The Black Cauldron

Posted by Davide Tomei.
First posted on 14 September 2008. Last updated on 22 May 2011.
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The Black Cauldron
The Black Cauldron is developed by Sierra On-Line for The Walt Disney Company Adventure Game Development System.
The Black Cauldron
Caer Dalben is where Taran starts his quest.
The Black Cauldron
Most of the land in Prydain is quite lush.
The Black Cauldron
Taran can swim, but the current can draw him in if it is too turbulent.
The Black Cauldron
Despite the limited graphics, the game is able to capture the spooky ambience of the movie on which it is based.

The Black Cauldron is an adventure game inspired by the little known 1985 Disney animated movie of the same name. Although the movie is not amongst the most successful of Disney's films and the game is made in the early era of computer games, The Black Cauldron is nonetheless still an enjoyable and colorful adventure, even for today.

As in the movie, the main character is Taran, a young Assistant Pig-Keeper working for the wizard Dallben on the small farm of Caer Dalben. Taran must protect the magical pig Hen Wen, that possesses clairvoyance abilities, from the evil Horned King, who wants to use the pig to find the Black Cauldron, a magical cauldron that will give its possessor the power to create an army of the undead to rule the land. Your quest is to help the young Taran to prevent the Horned King from getting the magical cauldron, thereby saving the mystic land of Prydain.

The graphics in The Black Cauldron are typical of those seen in many other computer games of the same period. The game is developed using Sierra On-Line's Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) that supports a resolution of 160x200 pixels x16 colors (a considerable achievement for the time). Even with the evident limits (but only by today's standards), the game is to recreate the feel of the animated movie, with its spooky and dark but fairy color palettes. Still, the lack of details in the graphics typifies the limitation of the AGI engine. The pixels are clearly visible to the naked eye and completely obscure any facial expression of the game characters. In fact, the eyes, the nose, and the mouth are nothing more than just a few pixels on a character's face. Details are likewise lacking in the environments in many outdoor and indoor scenes. This is a common flaw in all games of that period and is not specific to this game.

The sounds in The Black Cauldron are played through the PC speaker. There is no support for dedicated sound cards. Unlike contemporary games, music plays only a minimal role. Moreover, the monotonic high pitched squeak of the PC speaker makes it difficult to listen to it without turning it off every few minutes.

The Black Cauldron was only the second adventure game (the first being The Dark Crystal) that Sierra On-Line developed based on a movie license. Both the game and the movie were loosely based on the children fantasy novel series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. According to the game's designer Al Lowe, Disney contracted Sierra On-Line to develop the game because the studio had no software developer of its own at the time. Even so, the game was marketed under the Walt Disney Personal Computer Software label. During the game's development, Disney granted Lowe complete access to the original hand-painted backgrounds and animation cells from the movie. These production originals, in turn, were used to model the over 1,020 cells of animations that made up the 30 animated characters featured in the game. Disney also granted Lowe access to the original Elmer Bernstein music score from the movie, and the 8 different musical tunes scored for the game were all based on the musical score of the movie.

Despite the claim on the box that the game is "A 3-D Animated Adventure Game" (it even claims to have 70 3-D screens), The Black Cauldron is a classic 2-D game. You move Taran around by leading him to the edge of the screen in order to go to the next screen. The gameplay is quite unique for its time, possibly because the game is primarily aimed to younger gamers (kids) and the usual text parser interface will simply be too difficult for them to use. In fact, there is no parser in the game at all, and all the actions are controlled with specific keys. Function keys F1 to F10 are used to interact with characters, access the inventory, manipulate items, and even control system functions such as saving the game and changing the game speed.

Yet, this oversimplification of the interface can often make for more difficult management of the game actions, largely because of the quirky inventory and movement controls of Taran. The inventory is accessed by pressing F3, which shows a list of the character's belongings. You then have to scroll through the list to choose an item and press F4 to use it. This is quite tedious to use, especially if you have to act quickly. Given there is no mouse support, you control Taran using the arrows keys. There are some parts of the game, however, whereby the combination of clumsy keyboard controls and pixelated graphics can make certain challenges very difficult to get through. In fact, when you need to get past a narrow ledge or use a rope, a pixel can often make the difference between life and death! This can result in a lot of frustrating gameplay, particularly when you have to repeat the attempt many times over to get through the same part.

There are several ways you can die in The Black Cauldron. You can die by falling from heights or drowning in a river. You can also die from starving if you do not eat and drink regularly. If you die, you must restart the game from the beginning, as there are no extra lives to spare. There are several different endings to the game. Depending on the choices you make or events that happen during the game, the story takes on different paths that lead to different endings (at least 6 endings). This greatly increase the replay value of the game, since you may want to replay it to explore the others possibilities. There are no real puzzles in the game. In order to proceed onwards with the story, you simply have to accomplish a number of mini sub-quests in succession, such as finding a specific object, rescuing a certain person, and so on. Unfortunately, the game quite often does not give you any clue on what to do next, leaving you wandering around in the game without a goal.

Even for today, The Black Cauldron is a decent adventure game. The dated graphics and the clumsy interface can make for some frustrating gameplay, but they are endurable flaws. Although the game is largely aimed for younger gamers, it is a game that can be easily enjoyed by older adult gamers as well.

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