1-line review, actor's age, Child Ballads, Francis James Child, Howard Pyle, Kevin Costner, left-handed mouse, Robin Hood, Robin Hood - The Legend of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, taxation is theft, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
A friend used to say that. It was during Dungeon and Dragons games when he would come to a fork in the way. “Let’s go right,” he’d say, “because right is good and left is evil.”
I doubt that it every made a lick of difference during those games. But for me, when it comes to mouse buttons, I wholeheartedly endorse the phrase.
I am right handed, but I have all of my computers configured for a left-handed mouse. I’ve found this to be a very effective solution for staving off carpel tunnel syndrome while engaging in extensive computer use. I don’t know why it works – and maybe it is 2 parts psychosomatic to 1 part physiology – but it does.
But not all games support a left handed mouse. I’ve not tried to be analytical about it, but it seems like there is a particularly bad period in the early aughts. Before that and games will, assuming they have been adapted to run on a modern system, simply carry through the system configurations. Move closer to today, and games are more tightly integrated with the operating system, also avoiding gaps. In that middle is where the concept (first) of using hotkeys to enhance gaming and (second) allowing the reconfiguration of those hotkeys to the user’s pleasure came in. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the programing to go straight to the keyboard and mouse and redirect the inputs, but configuration of the mouse is often left out. The more intensive the configuration needed for a style of game, it seems, the more likely that the mouse buttons are hard-coded to the righty mouse. So Flight Sims, CRPGs and First Person Shooters from a certain era probably have the best chance of being wrist unfriendly for me.
The problem does not skip over strategy games, though. I’ve mentioned the Shrapnel offerings before. I will remain eternally bitter over the strategy game Salvo!, which was exactly the game I wanted to play when I bought it (tactical Age of Sail). It was also unplayable for me. Not only does it hard code the right-handed mouse, but the UI is filled with mouse-down gesturing. One or two games in, and I was afraid I’d have to give up computers for good. (Much better now, though).
Shift gears for a moment, and let’s go back to those early aughts. The game Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood was released in 2002. It rode on a wave of the, by that time, popular “stealth” genre of game play. I recall being introduced to stealth games with the 1998 release of Thief: The Dark Project. At least in the reviews I was reading, Thief was touted as a “more intelligent” alternative to the first person shooter genre. Rather being the fastest with your click and twitch, success would flow from careful forethought and NOT engaging in the high speed slaughter of your enemies. Also in 1998, an RTS version of the genre was available in the form of the game Commandos.
By 2002, much had advanced in graphics and game play, particularly in the RTS genre. Robin Hood came out, was fairly well received, and moved into a 2nd or 3rd place spot on my game wishlist. I don’t remember what kept it from the top, but I do recall giving it some serious thought, and then a pass, a number of times over. It has an aesthetic that I’ve come to associated with being “European.” Or perhaps, to be more specific, German. The graphics portraying medieval Europe are, to my mind, very attractive. (It’s a similar style to what I recently praised in Legends of Eisenwald). The game wasn’t as cutthroat as some of that time’s more popular titles, whether from the “real time tactics” genre or the “stealth” genre. The developers promised more of an emphasis on “fun” rather than “challenge.”
I never did wind up getting it, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but there it is. Until, that is, some time last year when I found it on sale and finally picked it up.
Imagine my horror when I opened it up and realized that none of the buttons worked because the game is coded to use a right-handed mouse only!
It is a shame the game hates me so much right from the get-go, because the design has a lot going for it. In addition to the aesthetic, which I mention above, it combines features from a number of other genres. First, the “missions” are encapsulated within a strategic layer. For each mission, you choose a subset of Robin’s band to go, and other stay behind, performing various tasks while you are gone. The missions themselves are selected from a map, providing a certain amount of variety along with advancing the game’s story line.
Second, it is one of the early, and good, examples of the “stealth” tactical game. Playing it successfully means avoiding just fighting your way through the levels. The missions have strong puzzle-like elements, where you need to discover the pathways that allow you to sneak past or behind the enemies. Unlike Commandos, where almost immediately I find myself getting stymied by the difficulty, the puzzles seem not only simpler but have more room for trial and error. Even when spotted by the sheriff’s soldiers, it is often possible to run, hide, and make another go at things. In the worst case (and this is on the easiest setting), it is generally possible to forego the stealthy method and fight your way through the level. Points-wise, the player is punished for slaughtering too many of the enemy when a less lethal strategy is available, but it is not an automatic loss.
A third genre represented is the “pixel hunt” -style puzzles that were popular, particularly at that time. That’s not necessarily a plus in my view, but it does add some variety. After dispatching with all the enemies; the money, extra-arrows, and other goodies are hidden within the terrain. Some screen-hunting is necessary to maximize your haul for a given mission.
