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I never played Dungeon Keeper.

I recall playing a version of Sim City, probably a mid-1990s version such as the one linked. I don’t remember playing it much, so I may have had a demo version. The concept of a economic simulation definitely appealed to me, but I’ve come to realize that simply creating a cool economics simulation doesn’t necessarily make a great game. Or even a good game. The execution is important. When not designed well, such games become a frustrating morass of micromanagement. Done right, well, one need only look at the success of the genre over the decades.

While Sim City never got far with me, I did get myself into a few of the more focused games that followed using the Sim City formula. Capitalism and the city-builder series (Caesar, etc) were some games that I did get into around that time. The focus on economic factors (in the former) and history (in the latter) were what aspects that caused these games to jump out of the crowd, at least for me. Quite a crowd it was, I might add. This was a time when the the management sim was branching out in all sorts of directions. Theme Park and the various railroad simulations tempted developers into finding new and innovative subjects upon which to lay the template. And in its time, Dungeon Keeper seemed to do just that.

The big concept behind Dungeon Keeper was not simply to create another variation on the management sim template, but at the same time, create an upside down look at the role-playing genre. Instead of managing a band of adventurers, setting out to sack a dungeon and to gather its treasures, you would be in charge of the dungeon itself and so need to repel those awful intruders. While none of this was exactly new, the combination of them all together seemed rather novel. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it came at the height of developer Peter Molyneux’s popularity. Another key to its success was its emphasis on humor and the twist that you didn’t play as the good guy but rather as the master of the baddies.

But I never played it. While a great idea, I had other games on my mind. It was successful enough that it spawned its own sub-genre of games. I actually bought Ghost Master, finding it in a bargain bin (an actual, physical one), which is an obvious nod to its Dungeon Keeper predecessor. Ghost Master is, however, another game that I never installed and never played. To this day, I feel guilty about it. I feel like I am a part of the target audience for these games, yet I am not biting. I wanted to play this game and I wanted to like it. I feel like I’ve let those ghosts down.

Let’s jump ahead a few more years as the industry produced even more variations on the theme. One 2004 take on it was Evil Genius, which got its share of attention in its time. It is very cast in the Dungeon Keeper mold, but instead of the Dungeons and Dragons, swords and sorcery theme of the original, this one is based on the world of James Bond movies. Note that it also came out after the Austin Powers film series and, perhaps, draws as much from the parody of James Bond as it does from the (albeit tongue-in-cheek) movie originals. It may not have rated as high as Dungeon Keeper, due to bugs and other problems, but it had its share of admirers. It also went on sale (a virtual bargain bin, this time) pretty recently.

I bit.

Evil Genius illustrates the good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s massive supply of classic gaming experience. I don’t remember how I got it – most likely either a Steam sale or a Humble Bundle – but I really love how these classic titles have, largely, become easy to acquire and run decades down the road. Installing this one, however, I ran very quickly into problems. Once again, I found that the mouse buttons were reversed for me, requiring (as I do) my mouse to be configured for left-handed players. I found this lack of configurability to be intolerable.

To make matters a little worse, as I began searching for a solution, I came across something that confused me further. One on-line critique of the game suggested that the game UI was actually designed with the mouse buttons, in many cases, doing the reverse of what you’d expect from them. Essentially, the article said, for the game to function normally (as in, right-handed mouse) you had to reverse the mouse buttons in Windows. This does not actually appear to be the case. When following through the tutorial, where the mouse-button instructions are explicit, the mouse button matches the tutorial exactly (although, remember, I’ve already reversed them in Windows). I can’t imagine what this writer was talking about, but it cost me an extra hour or so of fiddling before I decided, what ever his experience, it didn’t apply to me.

Mouse buttons are clearly not configurable through the in-game menu so, having found a similar solution recently, I began searching through the undocumented configuration files. There I found a mouse invert configuration that I thought might help me. Once again, this took me quite a while change, test, and verify, so I lost another good chunk of time. Further on-line searching backed up my experience. There is an analysis about what in that configuration file, and how only some of it actually works while some of the configurations are actually dangerous to mess with. The mouse setting was not on the “works” list, so I figured it is not just me.

I also found some other write-ups; instruction on how to get the game patched. Now this part baffled me a little, considering this is a Steam game that I’m working with.

I still considered Steam-purchased software to be a case of paying to buy a game when, in reality, I’m only renting it. If Steam ever decided they no longer wanted to let me use a particular game, they could just take it away. In exchange for less-than-total ownership, however, I not only have access to games (and prices) that I wouldn’t otherwise, I also don’t have to store locally the games that I’ve purchased on line. The bargain should also mean that I’m not hunting for patches and mods and the like. Steam automatically installs to the supported patch, so everything should be up to date. It also has a less-than fully supported system for user-made modifications. While not ideal, this should get the player around the days of research that otherwise is required to bring an older game up to its best available version.

