From the ads of the past, games of yesteryear – Ripley’s Believe It or Not: The Riddle of Master Lu

A tough, classic adventure with a globetrotting adventurer, a mystery set in 1930s China on the brink of war, and an ancient legend. What more can you ask for?

This was an amazing adventure game from Sanctuary Woods, the same devs behind the sci-fi time traveling adventure series, The Journeyman Project. It had a great story, fun puzzles, and was based on a highly fictional take on the famous Robert Ripley, the guy whose name is almost synonymous with the strange and unknown corners of the world. Anyone remember the 80s show with his name?

Ripley's comics challenged people with bizarre factoids -- most of which were true.

Ripley’s comics challenged people to believe him or not with bizarre factoids. As you can guess from looking at the spot for the Nelson Underwater Club, it’s still being published proving the old adage that life can often be stranger than fiction.

The real-life Ripley was an author, cartoonist, traveler, and a pretty savvy businessman. He began writing the comic strip that would bring him early fame in the 1920s presenting bizarre facts which seemed to be too crazy to be believed such asking if readers knew that the Star Spangled Banner was NOT the national anthem. The funny thing was, at the time, it apparently wasn’t until 1931 when President Herbert Hoover and Congress made it official. Believe it or not!

Since then, Ripley’s media empire grew to encompass a radio show, television, and his famous museums featuring the world’s odds and ends. Well after Ripley went on his journey into the great unknown, the spirit of teasing the weird out of the world around us is still very much alive whenever the phrase “Believe it or not!” shows up next to his signature.

In 1995, Sanctuary Woods’ game based on the famous fact finder hit shelves turning him into a 1930’s ‘everyman’ adventurer. He didn’t shoot bad guys or swing using a whip, but he used his head to solve his way through whatever danger crossed his path. He was more Sherlock Holmes than Indiana Jones, but the places that his adventure would bring players created a rare adventure game that combined live actors in with digital backdrops while remembering that it was a game.

The story behind “The Riddle of Master Lu” is based on a mysterious (and fictional) “Master Lu” who served the First Emperor and apparently traveled far and wide to find the secret of immortality for his liege, traveling to places such as Easter Island and Peru. In the end, he wasn’t successful, however, a great secret is teased within a tablet that he left behind that can only be solved through a combination whose solution is scattered throughout the world — the secret to the Emperor’s Seal. Whoever finds the relic may have the power to unite Asia under one ruler and the race is on to see who can find it first.

Sanctuary Woods channeled Ripley’s thirst for knowledge and the unknown into the game, bringing real-world mysteries into play from Easter Island’s indecipherable rongorongo script to the climax within the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, complete with its reputed ocean of mercury and a recreation of China as the emperor knew it which remains sealed to this day. It’s that kind of grounded reality that made the game attractive from a storytelling perspective, especially if you’re curious to see just what the Emperor’s Tomb may look like. It also helped that these factoids also blended the challenging puzzles seamlessly into the gameplay. Ripley also has to find a few things to send back to his Oddities museum to keep it from closing, small relics that are hidden around the world.

But I thought it a solid adventure at the time with good acting, interesting locales, and an engaging tale that could have been spun by the showman himself. The interface didn’t seem as smart as that found in other adventure games that I’ve enjoyed, especially Lucasarts’ SCUMM-based titles like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but even though it didn’t have as many obvious functions it worked well enough to take Ripley through his adventure around the world.

The ad above shows off the same art used for the game box which also had a lavish degree of detail, Master Lu’s hand (his face is illuminated in the box illustration unlike the ad above where it’s just missing) grasping the Emperor’s Seal and the key to Asia. It’s a great example of the kind of artistry that illustrators were called on to do back in the adventure genre’s heyday when boxed product, manuals, and magazine ads all mingled together to entice players into another world.

Sadly, the game never got a sequel though it was regarded well by publications such as PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World. And unfortunately, unlike the Journeyman Project, Master Lu hasn’t seen a digital release on services like Good Old Games relegating it to bargain bins for classic games at specialty stores or Ebay. Getting this MS-DOS title to run on a modern PC can also take a little doing but if you can work with DOSbox, it might be worth fiddling with the settings to experience an often overlooked gem in the adventure genre.

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