Cauldron: Sinclair Spectrum / Commodore 64 (C64)

Cauldron: Sinclair Spectrum / Commodore 64 (C64)
Cauldron: Sinclair Spectrum / Commodore 64 (C64)

Insert Disk collects Cauldron for the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 (C64).

Today’s retro game review is Cauldron for the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 (C64). This retro gaming classic is the perfect retro Halloween game. Expect the usual blend of witches, pumpkins, bats and all things spooky. Of course this is all set to very challenging level design, making it a Halloween favourite with retro game fans.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. With this episode going out around the Halloween season I thought I’d treat you to what is perhaps the most Halloween themed game ever. Expect a full moon, witches, bats, skulls, rib cages, ghosts, these things, seagulls, sharks… ok I’m not sure why there’s seagulls or sharks but pumpkins!

Today we look at one of the ultimate Halloween themed games in the way of Cauldron for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. For full disclosure you’re going to see some absolutely terrible game play from myself in this episode. Feel free to hassle my skills in the comments. As such you’ll also see a lot of cheating in the way of unlimited health and lives cheats. After all, it was the 80’s. Cauldron was released back in 1985 by British software house Palace who are perhaps best known for their 1987 game Barbarian.

The game started life as a licence of the then new Halloween franchise but the story goes that the developers had difficulty creating a game that sat well with the movie. Instead, the game became more of a Halloween themed affair. Personally, I’m happy that it did. It’s a triumph for all things kooky. It’s a game that’s as clichéd as it gets but that’s something that really appeals to gamers and the kitsch nature of the game has only gained charm over time in my opinion. Your aim is to defeat the Pumpking before Halloween to become the Witch Queen. To do so you’ll need to take to your broom, collect coloured keys, find the corresponding dungeon door and survive a platform stage to obtain ingredients for the witches brew. Sounds simple.

But then… Oh my, this game is not just difficult, it’s 1980’s difficult. In gaming circles it’s notorious. The game is divided in to two main genres, the flying shoot ’em up sections and the platforming sections within the dungeons. Both serve up their own nightmarish difficulty quirks. So, the footage you are seeing here at the moment is from the ZX Spectrum version of the game. It suffers from some colour bleed but overall I do enjoy its bare bones charm. It will no doubt take many viewers back to that golden age of gaming. I have to say though that I do prefer the Sinclair Spectrum’s gaming nemesis the Commodore 64 which was generally designed for sprite gaming rather than the Spectrum’s focus on home accounting. The Commodore 64 version has improved graphics and sound as well as screen scrolling making it my go to option for this title. Be rest assured though, this version is perhaps even more difficult. Don’t believe me? Watch this. You casually leave the witches cottage. Boom, -16% health via a bat. Have another -15% from bat number two. We’ve been playing for less than 5 seconds now. If you’re wondering there is no way to block or attack whilst on foot. Ok, let’s fly. Ok, we’re at 52% health now. Wait, make that 36% and if you fire your magic, yes that will cost you 1% health. Try to land? Bear in mind that the witches broom has momentum. Touch a tree and it’s a one hit kill. ONE HIT KILL!!!

You think you know tough? You haven’t even begun to see tough yet. Should you actually manage to pick up a key, you’ll need to make it to the corresponding coloured door. But wait, how to get the cyan key. Well between the instant live drain of the poor spawn mechanics, the pumpkins and other projectiles. Don’t expect to fly away with much change from 50% of your life. Still, we have a key now. We can open a door with it. So, you’ll remember where you saw the door and fly back via the ocean. All is well. Until… Instakill shark. Ok, let’s grab a green key while we’re here.
I’ll tell you what else we will be grabbing. An unlimited hags and magic poke. If I’m to show you anything more of Cauldron we’re going to have to put on our cheating caps. Much better. So, find a door and open up a world of ghoulish platforming. Ok, to the easiest ingredient in the game, the frog. Simply jump over the platforms, collect it and, damn it! Welcome to Cauldron platforming. That’s right, it’s one of those classic pixel perfect platforming affairs where you have to know exactly where the edge of the platform is. Now this brings back memories. Throw in to this the moving boat and things are really going to bring back the 80’s. Cauldron is a game dripping with frustrating gaming nostalgia.

