From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, prepare to go on the ride of your life... or rather, death.
There are a few basic rules for safe tourism. If anyone offers you food claiming that it's a "local delicacy", it's a trap. Don't drink the water; you're on holiday, be more adventurous. If the sign saying "Keep Off The Grass" also includes the words "By Order Of El Presidente" then for god's sake, stay off the grass, and should you find that your taxi cab is literally labelled "Hell Cab", well, does it really need to be said? Apparently, yes. It does.
Hell Cab was a relatively early CD-ROM game, coming out in 1993 and running on the dreaded Windows 3.1, intended as a bit of a showpiece for both Time Warner and Pepe Moreno, a Spanish comic book artist whose name appears no fewer than twice on the cover—along with the warning "THIS GAME MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR SOUL".
What's odd about it is that Time Cab would be a far more appropriate name, the whole "Hell" thing being rather underplayed and certainly not used for horror. The most terrifying thing about it is that it uses an early version of Quicktime, though to be clear, that still makes it more intimidating than a giant robot scorpion that barfs live spiders. Quicktime is the absolute bane of retro games.
The basic gimmick is that you're a tourist in New York, caught between flights, who gets approached by a friendly enough guy called Raul and offered a very special tour of the city. Raul seems okay, aside from the fact that he drives THE HELL CAB, which is dubbed by the game, "A Time Machine With A Checkered Past". Ho-ho-ho. You get some money out of an ATM and crazily jump into THE HELL CAB and all seems to be going OK. Except, disaster! When you arrive, you find that you're one measly dollar short.
But that's fine. Because if the minions of Hell are known for anything, it's generosity. "OK, I'm gonna cut you some slack," says Raul, as amiably as a man driving a HELL CAB can be expected to. "I'm gonna give you a special deal. And all you have to do is sign this..."
And yes, just driving to the next ATM is absolutely out of the question. Because it turns out that the real purpose of this is to set up "an exciting adventure around the metropolitan area with several stops of special historical interest."
The deal is that the HELL CAB taxi company gets to call all the shots, waiving immunity for—amongst other things—asphyxiation, assault, beheading, blinding, bludgeoning, burning, coma, contusions, crushing, flogging, freezing, decapitation, disembowelment, dismemberment, drowning, garrotting, gashing, gassing, goring, imprisonment, incineration, ingestion, mutilation, murder, paralysis, poisoning, pounding, pummelling, shooting, stabbing, strangulation, thrashing, whipping, and zombification. In the event of these, or running out of "non material spiritual nature" (karma points, as it were) means an immediate trip down to the corporate office for eternal "reassignment".
So. You've signed away your soul to the Devil, at least temporarily. You're in a car driven by one of his minions, openly on a quest to destroy you and leave you subject to the devil's cruel domination for the rest of eternity. Where is the first step on this voyage of the newly damned?
The Empire State Building. And it's not like there's anything horrific going on there. No demons. No zombies. You're simply encouraged to go up to the roof and look through the binoculars, where you see visions of... uh... New York. Like anyone else. And when you do it and go back, all Raul has to say is "Pretty good view, eh?" I have no idea if you're meant to find anything, but I certainly didn't.
But anyway. What's next on the tour? Central Park? Madison Square Gardens? The Statue of Liberty?
At least it's a friendly welcome. "Welcome, traveller, to a celebration of blood and death," declares the Emperor. "What shall I call you?"
Wait. Does Raul drop people off here regularly? Because that would have made Gladiator a hell of a lot more fun, and Pompeii almost bearable. Almost.
In true adventure game fashion, you get the chance to push your luck and declare that the Emperor can call you "Your highness" if he likes. Shockingly, he does not in fact like. "Dog, you have the rare and brief honour to gaze upon Nero!" declares Nero, "Emperor of all Rome! Master of your fate!" And then, inevitably, you find yourself in a jail cell. So, incarceration can be ticked off the To Do list.
