Decadent

The Lost Vikings and The Cave

Team Spirit: The Lost Vikings and The Cave

Vikings’ overbearing gods and tight-knit pals prove more compelling than Cave’s aloof confederation.

By Drew Toal • July 1, 2013

In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so. In this rare, collectible Double Decadent, that time span is doubled, because we felt like it.

In Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 Thor movie, the Asgardians—the pantheon of Viking gods—are portrayed as being hyper-advanced medieval extra-terrestrials with questionable fashion sense and a troubling interest in the affairs of men. It’s hilarious fiction, very loosely based on snippets of Norse history that have come down to us through the ages.

But could parts of it be true? Leading experts in the field of ancient-astronaut pseudohistory say yeah, sure, it could be true, why not. Their theories were aired this April in “The Viking Gods,” an episode of the History Channel’s program Ancient Aliens. Here’s the nut:

Lindisfarne, England. 793 AD. Several hundred Viking raiders make landfall on this small tidal island on the coast of North Umbria to plunder a great monastery of its rumored treasures. An account of the attack on Lindisfarne says the assault coincided with extraordinary whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons crisscrossing the skies. Could these strange events be coincidence? Or could it be evidence that otherworldly forces may have been allied with the Vikings?

This respected science television show makes a case that the Viking gods were, in fact, an advanced alien race. But what if our alien overlords weren’t paternal allies, like the Asgardians of Marvel lore? What if they were, instead, intergalactic zookeepers, in the vein of “People Are Alike All Over”?

The Lost Vikings

The Lost Vikings

This latter variety of overlord plagues Erik The Swift, Olaf The Stout, and Baleog The Fierce in The Lost Vikings, a 1992 game on the Super NES (among other platforms). Before the three heroes get lost, they spend their days doing normal Viking stuff—primarily, one imagines, shaping longship keels, chugging mead, and cultivating fearsome facial hair. One day, the intergalactic despot Tomator decides he wants to add a trio of Scandinavians to his collection, and they are suddenly beamed aboard his vast ship. Unfortunately for Tomator, these Vikings know the value of teamwork. In order to escape, they must use their respective abilities— swiftness, stoutness, and ferocity—in concert.

Tomator’s ship boasts Spaceball-class dimensions, and each super-level houses a massive space ark of angry space creatures for the Lost Vikings to overcome. Erik, Baleog, and Olaf have to become the Tinkers, Evers, and Chance of great spaceship escapes. The first Tomatorian zoo enclosure—“Prehistoria”—has the horned hostages making their way through a dinosaur-infested obstacle course.

It’s not dissimilar to a memorable level in the 2013 Double Fine adventure game, The Cave. In fact, The Cave owes a lot to The Lost Vikings in terms of its basic construction and offbeat humor. As The Cave begins, the player selects a team of three from among a diverse group of seven characters (or eight, if you count the creepy twins as two). Unlike the Vikings, these heroes have nothing in common aside from their questionable morality and poor choice in friends. Each must enter the sentient, self-narrating Cave and traverse their individual dark nights of the soul.

The Cave

The Cave

Like the Lost Vikings, all three must work together to advance, but it’s not predicated on any particular combination of skills. There are generic levels in The Cave that link special character-specific areas. The Time Traveller, for instance, quantum leaps back and forth between a museum of the future and the prehistoric past. It’s a terrific setting. Killing a dinosaur in the past turns a future dinosaur museum exhibit into a puddle of oil, and if you leave one of your companions in Flintstones time, he exists in the future as a bleached skeleton.

But the Time Traveller can accomplish these feats no matter who her companions are. At one point, you’re forced to murder a brilliant caveman inventor by squashing him under a boulder, thereby ending his family line in the future. The perpetrator could be the Monk, or the Scientist, or the Knight—whoever you have on hand. And there lies the main problem with The Cave; beside the character whose level is being tackled, it makes no difference which companion you use to push the game forward.

