Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
) is a game of inches. Go six inches forward, 5 inches back, over and over until you finally earn that ultimate reward.
Get your mind out of the gutter, camel breath!
I’m talking about the incredibly gorgeous, gruesome and mind-bendingly difficult horror adventure game released in 1990 for Amiga based on the macabre TV personality with legendary cleavage.
is an interesting game with a convoluted and murky history. It was made by Horror Soft in the UK, not the US where she (Cassandra Peterson) hails from and earned her fame. Peterson's character was barely known in the EU at the time except potentially with some of the goth and heavy metal peeps moshing in the UK.
There was an Elvira movie in 1988 that was distributed worldwide but only in limited release in the EU and mainly in video rental stores from what I can tell, if at all. Based on anecdotal polls I’ve taken, most folks outside North America were seeing Elvira for the first time when they saw her image on the game box at computer stores. So the big box release was a sort of "WTF" moment for lads across the pond, granted many still stopped in their tracks to look at the box a little more closely while making sure their mothers weren't watching.
So this game was created in England, is based on a niche US character, and was published by Accolade in the US as well. Regardless, it looked and ran beautifully on my NTSC hardware and for what it's worth my original copy is a North American print.
This being a game about Elvira in any form or fashion is kind of weird other than the obvious fact that sex sells. I'll be honest - I'm old enough and lucky enough to have grown up watching her every week on TV. But Horror Soft seems to have taken the basic premise of her 1988 movie, and her image, and used that as the creative framework in a hand-wavy sort of way to help sell more product.
In the movie Elvira inherits an old mansion in New England and a black magic cookbook, while in the game it's a castle in England (OK, sure). In the movie she battles her evil uncle, and in the game it’s her evil ancient ancestor Lady Emelda. All we know is Elvira’s trapped in the castle and has hired us to rid the place of Emelda’s minions and ultimately Emelda herself. I guess it's better than a lot of stories for games (I'm looking at you, Dungeon Master) but it's still pretty thin.
Right off the bat, though, the graphics in this game are freaking gorgeous. They are entirely hand-drawn pixel art and are just exquisite. The game also features excellent sound effects and some really weird, moody (if a bit janky) music. It never really grows old, either, and does change from time to time depending on your location in the game.
The game world occurs entirely around, inside and underneath the castle. We get all up inside that business. The variety of environments is impressive, too.
Movements are based on a typical grid format, although sometimes the view can take a little getting used to. For example, sometimes you might be walking down a hallway and in the viewport a door might cover half your screen. On the other hand, these visual oddities can help you gain your bearings as you learn the game’s maps.
When I first sat down to this game I thought what I was looking at was a dungeon crawler. The game has many of the user interface affordances we’re used to seeing, particularly the mouse-driven arrows for movement and grid-based maps.
But the game is far less of a dungeon crawler and more a puzzle-laden adventure with action elements. In fact, the game was (somehow) built on top of a modified MUD engine! And the puzzles are more akin to old-school Infocom text adventures where you feel the need to pick up a bazillion items you find along the way and attempt to use them in any combination possible out of pure desperation. Thankfully, most of the puzzles in this game are surprisingly logical. Most. And you never seem to get penalized for carrying too much stuff. But since you don’t know what you don’t know, you pretty much become a pack mule carrying the equivalent of a Walmart around in your pockets.
Part of the game’s charm and legendary status is from the death scenes. You are expected to die in this game - a LOT - and there are several ghastly scenes of your demise which are somewhat of a visual reward for when you fail. And you are going to fail many, many times. In fact I died so many times in this game I became completely paranoid about my Game Saves, and would literally save before I opened every single door. If something bad happened I would restart the game. I did this countless times.
Also, later in the game it became apparent to me that I’d made mistakes so egregious I had to restart the game from earlier saves, thus losing several days worth of progress. I did this painful backtracking on at least two separate occasions. It made me briefly rage at the game, but when I finally got past a puzzle the love would rush right back in.
Tech, and Paper
I played this game on an early model 16Mhz NTSC Amiga 3000 running OS 1.3 off the hard drive. I can’t fathom playing this game from floppy disks as it seems like it would want to load constantly. I’ve heard the C64 version’s disk access is so plentiful and slow it’s pretty awful. Also, installing the game to hard drive
was an unexpected challenge, but once I got that behind me it ran smoothly as you would expect. It still boggles my mind how Wild West hard drive installations were for so many games back in the day.
I have an original boxed copy of Elvira and the spell book is probably one of the most annoying I’ve ever used. It employs a form of xerox-copy protection in the print, so in order to read the spell ingredients one needs to mix, you have to use a red transparent slip of plastic that reveals the words for you (thanks for the inspiration, Lucasfilm, you jerks). It’s extremely hard to read even when using the decoder, and I found using the spell book a total pain in the ass.
I also have an original clue book for this game that uses the same awful protection scheme - practically penalizing the people who bought the game and clue book legally. I barely touched it as I found it more annoying than just dying in the game a zillion times.
One of the most challenging and baffling parts of this game is the combat system.
When you face a foe several variables come into play. And when you first start playing this game, none of them are particularly obvious and the process can feel utterly random and brutal.
