|Developer(s)||Ultimate Play the Game|
|Publisher(s)||Ultimate Play the Game|
|Release date(s)||November 1984|
|Genre(s)||Action-adventure, isometric platformer|
Knight Lore is a 1984 action-adventure game by Ultimate Play the Game known for popularising isometric graphics in video games. It was written by company founders Chris and Tim Stamper in their Sabreman series. In Knight Lore, the player-character Sabreman has forty days to collect objects throughout a castle and brew a cure to his werewolf curse. Each castle room is depicted in monochrome on its own screen and consists of blocks to climb, obstacles to avoid, and puzzles to solve.
The game used a novel image masking technique, copyrighted as "Filmation", in which images, such as the main character, could overlap other images without visual collision. This created the illusion of depth priority in on-screen images, which the computer hardware did not naturally support. Knight Lore was released third in the Sabreman series despite being the first completed. Ultimate anticipated Knight Lore to change the market and chose to withhold its release to protect the sales of its upcoming Sabre Wulf and to preempt Knight Lore clones by releasing a second Filmation game. Ultimate released Knight Lore shortly after its first two Sabreman titles in November 1984 for the ZX Spectrum. Ports followed for the BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, MSX, and Famicom Disk System. The game was later included in compilations including Rare's 2015 Xbox One retrospective compilation, Rare Replay.
Knight Lore is regarded as a seminal work in British gaming history and has been included in multiple lists of top Spectrum games. Critics considered its technical solutions and isometric 3D style a harbinger of future game design. They praised the game's controls and atmosphere of mystery, but noted its gameplay difficulty, and criticized its sound and occasional graphical slowdown. Knight Lore was the best-selling game of January 1985 and was named 1984 game of the year by the Golden Joystick Awards and Popular Computing Weekly readers. Though it was not the first isometric 3D video game, Knight Lore popularised the format. And when the isometric, flick-screen style fell out of fashion, Knight Lore's influence persisted in computer role-playing games. Retrospective reviewers remember the game as the first to offer an exploratory "world" rather than a flat surface, but found its controls outdated and frustrating in the thirty years since its release.
The player, as Sabreman, has been bitten by the Sabre Wulf and now transforms into a werewolf at nightfall. He has forty days to collect items throughout a strange castle and brew a cure for his curse. An onscreen timer shows the progression of day into night, when Sabreman changes to a werewolf, returning to human form at sunrise. Some of the castle's monsters only attack Sabreman when he is a werewolf. The game ends if the player does not finish the cure in forty days. The game's only directions are given through a poem included with the game's cassette tape.
The castle consists of a series of 128 rooms, each displayed on a single, non-scrolling screen. Sabreman must navigate the 3D maze of stone blocks in each room, usually to retrieve a collectible object, whilst avoiding spikes and enemies which kill him on contact. The player begins with four lives, and loses one for each death; running out of lives ends the game. Stone blocks serve as platforms for the player to jump between; some fall under the player's weight, some move of their own accord, and some can be pushed by ghosts. Sabreman jumps higher when in werewolf form, which helps in specific puzzles. The player often needs to move bricks to reach objects out of reach, which may be used to solve puzzles elsewhere. To complete the game, the player must return 14 objects in a specific order from throughout the castle to a cauldron room in its centre staffed by the wizard Melkhior. At the end of the game, the player receives a final score based on the remaining time and amount of the quest completed, though the game does not support a leaderboard.
Ultimate Play the Game, represented by its co-founding Stamper brothers, was infamously taciturn in matters of press and marketing, though they provided some details on Knight Lore's development to Crash. While Knight Lore was released as the third game in the Sabreman series, the Stamper brothers had finished it first. They withheld the game for about a year for market reasons: they thought that Knight Lore's advancements—copyrighted as the Filmation engine—would hurt sales of their upcoming Sabre Wulf. The Stampers used the extra time to prepare another Filmation game (Alien 8) so as to preempt the publishers that would rush to copy the technique. "We just had to sit on it because everyone else was so far behind," Tim Stamper recalled. Sabre Wulf released to commercial and critical success in 1984. Alien 8 and the next two Sabreman titles—Underwurlde and Knight Lore—followed in close succession before the end of the year.
