Product: The Magic Sword
Publisher: Database Publications
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #63

Name three fun games for very young children on the Electron. It's not as easy as you might think, is it? Sure, there are lots of good educational titles available as a result of Acornsoft and its collaboration with ASK, ESM and Bourne. But the likes of Word Sequencing and Number Balance seem to be more like exercises in English and Maths than a real game, and simple shape-matching games like Facemaker are probably no more than a necessary evil to kids now that computers are so all-prevalent in the classroom.

The young-child-fun category I'm attempting to explain is a category where the game is devoid of any real 'educational' content, but instead is just a very simplified version of a game based at a higher age group. One example might be a Snapper clone when the ghost moves very slowly when 'homing in' on the Snapper. Another, happily, is what we have in The Magic Sword; an 'official' disc-based title from Database Software which does some amazing things with the concept of a straight-forward text adventure.

The plot is very simple. A wicked witch has locked up an unfortunate princess in a castle and turned her adoring prince into a frog. You set off to return the unfortunate pair to the standard of living they enjoyed previous to this incident. It involves wandering around a small area using the NSEW keys and collecting any items you find along the way.

Coming from the inventors of Nursery Rhymes and the Fun School series, you're fairly assured of the quality of this product and it doesn't disappoint. On booting up the disc you get a quick title screen accompanied by a lively string of notes played on interrupt, two colourful screens of instructions and then the adventure proper begins.

What is immediately likeable about The Magic Sword is that the traditional format of the adventure game has not been departed from, despite what has been done to simplify it for youngsters. The screen is divided horizontally into two sections and, while the game is presented in Mode 4 (limiting the palette to two colours), complimentary colours mean that text and illustrations always appear darker than the background behind them. The location descriptions, in the bottom rectangle, are presented in double height text to aid readability and a compass featuring N, E, S and W around a crosshair cleverly flashes only the directions in which the player can move in the bottom right.

Above the location description, a blocky graphic appears of what is described below. For example, a window. If there is also an object in the room, it appears too, and to pick it up the player need only press G for GET. When searching through the inventory, each object appears on screen in turn waiting for a keypress before returning to the game.

Now this simplified format of adventure puzzling is certainly not unique to The Magic Sword and has been utilised in many BBC adventures for children such as Granny's Garden and Little Red Riding Hood. The trouble with these titles though is that they could not be converted to the Electron firstly because they played completely in Mode 7, which requires all seven colours to be available; and secondly because Mode 7 only requires 1K of memory and the programs would be too long to work in any other Mode.

Probably the best way of appreciating these restrictions is simply to take a look at these other titles on the good ole Beeb and just try and imagine how you would tackle the conversion in order to keep all the elements intact in a conversion to the Electron. It would be a difficult if not impossible process.

What Database have done therefore is, undaunted by the Elk's limitations, to write an adventure of comparable (lack-of-)complexity within them. From the original blocky style of Mode 7 graphics we get the illustrations in the top window; from the double-height text so easy to manipulate in Teletext Mode we get the double-height descriptions. It is something of a unique attempt to emulate these popular titles and almost seems to proudly boast almost all of their features.

For example, whenever you move in a valid direction, there is a high pitched sound almost like a grasshopper rubbing its legs together. The screen blanks, the colours change (helping to increase the variety of the screen - this is important with young children as players) in the darkness then the new location appears, complete with its new graphic and updated compass points. If you move in an invalid direction, there is a sound like the rocks falling in Repton and you are told what you did wrong. This is probably the one major problem in the game however, because the text saying, for example, "You can't move up here!" appears on the very top line of the screen and you often can't see it on a TV.

The adventure itself is also not as easy as you might expect, and moving the wrong way at a certain location is likely to see you roasted in an oven or plunged into a waterfall; in both cases signalling your imminent demise. Some educationalists might argue that this is discouraging but personally I found the adventure games shipped into my classroom on the BBC to be more so where death was not possible. I still remember being infuriated by one where I tried to walk into "the Lair of the Killer Spider" and just got the response "That isn't wise!"

The Magic Sword's death routines also make very good use of the Elk's graphics and sound capabilities. In fact the combination of graphics, sounds, compass and sequences do a lot to counterbalance the fact the game is in monochrome. The original package also comes with a large print instruction manual too which can be referred to in the very unlikely event of the child experiencing difficulty.

Reflect back on the fun category then and you'll probably see that The Magic Sword aptly fits the bill. As an added bonus too, it works on all Electron disc systems (Sadly though, not on the BBC!), even where PAGE is set to &1D00. It is a slick, professional title for young children which is a great but serious introduction to text adventuring. And it's also quite unique in the library of Elk software available. Personally, if I had to name three fun games for the under fives this would come top, followed closely by Database's excellent Nursery Rhymes and Mirrorsoft's amazing Crack It Towers.