Any bets on zombification coming later?
It's at least a plush and spacious jail cell, if lacking in a few basic things like sanitation, bedding, and a sense of hope. You even get a visit from a gladiator, who makes it clear that "I bear you no malice, stranger, but only one of us shall emerge from the arena." At this there is the option to ask "Oh yeah? Who?" for the clarification "That will be me." Splendid. Good to have that cleared up. In the next cell there's a lady in a toga who looks a little bit like Margaery Tyrell from Game of Thrones mixed with Willow from Buffy, who offers the slightly more comforting advice, "Take heart brother, but the devil's temptations are many. You must stay strong to save your soul", plus angelic chorus.
When the Emperor appears, it's obvious we have a moral choice coming. And indeed, there are three options. "How shall you entertain your Emperor? First, the Gladiator Challenge! Or you may want to run the gauntlet! Or my personal favourite... throwing the lovely ladies to the lions!"
Hmm. Tough choice. Tough, tough choice. Be murdered by a gladiator, be murdered by...
...wait a second, what was that third option?
Throwing the ladies to the lions turns out to be an immediate game over, do not pass go, do not collect your pleasant afterlife situation. Fighting a gladiator turns out to be, to put it bluntly, "stupid", so the only choice is to run the gauntlet. But hey, how difficult could it be, really?
Awful doesn't begin to describe it. The first challenge is to pick one of three symbols: a square, a circle or a triangle. It's a 1/3 chance of getting through, which means a 2/3 chance of being spiked in the face by an uncaring designer. Then, to the boos of the crowd, you have to get past first swinging hammers and then swinging axes, all with not so much pixel-perfect precision as pixel-unresponsive frustration.
I quote from a guide found online:
Q: How do I defeat the gauntlet?
A: The gauntlet is very hard to beat, even if you play against it many times. That is partly because it doesn't behave the same way twice. But if you want to try, here's a tip: The cursor is your key to survival. You'll notice that it changes from the forward-pointing cursor to the standard black arrow for a second and then back. *During* the second or so of that black arrow (cursor), you should begin clicking madly.
Uh-huh. Or, to put it in scientific terms, **** that . At least fighting a gladiator you get a weapon.
Take that! Yes, you may have training and muscles and an unbroken record, but you know what I have? I have decades of adventure game pixelbitching and I shall own your ass. Not literally. I have no use for your ass. Not even as a chair cushion. Though now I think about it, that would be quite an interesting talking point. Not the kind of thing you can just go down to Ikea and buy.
But no. This game having a moral system, such things would be Wrong. And likewise, when Nero gives the thumbs down to the gladiator's wretched life, the correct answer is to spare his life and not launch on an impromptu lecture about how that is a misconception and not actually a gesture he would have used. But then, he wouldn't have spoken English with an American accent either, and that doesn't stop him declaring "Guards! Take this worm from my sight and do with him what you please!"
Just once, it would be nice for a guard to hear that and think "Oooh. I'll serve him cake!"
At this point though it becomes hilariously easy to escape by swiping keys from the cell guard, who then completely ignores you opening it and walking around, presumably because his job is to watch prisoners in the cell and you are now out of his jurisdiction. He doesn't even seem to notice as you give a quarter to this mysterious bum, who I'm almost positive will not turn out to be God or something equally cliché...
...or free this lady, who asks "Must my beauty waste away in this foul and dank dungeon?"
Of course, the answer is "no". And having given the answer, she promises to be "eternally grateful". Intriguing! What form will this gratitude take? A year of sexytime, like Odysseus was once offered? Companionship on this war against the ultimate evil? A holy-forged weapon, that all foes might be struck down?
No. Her "eternal gratitude" is worth exactly one token on the New York subway.
But the day's not over yet! Raul is already waiting in the HELL CAB!
"Next stop, 1917. Uptown!"
Rome consisted of exactly one puzzle, which was either down to random chance or crazed clicking. Compared to France though, it's Planescape: Torment designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and played entirely on an Orgasmatron.