The last innovative feature that stood out for me is that, once a character is engaged in fighting, a mouse-gesture based fighting system is activated. It isn’t a necessary part of combat, but adds one more feature – popular at the time – of adding special “moves” to the combat system. As with the last feature, it’s not one I would look for in the games I generally play. In fact, I seem more likely than not to invoke roundhouse smashes that do as much damage to the friendlies surrounding me as to the enemy. As a game-design feature, though, it seems like a nice extra that adds to the appeal of the package.
It all comes together well enough for me to fight through the mouse issue and try a handful of the missions. The right mouse button (the real one, not mine) doesn’t seem to be that important, so just gripping the mouse a little funny and using it as if it were a single-button mouse seems to work OK. It’s alternatively intriguing and frustrating. Intriguing as I notice one special path where I can get through some guards by sneaking around and knocking a them on the heads from behind. Then frustrating as I stumble onto to another guard while trying to manage my clicks and get sucked into a 10 minute cycle of combat, and then carrying away the dead bodies.
His Merry Men
All this Robin Hood stuff got me thinking back to my Robin Hood experiences as a child. As far as I remember, I didn’t watch any Robin Hood shows on television. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen the Disney cartoon in its entirety, although I know I’d watched a few scenes of it, probably as part of the Wonderful World of Disney weekly show. My Robin Hood source was part of set of volumes called Children’s Classic Books probably, from what I’ve been able to divine from the internets, from the 1920s. What I recall most vividly were the full-page color illustrations that accompanied the story.
The publisher of this book (I suspect) capitalized on the lack of copyrights on classic works such as this one, taking a well-known publication and, with some minor editing and touch-up, republishing it without any attribution for the original author. This Classic Robin Hood book only has a credit for the illustrations (and also one for the introduction). Since I no longer know where these books are, and the only examples I’m seeing of them are a handful of people trying to pawn off their grandparent’s collections on Ebay, I’m left very much to conjecture about all of this. My suspicion is that my book was based on the 1883 novel, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. I’m currently reading my way through a copy of that so as to relive my childhood.
Pyle’s Robin Hood was very influential, shaping the popular conception of Robin Hood as a children’s tale. His book is written in an odd mix (particularly to modern eyes) of Victorian English, pseudo-Medieval English, and children’s prose. It tones down some of the sinister twists of the source material, making it more palatable as a children’s story. In doing so, he altered the image of Robin Hood as an (albeit lovable) thief and scoundrel to a noble hero, engaging in criminality purely in defense of the underdog in the face of tyranny.
Pyle’s source material is almost certainly Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a compilation of, and commentary upon, the traditional oral storytelling of the UK. I also am reading through some of Volume 3 of that series, which contains a number of the Robin Hood stories as lyrics and often map one-to-one with Pyle’s chapters.
Using the opening story, How Robin Hood Came To Be An Outlaw in the Pyle book, corresponding to Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham in Child’s, we can see an example of this. By the 50s and 60s, a common explanation of how Robin Hood became an outlaw is that he was outlawed by the evil powers-that-be to cheat him out of his inheritance. He is forced to join up with, and then lead, outlaws of Sherwood Forest in order to battle these obviously bad powers who are subverting the cause of justice. When reading Pyle’s description of how he became an outlaw, it is far less pure. Robin, at the age of 15, is goaded into illegally shooting one of the King’s deer on a bet. When his tormentors refuse to pay him, the situation escalates into the murder of the man who wagered (and reneged on) the debt. Because the man Robin shoots actually shot first, it may all be justifiable as self-defense. While Robin may be undeserving of the punishment for murder, he is clearly culpable (through his own hot-hotheadedness and pride, if nothing else) in creating the situation which sends him away from polite society.
But that version is far more gentle that the ballad from Child. In that one, having lost the bet to Robin, the band of some 15 foresters not only refuse to pay him, but continue to chide him for his youth and inexperience. They order him to take his bow and get out. Robin, laughing at the irony (he takes up his bow, for sure), slaughters the entire bunch. Subsequently, he may also maim a number of residents of Nottingham who attempt to apprehend him for his mass-killing.
Incidentally, Child is scornful of the attempts to place Robin Hood in a historical context. It was Ivanhoe, in 1819, that connected Robin with King Richard the Lionheart and there were plenty subsequent to that who wished to discover the story’s true origins, based on written records. Child points out that the “scholarly” references to a historical Robin Hood during the reign of Edward I are almost certainly drawn from the ballads, not historical documents. By the time we see actual records of the name “Robin Hood” in a legal context, it is well after the time when we know that the Robin Hood stories were popular. Any reference is probably do to the use of the the name “Robin Hood” as a way to refer, generically, to an outlaw. Any attempt to discover the nature of the “real” Robin Hood is, therefore, pointless, as the stories were likely just stories created to entertain.
