Hocus Pocus – PC
The Apogee Shareware Series, Part V
Platform: PC (DOS)
Publisher: Apogee Software
Release Date: 1994 (?)
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
When I wrote my Alien Carnage review, I had said that it was one of the more obscure titles that Apogee had ever produced due to the nomenclature confusion, but at least that game had its own Wikipedia page with solid release dates for all of its incarnations. If being recognized by the encyclopedia that everyone can edit is the quantifier for how recognizable a game is, then today’s title, Hocus Pocus, is definitely the more obscure game at the time of this review. And I feel like it shouldn’t be, because this run-and-gun platformer stood out a lot more for me in my youth, with its amusing backstory, fun playstyle, bright colors, and stereo sound and music. It had a lot of polish and a good deal of heart, and still plays well to this day, and the main character can actually jump, so that’s an automatic bullet point in his favor. But regardless, you didn’t come here to hear me call out Halloween Harry again, even if he deserves it; you came to enjoy another Apogee shareware title, so without further ado, and with nothing up my sleeve, I summon… THE NEXT PARAGRAPH!
Hocus Pocus is the tale of a young dropout wizard who wants to join the all-powerful Wizards’ Council so that he can wear the grand robes of authority, get the best seats at Council-sponsored restaurants, and earn the right to wed his beloved Princess Popopa. Naturally, this isn’t going to be easy, but rather than subject the Council hopeful to the agonizing months-long bureaucratic runaround, Archmage Terexin decides to test him in a far more practical manner, tasking him to clear the Magical Paths of the Lands of Lattice of recent dangers that have befallen them. This splits the game neatly into four chapters of nine levels each, with the last level of each chapter featuring that chapter’s bosses. It’s up to the young Hocus to take his infinite pocket lightning spell, steal the magical crystals that give strength to the chapter’s ultimate enemies, and use cunning and guile to defeat them once and for all!
All in all, a pretty standard way to present your game, but I always liked the way that Hocus Pocus incorporated a little humor into it. For instance, the first chapter’s bosses, the Seven Mad Monks of Melenwah, are on the Council’s hit list because they had the audacity to start charging a toll for Council members using the Magical Paths, specifically to the Land of Beautiful Amazon Women Before the Time of Clothes. The second chapter’s bosses, the Tree Demons, are basically a bunch of trees that got sick and tired of people climbing them and sawing branches off so they wouldn’t fall on their houses, storing that slowly-building anger until they literally pulled themselves out of the earth and started wreaking havoc. The third chapter’s bosses, the Harsh Gray Dragons, are peeved because they’ve gotten too fat off of eating Princesses to fit through the Magical Paths to get at anymore, having to resort to takeout one too many times. My favorite has to be the last chapter’s endboss: Trolodon, the former archmage of the Council, turned into their greatest arch-nemesis because they couldn’t agree on what pattern of plates to buy for the Council’s dining table! Though it’s merely fluff, I have a soft spot for a game developer’s creative writing, especially when it makes me laugh.
Hocus Pocus is a magic-themed platformer, and as such, expect a lot of magic tricks, most of them from Hocus’s own pockets. Your lightning spell is the way you’ll do almost all attacks, and picking up extra lightning bolts lets you throw more of them, but there are also potions that allow you to fire your lightning bolts at turbo speed (great for large groups of enemies and bosses), give you powerful fireballs that kill enemies in one hit (great for lines of enemies), give you a more powerful jump (you lose it after you jump, so always make sure your next jump counts when you pick it up), and warp you to different parts of the level (occasionally as a way to progress through the level proper, but more often hidden and used to deliver you to secret treasure rooms). The game has tricks of its own, as it spawns in enemies at set points and makes you do platform jumps over pools of lava and fields of spikes. You’ll have to contend with switch puzzles to open up walls and summon platforms, some more intricate than others, as well as the constant search for more treasure. And as you progress through the levels, Terexin will occasionally appear with some helpful advice or an amusing insult…or to brag about his beard.
