The human body is not perfect. Not only it is extremely prone to failure, but it also doesn’t last very long before it starts acting up and needing fixes and patches. We can rebuild it, new and improved. We have the technology, we have the know-how, and especially, we have Mad Doctor on Commodore 64. In this quite unique 1985 action adventure, we will play the part of a Dr. Frankenstein-wannabe, spending nights out in the town, gathering fresh human parts to build a monster. Sounds good, innit?
Developed by James Allen in 1985 and published by Creative Sparks at a full-price of £8.99 (somewhat close to twenty-six pounds or 30 euros today), Mad Doctor was quite the unique attempt to develop a sandbox action/adventure game. It is particularly interesting to look at today, as an early example of a sandbox game, with underutilized gameplay features. Among other things, Mad Doctor presents hunger/thirst mechanics, a mood meter for the nearby village (going through “curious”, “rioting”, “livid” etc), multiple endings and complete freedom to explore and do what you like. For an almost-forty years old game, that is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
The original manual does not provide a lot of context, but Mad Doctor makes up for it in quite the interesting ways. The plot is all about “building a better body”, as the cover itself puts it. Our Herr Blockenspiel, has to make his lifelong dream (apparently, a family one as well) come true: prove to the science community that he can re-animate dead tissue. Not only that, his monster has to be intelligent, smart and able to walk around on his own. Otherwise, the people may get mad and reward our effort with a public hanging.
We control the good doctor, Franz Johann Blockenspiel (wonder if the Dragon Quest technique is a reference to Mad Doctor…), around with the joystick, plus we can interact directly with things by using the fire button. While exploring our castle and surroundings at freedom, the fire button opens a context-sensitive command line, in the vein of point and click adventure games. For example, approaching a picture will show “examine picture” (of our Uncle Victor) or “eat and drink” if there is food available.
Visiting the dungeon clearly reveals that this is not the good doctor’s first rodeo, as one of the first objects we will need is a bolt, which can be found hidden among rotting bones. Clearly, something of a previously failed experiment. Plus, in the same location we can see a dungeon/prison, also not a good sign. One of the books in the library also warns us that the atmosphere in the village (Struddleberg), while placid, is “tainted with resentment and anger at events past, but not forgotten”.
The Blockenspiel family is definitely not new at unleashing bloodthirsty monsters on an unsuspecting populace. Therefore, villagers will not appreciate the doctor being out and about killing off innocents. It is also not really explained how the doctor, who’s clearly not a menacing or big man, can overcome almost anyone in the village. Guess he has been studying up for his self-defence course?
While combat is a bit of a throwaway, the map screen is incredibly modern and nothing short of genius. While the concept of a map screen not exactly common in 1985, at least not in games that were not RPGs, Mad Doctor even features a real-time icon of the doctor moving around. If you’re thinking The Secret of Monkey Island’s original map, you’re on the right path. Entering one of the locations will move the player immediately to that place, in a sort of continuous smooth motion. If it was 1995 and marketing had cared, I can see that being a huge selling point for the game, like a back of the box feature.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are also vague RPG aspects. For example, by going into the local library (so not the castle one), the doctor can increase his medical knowledge, thus making much more successful organ explants. Also of note, is the fact that despite the overall 19th century look, there is what seems to be an arcade cabinet in the village’s bar. Probably a little humorous touch by the developer.
The game also introduces some artificial limitations, such as the need for the doctor to only take one part from each body. The idea is only to make the game slightly longer, otherwise you could just pick a good corpse and the game would be over in minutes. It is justified by saying “the monster will attack you”, which I’m not sure how or why it happens, but we roll with it. Science knows best. Another interesting limitation is that the monster will not attack others on command or, at least, we don’t get the possibility to do so. The doctor wants people to love it, at least, as much as possible
Still, that doesn’t mean that the monster won’t attack others. That’s why when it is time for your show (which always takes two hours of time to set up) to the community, it is necessary to sedate the monster, or it will start attacking others. I am not sure why the monster is taller than everyone else, since the doctor only used normal human body parts to build it, but hey, I guess short kings won’t impress the crowd.