Filmation and Knight Lore's graphical novelty lay in how images could render without overlapping. Filmation introduced "masked sprites" whereas earlier games used "planar sprites", which overlapped without regard for depth order. Chris Stamper's solution was to use image masking. A mask is a version of an image that defines a background from the subject matter in different colours. When combining the mask and the on-screen composite image, the mask's "background" data was ignored and a hole in the shape of the desired image sprite was added to the background. This was filled in with the sprite's details. Thus, rooms in Knight Lore were drawn one sprite at a time through this masking method. In more recent times, contemporary images render with layer priority set at the individual pixel level. Knight Lore is depicted in a single colour that changes between rooms, so as to avoid attribute clash, a computing limitation wherein one sprite's colour bled into another.
Ultimate released Knight Lore for the ZX Spectrum in November 1984. In a press release, they announced the game as the beginning of a new class of adventure games and "the very pinnacle of software development on the 48K Spectrum". Ultimate did not circulate screenshots of the game in its press materials or cover art. Knight Lore was later released for the BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, and MSX later in 1985. The Amstrad version upgraded the monochromatic colouring to a two-colour setup while the MSX release was released through Jaleco. Ultimate asked Shahid Ahmad, who developed the Knight Lore-inspired Chimera (1985), to write the Commodore 64 port. In 1986, the Famicom Disk System release of Knight Lore bore little resemblance to its namesake. Knight Lore game later appeared in the Spectrum version of the 1986 compilation They Sold a Million II and the 2015 Xbox One compilation of 30 Ultimate and Rare titles Rare Replay.
Computer game magazines lauded Knight Lore, writing that its graphics were the first of its kind and marked a sea change from its contemporaries. Computer & Video Games (CVG) wrote that they had never seen graphics of its calibre and that it lived up to Ultimate's hype. Peter Sweasey of Home Computing Weekly was left speechless and predicted that Knight Lore would change the market. Crash called it the Spectrum's best game and said it was unlikely to be improved. Crash selected Knight Lore as a "Crash Smash" recommendation in its January 1985 issue. Knight Lore was the best selling game in the United Kingdom that month. Popular Computing Weekly readers named Knight Lore their 1984 arcade game and overall game of the year. Knight Lore was also named CVG's game of the year at their 1985 Golden Joystick Awards event, and Ultimate was named both developer and programmer of the year.
In 1985, Crash compared Knight Lore stylistically to the 1984 Avalon, but suggested that the former had bolder visuals. They noted how Knight Lore's masking technique addressed issues of flicker and attribute clash, and how the game's novel eight-way direction scheme suited the 3D space. Their reviewer preferred to play as a werewolf and noted the cruel difficulty of some rooms. They appreciated the imaginative mystery of the game as they attempted to answer why Sabreman turns into a werewolf and what the collectible objects throughout the castle do. Crash preferred Knight Lore to Underwurlde, its predecessor. One reviewer wrote that the former was Ultimate's best game. Sinclair User's Chris Bourne liked how Sabreman disappeared when passing behind blocks. They described Knight Lore's atmosphere as a "crepuscular world of claustrophobic menace" that inspired many curious questions on the part of the adventurer. CVG found the werewolf transformation sequence annoying and Your Spectrum found the game particularly difficult. Reviewers found the game's sound its weakest component.
In Amstrad reviews, Amtix noted the colour additions over the monochromatic original and wrote that Knight Lore was among the Amstrad's best adventures. Their one complaint was the graphical slowdown when too many elements were moving onscreen. Amstrad Action shared this complaint, but nevertheless named Knight Lore the Amstrad's among of the best three games on the console both as an improvement on the Spectrum release and on par with the quality of Commodore 64 titles.
In a retrospective review, Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun recalled that, though isometric games had existed previously, Knight Lore was the first game to offer a "world" with physical depth for exploration as opposed to the simple mechanics of arcade games. Jeremy Signor of USgamer agreed that Knight Lore felt more like a world than a painting and added that the game's innovative use of successive, single-screen rooms ("flip-screen") pre-dated The Legend of Zelda by years. Gillen said the game's punishing style (unforgiving gameplay, high difficulty, awkward controls) had become obsolete in the 30 years since its release and criticised Knight Lore as "enormously innovative, incredibly atmospheric, and totally unplayable", suggesting that the similar Head over Heels (1987) had aged much better. Peter Parrish (Eurogamer), too, found the game frustrating, though well-made. Dan Whitehead of the same publication appreciated that the 2015 Rare Replay compilation emulated Knight Lore in choppy animations similar to how the original ZX Spectrum's processor once struggled to render the onscreen objects.
