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About the StorySpangleland! Sawdust and glitter, buffoons and cotton candy! It's a place where your wildest dreams come true! At least, that's what you think... until you get behind the scenes at the big top. Then you learn how easily sweet dreams can turn into nightmares.
Beyond the spangles lies a seedy world of deception and crime. Exploring the tattered corners of the circus lot, you overhear a conversation about the owner's daughter. It seems she's been kidnapped, and the hired gumshoe couldn't find the nose on his face. Good samaritan that you are, you start poking around on your own.
But watch your step. As the night progresses, you realize you're in as much danger as the little girl. For the kidnapper is lurking right there on the lot, trying to set you up for a permanent slot in the freak show.
When I first played Ballyhoo, I strongly disliked it because of a technical problem. [...] But if you can get past these glitches, you will find quite a nice little game. There are several characters, all well developed. There are everal amusing little responses and sidelights [...] The game captures the circus feel in much the same way that Hollywood Hijinx captures the Hollywood feel. As an added bonus, you get an all text blackjack game in the bargain.
-- Graeme Cree
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Number of Reviews: 2
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Ballyhoo keeps the standard... but fails to raise it, and in the end, the overall experience is of having played an inferior Infocom game. An inferior Infocom game is still heaps of fun, but it still feels... inferior.
Ballyhoo is authored by Jeff O'Neil, who would later on create Nord and Bert.
Well, that sort of says a lot, doesn't it? From the creator of Nord and Bert, you can pretty much expect lots of fun with words and expressions, and maybe some nice parser replies.
And in fact, that is the strongest, best thing in this game. Not to put the atmosphere and puzzles and characters down - more on those in a bit - the absolute best part of this game has to be the parser, which is pretty much the Infocom standard, and stock full of little wonderful jokes - the egress, "curse the pain", the monkey on the detective's back, the exaggerated reports of your death, the gorilla's own "curse the pain" moment... Little, subtle things, that make all the difference in the gameplay experience. Mr. O'Neill clearly had a lot of fun writing this game, and it shows, and the game is the better for it.
The characters are all astoundingly vivid, even if the only real conversationalist is the guard outside the camp (and you can have a really good time talking to him, too). Their descriptions are the usual Infocom fare - rather terse but always evoking, at times startling (again, the guard is a case in point - just try asking him about himself). It's the typical circus fare, on the outside - the hugely fat lady, the magician, the animal tamer, the clowns, and of course Andrew Jenny... but when you get to strip away the makeup and greasepaint, when you look underneath, you also see the sweat behind the smile, the harshness in the dream. You face the gritty soil of Spangleland.
So I started talking about characters and veered off into atmosphere. That's because Mr. O'Neill succeeded in making the characters very atmospheric, and the whole setting very realistic and yet very... dramatic. It's not exactly a snapshot of circus life, it feels more like a dramatized version of circus life. It's like the opera really - of course no one who is dying of consumption can sing for 30 minutes saying "I'm dying, I'm dying, oh I love you but I'm dying but I love you" and so on, hitting all those high notes, but it's not supposed to be realistic. It's supposed to be a dramatization, a sort of exaggeration, somethat stilized, somewhat symbolized.
"Are you saying Ballyhoo is the opera equivalent of a game?" No, of course not, let's not be silly. But like so many other works of fiction, it adds an extra dash of flair, style and nastiness that turns a realistic picture into a compelling, climatic experience. Which somehow brings it closer to the spirit of the circus, and in the end what you get is truly a "circus experience".
The puzzles are all fairly good and solid. As usual, I had to turn to the hintbook only a couple of times to clarify a couple of things, and when I did I had to stick to it. In the later half of the game, some of the puzzles seem to be rather more unclear, and at times the protagonist's method is certainly not the method *I* would use.
Unlike the other Infocom mystery games, Ballyhoo makes sure that the right time is usually whenever you arrive at the right place. I don't care if it breaks mimesis, it's great for the player. It's only a problem when you mean to confront your prime suspect - if you don't confront him with all the evidence (and honestly, some of the evidence is sketchy, and one would never have known it was evidence at all), he just walks into the trailer you want to break into. Then you leave, wait awhile and come back, and there is is, standing guard again, as if nothing had happened. Honestly, I'd rather he just didn't walk away at all.
Also, at one point you find yourself having to sacrifice an item which promises to be of further use. It isn't - it just had a little extra bit of information, but it would have been of no further use. But in a game so carefully designed to prevent player frustration and to keep the player of undoable moves, even severely limiting the ways you can lock yourself out of victory (the game is, in fact, quite polite and forviging), this stands out a bit.
The very final puzzle is a bad one. :P It spoils a climatic scene - and I mean truly climatic, in an over-the-top way, but well done and fitting with everything that came before, so that over-the-top is a *good* thing in this sense. The final puzzle interrupts that climax. It fits in with the humour of the rest of the game, but at that point we didn't NEED nor WANT humour, not any more than the situation itself prompts by means of being so *over-the-top dramatic*.
All in all, Ballyhoo is a forgiving and polite Infocom title. It's fun. It's not all that long. It's vivid. It's logical, mostly. But it lacks something, and this is a subjective experience of mine, and I can't say exactly why I feel this way. But there's definitely something amiss. My gameplay experience became stilted and jagged after a certain point, when the game started wanting me to do very specific things. Case in point: if I discover a new item, I'll go around showing it to everyone, pretty much, to see what gives a response. It so happens I might overlook the one character who seems to stay out of trouble, but he's the only character who tells me what I want to know, and until I do show him the item...
Well, let's put it like this: item A belongs to person B. But when I show it to person B, I get a standard "It's doubtful person B would be interested" response. I have to show it to person C, who says "That's B's", and THEN can I show it to person B.
This is odd. Very odd. I hate it with a passion, especially if I forget that person C (Spoiler - click to show) is blind and being shown things prompts no response, nor a reminder that "showing" might not be the best course of action with a blind person. I just get a standard "He doesn't react" response. Sure, it's very accurate - he doesn't react because he doesn't see it, so I have to *give* it to him so he can feel it. But I don't want to *give* it to him, it was hard enough getting it, I just wanted him to take a look (as it were) and tell me what he knew, and despite the visual implications of "show", it was the verb that best described what I wanted to do. Since I got no response, I assumed he didn't have anything to say. Enter the hintbook.
All in all, is Ballyhoo worth your time? Yes, certainly. It's up to the Infocom standard. It doesn't excell, but it doesn't let you down either. It will entertain you and make you smile. It won't draw you in as much as you'd hoped, maybe, but then, sometimes it's fine to play a game just for some entertainment value as opposed to a fiercely gripping experience, you know?
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