The Adventurer’s level, in particular, highlights this disappointing reality. Her scenario takes place inside the tunnels of a giant pyramid, full of pressure plates and booby traps. The two non-Adventurers—whoever they may be—are basically reduced to the role of mobile paperweights, depressing floor switches and allowing the Adventurer to crack her whip and reap the rewards.

The Lost Vikings

The Lost Vikings

The Lost Vikings, meanwhile, have specific jobs. Rather than being a collection of individuals, they’re more a cohesive unit. If The Cave is the star-laden, underachieving 2013 Los Angeles Lakers, then the Lost Vikings are the 2004 Detroit Pistons—skilled role-players who know their own strengths and use them to complement one another. Erik runs fast and can jump impressive distances. Baleog carries a sword and isn’t shy about sticking aliens with the business end. Olaf carries a shield, which comes in very handy not just in its designed utility, but also as a stepladder or parachute. If one fails, they all fail.

There is also the question of motivation. The omnipresent narrator of The Cave—unlike the meddling Norse gods—closely observes his charges, but he never interferes. He’s happy to crack jokes, laugh maniacally, and occasionally explain how matters stand with this purgatorial retinue. (Of course, one could argue that he’s present the whole time, being the Cave itself, but that’s a whole other existential argument.) Beyond the obvious questions—how did these weirdos all get here, and for what reason?—the Cave’s purpose is opaque. It’s not clear if he’s a geological demiurge who exists solely to torment or if he’s the heroes’ only means to eventual salvation.

The Cave

The Cave

The Cave’s denizens remain blithely ignorant of their disembodied captor’s existence. The Viking trio, on the other hand, have occasional Stranger Than Fiction moments when they’re nearly self-aware. Between levels, they consider their strange predicament. “Do you guys ever have the feeling we are being watched?” one Viking asks. “Yeah, almost like someone is controlling our every move,” says another.

Spooky. Like their Cave-dwelling brethren, the Lost Vikings are blessed with what amounts to an infinite number of lives. The titular narrator in The Cave simply notes that there is “no dying” within his chasmal bounds. He’s too busy firing off zingers to care about something so trifling as life and death. The divine presence in The Lost Vikings is more of a meddler. Even the Norse gods have limits to their patience. If you die too many times on the same level, Thor becomes displeased: “This is the voice of Thor, Viking Lord Of Thunder. I am real angry with you guys.” The Vikings quite reasonably ask why Thor can’t present his complaints face-to-face. Thor has an answer for that, too: “Would you want to be seen with Vikings that have failed 15 times to get through a level?”

But the fearsome threesome hardly needs Thor’s “encouragement.” They all want to get back home to their wives and children and longship keels. And, working together, they eventually do just that. Many of the Cave’s damned souls, on the other hand, find no such peace. Without the uniting guidance of the Viking lords, they eschew the team-based approach and instead use each other when it suits them. The Cave sags as a result. It all suggests that even if the Norse gods of lore did once beam down to our planet, they at least had our best interests at heart.

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  • zerocrates

    Sure, only the “main” character really matters in their own level in The Cave, but that’s still one better than the linking common sections, where it doesn’t really matter who you’re using at all. The nature of the game restricts the characters’ differences to just making things occasionally marginally more convenient.

    The Lost Vikings benefits from its focus: the whole game can be designed around the 3 characters interacting. The Cave has to work for all 7, so you get stretches of generic sameness punctuated by smaller, hyper-specific sections.

    Of course, an even more fundamental problem is that the game, particularly the common sections, just isn’t quite good enough for you to want to replay it to see the more interesting character-specific sections you didn’t see the first time around.

    • Effigy_Power

      As John said in the Digest forever ago, the fact that there are 10 characters but only 3 per playthrough… that’s every lazy/effective person’s nightmare.

      • zerocrates

        Having the number of characters not be divisible by the number you can use is either a cruel joke, a ploy to increase playtime and “value,” or both.