With Evil Genius, however, the version available is the originally-shipped version, version 1.0. While the game was still being supported, the publisher did ship an official patch, but this is not part of the Steam package. To make it more confusing, there was a user-made patch that came out after the developer studio closed (happening only about a year after the game was released). Both sets of patches are available on-line, but there were several versions of the game (and thus the patches) and, apparently, no one version quite matches the Steam release. After chasing some dead links, I finally downloaded a version that seemed like it should work (and so far seems like it does). Part of me hoped that a patch would fix the mouse configuration problem, but it didn’t.

In the meantime, one more possible solution occurred to me. In fact, I don’t know why I never thought of it before, given how long I’ve gone in circles with this mouse-button issue. I guess sometimes you have to be pushed past some mental limit. Anyway, what I realized is that I use a “gaming” mouse and, while I never actually reconfigure anything on it, it is in fact pretty configurable. So back to searching the internet to find the configuration package from the manufacturer. Finally, now, I have a solution where I can swap my mouse buttons before starting the game, using not Windows but the mouse driver, which results in the mouse behaving correctly when I am in-game.

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier. Finally, I can play the game as it was intended.

evil1

I stand, surveying my control room, while a conference table awaits me in my inner sanctum.

It is a hard game and, I think, it was meant to be. The intention is not to give the player the thrill of world domination whenever they can spare an hour or so of fiddling. This style of game is one that you play night-after-night for months on end. The instructions are rather open ended and, obviously therefore, open to mistakes. Should I kill every non-friendly that I see? Is there are way to boost my chances at completing a given mission? These things, I think, are meant to be discovered by trial-and-error. Recall that I am playing on easy and, on top of that, you start out in an introductory mode meant to gradually introduce components of the game to you. Even having all these advantages, it sometimes seems hard to make any progress.

In searching for the fixes to my above problems, I came across some other bits and pieces about the game. I saw that, when the game was being actively sold, there was a “strategy guide” available for it. For those who don’t remember, many of the more popular games had third-party hints manuals that would help you optimize your gameplay, provided you had some extra bucks to burn. There are also (or at least there were, many of the links are no longer active) free guides in the form of Wikipedia sites and forums that were made to help bring you up to speed on how to effectively play the game. Clearly players were prepared to invest significant amounts of time and energy into this title.

I also came across some of the original reviews of the game. One that stood out compared it, and not entirely favorably, with Dungeon Keeper saying that, more than anything, Evil Genius made the reviewer want to break out their old copy of Dungeon Keeper once again. I gather that, while Evil Genius was 5 years ahead in terms of graphics and interface (at a time when 5 years meant a lot, mind you), the gameplay package doesn’t quite live up. This I can’t speak to as, like I took pains to say at the beginning, I haven’t played the original.

evil2

Just the other day I heard of… some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round.

Evil Genius does have its pros and cons. It does a reasonable job with its atmosphere, making it feel like a Bond-esque thriller rather than just a management-sim grind – at least much of the time. The way the game is split between your underground lair and “the world” does give it a different feel than, say, a sim-hospital. The humor is not bad, given them medium, and often subtle. Little finds, hidden in animations or within the text of the missions, and actually entertain more than a more obvious “here comes the joke” style. I do wonder if I may be reading a bit too much into the above screenshot, though.

On the other hand, the game struggles to live up to expectations, especially when viewing it 15 years on. One aspect of a well-designed game is that it keeps you engaged while you play. While often hidden behind the nifty animations, behind the scenes of Evil Genius are a series of timers so that, once you initiate an action, you have to wait a certain amount of time for it to complete. In many cases, there are a series of times that are all interdependent. For example, to complete a mission, I may have to hire a number of “workers,” train them to be specialists, transport them to a particular corner of the world, and then apply them for a certain amount of time to a given mission. Even in fairly uncomplicated assignments, it doesn’t seem uncommon to have to sit for 5+ minutes watching little people meander around on the screen, with no real in-game possibilities until all the tasks, one by one, complete. Is this really the way I want to spend my gaming hours?

evil3

Some gratuitous violence leave bodies everywhere. I particularly appreciated the empty casing flying out of the rifles during the shootout, although it is difficult to see in a still image.

Hours it can be, indeed, is meant to be. This game seems to be a major life-choice for some. By contrast, what I am looking for, these days, are games that I can pick up quickly and put in a few hours when I’m in the mood for that particular style or subject. I can admit the game is clever but it may be asking for more from me than I want to give it.