Oooh, everybody loved Ultimate, didn’t they? Just the name brings all kinds of nostalgic gaming memories flooding back. Knight Lore… Jet Pac… Tranz Am… the list goes on and on… if you were a Spectrum owner. For some reason, they never quite made the 64 sing as beautifully. Still, they did put out a couple of worthwhile exclusives, before the law of diminishing returns kicked in and everyone moved on to something else.
One of their most notable C64 efforts was Entombed which, like many of Ultimate’s Commodore exclusives, was programmed by the chaps behind Buggy Boy and which garnered a shiny ZZAP! 64 Gold Medal when it was released. Entombed wasn’t the first game in the series, though. That honour belongs to The Staff of Karnath, a game I’ve talked about before but which I realised I’ve never actually played. I’ve definitely played Entombed, but never this, so I figured there would never be a better time than right now.
I feel like these Arthur Pendragon games were a deliberate attempt on Ultimate’s part to invoke that Filmation feeling among Commodore 64 owners. I could be wrong, of course, but the forced 3D perspective certainly fits with what they were doing on the Spectrum (and other 8-bits). It just doesn’t look as elegant or feel as refined as the Sinclair classics.
That sounds overly negative, but there is a fair bit of fun to be had here. Exploring castles is generally good entertainment, and so it proves to be here. Having said that, I don’t think much of the decor and I’m pretty sure that this is THE game that convinced Spectrum owners that Commodore 64 games were not capable of displaying any colours aside from shades of brown.
After a while, though, it can grow a little frustrating. There’s no question that part of that is down to the fact I’m playing it 35 years later than I should have, and I don’t have the patience with it that I would have done then. I’m sure I’d have enjoyed mapping it and figuring out which spells killed which creatures a lot more back then. After all, I played Wizardry (the one by The Edge, not the one that went on to have seven sequels) quite happily and that reminds me of this game in so many ways.
The Staff of Karnath is probably quite an important part of gaming history, being Ultimate’s first game on the Commodore 64. For what it is, it works pretty well. You can move in and out of the screen easily, with it being perfectly clear when you’re going to pass in front of or behind enemies. The puzzles are all fairly simple, which means you’re less likely to get bogged down by riddles that seemed clever in the programmer’s mind but never enter into your own.
It’s not a stunning game, but I can see why The Staff of Karnath was so well-regarded at the time. The relative simplicity means I’m more likely to come back to it at a later date, and it’s fair to say it’s a definitive early example of an arcade adventure, with as much of the emphasis being on the arcade. I still feel that it doesn’t match the standards set by Ultimate’s isometric Spectrum games, but seeing as several of them have now been converted perfectly to the 64, it seems we have the upper hand at long last.