The Fool and His Money
In 1987, a seminal work of the puzzle game genre was released: Cliff Johnson's The Fool's Errand. The tale of a Fool seeking his fortune in the land of Tarot, battling against the challenges of warring kingdoms and the manipulation of the High Priestess. It brought the concept of the Meta-Puzzle to the world of computer games, with the solution of each cryptogram, maze, tetramino, jigsaw, word square and so forth contributing to a larger whole. It sported a novel's worth of prose both elegant and confounding, and a silhouetted aesthetic, unique then as now. It was a masterful Alternate Reality Game on a single diskette, any fan of logic and word puzzles owes it to themselves to play it for the price of one shiny "fooling around a bit with the emulator".
Finished? Good. Spoiler: Having emerged victorious in his quest, the stolen fourteen treasures of Tarot in his possession, The Fool set out to return them to their rightful owners. But Cliff was certain that the High Priestess wasn't done with her mischief, and began sketching out plans for a sequel, where the fool would be parted with his gold and, with the help of the player, find it once again. As so often occurs, other projects took his attention, and Johnson became known as a puzzle-master par excellence, developing new kinds of brainteasers and treasure hunts for various clients, including one for David Blaine which boasted a $100,000 prize at the end. But still, Cliff's thoughts returned to The Fool and His Money. In January 2003, he began accepting pre-orders for the long awaited sequel. Fans waited with bated breath. And waited. And waited. Time went on, almost a decade, and projected release date after projected release date passed on the calendar. Those who had invested began to get antsy. After all, if you are trying to convince your audience that your promise of a game is not, in actuality, some kind of elaborate performance art piece, then titling your work as such is not particularly conducive to your cause. But happily, the sayers of nay were proven wrong, and The Fool and His Money has finally gone gold. Look out next week for the pigs flying and Satan getting whacked in the head with a snowball.
It's hard to describe the nature of the game to those who have never played it, since there are so few other works like it. Broadly, though, upon starting the game and choosing a save file, you will be presented with a list of names corresponding to pages in the book of the Fool's journey. Clicking a name will send you to a screen with an incomplete text describing part of the fool's adventure, setting up puzzles of all types to be solved. Using clues in the text and the often-required instructions provided by the [HELP] Button at the bottom of the screen, solve the puzzle, and the rest of the text on the page will be filled in. The more puzzles you solve, the more pages are unlocked. Every page solved also adds a piece to the Moon Map, a jigsaw that shows the path the Fool takes through the countryside as hinted at through the text. Completing the map unlocks the concluding pages and the final battle of wits.
Analysis: It was worth the wait. It was worth all the wait. If you loved The Fool's Errand, you'll love The Fool and His Money, and even if you've never played the original, those among us who fill out Games Magazine's Pencilwise section in ink, will have a lot to like. It is by no means a game that can be rushed through with no effort. To beat this game, you will have to take notes on scrap paper, call over your family member that's great at word square, quit in frustration while cursing Cliff Johnson's name, then immediately re-open the game a second later when the pieces mentally snap into place and you figure that IBNRAGA unscrambles into BARGAIN. It's a tough game, but it's fair. Every puzzle has a logic to it that may be befuddling at first but perfectly obvious in retrospect. Every tiny step you push forward in the plot will make you feel very smart indeed.
There's a nice variety of different kinds of puzzles. Overall, those with the mind of a wordsmith will probably have an advantage, but all parts of your brain will be required to make any headway. A particular stand-out is a type returning from the first game, where the Fool is challenged to a Tarot card game with concealed rules. While your opponent is good, they're nowhere near perfect, and if you can just figure out the rules by observation, you're certain to beat them. There's a certain amount of repetition in the various puzzle types as the game progresses, genres popping up more difficult forms as you get closer to the game's completion. Really, it comes off as a natural feeling progression, though if a puzzle gives you particular trouble early on, then it might cross the line into frustration when it shows up again. (In particular, this reviewer still cannot quite get the hang of the "Press the letter-adding buttons in a certain order, so as to make a final coherent sentence" type, and unfortunately, that seems to be one of Johnson's favorites.)
Aesthetically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. The black silhouettes combined with evocatively colored backgrounds are nothing short of beautiful, though they lose a lot of their appeal the few times they are animated. It almost seems a little ungrateful to complain that a one-man project with excellent writing, puzzles, and graphics kind of drops the ball on the tweening, but there you have it. Also, the musical cues, while jazzy and interesting, seemed a little out of place for the pseudo-medievalism of the story, and was often distracting during play (though this may be a personal opinion).
Quibbles with window-dressing aside, The Fool and His Money is a worthy successor, and, maybe the best puzzle game of 2012. Even after all this, Johnson has still dropped hints about the possibility of completing a trilogy with "The Fools Paradise". From current data, we can extrapolate that we should be seeing it sometime around the fall of 2037. Well, The Fool and His Money lived up to the hype, and it contains a good twenty-five years of challenge that every sort of fool should rush in to immediately.