The Black Cauldron (Sierra On-Line) - 1986

This review is part of the “Let’s Adventure!” series. See all reviewed games sorted by rating here.

The Black Cauldron is an adventure game designed by Al Lowe of Sierra On-Line and published in 1986. The game is based on the Disney film The Black Cauldron, which was itself based on the Chronicles of Prydain novel of the same name by Lloyd Alexander. It was made shortly after the first King’s Quest game, so it resembles that game in many ways. Along with The Dark Crystal it remains one of only a few adventure games by Sierra to be based on films.

Though this game was released in 1986, I played the v2 release from 1988 which I believe is “updated” somewhat because it felt like I was playing King’s Quest III but using Roger Wilco from Space Quest I. If you look at the screenshots from the Apple IIgs release it looks more like KQ1.

I tried watching the movie a bit while playing the game, but lost interest pretty quickly

Honestly, the movie this game was based on isn’t something I have fond memories of as a child. I seem to remember watching it and not really liking it as it felt like a lamer version of The Sword in the Stone (which I loved). I even had the movie playing in the background for a bit to see if I could get back into it … but I couldn’t.

As a result, I had to rely on the story as the game presented it and couldn’t fill in the gaps from memory. This proved to be challenging as there’s really not much of an introduction - after the title screen you’re just dropped into the first scene in front of Dallben’s cottage. When you go inside he tells you to go feed your pig … because she’s special for some reason.

To get into the cottage you have to DO the door once you walk up to it. This threw me off at first, as the game doesn’t have a text parser and you only have access to 3 verbs at any point: USE, DO and LOOK - with these all being mapped to function keys.

Though it felt “wrong” at first, this interface was actually extremely innovative and forward thinking as the same concept would ultimately dominate the “point and click” variations of these games once using the mouse became the primary driver for interaction.

If you replace the function keys with a command bar of actions (like in Sierra SCI games), or the context popup menus from LucasFilm games - this game did it first.

This is an AGI game, so you primary navigate using the directional arrows on your keyboard - but you can also use the mouse. I found this incredibly useful for navigating tight diagonal sections such as climbing the rope to the Horned King’s castle. If you try and do this with incremental UP+LEFT presses, you’re going to fall - and you’re going to die.

Since this is a Sierra game, death is around most corners. You also occasionally get thirsty or hungry, and if you don’t deal with that quickly - you die. Honestly this wasn’t too big of a challenge once you find the “food wallet” as it contains unlimited food, and the water flask can be filled to contain three or four drinks worth of water.

Progressing through the game just involves mashing the LOOK and DO keys on most screens to identify what you’re supposed to interact with, then interacting with it. Since the same hotkey is used for opening/closing things, talking to characters, and picking up items you get used to the limited actions the game provides pretty quickly.

Some locations (like the cupboard in cottage) contain multiple items. As you pick items up, if there’s something “behind” it, the game will show you this right away so you’re unlikely to miss anything. This is really helpful, though I did miss the lute the first time around because when you DO the hole in the tree the first time it just tells you there’s a lute there - the second DO actually picks it up.

The game world is a lot smaller than most AGI games of this era, so it doesn’t take long to explore it all. Eventually you make it to the castle where there’s a princess you’re supposed to rescue - though I don’t remember her being introduced at any point before you find her.

Once you find the room in the basement where she can squeeze through a hold and escape, she’s gone until the final credit sequence. I have a feeling based on the bit of the move I was able to watch that she’s a lot more important to the plot, but this isn’t really communicated by the game.

You’ll find a sword in the castle that you can pick up and USE on the castle guard. If you don’t, he’ll catch you and it’s game over (except the first time you enter the castle and he throws you in the basement instead). Of all the items you can pick up and use, the sword is one of the only ones that you can “see” being used as the action of swinging it is animated. The other is the fairy dust, which if you sprinkle it you’ll be able to fly around for a few seconds, which is useful later in the game as it lets you skip jumping on stones to cross the swamp.

Though you can use the other items they’ll just give you a description on screen as to what their effect (or lack thereof) was.

Eventually you get to the 3 witches (I think that’s what they are) who you trade your sword to for the black cauldron, which is promptly stolen by a dragon and flown back to the Horned King’s castle. You then need to backtrack all the way to the castle, find the Horned King in the basement and show him the mirror - which makes him stumble backwards and fall into the cauldron.

Playing through this game is predominantly silent. There is a title screen with PC speaker music, and some sound effects throughout (beeps and boops mostly) but that’s about it.

Apparently this game actually has multiple endings and there’re some branching paths. The annoying monster you meet right at the beginning (Gurgi) can show up and jump in the cauldron at the end instead of the Horned King if you follow a certain path. This is apparently how the movie plays out (I had to look this up), which is kind of cool.

Overall this game was just “Ok”. I thought replacing the text parser with a couple of function keys was an interesting choice and streamlined the interaction with the game world. This is definitely a very approachable adventure game, and though I didn’t fully watch the movie before playing it - it does seem to follow the plot. If you’re a fan of the movie I have a feeling you’d enjoy playing this game.

I didn’t realize the movie this was based on was the first Disney animated film to (1) receive a PG rating, and (2) to include computer generated imagery. Considering this was released in 1985, the latter point is pretty impressive :)

If you’re a fan of the movie, you might enjoy playing this game but as an adventure game fan I wouldn’t recommend it. For anyone looking for a Sierra AGI game from this era, there are better options.

Game Information

GameThe Black Cauldron
DeveloperSierra On-Line
PublisherSierra On-Line
Release Date1986
SystemsAmiga, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, IBM PC
Game EngineAGI

My Playthrough

How Long To Beat?3 hours
Version PlayedDOS via ScummVM


See here for a refresher on how we’re scoring these games.

Atmosphere (20)5
Story (25)11
Experience (15)5
Impact (10)3
This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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