Reading through Pyle’s version, I come to a couple of conclusions about my childhood. First, I’m going to guess that the 19th century edit “modernized” the language from what I’m reading now, and probably did so considerably. As written, Pyle’s prose would have been off-putting for me as a young teen. Second, I probably never read this book all the way through. I imagine I spent some time with the images, and probably read some chapters to put those images in context, but I probably took in the book piecemeal. Even if the book was updated to “twenties” language, I don’t think I could have digested it all. Given what I know about my young self, I believe I would have required, at least, some more contemporary styling.
Big Screen, Little Screen
Robin Hood again became a personal interest in 1991, when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released. This is the one staring Kevin Costner, at the time on a Hollywood hot streak. It came with a lot of expectations, many of which fell short with its audience. Personally, Sean Connery’s cameo at the end caused me to laugh out loud at the theater. It is hard to explain why, but that seems to summarize the film for me.
It did, however, reinvigorate the characters and we continue to see takes and retakes on this story to the present day. Another major Hollywood treatment was released in 2010 (with Russell Crow this time), although it was also received pretty negatively. I haven’t seen it.
To try to relive some of the screen treatments of this one, I pulled up two of the older TV series version. The Adventures of Robin Hood ran for four years in the 1950s. It was an English produced, fairly conventional treatment of the matter and was likely iconic for the generations raised on black and white TV. I also watched, or at least I’ve made an honest effort to watch, Robin of Sherwood. This was another English treatment of the show, this time for three seasons in the 1980s.
A fifties action-TV-show is going to fall short of modern expectations and there is practically no way around that. 1950s film-making holds up best when the focus is on drama and dialog. The “teleplay” style of the time makes everything seem a bit flat and confined. I also think I noticed, in one scene, someone bumped into the “castle wall” from the rear causing the whole castle to wobble a bit. It is played with fifties earnestness and style, and can be appreciated if taken within its context.
The second show has not been treated so well by the passing years. Robin of Sherwood seems to have praise lavished upon it from around the internet. A bit of copy that is used for the Amazon review, comes from a Role-Playing gamer’s website.
Robin of Sherwood is, for many people, the definitive modern version of the Robin Hood legend. Moody, atmospheric, superbly written and acted, with a haunting soundtrack by Clannad (later released as the album Legend), it was the inspiration for a generation of British fantasy roleplayers.
I don’t know if 1980’s D&Ders are a reliable source for television reviews. Imagine the typical BBC (circa 1984) camera work backed by an 80s synth soundtrack. Now mix in weird fantasy elements portrayed by cheap props and low-budget special effects. Put the iconic 1980s “male model” in long-haired, fantasy form in the lead and… there you have it, now you don’t have to watch the show.
It is said that this series was the inspiration for the rush of Robin Hoods in the 1990s. I can only imagine that many in the business might have taken a look at the raw material and say “I can do better.”
The moral of the story is that the Robin Hood of the day is a product of the times in which it is made.
Ivanhoe popularized the Norman versus Saxon cultural wars in a context of post Napoleon English-French relations. Another theory is that Scott (a Scot) was attempting to parallel the cultural enmity between the Scots and the descended-from-Normans-English which was prevalent in the politics of Scottish Independence of that time.
Growing up I heard that he “robbed from the rich to give to the poor,” which fit well within the 60s and 70s socialist/communist counter-culture movements. A better read of the Victorian version is more likely characterized as returning the taxes, taken by church and government, to the people from which they stole it. In the early versions in Child’s compilation, Robin Hood is a lovable outlaw that, while not completely disconnected from our modern understanding, is in many ways quite a different person. Rather than engaging in an active redistribution of wealth, it is more of a populist mentality that sees him picking on the privileged and pompous and sparing the simple, hardworking folk. He is admired for his religiosity, particularly his devotion to the Virgin Mary. At the same time, his penchant for murder never seems to wane and yet does little to dent his popularity.
The 90s saw many a Robin Hood treatment, both attempting to get more serious and ridiculing those attempts. It is both an attempt to root the stories in the “gritty realism” that has become popular as a style for historical dramas, while necessarily creating fanciful story lines out of whole cloth to provide something with the requisite depth for he modern consumer. The Robin Hood story of my adult life has the addition of Muslim/Black characters, the implications of which I will leave to you, my dear reader, to reflect upon.