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Picture the scene. It's a spring (maybe summer) afternoon in 1991. A small group of kids, still in their school uniforms, are huddled around a small TV in a bedroom. Plugged into it is a popular home computer of the time. The kids are passing two joysticks around, taking turns to go up against all manner of bloodthirsty foes - and, occasionally, each other. The screen is flooded with blood and gore, dismembered limbs and still-warm corpses, the tinny speaker crackling with the cries of gallant heroes having the life crushed out of them. The kids are loving it.
Sounds like it could be Mortal Kombat, right? But this scene is unfolding a year before Midway's gruesome fighter would appear in arcades, and two years before it was the centre of congressional hearings about the impact of violent video games. (You can read more on that story, here.) And the game in question isn't a one-on-one fighter - or, at least, that's not all it has up its chivalrous sleeves. The game is Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight, the computer was the Commodore Amiga, and that scene was absolutely real. I should know: it played out in my bedroom.
Speaking of Amiga classics, watch our top 10 games for the computer, above
Moonstone didn't just predate the crimson-splashed majesty of Mortal Kombat - it was so much gorier. But due to it only finding release (at the time, as these days you'll find it on GOG) on the Amiga in April 1991 and DOS a year later, its coverage was restricted to platform-specialist magazines; and its playground buzz wasn't much at all compared to whatever was happening on Nintendo and SEGA consoles.
But for those of us who had an Amiga and a copy of Moonstone, it stuck with us like so few games did. Even compared to the best-sellers of the era, it stood out as something special, something different, and something slightly dangerous. It felt like a game you shouldn't be playing; and if you were caught doing so, your Amiga would be taken away, confiscated, gaming rights revoked for a week or more. It mightn't be a true classic of its debut platform like Lemmings, The Secret of Monkey Island, Speedball 2 or Sensible Soccer, but if you played this one, it stained your memory like so much spilled claret on a cream carpet.
Published by Mindscape, the Beatles-punning Moonstone: A Hard Days Night (no, there's no apostrophe; and yes, it bothers me, too) was mainly the work of one developer, Rob Anderson. It casts the player as one of four knights on a quest to return the Moonstone of the title to the Valley of the Gods. And four players can participate at once, taking turns to move and battle, and even face off against each other, with the computer taking charge of any left-over adventurers.
Every player starts from a corner of the map, and works their way to the middle, where said Valley is located. On the way they can call in at towns, gamble in taverns, take in the sights of Stonehenge, and encounter wizards and mystics - while all the time avoiding the attention of a dragon overhead, which will always eliminate low-level players. Throughout, there are wonderful graphics to gawp at, with even relatively rudimentary scenarios never looking dull.
But the main appeal of Moonstone wasn't its wonderfully detailed map, mini-games or NPC conversations - it was the single-screen, real-time fights with monsters ranging from axe-swinging Troggs, huge ogre-like Baloks that can crush you like a fleshy beer can, trolls that try to club you with tree trunks, and terrifying Mudmen that, as the name implies, rise up from the swampy ground and reach for you with claw-like roots.
Any one of these could easily kill a newcomer to Moonstone - be that through blunt force, a bone-splintering squeeze, or clean beheading (cue: all that lovely red stuff). Timing was everything, and swing and miss and you left yourself open to a sharp stabbing in the mid-section. But just to really test you, these challenging opponents rarely did come alone.
Troggs in particular would gang up like hyenas, and if they surrounded you: that's game over. Get the better of these humanoid enemies, though, and you'll slice them in half as a finisher. Gross. Brilliant. The Rat-Men can ensnare you and leave your knight twitching from the end of a rope, so while they were small and seemingly easy pickings for a fully armoured player, only the foolhardy paid them no respect. And the dragon? Frying tonight: you, most of the time.
These monsters needed to be sought out, though, because killing them meant you could level up your knight - and because there was a chance that they were guarding a key. Get four keys - if a rival has one that you don't, you can head to their location and kill them for it - and you can enter the Valley of the Gods. Do that, and defeat its Guardian (blue, swirly, pre-teen-distracting cleavage), and you gain the Moonstone. Take that to Stonehenge and, bingo, that's the game! Sounds simple, but with AI enemies and three other knights to contend with, and that bloody dragon, finishing Moonstone always felt like a grand achievement.
Not that we often played with completing the game in mind. Thirty years after its release, my abiding memory of Moonstone is going head to head with friends, hacking away at each other until one player finally lost theirs... Their head, that is. It was possible to both die at the same time, too, which was always fun, killing blows landing with pixel-perfect coordination. So I didn't finish Moonstone all that often, preferring instead to marvel at its magical mix of excessive gore and very-adult-feeling fantasy tropes. I suspect, today, no parent would let their 11 year old near it.
Speaking to GOG about his game, Rob Anderson remarks that "there wasn't really anything like it at the time, or since!" - and I'm inclined to agree with him. Moonstone is a role-playing game, a one-on-one fighter, a puzzler and a party game, all wrapped up in a very violent package. That violence is always delivered with a knowing smirk - as Anderson says, "I wanted to make it absurd and funny, rather than realistic" - but nevertheless, it's that same love of blood and guts that would make a remake of Moonstone a testing proposal in 2021.
Is there a market for an 18-rated co-op party game dressed in pretty traditional fantasy clothing, today? I don't know - but in this era of remakes and remasters, after the mainstream successes of The Witcher and Game of Thrones, and with Moonstone having never had a console release, I'd love to find out. And maybe get some old friends over, too, as part of the playtest.
All Commodore Amiga screenshots and cover art courtesy of MobyGames.com
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