Blog

Software

AN.

Blog

Studio Blum's Game Trilogy

30 May 2022

In my early days of downloading freeware games, I stumbled across one called Cult. It was a small download, needed only one floppy disk, and had low system requirements. I remember being surprised at its demand for a 24-bit colour VGA mode, because I used to run my desktop at 16-bit colour to enable the higher resolution. (Of course, the very idea of such a problem is now history, thanks to the modern world and its many-GB RAM graphics adapters.)

I didn't know it at the time, but Cult was the second game created by Studio Blum. The first one was actually a shareware title, Nuclear Deterrence.

Nuclear Deterrence

You control a character called Ali, who is an undercover double-agent working to thwart the evil plans of an evil regime. Your goal is to steal some secret documents, and leave the area alive.

Sounds like it might be violent, right? Spy thriller? Weapons galore? Nope. You are unarmed, you never use any weapons, and neither does anyone else.

An excellent trait across all three games is that you don't carry such distractions. No, these games are primarily two things: a find-and-press-the-button simulator, and trading tycoon. You know, "I'll give you this paperclip for that pencil, and this pencil for some information," etc. Meanwhile, each button unlocks a door somewhere, probably containing more buttons or items of interest.

In the process of trading, you end up talking to other characters scattered across the game. These conversations carry the plot, as do the messages you receive in your secret spy room. There are also some environmental puzzles, secret passages and so on, in addition to new areas that open up during the course of the story.

One example of an environmental puzzle involves a tiny item being hidden in a (relatively) busy area. I suppose it might be easier to spot at lower resolutions, but it's still evil.

A tiny yellow coin on a huge brick-coloured floor. I thought I stepped on something... an ordinary coin!

You'll probably need to enlarge these images to see the item...

Oh yes, tiles. If you've ever played the early Tomb Raider games, you'll be familiar with the idea (in 3D). The map is constructed out of tiles, and gives it a sort-of Sokoban feel, albeit not being quite as rigid. For example, item collection does require you to move onto the pixels representing it, rather than just entering the tile boundary.

There is some humour around, but you have to push the envelope a bit. Attempt to wake the cat more than once. Inspect the toilet paper. Hassle the public a bit. Generally, be a nuisance, and you will be rewarded with a healthy dose of snark.

It is impossible to lose the game, but that doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. The ending does make some sense, although I found it a bit dry. Perhaps it's a little bit too realistic.

Cult

In Cult, you're the police officer Zack Bon, looking into "The Cult of The Stars" for evidence of a secret weapon stash. You've been invited by the leader of the cult to visit their villa, and see for yourself that it's completely peaceful. You're not allowed to leave without permission from the leader, and his room is off-limits, but you do have a secret communicator device to talk to Zack's captain.

I think this story is much better than the first game. You feel more like the hero of the story, the NPCs are much more relatable, and the plot makes narrative sense. Well, mostly. Some NPCs do say things like, "I've opened one of five," which actually means "I opened a door for you", and it doesn't sound very natural. But I'm being harsh.

Your main hazards are barbed wire and acid spills. Standing on those squares drain your health, and while there are medical kits scattered around to heal with, there are only 26 in total. It is theoretically possible to end up in a position where you can't win the game, because one key is stored behind a lot of purple "acid", but you'd have to be exceptionally careless to lose that way.

Speaking of keys, Cult does a lovely camouflage trick. The brown key is hidden inside the indoor garden — can you find it? (Where's Wally?)

Indoor garden. Talking to a cult member.

The indoor garden, and speaking to a cult member inside the library.

The game is pretty much over once you've found all four keys, pushed all the buttons and traded your final item. Zack's final speech is quite fitting, but I won't spoil it here. Let's say... it fits the game well.

Cult II - Federal Crime

Set only a week after the events of the second game, you're still Zack Bon, and you're looking into the prominent businessman "Nathan West". You're undercover, posing as a telecom business owner, and you have an invite to an exclusive party that Mr. West is holding at his mansion. His very strange mansion, where the only three entrances to the living quarters are through the kitchen, the garage, or through the toilets.

The plot is very similar to Cult, in that he's been accused of building a private militia. The key system, hazards and secret communicator are also present too.

There are many nice touches, from the babysitter being rather nonchalant about your presence in private quarters, to Mr. West leaving the party when he gets suspicious of you. There are twists and turns in the story, and even the odd joke!

Some areas don't make much sense though — in this outdoor area, you can't walk through the smoke, but you can use a key to go around it. Huh?

A solid wall of smoke. A large room with tables and sandwiches laid out.

"Locked" smoking area, and the party.

There is a rather nasty hedge maze, where not only is it easy to get lost, but some of the hedge pieces inside need to be removed with buttons elsewhere. It can be quite frustrating to walk miles back and forth looking for a button that you've missed. At least with items, you can make a note of who wants what.

And of course, there's also another tiny item to find.

Despite the minor flaws, it's my favourite game of the three. The mansion is twice the size of Cult's villa, and almost all the NPCs have something to say. The pixel art is on point, as with all the games in the series.

The game ends in an interesting confrontation. You can't die from an incorrect choice (only barbed wire or acid can do that!), but the game does the best it can tension-wise. Again, I don't want to spoil it!

Music

The soundtrack for both Cult and Federal Crime was composed by the excellent Jeremy Robson. These pieces are some of his earliest published works, and sound great in the game.

They are well worth a listen, even if you don't want to play the games themselves. Many of the .dat files in the program folders are actually MIDI files in disguise, so extraction is a piece of cake.

So...

The games were available for Microsoft Windows 95 and up. Cult was also ported to Android, and indeed this game style plays well on a touchscreen.

What happened to Studio Blum? I've no idea. The website appears to have disappeared. It's unfortunate when this sort of thing happens, and I can only speculate on what happened. Nevertheless, we can still enjoy the games thanks to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Return to Blog Index

2022

2021

2020

2019

2018

© Andrew Nile 2018-2022. Privacy