campaign? A documentary about Alan Moore’s home? Well, no, it’s a 1983 educational game for the Commodore 64, created by Timeworks, Inc. Okay, that might sound a little disappointing but no-one ever said learning had to be fun, so suck it up and join me as I do battle with the mighty Word Wizard and the occasional blue spider.
Here’s the title screen, and the titular cave. Unlike most caves it has a front door, which makes it seem rather more welcoming than your average underground passage. Perhaps that’s why a couple of passing children decided to wander inside, inadvertently triggering the wrath of the Word Wizard.
Before we get to that, there’s some basic set-up to be done. Exciting! You have to pick a difficulty level, then choose one of the ten word lists included with the game, and finally you decide whether to play as Becky or Mark. The two kids are, as far as I can tell, completely identical besides their sprite. This makes sense, because the concept of vocabulary is not concerned with gender. So, to speed things along I kept tapping the A key, meaning I started Cave of the Word Wizard playing as Becky on the easiest difficulty setting and with the first word list. If you’ve been reading VGJunk for any amount of time you’ll know that’s probably the most appropriate place for me to start.
Okay, so we’ve got a young girl alone in a cave. She’s carrying a flashlight, and a bloody good flashlight too judging by how well-lit this cave is. Becky here can walk left or right, as well as jump – and she’ll need to jump in order to navigate the hazards of the cave such as that small puddle on the left. Touch a hazard and she’ll fall over and be forced to use one of her “band-aids.” Run out of sticking plasters and the game is over… but what is the game here? Aimless cave exploration? That certainly seemed to be the case at first, as Becky wandered through the caverns without much happening.
Then, suddenly, the crackle of raw magic fills the air. Time and space are bent and contorted as a powerful presence emerges from the eldritch pathways that connect the multiverse. Colours indecipherable to the human eye swirl and gather in the gloom of the cave, eventually coalescing into the form of…
The Word Wizard! He’s big, he’s green, he’s kind of an anticlimax, with his preposterously large sleeves and face like the holes on Fred Flintstone’s bowling ball. The Word Wizard, ladies and gentlemen. I might be being a bit harsh on the troglodytic typing tutor, he’s really not a bad-looking sprite for 1983, and I like that he’s a real old-school kind of wizard. I’ve played so many videogames where wizards are re-cast as mages and sorcerers with flashy-robes and extravagant magical weapons that it’s nice to see a dyed-in-the-wool, pointy-hat-with-a-moon-on-it-wearing, greybearded wizard. You can tell the closest this guy ever gets to pulse-pounding action or all-or-nothing confrontation is deciding whether to have two or three Hob Nobs with his afternoon cuppa, and there’s something rather charming about that.
What’s less charming is that he barked “spell kitty” at me the moment he materialised. There are a couple of notable things about this. The first is that he actually says “spell kitty” out loud, thanks to some really rather excellent (for the time) synthesised speech. The second is, hey, that’s kinda rude, you mystical old fart. There’s no preamble or anything, he simply appears out of nowhere and demands that a child spell out a word for... what? His own twisted amusement? It he trying to teach me to spell more gooder? Because if he is, this is a terrible way to go about it, and I suspect OFSTED would have a few things to say about the Word Wizard’s teaching methods.
That’s the educational bit of the game, then. The Word Wizard tells you a specific word to spell, so you type it out and hit enter. If you spell it correctly, the Word Wizard offers a slightly patronising platitude like “keep up the good work!”, refills a little of your flashlight’s energy and then disappears. If you get it wrong, either because you waited too long to enter your spelling, you didn’t know how to spell the word or, as pictured above, you managed to mistype even the simplest of words thanks to your doughy, uncoordinated fingers, then you lose some flashlight power and the Word Wizard says “it’s getting daaarker.” Once you’ve typed the correct spelling, the wizard vanishes and you’re free to roam the caves once more, until the next time he pops up. If you run out of flashlight power, which decreases over time as well as when you answer incorrectly, then it’s game over
It’s also game over if you run out of band-aids thanks to tripping over too many obstacles, which is what’s happening here. I found a dead-end in the cave formed by a small, shallow mud slide, and touching the mud was apparently enough to injure Becky. I don’t think you’re really cut out for this whole spelunking thing, Becky.
Now that I’ve got a handle on the basics, I restarted Cave of the Word Wizard with the difficulty turned all the way up because my vanity refuses to let me sit here practising how to spell “gas” and “spy.” Instead the Word Wizard is now challenging me with words like “supercilious” and, ironically, “embarrass,” a word I almost always manage to spell incorrectly even when I’m not under the added pressure of a wizard’s scrutiny.