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  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    In defence of The Cave, while each character’s own level was designed only with his or her specific ability in mind, it should be pointed out that some of the other puzzles/obstacles in the game required the use of multiple characters’ abilities in concert. I’m fine with with one character and his or her ability getting the spotlight for a level. That being said, those spotlight levels did tend to be the flashier, more creative ones, so it’s disappointing that Double Fine didn’t use them as an opportunity to showcase the characters working together.

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      The problem with trying to get the characters working together is a combinatorial one. Three unique characters working in pairs means there are only three combinations, not including all three together or each character individually. Bump the number of unique characters up to seven, though, and you have 21 different pairs, or 35 different groups of three, or seven individually.

      Making unique puzzles for any or all of these combinations would represent a huge amount of content that players might never see, unless the puzzles can be solved by more than one group. The developers could also make the characters interchangeable in some way, but the article points out some of the problems with that approach.

      Compare that to something like an older RPG, where no matter which character(s) you choose (wizard, fighter, thief, etc.) they’re all facing the same “puzzle”, but the systems of the game are varied enough so they can all solve it in different ways.

      • CrabNaga

        I think a way to avoid that pitfall of making “only the main character for each main section be important for said section,” while having a larger cast of characters that are player-selected, would be to define secondary traits that all but one of the characters have.

        I haven’t really played the Cave, so I’m not familiar with the particular mechanics, but if you were to, say, have every character but one the ability to jump, every character but one the ability to climb, every character but one the ability to swim, etc., you’d be able to still present certain challenges where you’d need more than one character to do SOMETHING specific at certain points in the game. Like every room would be designed for the off chance that somebody in the group wouldn’t be able to do something that’s a core game mechanic. You’d just make sure that each character uniquely lacks one of the secondary traits.

        I guess that might present kind of a clusterfuck of game design, though. You’d most likely have to have certain traits benefit each other (i.e. maybe a character who can carry can carry a character who cannot jump, or a character that can pull would be able to pull up someone who can’t climb by a rope). I wouldn’t want to see the entire game as a host of “get one character to stand on a button so the other ones can progress” puzzles that are too prevalent in games of this type.

        Oh well, backseat game design session over.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Can you name any puzzles that actually required the use of multiple characters’ special skills? I can’t remember one. And I remember the one time I used the special skill of a character who wasn’t the “spotlight” character for a level to beat a puzzle, I wound up kind of breaking the game.

      • Raging Bear

        I broke a section as well – I doubt there’s only one place where that’s possible, but I wonder if it’s the same one.

        SPOILER!

        I used the time traveler to teleport into the back of the dragon’s pen to steal the key. Then the end of that scenario was predicated on the gate to the dragon’s pen having been left open, which I didn’t. It was still an amusing scene, but oddly embarrassing, like I was seeing Double Fine with their pants down.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          That was exactly the situation I was in. It was…kind of dumb.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        One of the puzzles towards the end of the game. I think it involved a zookeeper and a caged animal.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          How did it accommodate you if you didn’t have the two characters whose abilities it required?

          • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

            It was constructed so that it could be solved in multiple ways, using different abilities.

  • caspiancomic

    The idea of playing as multiple characters whose strengths and weaknesses complement one another is kind of odd, when you really break it down. Fundamentally, there isn’t really any gameplay difference between playing as one character who can do three things, or three characters who can do a thing each, except that in the latter example you have to press a button to switch between characters/skills. It’s a good example, I think, of how character and plot can serve to make an otherwise ordinary game stand out. Would Lost Vikings have been as well remembered today if it had been about one Viking who had the skills of all three? From a strictly gameplay perspective this probably would have made more sense, but it would have been much less charming.