Overall, the game seems to hit some of the same notes of Friday the 13th, even though in a much more efficient manner. But much like that game, it is entirely possible to complete Mad Doctor without visiting most locations, such as the bar or the maze. James was probably just happy to use as much of the space he had. The labyrinth is especially puzzling (no pun intended), since there will be one person lying down… and not dead. You can kill them, but it seems to be more effort than just go down to the village and off a couple of inhabitants.
Speedplay of Mad Doctor
There was a lot of potential to make Mad Doctor a much more varied game. Like, it is entirely possible to storm the police station and start killing cops, or – if you wish to keep your hands clean – you can go to the tavern to hire drunks and thieves to off people for you. Both these actions can be used to reduce the attention on the good doctor in the village. Hiding the creature once people get angry and start chasing you around is also a good idea, the manual of the game recommends using the forest to do so.
It is also possible to just stick to the shadows, going out only at night as to avoid attracting unwanted attention. The entire game can be completed successfully by using dead corpses and “only” killing a bum (who usually walks around alone at night). I guess we can consider that a sort of “good” ending? But still, there are a lot of potentially disquieting moments, such as being able to penetrate the home of poor villagers while they are sleeping to harvest their organs. Considering how the game tends to underline how that is a “poor area”, while you are an obviously rich crazy doctor, Mad Doctor introduces some very early [unintentional?] class warfare commentary.
Longplay of Mad Doctor
Graphically, Mad Doctor is quite terrible. The proportions are all out of wax, with huge coffins that seem to be built for Optimus Prime rather than a human, ultra-basic sprites and poor use of colours. That is not to say the graphics don’t work, they do their job decently, but they are not surely the main attraction here. Also, another strange choice is in how all villagers are depicted in green and slowly move around. Are they meant to be zombies?
Not sure if that was a deliberate choice to make the act of killing look less “crazy”, like the green blood in Carmageddon, but either way, it doesn’t make much sense in the grand scheme of things. As for music and sound effects, well, there is nothing much to comment on. There is no music in the entire game, just the sound of the doctor and villagers roaming around, along with thunderclaps. That honestly makes the game more creepy than it has any right to, despite the overall quite humorous presentation.
Reviews back in the day were a bit all over the place, from the enthusiastic 8/10 of CVG (saying “MAd Doctor is great value”), to the abysmal 40% of Zzap!, which has become a kind of recurrent theme in my Commodore 64 features. With a good chunk of the review taken directly from the instruction manual, for some reason, the three reviewers say “at this price, anyone ho buys it needs to see a doctor” and “the game needs more life injecting than the monster does”. Commodore User seemed to also appreciate the sick sense of humour.
Going back to Friday the 13th (and also Rags to Riches), a run in Mad Doctor will last around twenty minutes, depending on how successful we are. Still, it is entirely possible to transform the doctor in a serial killer, you can grab people and stick them in your dungeon. The gates can be closed by just demanding them to close, I guess the doctor was also investing in early Alexa technology. There are many details that might make one thing that James Allen was planning something much more complex here. But, in the end, you don’t need to use any of these tools if you’re just planning to stick to the “reanimating dead tissues” books.
Anything short of a perfect monster, will cause the villagers to get angry and probably kill us, while a perfect monster will cause them to be happy and rejoice. This is an interesting way of ending things. It seems that while the people are well aware that the good doctor – in the best case scenario – went grave robbing, everyone is okay with it, for the good of science. The world of Mad Doctor is really an unfair one, much too similar to ours.
At the end, even though your monster might be perfect, each attempt is just the conclusion of a run. Our Herr Doktor comments on how he might never be satisfied, as science never sleeps. It only seems to go crazy, every once in a while.