A Great Leap Sideways: The Complicated History of "Uninvited"
Lisa Was Dead, To Begin With
In my previous post on The Lurking Horror, I gave a fair amount of history behind the formation of the horror genre in video gaming and how it related to that particular game. I feel a similar approach is merited when talking about ICOM Simulations' Uninvited. I hope you will indulge me this seemingly meandering route to my destination, and follow as best you can. If it helps, I can illustrate why this is necessary with a single, critical point: I played Uninvited on the NES...but it had been around for five years already by the time it arrived on that system.
When I talked about The Lurking Horror (1987), I made sure to drive home that imagination was replacing graphics during the height of Interactive Fiction. Well, as it happens, graphic adventures had been around for years. They just hadn't been especially popular. This was attributable to the ongoing battle between IBM's PC and Apple's various...things. In the early 80's, the PC was far and away the machine to beat. It was the industry standard of computing, and consequently, so was MS-DOS, the operating system that ran it. MS-DOS, for those who are unaware, was a text-based interface. Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs) had not yet been introduced...until Apple decided to bite the bullet and go for it.
Steve Jobs and the Apple team's first attempt was the Lisa, the very first personal computer to feature a GUI. It failed. Catastrophically. Why? Well, to start with the ticket price was $9995 at the time of its launch in 1983. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to almost $24,000 Canadian today. Also crucially...businesses just didn't know what to do with it, and that goes for both consumers AND for software developers. Developers didn't want to go through the very complicated process of "porting" their software from a text-based OS to a GUI, and consumers couldn't yet see the practical application of the fancy-shmancy features. So the Lisa flopped.
Apple was down, but not out. Following the Lisa fiasco, Steve Jobs - who had been reassigned during the development - came out with the Macintosh one year later, in 1984. The retail price was comparatively much cheaper than the Lisa, at $2,495. You might remember the launch of the Macintosh, and the coincidental year, because of this:
Compared to the Lisa, the Macintosh (later rebranded the Macintosh 128 following subsequent releases) fared quite well, but it was still not enough to dent PC's cornered market. Still, a successful consumer computer that was actually being used and programmed for meant that Apple saw the birth of what would become an entirely new frontier of gaming: a point-and-click interface.
Into this strange new world strolled ICOM Simulations, and the "MacVenture" series. These pioneers saw the potential of the GUI that Apple had struggled to develop. They took it, and with some impressively creative innovations in the usage of the Macintosh's interface, they first rolled out their noir detective story Déja Vu, and then their foray into horror: Uninvited.
So by now you might, if you've been playing very close attention, be wondering: how could I go on at length about the merits of The Lurking Horror eschewing graphics at a time when graphic adventures were clearly a possibility? After all, The Lurking Horror came out in 1987, while Uninvited hit the market in 1986. Well, you may have also observed that Uninvited was only available at the time on a rather expensive machine that not many people were shelling out for around the home. My family may have been early Apple adopters with our IIc, but we weren't exactly going to shell out for something that we didn't really know how to use.
A DOS port of Uninvited arrived in 1987, but for me I'd have to wait until 1991, when MacVenture was blossoming on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
And now, the Game
Let's get something out of the way right away. The only reason most anyone has likely even heard of ICOM or MacVenture is because of one of their NES ports. Not Uninvited. No. THIS:
Ah, Shadowgate. So beloved amongst the gaming community that it garnered a re-release just last year, buoyed by a Kickstarter campaign that raised a not-insignificant $137k.
Uninvited, sadly, is less well-known. And not necessarily for unfair reasons. I'll explain.
To begin with, let's talk about the plot to Uninvited (specifically speaking to the NES version). You are driving along a back country road with your big sister, when a strange apparition in the road causes you to swerve into a tree. You lose consciousness, and when you awaken your sister is missing, and the car is on fire. Assuming you don't linger in the car for the inevitable explosion, you find yourself outside a creepy mansion. Seeking help - and your missing sibling - you enter the mansion...and of course the door slams shut, trapping you inside. Surprise! Haunted!
