Preview - Hodj 'n' Podj (Windows 3.x, 1995)

Not long ago, if you were to mention Steve Meretzky in a room full of computer game players, the topic of conversation would invariably shift to the subject of those great Infocom text games, like Planetfall and Hitchhiker's Guide. Oh, who am I kidding? This still happens. Meretzky's name is almost synonymous with humorous adventure games. But if you pay close attention, he is starting to push the limits of this narrow definition. For one thing, his most recent release, Superhero League of Hoboken, is his first game to incorporate role-playing elements. But if you think that's a departure, wait until you see the upcoming Hodj 'n' Podj, the first game to bear the logo of his new design company, Boffo Games.

The concept for the game was born in the last days of Infocom. Meretzky noticed a growing trend toward ever more complex games, which depended more and more on a gamer having considerable experience in playing similar products. He reminisced fondly about the very early days of computer gaming, when someone could just sit down for a minute or two, and very quickly pick up the rules of a game, and what's more, get thoroughly hooked. Recently, there have been a few more games along this line, like Tetris or Lemmings, but Meretzky was not satisfied with just creating one more game of this type, especially with CD-ROM storage capabilities. So, he set out to invent the kingdom of Po-Porree, the setting for Hodj 'n' Podj.

It is true that the basic plot of Hodj 'n' Podj contains many of the trappings of standard adventure games. In the game, two identical, rival princes, Hodj and Podj, are sent to search throughout the kingdom of Po-Porree for two kidnapped princesses, Mish and Mosh. The first one to find them and return them to their father, King Medlee, will become king of Po-Porree, and win the hand of his favorite princess in marriage. On their quest, the rhyming princes will have to meet numerous challenges, and if they are triumphant, they get important clues and powerful objects that bring them closer to your goal.

So what's so astonishingly different about all this? Well, first of all, this is really more of a board game than an adventure. The princes "roll" to see how far they can go, move so many "spaces" across the map, and occasionally lose and gain extra turns along the way. Instead of having to draw from a deck of cards, a pleasant British voice informs you of the latest developments. Occasionally, that voice just supplies a little color commentary on your surroundings. It's a nice touch.

But the real difference is in those "challenges." These are not your standard adventure puzzle that you finish once and then know the answer to, and never play again. No, these are extremely replayable "mini-games". They range from city development strategy to word puzzles to solitaire card games to the computer equivalent of jigsaw puzzles. There's even reworkings of arcade classics like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, adapted with distinctly medieval themes. You can play the classic island game of Mankala with an intelligent crab, solve Cryptograms in the crypt, challenge an octopus to a quick round of Battlefish, or just settle in for an old fashioned game of poker with the Sheriff. There are 20 of these mini-games included, with names like "Archeroids", "Dam Furry Animals", "Garfunkle" and "Th Gesng Gm", and every one will drag you back for more.

If you like the sound of the games, but hate the boardgame structure, you can completely ignore it! The flexibility of this package is remarkable. You can either stick to a favorite mini-game, or take the "grand tour", which lets you sample all the flavors, in alphabetical, geographical, or random order.

On top of all this, there's a hilarious five-minute cartoon introducing the storyline and characters. You can see and hear the titular princes, King Medlee, his gorgeous daughters, and the evil Prime Minister Salmagundee, who is responsible for their disappearance. That's one thing you've got to say for the age of multimedia: a mini-movie sure beats the heck out of a booklet in the package.

The gaming world has never seen anything quite like Hodj 'n' Podj before. There have been board games, game packs and adventure games, but it took Steve Meretzky to fuse them into one compelling package, suffused with his trademark sense of humor. This is a very promising beginning for the fledgling Boffo Games. If Meretzky keeps this up, his fans may find him a lot harder to pigeonhole.