Upping the difficulty doesn’t just make the words longer, either: the cave itself becomes more dangerous, with more puddles and rocks to jump over, plus the addition of creepy-crawlies like spiders and scorpions that scuttle along the floor. Still, even with these extra hazards, negotiating the cave is very easy because all the obstacles are so simple to avoid. You just jump over them. That’s it. The kids have a fixed jumping arc and it’s more than enough to easily clear every hazard in the game. Even the crawling creatures don’t offer much challenge, because you hang in the air for so long when you jump that you can simply hop straight upwards and let them scurry underneath you – that is, if they haven’t already fallen into one of the holes that appear on fifty percent of the screens.
As it turns out, there actually is a goal to be accomplished in the caves beyond the intellectual stimulation of spelling tests. You’re supposed to be collecting crystals, you see. How many crystals? I don’t know. Where are the crystals? I don’t know that either. They’re in the cave, somewhere, and all you can do to find them is to comb each individual screen of the cave. The cave’s a big place, though, and with the Word Wizard’s constant interruptions it’s slow going. You do have a map of sorts – you can see it at the top of the screen, it’s the rows of blue bars – but as navigational aids go it’s not great. If an Ordnance Survey map clearly marked with a route and various helpful landmarks is a ten out on ten map and an old Tesco receipt with “YOUR LOST” scrawled on the back is a zero out of ten map, then this thing is about a two or a three. It’s mostly useful for telling you which “floor” of the cave you’re on: each blue bar is a vertical level, you see. You move between floors by either climbing up ladders or by jumping into black, lightless crevasses in the floor to drop down to the lower levels. Quite why falling into a pit and landing on the rocks below doesn’t cost you a band-aid while a small puddle touching the very tippy-tip of your shoes does hurt you is not explained, and it’s an especially confusing set-up when the cave is already full of perfectly good (although one-way only, apparently) ladders.
Here’s a crystal. Thank Christ for that, I’ve been wandering around in this cave for what feels like an eternity, gamboling over the same small piles of rocks and damps spots over and over again, reaching dead ends and backtracking towards indistinguishable, identical ladders. What makes it worse is that I had two crystals for ages, and you need four to escape. The final two were right next to each other, in pretty much the very last two rooms I needed to search.
“You’ve found all the crystals. Now find your way out!” says the Word Wizard in his slightly croaky but still very impressive computer voice. I’m not the wiser as to whether the Wizard is the antagonist of this game or what. Maybe the kids came looking for crystals, and said crystals just happen to be in the cave where the Oxford English Wizardictionary lives. Either that, or it’s like the start of Aladdin and for whatever reason the Wizard can’t get the crystals himself. Whatever the case, all I need to do now is make my way back up to the entrance of the cave. I assumed it’d be right at the top-left of the map, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was that this turned out to be the case.
Sweet freedom! Cool, fresh air, sunlight, the fabulous riches that await when I manage to sell these crystals! Triumph is only a few feet away!
No, get out of my way, Word Wizard! Yes, of course he turns up for one final quiz question. The way his sprite is handled even means his appearance seemingly blocks the exit with a solid wall of stone, just to increase the feeling that you’re never going to escape from this sodding cave. Speaking of the Wizard’s sprite, surely you should be able to see his long grey hair behind him when you look at the gap between the wizard’s sleeves and his body. But you can’t see his hair back there, so I must conclude that he’s wearing it in two massive pigtails.
And we’re done, with a hundred percent spelling success rate, no less. Hand over your pointy hat, old man, I’m the Word Wizard now.
Cave of the Word Wizard is one of those games where it’s hard to pin down the point of the whole thing. The platforming (well, “jumping”) gameplay is utterly perfunctory and offers neither challenge nor fun without being actively unpleasant. As for the word quiz aspect, that’s not handled particularly well either. There certainly seems to be very little educational value to it, at least. It doesn’t teach you how to spell, either. You kinda have to know how to spell the words already, and if you get the answers wrong the game doesn’t do much to correct you besides showing you the right answers. I feel like there needs to be a bit more engagement there to make any kind of lesson stick, you know? On top of that, trudging through the cave is very slow and rather boring, and even given all the flaws I’ve just mentioned if I was going to change one single thing about the game it’d be that the map showed you which screens you’d already visited. Anything to cut down on the interminable backtracking, please.
All that said, I’m glad I played Cave of the Word Wizard. There’s definitely something about it. A certain wonky charm, let’s say. One thing that’s undeniably good it the game’s synthesised (or is it digitised?) speech, which is hugely impressive for the time and comes with a lot of words – I never head any repeated questions while I was playing, at least. Then there’s the Word Wizard himself, a pleasantly unassuming master of magic. It’s hard not to warm to a wizard who uses his powers to subject random children to impromptu spelling bees rather than fighting evil or advising the once and future king of England. I imagine there are people out there who have fond childhood memories of Cave of the Word Wizard and I can see why, but in 2017 it’s unlikely to capture your attention from more than ten minutes unless you’re really into synthesised speech. Oh, and the Word Wizard doesn't react if you enter things like "bite me, beardy" when he asks you to spell something. This game's refusal to let you insult a wizard is more disappointing than the gameplay, frankly.
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