At a high level, enemies will attack you either on the left side of the screen or the right. When they attack, you are to either block (left) or parry (right). If you time it correctly you block their attacks and then immediately counter attack. And if your Dexterity is high enough (e.g. above 30 or so) you can quickly thrust and hack your enemy until they are either dead or they block you instead. If they do block your attack, you go through these motions all over again.
And blocking their attacks, especially at first, feels almost random. There are some very fast and subtle visual cues you can watch for to gauge your defenses, but at the end of the day if your Dexterity score gets too low you might as well start over. I didn’t discover this gem of wisdom until I’d been playing (and dying pretty regularly) for the first few days. Over time I did get better. But I still got into the habit of saving my game before each fight and reloading if my stats got knocked down too far.
Almost everything you see in Elvira can be picked up and taken to a ridiculous degree, and it’s extremely hard to know what to take and what to leave behind. Ultimately, I wound up carrying page after page of inventory only to find out there were probably less than 20 things I ever really used. But there’s just no way to really know as you’re going through this game what’s important and what’s not. I became a certified hoarder in this game.
The vast majority of items in the game are plants you collect in the outdoor gardens which can be later mixed into potions and spells. Some of these plants are represented on-screen literally as a single f’ing pixel! I’m looking at you, clover. But there are also several items you’ll come across that you will have to use in very specific locations in order to progress in the game. In a couple of instances, finding those items - and using them - is insanely hard to figure out. Skip the next three paragraphs and jump straight to "Magic" if you want to avoid a spoiler where I explain one such puzzle.
…SPOILER BEGIN (warning!)
At one point in the game you confront a knight on top of the castle walls. The game tells you close combat looks to be impossible, which is a hint to use something besides your sword to kill him. Maybe a powerful spell? Maybe the crossbow? It took me a while (after being killed over and over) to realize I needed to use the crossbow but I had no bolts! I’d used them all. I had to leave and walk all the way back outside the castle to a place I’d done some target practice near the beginning of the game. Lo and behold I had some bolts stuck in a target sitting there waiting for me (thank goodness!).
Once I got the spare bolts I ran back to the top of the castle. (Then I saved, of course.) I killed the knight with a single shot and he fell over the wall! That’s odd, right? Welp, he died, I won, and I thought that was it.
Fast forward after several days/weeks of playing and I eventually found myself swimming through secret passages under the castle and ultimately wound up outside in the moat. With very few visual cues, I completely lucked into finding the knight at the bottom of the moat. There, in his scabbard, was one of the six keys I needed in order to beat the game! Of course, finding the way back into the castle (under water, where you can drown) was maddening and took me forever as everything looked identical and I had no idea where I was. But I eventually found my way back inside. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t have nearly this much white hair before I started playing the game.
I think if I were to play this game repeatedly and get really good at it, magic might not even be necessary. For all of the things you pick up and put into your inventory, a shockingly small amount of spells can actually be created. Many spells require items you might never find (I'm just sayin'). And others simply only have enough ingredients for one or two batches, and that’s it.
For example, at the beginning of the game Elivira gives you a healing potion (or cake - it's something edible) that you can use three times. You’re only able to make that same healing potion yourself, I think, once more after
you find all of the proper ingredients throughout the castle and gardens. The same seemed to hold true to a dexterity boosting potion, which I was only able to make one of and use 3 times. Infuriatingly, the Dexterity boost only gave me a couple of points from each sip, making it almost useless. The healing potion, in my experience, is the single most important spell in the game. Use it sparingly. And if your Dexterity dips below 30, use it to bump it back up or your fights will suuuuck. And you’ll die.
I only used one single offensive spell in the game and it was one given to me by Elvira. I had to use it in the hedge maze against these strange goblin/gremlin looking creatures.
Atmosphere and Final Thoughts
The game’s atmosphere is awesome. When you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, the game really does create a sensational sense of dread and fear as death is hiding around virtually every corner. And the really weird schizophrenic music is so unique and disconcerting, it’s excellent.
Also, at least in the manuals, I could absolutely hear the voice of Cassandra Peterson in her hilarious valley girl voice in my mind. The writing is spot on.
But the game isn’t perfect. It has a seriously high learning curve - the kind that made me walk away from it multiple times before going all-in. And Elvira feels like she was sort of out of place in the game. Like, they tried *really hard* to integrate her into it, but her being there feels kind of random. They could have swapped her out with pretty much anyone - real or fictional - and it would have probably worked just the same (and been just as fun and looked just as great).
On top of that, Elvira was known for being the host of really old, really cheesy throw-away ‘B’ movies. If anything this game seemed to be at a far higher quality than her shows ever could have dreamed of, which was a bit jarring. And there was a complete lack of humor in the game unless Elvira was talking, which she only did two or three times. Humor and sex are nearly the entire gag, and there’s almost none to be found in this game. It’s like Horror Soft took all of their artistic efforts and pushed them into the graphics and adventure game, then slapped Elvira on top at the end.
But overall the game is pretty fantastic once you work through the kinks in the combat system. Just be prepared to die. A lot. (And even backtrack multiple times.) At least enjoy the fabulous graphics when you get your throat torn out or see your head head bobbing in a cauldron. I know I did.