Backpacker: The Lost Florence Gold Mine
Windows - 1997
Description of Backpacker: The Lost Florence Gold Mine
An old vision... an old look
Four years is a long time in the computer game industry. Very long time. When a game takes that long to produce, there is bound to be something unique behind it- or else the game will be a total flop. Come to think of it, even if the game is unique, it can be a total flop, and the easiest example one can think of is BattleCruiser 3000.
One thing that is almost certain in a game so long in development is an old look, simply because the engine ages through time. Backpacker, from the new, 1997 announced company Animagination, has such an old look. In fact, the look is so retro, that it reminded me immediately of those old Indiana Jones adventures. The graphics in Backpacker are so amazingly primitive, compared to today's standards, that one could easily expect the game to be from the same era.
The similarities did not end there.
This was originally written for DOS, you know
Backpacker, as noted by the developers, was contrived in 1993. It was originally written for DOS, but then came "the big bad wolf" from Redmond and forced them to change tracks. It explains a lot of the long development time, and, of course, the old look (did I say that already?). Amazingly enough, the game is very well adapted to Win95, and although it politely asks that you change your desktop to only show 256 colors, the game installs and runs almost flawlessly. Still, Backpacker does not recognize long file and directory names (the manual even states "game files are the standard 8 letter files"), and also does not follow the now accepted convention of first asking for the installation directory and then asking for the installation size in a different window, thus disclosing it's "DOSsy" nature right from the beginning. Weirdly enough, Backpacker does not have a specific DOS installation.
After awhile, I did encounter some minor bugs. Once or twice the game simply crashed, hanging the machine. Another time, I mistakenly stumbled upon an overlay problem, where moving just "under" an overlay while changing screens will cause the overlay to "stretch" into the next scene. This happened when I went "under" the sea while moving between two scenes. Backpacker suddenly decided that I do not need to look at my character's sprite when it walks over the bottom half-screen (the original overlay). It had an eerie effect, with my alter ego's head surfacing out of the bushes in one of the nature scenes while I was going up, as if he was some water sprite (pun intended). In general, though, playing Backpacker was relatively smooth going.
But this does not mean that I do not have some serious complaints about this game. First and foremost, I found the required system resources hard to believe. With such an old, dated look, Backpacker should have been able to run easily on a 486 with 8MB of memory. In reality, it ran extremely slow on the second computer in my house, a P-100/16MB with a 4x CD drive, taking (deep breath now) almost a FULL MINUTE to change game screens. Once the screen is loaded, gameplay returns to what could more or less be called "normal" speed (still slow, but playable). Since there are over 100 game screens in this game, needing frequent travelling between them, the whole process can become terribly frustrating. I suggest you take heed of my recommended system resources at the top of the review.
Next on my list of unforgivable errors is the interface. Superficially, it seems like any other point and click interface. You have a changing icon, which includes several actions, in this case Talk, Look, Do, and Walk. Backpacker allows you to change between the different actions using the right mouse button. Sounds pretty normal, until you actually start playing the game. The game icon NEVER changes by itself, so simply moving the icon over a possibly useful item will help you naught. Also, try going through a door without using the DO (hand) icon, and you may go on clicking till kingdom come. After you open the door, of course, you will need to change back to the WALK icon to continue your voyage. Another example is trying to look at a map in your inventory. I tried using every action icon on the damn map, to no avail, and then it hit me- I has to use the hand icon to grab the map, then move it over my character's body and click again (simulating the taking of the map from the inventory, I guess). Is this supposed to be another puzzle? Saving and loading games cannot be done from the game screen, only from the menu, which is yet another annoyance. There are numerous such problems with the interface, one of which, that of visual clues, I will talk about in a moment, but in general, it is very poorly designed and detracts from the game experience.
