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Bad Mojo

by Andrew Plotkin

(Disclosure: I got a free copy of this game to review, thanks to

Graphics: good
Atmosphere: excellent
Plot: good
Writing and dialogue: very good
Music: great
Gameplay: quite good
Puzzles: decent
Difficulty: mostly simple, if you're an explorer, although with a couple of confusing spots
Kafka references: many
Forgiveness rating: You can die; you have only five lives. As long as you have at least one life left, you cannot get into an unwinnable position.

Remember that cockroach game from 1996?

I never got to it. I was busy that year. I had fancier adventure games to play, including those freaky new ones where you could rotate smoothly and look in any direction. Including up and down! Man, that was crazy times.

Turns out Bad Mojo was crazy times too, only I didn't know it. But now it's back—slightly remastered and slightly updated, but mostly the same game it was then. And still crazy.

(Early warning for Mac users: Bad Mojo is so slightly updated that it requires MacOS 9 or earlier. It will run under Classic mode on OSX, but I had to jigger around with the prefs file to make it run.)

You are Roger, a loser living over a rundown roach-infested bar in San Francisco. You hate your job, you hate your life, and the scumbag landlord who owns the bar hates you. But you are a loser whose luck has turned: you have a suitcase full of ill-gotten loot, and you are about to make a break for Mexico and the good life turn into a cockroach yourself.

After that, it starts getting strange.

If I seem to have started the story in the middle (suitcase full of loot? what?), it's because the real story of Bad Mojo is everything that led up to that opening scene. Over the course of the game, you discover this background, piece by piece. And it is literally background material: you scuttle on your six tiny legs across letters, articles, photographs, and faxes, lying all around the building which you explore. Your quest, as you quickly find, is being aided by a mysterious oracle; from her visions and manifestations you learn both what you need to do, and why.

There is a fine story spread across all those bits and visions. I wasn't expecting it at all, and I guess I'm spoiling that surprise for you—but a reviewer has to say whether the work is good or bad, and this one is good. It's a quiet, low-key character story. Not epic fantasy; not fantasy at all, except for the oracle-guiding-a-cockroach bit. You're not saving the world. It's just you, the scumbag bartender, and all the decaying memories rotting in the corners of the bar.

Your viewpoint is a cockroach viewpoint. You'd call this a "top-down third-person adventure", except that cockroaches can crawl on the sides and bottoms of things, as well as the tops. Which means the world is three-dimensional. You have to maneuver around, under, and over furniture. The bar is a maze of tables, cracks, chairs, mop-handles, and assorted lumber—with occasional sojourns into the wiring and plumbing—and there are roachly obstancles as well: trickles of water, puddles of grease, leaking paint and glue. Not to mention roach powder, spiderwebs, deadly rats, and Franz the cat. It's an everything-eat-you world out there.

And it's a large world. When I say "cockroach viewpoint", I mean you can only see a tiny region at a time. Figuring out how it all fits together—including the undersides of things—is part of the fun. You get an occasional long-shot overview, from on top of a strategically-placed broom or standing faucet. Make use of those; they're rare.

The whole environment is charmingly coherent. The topography is a gigantic puzzle, but it's also a consistent and logical run-down greasy bar. Water trickles out of a window frame, down the wall, and across the floor to a drain. Early on you hear Eddie the bartender talk about painting the bathroom; when you reach the bathroom, the walls are covered with wet paint.

So, what can a cockroach do? In Bad Mojo, the answer is "crawl around". This is, I think, the simplest interaction model I've seen in an adventure game (except for pure choose-your-own-adventure setups). You have four arrow keys; you can move forwards, move backwards, turn left, or turn right. That's it. Most of the game is exploration and, I suppose I must call them, environmental puzzles: finding your way across twisty wiring, through drips of paint, and past Mighty Roach-Hunter Franz.

Occasionally you find an object light enough to push, or rotate, or depress. (Which you do by crawling into or over it.) These interactions are the keys to various puzzles, of course, and there are just enough of them to make Bad Mojo an adventure instead of a maze. ...And that probably sounds dismissive, but I don't mean it that way. The whole point of the game is that you are small, tiny, and helpless. There is very little you can do when you're a cockroach; this game swings through the possibilities quite thoroughly, and spaces them out so that you are neither frustrated nor jaded. It worked for me, at least.

The puzzles are, on the whole, good. A lot of exploration, as I said, but the most of the other challenges are reasonable and well-integrated. The oracle gives you enough hints to keep you going, but they're not so direct that they spoil the fun.

Exceptions: there's one puzzle near the end which is not only badly underclued, but requires an action all the way back near the beginning of the game. Getting there isn't hard (the game has a hub/gateway pattern which makes it easy to jump between rooms), but I wouldn't have known what to do if I hadn't looked at a walkthrough. Perhaps you will fare better. Oh, and the endgame is a timed sequence—people always ask about that one—but the timer gives you several minutes, and if you've learned the hub system you have plenty of time. I didn't have any trouble with it.

Mind you, the arrow keys themselves are kind of frustrating. Steering is clumsy. A mouse option—"click to crawl here" (in a straight line)—would have worked just as well, and I'd have spent a lot less time banging into walls. Yes, the clumsiness leads to an endearing (or endearingly disgusting) roachy run-around-scuttle-go; but it's not worth the annoyance.

And that annoyance is nothing compared to the death factor. Bad Mojo is a cockroach game in a world which hates cockroaches; fine. There are dozens of ways to die; fine. If you die, you reappear at the beginning of the screen you were exploring. That's fine; screens are small, and you're not going to spend more than a few seconds regaining your position.

However, if you die five times, the game is over. This is not fine. I suppose it seemed necessary in 1996, but we know better these days. (Or maybe the authors had no way to recompile the application and remove the five-death limit.) In any case, you're going to have to save often, and frequently reload saved games for the sole purpose of decreasing your death count.

What else? The game sounds great; the soundtrack is full of bouncy menace—it reminded me of the music from Soul Reaver. It looks great; the art isn't dated at all. Okay, some of the sparkly magic and morphing is dated, but not the environments. The smooth blend of close-up photography, 2D and 3D CGI is perfect for the roach-eye perspective.

Perfect... in a disgusting way. Everything is either cluttered, filthy, or slimy. Things glisten and drip. Not in any fantasy-Giger-demon-pit way, either. I'm talking about scummy basements and health-code-devouring kitchens. It's cockroach heaven (in addition to being cockroach purgatory), and if you're not prepared for that, you shouldn't play.

But there's a Rats-King. I don't see how you can turn down any game with a Rats-King.

(Some pedant is now going to ask "How can you accept any game that mispronounces 'cache'?" but that pedant will not be me. Much.)

Conclusion: Bad Mojo is an oldie, but its brand of quiet storytelling is to be appreciated in this modern era of world-ending thrillers. The characters are fun to watch (your own introduction is just a hoot), and more fun to explore over the course of a long weekend's scuttle. It's a bit over-the-top, with a corny ending to boot, but nobody said depth had to be all serious. Recommended.

Footnote: Running Bad Mojo on MacOSX

I had trouble with this, as I said. (I'm running OSX 10.3.5 at the moment.) The installer didn't run at all, and then I had to edit the preferences file. I had a pre-release copy of the game, so perhaps they'll fix it in the retail version, but in case they don't, here is my prescription for making the thing run:

This article copyright © 2004, Andrew Plotkin

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