This week, Destructoid is introducing two new weekly articles: The Games That Time Forgot and Fake Game Friday. This first week is more of a test run for these articles than anything, so feel free to add suggestions, criticisms, or whatever to the comments so we can fine tune these new additions.
Today's new article, The Games That Time Forgot, takes an underrated, overlooked, or otherwise obscure game from the past and explains both why it was forgotten, and why it's worth your time to find a copy. I'm kicking off the article with one of my personal favorites,
The Last Express.
The failure of The Last Express is one of gaming's great tragedies. Apart from being one of the most expensive games ever produced for its time, this brainchild of Jordan "I made Prince of Persia" Mechner was also one of the most ambitious, and all of the effort that went into it truly shows in the final product.
The full background on its plot, its gameplay, and its failure after the jump.
You play Robert Cath, an American doctor (currently residing in France) who is framed for the murder of a cop in Ireland. Robert's friend, Tyler Whitney, arranges for the two to escape to Istanbul on the Orient Express--in reality, the last trip the Orient Express made before WWI was this one, from France to Istanbul. It is from this last journey that the game gets its name.
Upon boarding the train, however, Cath finds that his friend Tyler has been murdered, and is forced to assume his identity in order to remain on the train and unmask the identity of the murderer, and possibly the man who framed him.
The actual gameplay of The Last Express is sort of a hybrid between Myst, a LucasArts adventure game, and an Agatha Christie novel. Most of the game involves talking to the other passengers (of which there are many--around 30, total), unearthing their backstories and possible motives for murder, and sneaking through the train in an attempt to simultaneously evade capture from the authorities searching the train for you while getting access to areas of the train that might hold clues about certain characters or events. It's like Myst in that it uses the "postcard movement" system that the first three games of the series used: you click through screens to move around and interact, and the entire game is in the first person perspective (apart from the many cutscenes and occasional action sections).
As an adventure game, The Last Express requires you to be much more intuitive than almost any other game that springs to mind. When I say "intuitive," I don't mean "be able to think your way around ridiculously esoteric puzzles that the developers put in deliberately," I mean that you really have to play detective. The people you meet on the train may tell you things, but you have to mentally cross-reference those things with what you already know, draw a conclusion, and then go to a certain part of the train to verify that conclusion--pretty much like an Agatha Christie novel. There are some LucasArts-esque moments, where you use items with other items, or some Myst bits where you solve machine puzzles, but they're few and far between when compared to the straightforward and realistic problems you face as far as simply getting around the train safely and finding out what you need to find out.
What's most remarkable about The Last Express is that the entire thing takes place in real time. This is arguably the game's biggest feature and biggest flaw, and both sides are correct. On the one hand, it made the game incredibly immersive: passengers went on with their business--that is to say, real business, like talking to others, going to the bathroom, and eating, not the Oblivion kind of business where they go to a hotel and stare at a wall for three hours--and Cath is free to do what he wants. On the other hand, if you miss a certain key event, or you manage your time poorly, then you're more or less screwed: the game has a "turn back the clock" feature, but the clock's waypoints are kind of random. Conversely, you may find yourself waiting around for ten or fifteen (or, in the case of the concert scene, up to thirty) minutes waiting for the passengers to hurry up and begin doing something essential to moving the plot along. The time system can be irritating, no doubt, but often times I was enjoying myself too much to really mind the frustration.
Not to mention the entire game is totally nonlinear. While you are restricted to the train, you can do whatever you want in the few hours it takes to get from France to Istanbul: this isn't to say that you won't be punished for acting like a moron, however. If you run around with blood on your shirt, or if you stand in one place and let the authorities catch you, then the game ends; so, while it isn't total freedom (which would be boring in a game like this), you're more or less free to move about the train, so long as you're careful. This freedom results in many, many different endings, and in a very interesting twist on videogames with multiple endings, the "real" ending (meaning the one that is followed by credits) is by no means the happiest one.
The game looks pretty damn cool, considering when it was made. The entire thing is done in a rotoscoping style, similar to recent films like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, but the end product actually looks, at times, like A-Ha's video for "Take On Me." And that's not a bad thing.
For the most part, the dialogue cutscenes aren't full motion: they progress in slideshow form, like the rest of the game. Occasionally, however, you'll see a porter walk by you, fully rotoscoped, walking in real time, with every frame animated. And it looks awesome. I wish they had had the time or the money to rotoscope the entire game that way, but as it stands, the game is still very pretty. It looks and feels like you are in the 1930s, which, when combined with the realtime and nonlinear aspects of the game, makes it one of the most immersive adventure games of its time.
Why You Probably Haven't Played It
The Last Express took four years to make. Even by current standards, that's a pretty long stretch of time to work on, of all things, an adventure game. Photographing the models that would later be used for the rotoscoping process took a month on its own, and then every one of the 44,000 frames of animation used in the final game had to be hand drawn.
Then it came out.
It won a crapload of awards--Adventure Game of the Year, Editors Choice at a bunch of different magazines, yadda yadda yadda--but the game was only available at retail for about six months. Despite all the effort that went into it, Broderbund's marketing department either resigned or was liquidated (likely the first) just weeks before The Last Express hit shelves. So, a game that had been in production for four long years released with absolutely no marketing campaign. This lack of marketing resulted in horribly disappointing sales, and the subsequent yanking of all remaining copies from store shelves and cancelling an almost-finished Playstation port of the game. Then, later, Broderbund was bought out by The Learning Company, who was no longer interested in The Last Express, which resulted in it being out of print within a year of its release.
It undersold by one million copies.
Then, in 2000, Interplay acquired the rights and began selling The Last Express as a budget title--again, with no real marketing campaign. More people got to experience the game, but by this point in time (three years after its original release), the game was considered out of date by contemporary gamers. Then Interplay went bankrupt, and The Last Express went out of print. Again. And it remains out of print, to this day.
You can still snag copies of it online, however, which I highly recommend: it may be irritating, and it may feel a little outdated, but what it lacks in grace it more than makes up for in style and immersion.
ALSO: If you wanna see a video on the making of the game, which includes a deeper summary of everything I've mentioned along with actual gameplay videos, check it out here.