A master hunter
Last but not least is pixel hunting. Backpacker is simply frightening in this respect. Finding things like exits, for example, can become terribly difficult to find if they are at the bottom of the screen. In one case, at the beginning of the game, you have to go down from the Inn kitchen to the bar, only you have no idea that there is a door at the bottom of the screen, and using the mouse icon in sweeping motions does not help. You simply have to move it carefully along the edges of the screen, clicking once every 20 pixels or so, till the exit is "found". At least there you eventually understand that what seems like a bug in the graphics along the bottom of the screen (two or three part-rows of pixels removed from the top of the inventory bar) represents the door. You will not have this, err, advantage if you want to move from the balcony towards the dining room- there is not even the slightest visual clue to the existence of a door there.
But the most severe case of pixel hunting, and one that made me terribly angry, is when you need to pick up a quill left behind by a porcupine. You will simply have no way of doing that, unless you are incredibly lucky- there is one, count it, ONE pixel on the screen representing the quill. I spent over half an hour clicking over and around where it should have been, to no avail, until I suddenly "hit" the quill. I then tried restarting the game several times, and indeed, after the fifth replay of the same position, when the porcupine left the quill, it could be easily taken. A bug, certainly, but one that could send gamers away screaming for their money back.
In any case, pixel hunting is something you will do a lot. In the same scene, you need to pick up a cattail, something porcupines eat. Well, out of the 10-15 of those along the shore, only one specific cattail may be picked up, and you may well not get it if you do not take bother to click on all of them. Skipping over scenes of animation, when possible, require moving your mouse icon somewhere in the right hand corner of the screen JUST SO, or it will not be possible. Of course, you may not be lucky enough to be able to do that- some animation scenes cannot be skipped, even after the 37th time of watching them. At least you can cut short the sentences by clicking, which, taking into account the lengthy nature of conversations, means that you will be breaking the buttons on your mouse before you end this game.
Graphics? Sound? Where?
I have already mentioned Backpacker 's old look, haven't I? It runs in standard VGA, no SVGA option available, although I am not sure the latter would have been playable considering the resources required for the former. Chuck McBlade , your character, seems to be suffering from the Jesus Syndrome- he keeps floating over the scenery in a very unnatural way. When conversations take place, the screen is frozen and the talkers' faces appear at the top of the screen, opening and closing their mouths, supposedly in time with the script. It still seems like they are trying to dislodge their lower jaw. The poor graphics contribute much to the lack of visual clues problem (I'm getting there), and simply do not fit a late 90's game.
And now, the killer: Backpacker has a terrible case of unfriendliness, in terms of helping the player get along. Yes, I am referring, of course, to the lack of visual clues. Advancing in this game is as much a matter of luck as it is of skill. Did you happen to press on the right part of the screen? Good for you. Just remember, there are over 100 such screens... examples are aplenty: the cattail I told you about. Then, nearby, there are two berry bushes that need to be inspected. Fine. The only problem is, they seem just like any other part of the scenery, and you may well pass them by without having a clue (literally) as to their importance. In yet another place, Chuck can get killed by eating a poisonous mushroom. Again, fine. But the problem is, it does not LOOK like a mushroom, and you may simply click on it mistakenly (after all, if you got this far, you already know that you need to click all around the screen to do things). Well, in that case, hey ho, you are dead, and need to reload the last saved game. This sort of thing happens so often, that I began wondering whether it was intended. The interface, being as it is, does not help you at all- why couldn't they make it like in other games, where moving over a hotspot make something glow?
There are also some inconsistencies in the front end, like when that dear porcupine runs out of one side of the screen, and when you follow, it's gone. Only when you go back, it suddenly appears from THE OTHER SIDE. The mother lying on the beach sunbathing seems asleep, but is in fact wide awake and is very happy to talk to you, or shout at her boys if they do that and talk to a stranger. You may not leave the trails, even though they are surrounded by grass, due to some invisible wall (or is Chuck allergic to grass?). I have already noted the way your hero floats over the scenery, but this becomes ridiculous when you look at him from afar, like when he walks around the lake. In such instances, poor Chuck is transformed into a pair of blue and yellow dots, moving across the screen. Again, other examples are easy to find, if you do not become too frustrated too quickly.