    It also helps, I guess, if the game is fundamentally good. I’ve played a couple of games with the hook of having multiple characters with complementary skills, but most of them were pretty middling. The averagetastic Sonic Heroes comes to mind. Also, I’m pretty sure I had an Animaniacs game for Genesis with this premise. Except that game made the unorthodox decision to make all three playable characters uniquely useless.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I think that’s why good team-based games justify the split for more than just plot reasons.  If you think about it, strategy games like Ogre Battle are the extreme outcmoe of the 1-is-many theory, so good games find a balance between that complexity and the 1-with-3-powers simplicity (Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis and many shoot-’em-ups being good examples).

      Marvelous: Another Treasure Island is basically just Overhead The Lost Vikings 1, but it uses adventure game tropes like conversations and item puzzles to innovate and justify 3 people.  In battle, though, they needn’t be at all.

      That’s why I’m sad Terror Of The Stratus never got picked up here.  I moved from cold to hot on Nude Maker, and this game sealed it.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3gVCZy4sQA  You have shoot-’em-up and beat-’em-up sections with 3 switchable characters.  However, sometimes you get split up like in role-playing games and have to choose who’s most useful solo and who’s most useful as a pair.  The action sequences are heavily statistics-based, so switching between “modes” of a single player wouldn’t work as well.  Most criticially, they use team-based fighting game tropes like combination supers and health bar management.  You’re constantly looking for ways to maximize the time all 3 have been in the field while also managing  their health, because their supers are even more useful than typical “bombs” or “desperation moves” in those genres.

      You also have weird games like Panzer Dragoon Orta, where the gameplay is split so much that there might as well be 3 dragons, but it wouldn’t make sense in its story-1st direction.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        I want to play Marvelous SO MUCH, but the thought of poking my way through with a txt-file translation in hand is thoroughly off-putting. Pity the game’s compression has stymied any attempt at amateur translation.

        Edit: OOOOOH SHEEEEEET!!!

    • http://amalgamatedwittering.blogspot.com/ William Hughes

       There’s also the power of limitations – You can make much more interesting puzzles if each character is limited. Ironically, the more power you give your player characters, the less power you have as a level designer, because there are more obstacles they can circumnavigate easily.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I think there are a few opportunities opened up by having multiple characters that makes them not functionally identical to a single, multi-powered character. Specifically, characters using other characters as platforms, or characters doing specializing tasks in different physical areas at the same time.

      • Roswulf

        Another category of puzzle enabled by multiple characters is a shift in goal. Maybe one character can easily jump to a high ledge, but if the player must get the non-jumpy character to high ground, the puzzle can continue until the player overcomes the limitations of the weakest character.

        Thomas Was Alone builds most of its story and tone, not to mention gameplay, around this dynamic, and its suggestions of cooperation and altruism. Such a pleasant game, that one.

    • Jesse Fuchs

      It makes more sense when you realize that Lost Vikings is—along with being a very good single-player game—one of the best two-player co-op games of all time. 

      • neodocT

         Wait, The Lost Vikings has co-op? Why didn’t I know this when I was a child?!

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       ”there isn’t really any gameplay difference between playing as one
      character who can do three things, or three characters who can do a
      thing each”

      No, you are forgetting about the spatial aspects of the levels.  All 3 characters were on the level at the same time and all 3 had to make it safely through.  So it took real teamwork among the characters.  There were tons of levels where one of the vikings could sail through the level easily, but the trick was figuring out how to use his skills to get the other 2 to safety.

    • CrabNaga

      Trine did a good job of blurring the lines between “requiring one character to do something” and “giving each of the characters overlapping roles.” Depending on how you leveled up your character’s skills, certain characters became more useful for solving the various puzzles in the game. That being said, you didn’t control all three characters at once, instead you’d just change into another character where you stood. The puzzles in that game were more of using their combined strengths to overcome discrete platforming challenges than getting every character to cross the finish line together.

    • http://mrglitchsreviews.blogspot.com/ Mr. Glitch

      I just got The Lost Vikings off eBay last Saturday. This is the second or third time my recent eBay purchases have popped up in articles here. Spooky.

