Review: Hocus Pocus

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: NR - Not Rated
My Rating: Ages 10 and up
Genre: Platform Shooter
License: Shareware
Release Year: 1994
Review Published On: May 20th, 2020
Played on: Martha & Thaddeus

Available from:

Steam

Save System:

Since this is an older game, there is no autosave feature. Instead, you'll need to manually save your progress by bringing up the pause menu (press ESC), selecting the option to save your game, and then selecting the save slot you want to use.

Importantly, this does not record your progress within a level. When you load the saved game, you'll start at the beginning of the level, regardless of where you left off.

Summary of
Major Issues:

The main problems with this title revolve around some of the concepts and imagery being shown, specifically some of the background images and some story elements that haven't aged well.

Screenshots

[view screenshot]
Serpents and spikes ahead

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Slaying a dragon

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Eww! Spiders!



Game Overview

First things first. This old DOS game has nothing to do with the Disney movie of the same name, so if you're expecting to see the Sanderson Sisters and an immortal black cat named Thackery Binks, you've come to the wrong place. I mean, I love that movie too, but the only thing it really has in common with this game is the title.

Moving on, Hocus Pocus is not only the name of the game, it's also the name of the protagonist and player character. Hocus is a young wizard who dreams of being a member of the prestigious Wizard Council, and husband of the lovely Popopa. The problem is, he's not exactly the most skilled wizard out there, and the many doodles down the side of his spellbooks doesn't help matters. Still, one of the members of the Wizard Council, a grumpy wizard named Terexin, decides to give Hocus a chance to prove himself. The various Magical Paths have become dangerous places, as evil wizards and twisted beings have infested them. In order to defeat these various evils, Hocus must search the Paths, find the Magical Crystals that store their power, and engage them in magical combat.

And thus the stage is set: you must search each level in order to find every Magical Crystal hidden within, and defeat the enemies of the Council. Only then will you have saved the day, earned Hocus a place on the Wizard Council, and won the heart of his beloved.

At one point in time, this was a shareware game, and like most shareware games of the late DOS era, Hocus' adventure was split into several episodes. This design allowed the first part of the game to be released for free, giving curious players a legal way to try the game before they had to spend money on it. In order to play the full game, you'd need to pay a "registration fee" via mail order. After a few weeks, a retail copy of the game would arrive in your mailbox, often with a shareware copy of another game published by Apogee.

The complete adventure spans four episodes. Each episode contains nine levels and focuses on a specific enemy of the Wizard Council. In order, you'll be facing off against the Mad Monks of Mellenwah, the insidious Tree Demons, the Harsh Gray Dragons of Higgendom, and the Wizard Council's ex-president Trolodon.

Sound good? Well, there's one small problem. Namely, the combat is a bit lackluster. It takes more shots that it really should to take down certain enemies. Many of the less powerful enemies tend to appear in fairly large groups, and this ends up filling the game with unnecessary bottlenecks. On the plus side, there are usually Quickfire potions near areas where large numbers of enemies spawn, so the problem can be mitigated somewhat. There's also a special "monster" in later stages (ie, in the non-free portion of the game) that explodes when shot, instantly slaying every monster on screen.

Aside from the combat, this is a pretty fun game as old DOS games go. The graphics are easily some of the best from the era, and the music (especially the title theme) is still impressive. If you like messing around with games from way back when, you'll probably agree that it's a fun (if unexciting) way to spend an evening or two.

Points of Interest

Steady increase in difficulty
Considering the biggest issue with this game is the way that the developers handled combat, it's a little surprising that they managed to get the bosses right. As you progress through the episodes, each boss is slightly more dangerous than the ones that came before it. Don't get too cocky though, as every boss is pretty dangerous, even on the Easy difficulty level.
Lots of hidden loot
Every level is saturated with treasure. In fact, it's often useful to use unclaimed treasure as "breadcrumbs" to help you see which parts of the level you haven't explored yet. Helpfully, once you collect all of the treasure in a level, a sound effect plays and the level number indicator will begin blinking. Collecting all of it is optional, but who doesn't enjoy searching out every last goodie in a game?
It takes too many shots to defeat an enemy
And how. Long, flat hallways are often filled with dozens of enemies, and since that pocket lightning bolt spell really doesn't do much damage, you'll be spending a lot of time just standing there slightly out of reach of the enemies mashing the fire button so you can continue your quest.
Cheatcode glitches
This issue is a bit on the weird side. The game has this odd tendency to randomly activate one or more of its cheat codes without you entering them. Common examples include the player suddenly having both keys, having the effect of the Quickfire potion without picking one up, and even having the game's superweapon active when you don't expect it. The key cheat is actually a serious issue, as which keys you have and what areas you've unlocked are a good way to keep yourself from getting lost in larger levels.
Death traps
Most of the time, if Hocus falls into lava, spikes, or other damaging floor, he can jump away and get to safety. However, there are a few places that are exceptions to this rule, and they seem to only appear in the Egyptian themed levels. These pits are just slightly too deep, so if you fall in, you cannot climb out. Also, there isn't a cheat code to make you jump higher, so even cheating doesn't work here. Your only option is to restart the level.

Concerns and Issues

Mild violence
Like most early computer games (and most platform shooters in general), characters simply pop when defeated. There is no gore, just some white, yellow and red pixels flying away from where the creature used to be. Hocus himself makes a bigger explosion than anybody else, but that's mainly because he's the protagonist and it's more dramatic that way.
Magic is omnipresent
Although this game is entirely built around the use of magic and set in a magical multiverse, the theme is only skin deep. All you'd need to set this game in a non-magical science fiction world is just a different paint job and a few edits to the story pages. After all, the only magical effects you see are the projectiles fired by various characters, solid walls disappearing when a switch is thrown or other condition is met, and the various powerups, which are depicted as potions.
Unsettling backgrounds
Many of the levels in this game have some questionable things going on in the background. To be more specific, it's not uncommon for there to be heads of various gigantic monsters (or the entire bodies of such creatures) mounted on the wall. These images are just there for decoration and don't play a role in the gameplay, but these are the most "demonic" images you'll see in the entire game.
Chivalry is dead
There are two things mentioned in the game's story that probably won't sit right with today's audiences. The first is Popopa, a young woman who Hocus wants to marry. However, the only reason she exists in this story is so that she can be a prize for player character; the only times she is even mentioned is when she's a prize to be won (or the prize you just earned), making her role superficial at best. Leaving her out of the game wouldn't change anything, cementing her as little more than a trophy.

The other problematic point in the story revolves around one of the magical paths that Hocus is trying to reopen. These paths can take people through time as well as space, and this specific path leads back to the land of the Beautiful Amazon Tribes Before the Time of Clothes Era. The all-male wizard council is rather excited about this path reopening, and immediately sets out to "study" the Amazons once they get the news. Obviously, it works as a joke, but it doesn't really fit with the otherwise child-friendly tone the game seems to be aiming for.