*Review based on Underwurlde’s release as part of Rare Replay*
Underwurlde was the ZX Spectrum sequel to Sabre Wulf, and sees players once again take control of the adventurer Sabreman. Only this time, instead of a top-down perspective in the same vein as Atic Atac, Sabreman is now traversing a decrepit castle in a way similar to a side-scroller. But of course, the world Sabreman traverses is as confusing and labyrinthine as ever.
In the first screen of the game, Sabreman can pick up a slingshot as a weapon against the constantly spawning waves of enemies. The goal of the game is to defeat the three guardians of the castle, with each guardian needing a different weapon to defeat (knife, dagger and torch).
Much like Sabre Wulf, you really have no clue as to where to go or what you’re doing. But here, the situation is even worse. At least in Sabre Wulf you could see where a pathway might continue in a subsequent screen. But here, you’re just going left to right, right to left, up to down and down to up in a side-scrolling view, blindly hoping that you won’t run, jump, or fall into anything as soon as the next screen pops up.
There is a little twist here in that Sabreman can’t be damaged by enemies (only falling from a great height can kill him), but instead of being a novel idea, it comes off as more of a curse. Instead of taking damage from enemies, coming into contact with them will send Sabreman bouncing around the place like a pinball! And as stated, the enemies are constantly spawning. There will be enemies filling the screen, careening every which way, and making it nearly impossible to jump forward without getting knocked back all the further.
It’s not just enemies that do this, either. If Sabreman even lightly nudges into a wall or other object mid-jump, the same thing happens, and our hero will be knocked silly. Sabreman’s jumping controls aren’t fluid, either. You can’t alter trajectory once in the air, and you can’t change the height or length of your jumps. Considering you need to jump even to get on the tiniest bump protruding from the ground, the platforming is nothing short of infuriating. I am not even exaggerating when I say you’ll spend more time watching Sabreman bounce around the place than you will actually controlling the game.
Some of the other ZX Spectrum games made by Ultimate Play the Game (now Rare) that are included in Rare Replay haven’t aged gracefully. But in the case of Underwurlde, I have to wonder how anyone could have enjoyed it even in its day. It’s so fundamentally flawed to control that it brought back bad memories of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure and Dark Castle. Underwurlde is close to unplayable.
I suppose, at the very least, the Rare Replay version includes the rewind feature, so you can try to rectify your mistakes. The problem is, nothing can rectify the game’s mistakes.