A review and retrospective of Five on a Treasure Island for the Commodore 64, release by Enigma Variations in 1992. It’s based on Enid Blyton’s book.
In the early ’90s, the Enid Blyton estate celebrated fifty years of the Famous Five books with a text adventure game. It got quite cross at times.
In the first part of this series, we had a look under the hood of Virgin’s hugely successful 1990 convo of the Monty Python sketch show. You might remember that we wondered how much connection 12-year-olds in the early ’90s could possibly have to a television show from the ’70s.
Well, here’s a game with even older source material. Five On A Treasure Island is a Commodore 64 version of Enid Blyton’s first novel in the Famous Five series. The book was published in 1942, and this game was released with the full blessing of the Blyton estate as part of the story’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.
IT’S REALLY FOUR AND A DOG
It follows the novel pretty closely, so if you’re going to get this game it’s worth grabbing a copy of it to help you with some of the puzzles. The story follows some insufferably middle-class children (Julian, Dick, George and Anne) who, erm, go on holiday with their dog Timmy. They’re staying with their Aunt Fanny (don’t even start – Ed) in the seaside town of Kirrin. One night, a violent storm throws up a shipwreck. The kids find a map inside, and set off to find the hidden treasure.
So how’s this one played? Harrogate-based Enigma Variations billed it at the time as an interactive book. In reality, we’ve got a very slick graphical text adventure here. Unusually, you can take control of any of the characters whenever you want. They’ve each got their own useful personality traits and inventories, and you can swap between them at will by typing, for example, BECOME DICK (don’t even sta…Ed). You can communicate with the characters you’re not using, and with anybody else you meet too (like sweet shop owners, policemen and local drunks). The game’s littered with things to collect and opportunities to use whatever you’ve hoarded: there are matches lying about the place to light dark rooms, which is easy enough to workout. But it gets tougher, like plotting how to discreetly nick the treasure and hide it without your Aunt knowing. Ultimately, you have to get your characters to work together to make things happen and that in itself involves a bit of legwork (the first task in the game is to befriend George, who’s initially a bit of an ice queen…until you buy her ice-cream).
IT’S AN UNUSUAL WORLD FOR AN 8-BIT GAME
Famous Five‘s charm is very much the 1940s England you get to wander around. It’s cool to go into a shop and buy mints instead of blasting aliens or jumping platforms, and Commodore Format‘s review loves the unusual experience of encountering “normal” humans in a computer game. You’ve got characters challenging gender stereotypes of the era, and heroes who eventually show hidden vulnerability and even more hidden 1940’s British emotion. It isn’t just “GO NORTH” or “DRINK GINGER BEER” that equals success in this adventure, you’ve actually got to think a wee bit about how you interact with everything or face the consequences for the rest of the game (don’t kick the damned dog – Ed).
THE TECHIE STUFF
Five for the C64 was unusually converted over from the ill-fated Sam Coupe computer. Its original coder, Colin Jordan, built it using his own WorldScape tool. It was a labour of love, and the engine’s deep understanding of the world that’s been created and what you want to do in it has translated to the Commodore. You can link sentences together to do two things at once, and you can also group together objects you’ve found to make stuff. Neat, eh? The graphics for selected locations are gorgeous, and add proper atmosphere. They takes ages to load, though, so there’s the option to turn things off (if you’re playing on cassette, you don’t get any nice pictures at all – so hunt down the floppy version). Options abound, actually: you can change the text colour, the borders, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. It’s very impressive stuff.
The not so good things? Well, the early attempts at artificial intelligence are to be applauded but in the harsh light of 2019 the interactions with strangers are limited and frustrating. It’s also really difficult not to take the piss out of the whole Blyton tone, with its “hoorah and huzaah” and “lashings of ginger beer” stuff seeping out of every kilobyte of memory. The game lives its innocent times to the extent that if you get frustrated and tell, say, Timmy to “f*** off” the game will scold you. There’s a longstanding rumour too much swearing will cause the game to reset, but we weren’t able to upset it enough. We wouldn’t be surprised, though.
Commodore Format gave the review of Famous Five to the now-legendary BAFTA winner, James Leach (he’s lovely and he spoke to us here -Ed). He enjoyed its unusual depth, but noted that text adventures were a bit old hat by 1992. “It’ll help if you like the books”, he says, also enthusing over the unusual real world setting. “But if you’re into arcade action there’s very little chance this will convert you”. The final score? 76%.
Over in Ludlow at ZZAP! 64, Ian Osborne thought it was a “good game but not a great one…the problems are interesting, imaginative, and set at the right level of difficulty, and it preserves the atmosphere of the original Enid Blyton books.” He marked it at 70%.
Both reviews are for the disk version, which is clearly what was sent for review. However, the more widely played tape version does not include the graphics, and it’s unclear whether either mag were aware of this.
The C64 version arrived quite a bit later than some of the other formats. It was reviewed in the winter of ’92, around the same time 8-bit software was vanishing from the high street. Distribution was getting hard, so Enigma ended up selling copies via mail order. Niche game format + £10.99 price tag + difficult to find equalled commercial disaster for the Famous Five. Just seven months later, Enigma sold the rights to Future Publishing who put the entire game on issue 24’s Power Pack. It gave the game immediate exposure to over 50,000 C64 folk, and an affectionate fanbase it would never have otherwise had. It was a hit with Commodore Format‘s readers: letters to the mag reveal they enjoyed the unusually slow pace and the gentle puzzles (and, yes, probably telling Timmy to “f*** off”). “How do I make friends with George?”, asks Hoppy in issue 27. “She always says ‘get lost’ or something like that.” Apparently, phone calls asking for help from readers besotted with the game began the same day the mag went on sale.
If you do want the full solution, there’s one in issue 28 complete with a map. It’s worth giving it a good go with the help of the novel first, though, just to see how well the thing’s been executed and understands what you want to do. For all its limitations, this charming and good-natured adventure is about as Enid Blyton as it could have been. So remember not to swear. CF
- Remember, the tape version doesn’t have all the graphics so hunt this one down in disk format for the full experience!
- More Weird C64 licenses