You’ll fall.
You’ll fall again.
You’ll nearly make it.
Then you’ll fall again.
Then you make it…

But you have to know about the cheap deaths of where the platforms are on the next screen. But make sure you don’t slip. So, I need to get down. Perhaps a leap of faith. Yes, but not that way. So, you’re probably wondering at this point am I just terrible at Cauldron or is this game really that hard. It seems I’m not alone. Cauldron players number one criticism of the game is it’s difficultly level. It is absolutely brutal.
You are thrown a bone by the game in the way of points to restore your magic which also acts as your health bar. If you can land and walk to the magic point you can quickly restore your health to full, for free.
But then the bats will get you anyway to you wonder it was all worth it.
The leaps of faith, the aggressive instakill respawns, the precision jumps. It’s a perfect storm of 1980’s microcomputer mayhem (with pumpkins).
When you look at the cover of the game you’d be hard pushed to understand the mayhem that lies within.

It’s a nice little piece of Halloween nostalgia witch some excellent imagery. Certainly one of my favourite horror themed covers on the system.
But what’s this? Free Game of The Evil Dead. Well, that’s a nice little boost to the package. I’ve heard the story of this before where the game was accidentally printed on side two and Palace software then simply marketed this game as a bonus. This seems to be more of an internet urban myth though in my opinion. Seeing as the bonus game consistently made it on to every tape. The more accurate story appears to be that retailers only stocked the stand alone Evil Dead game in small quantities initially. Here in 1980’s UK the “video nasties” movement was gaining momentum at the time. The revolution in censorship was coming. It was coming for our movies and it was coming for our games. The UK the Video Recordings Act 1984 had recently come in to force. Whereby the British Board of Film Classification had become responsible for the certification of home VHS releases. After 1 September 1985 all movies set for home release had to comply with the act. The Evil Dead took a 2 minute cut from it’s theatrical version upon VHS release and had earned a title of “video nasty”. As such, many retailers in the UK shunned the initial stand-alone Evil Dead game release for fear of associating themselves with the video nasty scene. Richard Leinfellner who had worked on the Evil Dead game had seen this as an opportunity to increase the distribution of his game. From his side there was nothing to lose as the content might as well be out there for free after retailers had effectively distanced themselves from the standalone release. The UK governments attempts to censor movies had the inadvertent impact of giving horror fans a free horror game. Sometimes, you just can’t stop the horror.

The real horror though lay in Cauldron’s execution. Since the game was tested in parts the overall difficulty level was underestimated by the developers. Rather than being tested end to end it’s been noted that parts of the game were tested in isolation. Therefore the overall difficulty not full recognised before release. If you do play this one expect a very challenging Halloween. But wait, this was the 80’s. Gamer’s didn’t give up because a game was hard. They went full on Rocky and played through a montage to beat the game.

You see I’ve told you about how difficult this game is but that is most definitely a good thing. I paid 99p for this gem and I’m not going to let it beat me. I want to see that end screen. So let’s fight the seagulls, gather those keys and jump those pixel perfect ledges because this is the gaming world we grew up in and we owe it to ourselves to get good at the games that challenge us. So join me this Halloween, collect the ingredients, fill that cauldron and take the fight to the pumpking. The struggle is real as you weave through the enemy, struggle to collect the keys and negotiate horrific moving platforms requiring supreme dexterity. Cauldron is the very definition of retro Halloween gaming. It’s got so much to give in terms of its enemy archetypes, the game is one overdose of 80’s Halloween nostalgia. It’s simultaneously both a trick and a treat for gamers. When this one comes knocking, open the door. Even if it is for just one night. Until next time enjoy the some spooky gaming.

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