Knight Lore is widely regarded as a seminal work in British gaming history. According to Gillen, Knight Lore is second only to Elite (1984) as an icon of 1980s gaming. Retro Gamer wrote that first impressions of Knight Lore were "unforgettable", comparable to the experience of playing Space Harrier (1985), Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and Super Mario 64 (1996) for the first time. Retro Gamer recalled that Knight Lore's striking, isometric 3D visuals were both a bold advance in game graphics and a foretelling of their future. Knight Lore was not the first to use isometric graphics—earlier examples include Zaxxon (1982), Q*bert (1982), and Ant Attack (1983)—but it popularized the style and put Ultimate and Filmation in its epicentre.
Several video game clones were inspired by Knight Lore. When Edge Games struggled to approximate the isometric style internally, the visiting developer Bo Jangeborg devised his own solution, which led to Fairlight (1985), itself regarded as a classic. Edge's version of Filmation received its own branding as "Worldmaker". Shahid Ahmad and Firebird's Chimera (1985) was even closer to Knight Lore. Ahmad's "shock" and "admiration" from playing the precursor both changed his life and convinced him to continue making games. He released Chimera on the Amstrad CPC, Atari, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, customizing each port for the processing limitations of its platform. By 1986, many video game publishers had produced Knight Lore-style isometric games; examples include Sweevo's World, Movie, Quazatron, Get Dexter, Glider Rider, and Molecule Man. Many of these titles suffered the same slowdown issues as Knight Lore due to too much on-screen activity.
Ultimate itself released four additional Filmation games. Alien 8 (1985) was rushed for release before developers had an opportunity to react to Knight Lore, though Retro Gamer said that its rush did not show behind a larger game world with more puzzles. Alien 8 and Knight Lore are similar in gameplay, but the former is set in outer space. With the updated Filmation II engine, Nightshade (1985) added colour and scrolling graphics (in place of flip-screen room changes), but Retro Gamer said that its gameplay was comparatively dull. Gunfright (1986), reported as the Stampers' last game, also used Filmation II and was more robust than its predecessor. Pentagram (1986) returned to flip-screen rooms and its action-based gameplay included shooting enemies. It sold poorly and was the last Sabreman game. Meanwhile, the Stamper brothers sought to enter the nascent console industry in the wake of rampant computer game piracy in the United Kingdom. They sold Ultimate to U.S. Gold in the mid-1980s and began Rare to develop Nintendo console games. Ultimate's last two isometric games were poorly executed, but consumer interest in the genre endured.
The isometric, flip-screen trend continued for several years. Apart from Fairlight, Sweevo's World and Get Dexter, there was the Jon Ritman's Knight Lore-inspired Batman (1986), 1987's Head over Heels, The Last Ninja, La Abadia del Crimen, the 1990 Cadaver and console games Solstice and Landstalker (1992). As players tired of the genre's similar reiterations, Ritman's games, in particular, brought new ideas. Sandy White of the pre-Knight Lore isometric game Ant Attack was impressed at Ultimate's in-game "balance" and gutsy design decisions. The developer of The Great Escape, another isometric game, considered Knight Lore to be more "a rival title than an inspiration", but it still spurred him to spend nine months making Where Time Stood Still. Retro Gamer wrote that Knight Lore's influence persisted 30 years later through titles like Populous (1989), Syndicate (1993), UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994), and Civilization II (1996). The style also spread to computer role-playing games like Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Diablo, and Fallout. Though GamesRadar's Matt Cundy reported in 2009 that isometric perspective was no longer as prominent a topic in game design, in 2014, Chris Scullion of Vice traced Knight Lore's isometric influence to The Sims 4 (2014) and Diablo III (2012).
Knight Lore was included in multiple lists of top Spectrum games. It inspired fangames including Peter Hanratty's 1999 fan sequel and 2010 3D remake of the original, which was in development for four years.
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