Friday, 19 April 2013

Ken's Labyrinth (MS-DOS) - Guest Post

What do you get when you combine the long-standing Epic Games, makers of the Unreal engine, with Ken Silverman, who single-handedly created of the Build engine used in 3D Realms' Duke Nukem 3D?

It's gotta be a recipe for some high-action, tech-packed excitement!

The Adlib music bursts into a life (YouTube link) with a triumphant tattoo as this AWESOOOME illustration smoothly scrolls up the screen. Hugo's House of Horrors, this ain't.

There's a second music theme for the episode select that sounds like a track from Outrun. It's catchy as heck... I might leave it on for a bit. I've got a choice of three game episodes here: 'Search for Sparky', 'Sparky's Revenge' and 'Find the Way Home'. Let's see if I can get all the way through 'Search for Sparky' without tearing my fur out.

Entering Floor I, Volume I
"Once upon a time..."

You awake in a strange world. One intention is burned in your mind - to escape from this place and save the Earth from destruction. It won't be easy.

Nasty aliens from the planet Zogar, lead by their evil and ugly leader 'Ken', have kidnapped me and my dog Sparky and placed us in their 'Labyrinth'. If we escape, we earn our species' right to exist. Fail, and the Earth will be crushed into coal and used to power Zogarian jam-making machines. Mmmm, jam.

"Welcome to Ken's Labyrinth." the digitised speech politely announces. It even does this out of the PC beeper if you've not got a sound card set up, which is a neat trick.

I'm not sure what the red blob is. Is that all that's left of the previous gladiator of the Labyrinth? I think I just picked it up. Yuck.

This music was not what I was expecting. (YouTube link) It's some kind of optimistic musak... in fact, it sounds like Lemmings.

If you're wondering why there's maps of the United States all over the wall, the dude just likes states is all (external link).

I can't tell whether this map is top down or side on. It's not very useful either way, because I can't take it with me and I haven't got a compass. I suppose I could copy it out on paper...

Woah, heck is that?! I couple of shots of my... infinite ammo... jam launcher...(?) obliterates the flying blue face with a squeaky splat. Don't want those things any where near me, thank you very much.

What's through the door?

Spiders! No match for the power of jam!

The enemies don't seem to have any sound effects, which is unusual. Why pass up the opportunity to make a giant metal spider make a 'tink-tink-tink' sound as it walks up to you?

What a bizarre mix of items. In this room there's tables, fruits, lampshades...

And poor, innocent wolfmen chained to the walls. Weird.

Sorry dudes, as much as I'd like to lead an army of alien loups-garous on a bloody rampage to get my dog back, it doesn't look like I can help you.

A floaty, shooty, silent robot with a propensity for destruction. Its armoured chassis can withstand more than a couple of direct hits of marmalade. I think it's high time I found a way to upgrade my arsenal from 'delicious' to 'devastating'.

"Nice job!" announces Ken as I dart up the stairs and on to Level 2. I got a high score! (Because the high score tables start off empty. Sob.)

Level 2 features more eccentric melodic music (YouTube link) and random furniture, now with added bats.

Hello, is anyone home? Where is everyone?

I can't find any enemies or items on this level at all. I passed through a passage labelled 'SHOOT THIS WALL' in order to get here, so I don't think we're up to 'shoot every wall until one just breaks' kind of gameplay just yet.

All this wandering about has tired me out.

Time for a nice refreshing Cold Soda!

Oh darn, I don't have 25c. And the vending machine doesn't stock soda anyway!

The machine sells nutritious healing apples for 1 cent each. Maybe later. How long do you think the apples have been sitting inside that thing?

There's a proud selection of weapon upgrades for sale too! It's several hundred cents for an upgrade for my jelly bomb, and even more if I want to try one of the two other wonderful weapons. So far I'm at the end of Level 2 and I've found 9c, so I'll have enough for the second level of my starting gun by Level 13 maybe!

It's a wizard! Or a druid! I don't know!