From there, the plot revolves around piecing together the patchy history of the mansion, which involves a cult of magicians whose star pupil became obsessed with dark forces, and quickly corrupted the group from within. The powerful magic and demonic forces still hold sway over the mansion, and you must overcome the obstacles they throw at you to find a way out. Simple, right?
If there's one thing that Uninvited and the rest of the MacVenture line are known for, it's the numerous and rather easy ways to die. When I first played this game, I could not for the life of me figure out to get past the "Southern Belle" that tears you apart. You run into her quite early on, and only by choosing a very specific path, finding a very specific item, opening that item, and then using it on her could you finally overcome this obstacle. Any other movement around the Belle leads to this death scene.
You can also be eaten by zombies, ripped apart by dogs, possessed by ghosts, dissolved in acid, drowned in a trap room...the list goes on.
It is this difficulty that stretches out much of the game, coupled with some puzzles which are frankly downright obtuse if you didn't stumble upon a clue in your travels. As the game is non-linear, it is very easy to miss those clues, and for that matter to miss critical items that are used at a much later point. Just to complicate matters, the game even has loads of items which are utterly useless. Your first time through, of course, you'll have no way of knowing what you need and don't need in order to solve a puzzle. If you grew up on the Adventure Game motto of "if it's not nailed down, take it (if it is nailed down, find something to pry out the nails and take it anyway)," you are in for a rough ride. Conversely, if you know exactly what you're doing, beating Uninvited can be accomplished in as little as 25 minutes. I know. I did it for this review.
So, the puzzles aren't the best part of the game, to be sure. No, where the game comes alive is in the nifty environments, the awesome music, and colourful monsters you face. Many of the beasts don't fall into any normal mythology and are quite out there, such as...
OK, but is it Scary?
But here, also, is where I have to come back to why I explained so much of Uninvited's history, and mentioned that it may not be as fondly remembered as Shadowgate.
The NES version is completely, utterly neutered.
When Uninvited made it's way to the home consumer, less powerful 8-bit console, it had to be chopped down. The descriptions in the original Macintosh version are much more vivid and fully realized. It's immediately obvious in a side-by-side comparison of one of the first rooms you see. First we have the NES version:
And now for the Macintosh version...
In fact, I'd say this proves my point about The Lurking Horror, namely that fantastic descriptions in text form can enhance a gaming environment.
Unfortunately, not only did the NES version pare down text based on the capabilities of the system, it pared it down to satisfy the NES family-friendly image. Take a look at this difference in appearance of one of the spectres you encounter:
The NES version:
And now, the Mac version:
With Shadowgate, the NES' charming 8-bit, full colour graphics worked well, complimenting the game's sadistic sense of humour. With Uninvited...well...to answer the question: is it scary? No. Not on the NES. When I was a little kid, absolutely. The Belle in particular was terrifying. Now, not so much.
But the Mac Version? STILL SCARY.
...and I have some great news. It so happens that the original makers of Uninvited, in cooperation with Humble Bundle, have created ports of the Mac versions of all of the MacVenture games, and they run natively on modern computers with no tricky finagling. They're incredibly cheap at $2 a pop, or you can grab all four and save yourself a buck.
I highly recommend the Mac Version of Uninvited. It's creepier, more fully realized, and it features an added challenge in the form of a time limit; as the mansion's evil presence gradually overwhelms you, you'll be interrupted by a leering skull periodically until you are fully possessed and lost forever.
Uninvited stands as a cornerstone in gaming history alongside its MacVenture siblings, and a vital piece of the horror genre, though at the time we didn't know it. Though few played it on the MacIntosh in 1984, enough - like myself - found out about it retroactively to keep it alive. In a way, it's both comforting, and terrifying, to think that progress marches on whether we're aware of it or not. It's up to each of us whether we accept the invite to join in.