Moving over to sound and music, I can say that Backpacker, while not being horrible, certainly has a shot at "worst sounding adventure game in 1997". The music is nice, but becomes way too repetitive very soon. It took me about 15 minutes to turn it off, something you can luckily do without removing the sound effects. These are important, since Backpacker does not supply subtitles for conversations, so if you are deaf, forget about it. Conversations are a chore in themselves, requiring that you initiate them over and over until they repeat. Why not just dump the whole exchange on you at once, I do not know. I guess it is yet another puzzle.
The character's voiceovers are very poor and unprofessional in themselves, aiming to destroy whatever is left of Backpacker 's already shaky suspension of disbelief. The only reasonable voiceover is that of the narrator, an omnipotent being which describes some of your hero's actions and thoughts during the game (Chuck himself has his own voiceover). The idea of using a narrator is good one, and well executed, without too much intervention.
It's not quite dead yet
Reading the above, it would be amazing to think that I have something positive to say about this game. Well, prepare to be amazed. Backpacker, even with all it's flaws, can be quite interesting. You will need a lot of patience to play it to the end, not only because it is incredibly long. Having read everything up to here, you should already know why.
So why am I saying that? Because, behind all the ugliness, Backpacker has a pretty good story and script. It is about an old, deserted goldmine in a natural reserve. Chuck Mcblade, the hero, apparently being a well-known figure similar to Indiana Jones, gets a call from the daughter of an innkeeper. Said keeper is about to lose the inn in that reserve, if he does not come up with some money to settle a court order. This innkeeper is friend to an aged Indian, who, as a child, visited the goldmine, although he remembers nothing of it at the present time. Of course, that mine is the only way the keeper and his lovely daughter will be able to rescue the inn, and chase off the villains aiming to destroy it and the reserve. The villains are also looking for the mine, which had become a legend over the years. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it is written well, mainly because one of the creators of the game is a real writer (a Phil Grabmiller), rather than a game developer. The script runs well, introducing you to various aspects of this online world in a rather attaching way. It is a fact that even after encountering all of the problems Backpacker suffers from, I still wanted to find out what was going on. No, it isn't a masterpiece, not by any means, but the story is interesting, and what kept Backpacker from receiving a junk award.
Another nuance of the game is the flora and fauna of the reserve. Backpacker , early in the game, supplies you with two books: a plant book and an animal book. Using these two, you are able to identify the various plants and animals in the reserve, and actually learn something about the subject. This is a process you will have to go through a number of times, since correct identification of different parts of the habitat is part of the objects of the game. Again, the whole thing is quite interesting, and I only wish it were implemented correctly. As it is, the plant book is close to useless, since the plants themselves are badly presented, graphically. This causes the disappearance of necessary visual clues (again), or worse, the appearance of false ones. One example I can immediately think of is with a raspberry bush- the book claims that the only berry bush with "opposite leaves" are snowberries, yet the raspberry bush is also shown with the same kind of leaves. Still, the idea is grand, and in most cases, it is quite fun to try and accomplish things in a "scientific" way (remember the Porcupine? If you open the book, you may find that a Porcupine likes Cattails, which sends you back clicking on all the cattails until you find the one you can take).
Saved by the bell
Backpacker has another advantage, and that is it's low price. Presumably, for people with a lower end machine, one could recommend buying it. But I cannot do that, because Backpacker is so high on resources. Of course, if you are a patient person, with some interest in nature but without much money to spend, you have an old computer running Windows 3.x, and you are willing to overlook all it's faults, then Backpacker can be a game to try. But I doubt it. You can buy much better, old games (and Backpacker IS old) for much less today, like Gabriel Knight, Day Of The Tentacle, and Sam & Max, to name a few. Backpacker is simply not on the same level. It has some good ideas, but it is very poorly implemented.
All in all, my recommendation is to stay far away.
Review By GamesDomain
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