Maabus from Microforum boasted a lot of things such as thousands of hours of rendering and programming. It was promoted as the Avatar of its time and yet, it was one of the worst games that I’ve ever played. For a few years after trying this game out, I considered it my personal benchmark for how terrible a game could be. It came out in ’94 during the CD-ROM rush when everyone wanted to show off what the new medium could do aside from loading it up with shovelware.
The story centered around a mysterious island and a burst of radiation somewhere on it that threatened the world. Deemed too dangerous to send a person, a remote controlled mini-tank of a probe (the Krawler 1000) was sent in to investigate. That’s where you come in and that’s about all that you can come to expect from the story which left you almost nothing to work with. I understand that there was supposed to be a sense of discovery looming over the entire production, but frankly, it felt like a pointless exercise.
The interface filled most of the screen since it was supposed to be some kind of remote control for the robot you were controlling and the discs were filled with Quicktime clips that simulated everything in the game. Whether it was rolling through the underbrush or turning to see something, it was a pre-rendered Quicktime clip seen through a small window surrounded by the interface. The whole adventure was stitched together this way and it was a trick other games would also use to hide the low resolution of the actual footage which wasn’t as big a problem as other parts of the game where.
The problem began when the game was promoted as “The Ultimate Adventure on 3 CD-ROMS”. Whoa! A whole THREE CD-ROM set! It must be huge!
But ultimate? If a game is going to make that kind of boast, it had better do something to really impress the audience and the acting by the one guy playing the admiral in this game wasn’t it. He was your boss and his job was apparently to inform you of things in the most unexciting way possible. The world could be on the edge of extinction and this guy was half asleep in telling you about it. Not a good start.
The graphics that the game hyped on and on about were pre-rendered, sure, but consider that ’94 had already seen the kind of CG that made games such as Trilobyte’s 7th Guest, Cyan’s Myst, and Presto Studios’ Journeyman Project famous. Even traditional adventure games using 2D sprites such as Sierra’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers had eye candy that was preferable to what was in Maabus.
The game was also timed. Despite being on THREE CD-ROMS, you could pick just how much time you think you needed at the start, from a minimum of one hour to a maximum of two to solve the game. If you got to the third disc, saves were disabled which was a terrible way of forcing players to replay large swaths as a “challenge”.
So if it was going to do this, why bother asking the player at the start how much time they wanted to work against? It’s almost as if it wants to turn the last third of the game into a Pavlovian exercise aimed at training players to perfectly play out the last sequences. I play games to enjoy them…not get beat on the head for making mistakes and regretting having bought them in the first place.
Occasionally there would be wildlife or other dangers on the island and the Krawler had three different weapons to pick from which was a bit cumbersome. A series of gauges on the right hand side of the screen would indicate when you were near something of interest, and the bottom of the screen had a map of the island. Not that it really helped.
One thing that Maabus did reasonably well belonged to the sound department. The music wasn’t bad and neither were some of the ambient sound effects. Everything else was just awful whether it was the cheap special effects or the boxed in feeling of exploration that the game put over every move you made.
Gameplay-wise, boring stuff. Roam here, pick up a clue or item, roam somewhere else and do the same. Sometimes pick a weapon from the left hand side of the screen to kill something. Often die because you had no idea what to expect, rinse and repeat until you get it right (such as picking the right weapon to use). And at almost every corner, the sleep inducing vocals from your boss lilting over the comm system to lull you into a sense that he actually gave a damn.
I guess the other thing it did well was overselling itself, something that more than a few games in today’s generation still do on a regular basis. Looking at the ad below, it blasted your senses with a laundry list of heavy statistics to make it appear as if it were the greatest thing ever pressed onto plastic. Reading the ad, it was as if it were coming out to destroy its rivals like the Godzilla of Gaming because of all of those hours, the sheer weight of its own work justifying itself as the ‘Ultimate PC VideoGame” smothering any doubt that players might have right before they load it onto their systems.
It came out for DOS and Windows and was never ported to any other system – likely because of the critical panning that it received from nearly everyone that could play a game. The pricing was also interesting, though it didn’t really sell for quite as much at retail. In the end, Maabus stood out as the poster child of overhype – a testament to marketing gone wild in trying to snowball the public. The sad part is, it’s still something that goes on today.