      Anyway, I was actually a bit disappointed with the titular Vikings’s “special abilities” once I started playing. It seems like limiting basic abilities, like jumping, to a single character unnecessarily ties my hands. Like you said, collapsing their unique abilities into a single character would completely change the tone of the game, and it might not be as fondly remembered, but still I would’ve preferred a little more creativity. 

      • Effigy_Power

        Do you by any chance have a Kinect? Because that would explain the “coincidences”.

  • neodocT

    I wish Blizzard went back to making games I actually want to play. I get that many people love WoW, Starcraft, and Auction House: The Game. I don’t begrudge them that. But this company also used to have The Lost Vikings, Rock n’ Roll Racing and Good Diablo!

    And now, even looking at their planned releases, nothing remotely interests me. What happened? Where are the Blizzards of yesteryear?

    • neodocT

      I also haven’t played The Cave yet, so I guess that’s something else to add to the ol’ Steam wishlist.

    • Dave Dalrymple

      The short answer, of course, is that the creative forces behind those games have moved on to other companies, or to other roles within the company. 

      It surprises me how much stock we still put in a studio’s name, rather than the actual people who work on it. It reminds me of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when producers were more famous than directors. 

      • neodocT

         I think that’s because games are almost always made by a large group of people, and the concept of auteur gaming is only now starting to have any meaning.

        It used to be that the studios were some indication of the game’s quality, and many studios had games with distinctive personalities. And I’d argue that this is still true to some extent. You may not be able to recognize that a game is made by Ubisoft or Capcom, but you can always tell when a game was developed by Bioware, Bethesda, Rockstar. Some studios still maintain enough of a personality for their games to be recognizable independently of the specific creative voice behind each game. And I think that Blizzard still has the strong personality behind these older games, so I guess that my real problem is that I don’t like their personality anymore.

        • Dave Dalrymple

          In the specific case of Blizzard, one of their major early creative voices was Ron Millar, who left in 1997.

  • wassupbiloxi

    What really struck me about the Lost Vikings was that each of the three characters could do so little. Combine their abilities and you’ve got a dude who can jump, run, attack, shoot, block, and fall without getting hurt, which is to say the average video game protagonist.

    The puzzles felt so satisfying because instead of having a ton of impressive abilities to work with, you’re left with these three mostly incompetent guys who definitely couldn’t survive on their own, and yet you manage to get through it anyway.

    • ultramattman

      This is true, each Viking could basically do their special ability and… walk left or right.  Two characters couldn’t jump.  Two were incapable (mostly) of killing an enemy.  The limitations were severe.

      Some of the teamwork tricks you had to figure out were great, like having Baleog shoot an arrow, then having to switch to another character with the arrow in mid-flight to keep it on screen to let it reach the target.  

      It also gets HARD.  The late levels will routinely take 30 tries and several taunts from Thor to get through.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36810417 James Pope

      I still have never played the original, but did have the sequel for PC as a kid. It was a great game with two extra characters (Fang the wall-scaling wolf and Scorch the flying fireball-breathing dragon). Although there were still only three playable characters per level, they all got swapped in and out and I loved the variety of that and the anticipation of who you’d get to use in the next level. Must revisit it some time!

  • PaganPoet

    My friends love Ancient Aliens, even going so far as owning the DVD boxset. And it drives me freaking bananas. Especially the guy with crazy hair. Just because you wear an Einstein hairstyle does not make you Einstein dude.

    The leaps in logic are baffling. Just goes to show that when you look too hard for evidence to support your claim, you’re bound to latch on to anything that could remotely count as evidence.

    These same friends also like those Ghost Hunter shows…you know the ones, with the night vision, where specks of dust and pipe rattlings are apparently caused by spirits.

  • VS

    Just played the first level again http://www.y8.com/games/the_lost_vikings
    Damn, I’m old…

  • http://warren-peace.blogspot.com/ WarrenPeace

    Oh man, I love The Lost Vikings. I played and played and played that game on my computer back in the day, and I absolutely loved it. So much fun.