Every gamer has that one game that defines the platform for them. Most aficionados of the Beeb pick “Elite”, but for me, ever since the very first time I played it, that game has been “Imogen”. I was introduced to it originally on my Dad’s BBC Master, mainly because the resource demands of “Imogen” exceeded what my then Acorn Electron could muster (Micro Power later released a slimmed down “Imogen” in 1988 specifically for Electron users). Back then, Dad had an old monochrome TV monitor which rendered the entire game in pleasing hues of orange and black. The beauty of “Imogen” is that its graphics are so impressive in their own right that colour is almost incidental – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
What is “Imogen”? It’s essentially a series of puzzles that rely on a common set of problem solving tools, namely the different animals your wizard, the eponymous Imogen, can transform into. Each animal has its own unique ability that only it can perform: the monkey can climb ropes, the cat can jump greater distances and the wizard himself can use various tools that you might pick up along the way, including the diamond, which is both your objective for each level and the means by which you get to the next. There’s a catch, however: Imogen can only transform a set number of times, and this limit is carried over across every level. You start with 150 changes and once that reaches zero, you’ll be stuck in whatever form you happen to be in at that point. If you haven’t made it to the final diamond at the end of the final level, it’s game over. Oh, and you’d better have at least one transform left if you’re not already the wizard, as otherwise you won’t be able to activate the last diamond to take you home!
There are many things that make this game unique, but let’s go back to those graphics alluded to at the start. They must surely represent the Beeb at its finest, being pushed to the very limits of its 32k capacity: beguilingly simple on the one hand, rendered entirely in monochrome, but yet so detailed and whimsically animated. “Imogen” doesn’t even look like a typical Acorn game: gone is the ‘chunky’ pixel style, replaced instead with characters and levels crafted in thin, elegant line art that looks like it’s been expertly hand drawn. The movements of the sprites are delicate and subtle, with none of the jerky low frame rate animation that you would usually expect from a 1980s platform game.
The gameplay of “Imogen” is really clever and provides a challenge several times over. First, there is the task of working out how to solve the puzzle. Each level is its own self-contained conundrum that requires a combination of items, transformations and back-and-forth to complete – but it usually takes more than a few attempts to get it right. Having figured it out, there is then the additional challenge overlay: how to complete the level in as few transformations as possible. This is harder than it sounds, particularly where a level may require a player to literally transform mid-air from cat to monkey and grab a rope before falling to the ground, or else have to start over again. Cheeky imps or angry dogs might kick your wizard off his perch and require you to transform back into the monkey again to get back to where you were. Each time this happens, you pay a price in precious transformations, knowing that for each one wasted, your chance of completing the entire game diminishes. “Imogen” is not a cruel game, however. Each level has its own name and you can skip to a particular level and spend time understanding how to solve it with your full complement of 150 transformations. Having done this for each, you can then start afresh and try to complete all 16 in succession. You can even skip to the most challenging level first (“Time Flies”, naturally) and make sure you have that one under your belt in the lowest possible number of transformations before going on to complete the rest.
“Imogen” is imbued with a fairly wicked sense of humour. A number of the challenges require varying degrees of what can only be described as animal cruelty: squashing a hamster to make fertile soil in which to grow a giant tulip (in the appropriately named “Hamster Jam” puzzle), putting a bulldog to sleep, whipping a whippet, scaring off a parrot with fire, and taunting a baboon with a banana before pelting it with a cannon ball. The worst behaviour, however, is reserved for the cheeky imp who variously gets shot at with arrows and a gun, as well as having his eardrums blown out by a saxophone. As a young child, you can only begin to imagine how much fun all of these deliciously evil escapades brought me.
As cited in previous reviews (e.g. “Palace of Magic”), many Beeb games are bereft of background music; “Imogen” is sadly no exception. That said, its understated use of sound effects is very clever. Michael St Aubyn puts the little BBC speaker through its paces and conjures up an impressive array of gentle hisses, pops and jingles that really suit the game. The shifting, swirling sound accompanying each transformation works really well, and other effects are used at critical points during a challenge, giving a sense of satisfaction as a task is completed. The ‘twang’ sound of the bow and arrow, the bursting of a balloon, the croaking of a frog, all of them are really spot on, almost making you forget that they’re coming out of a speaker that is typically more at home just making annoying ‘beep’ sounds. Special mention must also go to the saxophone in the “Saxophobia” level, which makes you want to keep tooting it long after its function has been performed. For all these reasons, while music may be lacking, the sparing use of sound is incredibly effective.
“Imogen” has aged so well that it underwent a Windows conversion in 2003 at the hands of Ovine. The port captures the original magic of the game and aside from adding a few softer edges, it remains very much the same. This all goes to show that the gameplay and inimical style of “Imogen” continues to captivate gamers to the present day. Of course, for the true retro gamer, nothing will ever quite beat the original.
“Imogen” became my hands down favourite game for the BBC Micro from the first time I played it, and it continues to stand proudly on the podium in first place. It showcases the best the Beeb from a gameplay and graphics point of view, reimagining what a 2D scroller is capable of. The gameplay is superb, the puzzles are genuinely intriguing, and the ‘no compromise’ approach to achieving victory while still giving you the chance to ‘jump’ to your favourite levels make it a game you can spend a few minutes on or while away an entire afternoon with. Its minimalist approach to sound, far from undermining the game, gives it a further flourish that propels “Imogen” to the top spot it fully deserves to occupy.
Growing up in the household of an 80s IT teacher, I was surrounded by Acorn computers from a very early age. I have been playing games on the Beeb, physically and via emulators, for the past thirty years and despite the advent of more powerful machines, nothing gives quite the same gaming pleasure as an adventure in 8-bit.