He's firing purple balls of eeeevil magic at me and my lousy fruit shooter ain't working. Run away!

It's an extra life. Don't laugh. Unless you want to.

I've been thinking about the vending machines. I've found a couple of doors which need money to open, and monsters don't drop money. Does that mean it's possible to permanently lose the game by buying items from the shop?

That's really lousy.

The floating blue things have developed a new trick, but it's not very powerful. Allowing the enemies to touch you is way more dangerous. Nothing in this game seems to hurt me very much. Neither the enemies nor their bullet impacts are sticky (THANK GOD) so I can still attempt a retreat using these old-style cursor key controls even when I'm surrounded. I'm tempted to just run right through the enemies, but that's hardly sport.

The whole bizarre experience: colours, textures, enemies, weapons, health and score reminds me a lot of Gauntlet.

I thought the level was going to be a dungeon of some kind, but this place is quickly becoming somewhat unhinged. It's a bunch of unrelated rooms all thrown together. Sometimes I think I'm above ground, but in the next room it feels like thousands of feet underground.

I feel like I'm inside Ken's subconscious or something.

These spinning fans are actually death-traps. You have to carefully walk around them, unless you want to hear a horrible clicking sound as they mercilessly shear your arms off.

Some games, like The Catacomb Abyss 3D, conceal the way forward behind secret passages.

Ken's Labyrinth opts for the slightly less wall-travelled concept of overt passages.

It's a trap! Gah!!

These guys have a hilarious animation sequence where their arms and legs flailing around like they're make of plasticine. They can shoot, but they prefer to try and bite you instead. They get stuck on the walls a lot, which makes them a lot less fearsome than they look.

I don't profess to be an expect on first-person shooter design, but if I had to give one piece of advice to up-and-coming level designers, it would be the following:

You probably shouldn't do this.

This isn't a secret room. This is a perfectly ordinary room, filled with images of the programmer, Ken Silverman. There are more of these scattered throughout the level.

If you accidentally shoot one of them while trying to fend off the bats that live here, you take damage yourself. (But... Ken's the bad guy? I thought were supposed to shoot him?)

Holy moly! A giant rolling eight ball! This is why enemies should make sounds, damn it!

It chases me down a huge corridor and keenly tracks me throughout the level... I rush through doorways and weave between pillars, but there's no stopping it! It traps me at a dead end, I ready my finger on the Esc key to load my game as the 8-ball begins to crush me. It does barely any damage and I can walk right through it.

What a relief.

And then I rush back to this exact location, fall into that tiny hole right there and get INSTANTLY KILLED BY SIMPLY TOUCHING IT and have to restart the entire level.


The game is gradually changing from a charming game about survival and escape from a bizarre maze into mindless, all-out carnage. At the start of the game, you're pitted against the odd pair of enemies as you search for the keys, but by Level 6 the game's all ran out of novelty and spews enemies at you by the dozen.

Balls can only be defeated by leading them into holes in the floor. You can only lead a ball into a hole if you're standing near a hole yourself. Standing near a hole kills you instantly. I don't get it.

It's a robot! It acts just like every other enemy except it takes more shots to kill. How exciting.

The tedium of the game is beginning to take its toll around about now. The jam launcher is so feeble as to make shooting the enemies a joyless exercise. It's becoming easier to complete the levels by holding down Run and Shoot and slamming face-first into the walls of the maze one by one until I find all the mandatory secret passages.

The challenges of Ken's Labyrinth come in two hideous flavours.

One: The Level Full of Lots and Lots of Shit Going On.

From around Level 7 onwards, the floors become packed wall-to-wall with enemies. There's dozens of enemies of every type around every corner. It really is first-person Gauntlet basically, and the same tactics apply. The only way to survive is to hide around the corner in such a way that the enemies get jammed against each other. They'll form an orderly queue and blindly walk into the path of your jam cannon.

And then you move on to the next room. And then the next room. When you finally find a secret room, new weapons are nowhere to be seen.

When you've killed every enemy in a level, it becomes:

Two: The Level With Absolutely No Shit Going On.