One of the things that I always loved about Hocus Pocus was how pretty the graphics were for a 2D platformer. The level looks almost literally polished, with brightly-colored bricks and stones surrounding you with gleaming edges and shading that makes every brick stand out, and the enemies are sprited decently with standout colors of their own. There are many windows in each level, letting you see the world outside of the level, and the game incorporates that lovely Parallax scrolling, so you have the illusion of the foreground moving faster than the background, giving you that feeling of actually moving past windows and not just large pictures made to look like the outside world. And of course, Apogee’s always been great at giving their collectible treasures that luster that makes you want to grab as much of it as you can, play Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold or Wolfenstein 3D for a while if you don’t get what I mean. All around, these graphical touches add a lot of depth to an otherwise flat game, making Hocus Pocus pop almost magically on the screen in a way that few other games of its caliber could manage.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the music, it’s always one of my bullet points for any game, and Hocus Pocus also had that magical pop effect when it came to their soundtrack too. This was because, for the better iterations of the game you could find, the soundtrack was made with the intent to take full advantage of stereo sound, which was still a feature that wasn’t being exploited by too many games back then. When I listen to the full soundtrack on my speakers today, I can feel it as much as I can listen to it, making everything from the intense and mysterious main theme and the more imposing level themes to even the lightest and most upbeat level tracks hit me from all sides. While its music may not be the kind of thing that you’ll be remembering spontaneously at random moments in later life, it’s the kind of music that you’ll suddenly remember all at once when you boot up the game after years of not hearing it. Trust me, I can speak from experience.
Alright, cards on the table and feathers in the cap, Hocus Pocus handles rather well for a platformer. Sure, Hocus may feel just a little slidey when it comes to walking and jumping around the level, but I know that’s just a side-effect of the Parallax scrolling, as he will stop on a dime when you let go of that movement key. This isn’t one of those kinds of platformers where you die in one hit, either; Hocus has health that drains when he’s hurt by enemies or the environment and can be restored by healing potions scattered throughout most of the levels. You have decent control with your projectiles, able to slightly arc your shots at times if you shoot while jumping or walk while shooting upwards, letting you hit enemies around platforms if you do it right. I also swear there must be some secret combinations that allow you to get limited potion effects, as by playing the game normally, I ended up getting access to fireballs or being able to fire turbo lightning bolts randomly, as if I had picked up a potion when I didn’t. Given that Bio Menace had a few out-there secret combos, I wouldn’t be surprised.
However, this is an objective review, and thus I have to point out the bad with the good. Hocus Pocus has a nonlinear level design, which isn’t a bad thing, but its mazelike passages lend itself to a lot of backtracking once you’ve followed a path to an end and gotten its crystal. This can be annoying when you’re trying to beat the level’s optional time limit for bonus points. And at one point, I got stuck in a secret room because I walked through the ceiling due to the way the game treats stars, regardless of how much actual headroom you have, or if you can get back out the same way (you can’t). But the only real issue I have with Hocus Pocus is that if you’re looking for nuanced or varied gameplay, this isn’t it. If you’ve played through the first chapter, you can expect the rest of the chapters to play more or less the same way, with no real mechanical changes or interesting gimmicks to keep you hooked. Though on the flip side, the lack of addiction means it’s a very good game if you want to get back to being productive at some point after you’ve sated that thirst for arcade-style platforming, so there’s that, at least.
In conclusion, Hocus Pocus is quite a good game. It’s not exactly industry-changing gold, but in a world where a lot of big-budget titles can get so caught up in their own bluster, it’s refreshing to remember that there are games that are only really focused on being fun to play. It doesn’t stand out until you play it, and even if you start enjoying it, you can pull yourself away at any time and the game won’t force you to stay for just one level, it doesn’t have that addictive kind of pull that interferes with your daily life and makes you flagellate yourself for wasting half the day away. It’s the real kind of casual game that we need more of today, fun for exactly as long as we want it to be, and when we’re done, we can come back to it whenever we want. It’s not like any of that heroin-level Skinner Box Pop Cap stuff we get these days! Why, back in my day…
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Check out these other Apogee Software titles reviewed by Action Zero.
- Bio Menace
- Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold
- Duke Nukem II
- Halloween Harry, aka Alien Carnage
- Hocus Pocus
- Math Rescue
- Mystic Towers
- Raptor: Call of the Shadows
- Wolfenstein 3D
- Word Rescue
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