The trenches of France look like they're a maze, but not even that much effort went into them. They're a straight line full of randomly spawning German soldiers delivering instakill jump scares, featuring occasional gas attacks that will kill instantly, and at one point, one of the more bizarre moral choices I remember seeing in a game: asked by a dying Frenchman to pledge your support, you're able to tell him, "Nah, I'm going with the Germans on this one."
And then, when he chokes out advice in both a) his dying breath and b) the worst French accent ever heard, you're able to leave him to his suffering with, "Okiedokie!"
Oh, and still speaking of terrible, terrible moments in game design, here's the worst turret sequence ever.
The French section of Hell Cab doesn't even go anywhere. You walk to the hospital bunker, where a ghostly lady appears. Click on her, and you're whisked back to the Empire State Building, still looking around and trying to work out where the "game" was. Seriously, what was the point of that?
But I'm almost positive Raul has something better for our next jaunt.
Oh. Oh my.
You're... not going to believe this. But this is what happens.
Raul takes you to the Jurassic era... yes, the one with the dinosaurs...
To use an ATM.
And after it happens, how do you get back? Well, obviously you find the bum from earlier just standing around, asking for $20. And when you give it to him, he magics you back to the Empire State Building again.
I have... I have nothing. And making the confusion worse, it was at this point that I hit a dead end. You see, the way that Hell Cab is that you have a few hundred dollars in your bank account, but are only allowed to withdraw a maximum of $100 from each ATM in the game.
But here's the catch. Time and/or clicks spent exploring the past adds to your fare. Not just moving between rooms. Clicking on scenery. Doing anything. Anything could boost it, it's really not clear how the system is designed. The kicker is that you can easily get this far, having withdrawn cash at all possible places, only to still end up short. At this point, Raul will only ferry you back to the Jurassic era to a non-functional ATM, bringing things to an unceremonious dead-man-walking close.
It could well be that playing on a modern machine is screwing with the timing, or that I missed an ATM somewhere, but I played through Hell Cab twice and both times ran short. At least that means the Devil doesn't get my soul, technically! What's supposed to happen is that you get taken to the final world, an apocalyptic New York, where you get attacked by the enemies from the previous levels in a definitely not cheap bit of asset re-use, then descend to Hell's garage to burn your contract and pay your fare. And that, according to the walkthrough online, is that.
Pay him the remaining fare and he tells you your soul is OK. With that, his cab changes into a futuristic flying vehicle a la Back to the Future and returns you to the airport by way of a dinosaur in Times Square.
I missed a ride on a dinosaur?! Damn you, Hell Cab. Damn you!
I'd love to say that this is one of the worst adventure games I've ever played. And in fact, I'm going to. Taking a ride in the HELL CAB is only a slightly more pleasant prospect than licking the floor of an actual New York cab; and even then, there's at least a slight chance the rat poop will be a Malteser or something.
What's really unfortunate is that the idea is pretty solid—a way of jumping between settings and doing lots of cool things, completely wasted under design that was slack in 1993 and now doesn't even have the rustic charm of cave paintings. It's all so tacky, so poorly made and designed, only the devil himself could get any fun out of it as a torture device. And even then, piano wire under the fingernails is almost certainly easier to get up and running.
Hell Cab does have one thing on its side—a demo of a disc called Woodstock: 25th Anniversary. Just check out these amazing production values. It's like you're there!
Witness the raw, untapped potential of the "Groovy Paint" feature!
I think we have to assume this was all an evil test of how much even hippies are prepared to tolerate before they declare, "Screw this," and reach for a chainsaw.
It's hard to imagine that Hell Cab wouldn't have done the same to anyone unfortunate enough to buy it, but at least it came out early enough that not many would have had the money to get it running, and most of the remaining audience isn't allowed out of their straitjackets without being supervised. No, not by their nurses. By their demonic jailers.