You've killed everything. Now what?

Cramped spaces with identical walls, some that you can walk right through, some that can be destroyed by bullets and, my favourite, walls that become intangible after you shoot them but don't visibly change.

Somewhere in the level there will be a key. It won't look like a key. And somewhere else, there will be plenty things that look like doors but they're not. There's only two keys per level and no switches, so there's only a finite amount of getting lost you can do before you complete the stage through sheer luck.

I can almost enjoy playing the game when I'm alone in the maze like this. It's relaxing... if you ignore the relentless freakin' carnival music (YouTube link).

So here I am, Floor X, Volume I. The final level of Episode One of Ken's Labyrinth. All I have to do is defeat the mighty Zorko (a fat orange troll-thing) in order to rescue my dog and advance to the next stage of my daring escape from the Labyrinth.

Zorko really doesn't want to be found. His level is full of identical passages blocked by avoidable-looking but impassable sprites; it took me ten minutes just to find the bugger. Even then I'm not sure I really found him at all, I just turned around and he was suddenly behind me.

En garde, Zorko!

His main method of attack is to fire large crackling rays of orange energy at the player. Dodging these isn't difficult as the arena is a regular grid of boxes much like the Ken room. Holding Run and any direction will see you bouncing a zig-zag path through the maze to safety. It's finding the boss again after you've ran away that's the problem.

Zorko has a secondary ability where his body disappears and he floats around the maze as a disembodied head, like the ghosts from Pac Man. When he does this, he moves absurdly fast, is impervious to attack and can't be stunned. There's nothing you can do to force him to reincarnate. You have to wait. Sometimes he just doesn't come back at all.

There's no sign that Zorko is even taking damage from my pathetic gun. I feel like I've missed a whole load of secret power-ups getting to this point. I'm at the end of the first episode and all I have to show for it is two copies of the starting weapon.

Oh, no wait, he's exploding! Something's happening! It's....

A warp appears and out comes my beloved pooch, Sparky! Huzzah! I have completed Episode One of Ken's Labyrinth. At fucking last.

The introductory text said that the level would change after defeating the boss, I'm going to have another look around the level for some post-end-boss secrets! Maybe they'll be nice and give me a second ruddy gun already!

I found another teleporter. I naturally assumed that it would lead to a nifty secret cave full of goodies. It didn't. It took me to a tiny, inescapable room with nothing but a glowing GAME OVER sign as a reward. THE END. I LOSE.

No, I didn't save after spending twenty minutes fighting Zorko. Why would I do that? WHY WOULD I HAVE POSSIBLY NEEDED TO DO THAT?!

Ken's Labyrinth is a game that hates itself and it wants everybody else to hate it too. It is unpleasant and not fun. It won't seem that way to begin with, with its charming surreality, pleasing muted colour palette and smooth 3D world, but after playing it for an hour or so all your senses will simultaneously and violently reject the game at once and you'll regret the entire experience.

Fortunately, Ken himself is pleasant and fun! He has lots of interesting (mostly technical) information about the development of the Build and Ken's Labyrinth engines on his website. He's also made a whole bunch of different versions of Ken's Labyrinth from various stages of development available for download on his Ken's Labyrinth page, so you can see how the very first shareware version of Ken's Labryinth looked when it was released on January 1st 1993, over twenty years ago.

Or you could go further back and look at when then the game engine was known as WALKEN, complete with its inexplicable Ken Silverman head explosion sequence! (YouTube link)


  1. Since Hugo's House of Horrors was brought up, one's mind always travels to the horrors of Nitemare 3-D (

    At one point I had shareware versions of both this and that on my computer. For some reason my memory always melts them together.

    1. I never knew there really was an official first person shooter reimagining of the Hugo house of horrors, I always thought it was only a joke about how every game franchise tried to make the leap to the 3d graphics during the late nineties!

      It even has the clipart house on the cover.

      And Hugo looks just as tired with his life, like I always imagined when trying to 'play' the original adventure games!


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