It's 1992 and America is in uproar over a fighting game which features acts of digital disembowelment so vivid and nasty that the US Senate holds a special investigation into video game violence. "Too violent for kids?" asks Time magazine. The game, of course, is Midway's gleefully adolescent Mortal Kombat, shocking decent upright citizens with its lumpy decapitations and spine ripping action.
For Amiga gamers, it all seemed rather tame. That's because one year before Mortal Kombat made its bloody debut we'd already been treated to a game that was every bit as gruesome as anything Kano and co. got up to, and far more interesting to boot. That game was Moonstone, or A Hard Day's Knight to use its full pun-tastic title.
To call it just a fighting game would be grossly unfair, though it's understandable that it's the medieval combat that still sticks in the memory twenty years later. After all, this was a game where players could be crushed, burned, sliced in half, gored in multiple ways and squeezed so hard they literally burst open. After that lot, simply having your head chopped off was nothing special (though you could do that as well, naturally). But beyond the sticky viscera lurked a strange genre hybrid, a non-linear turn-based multiplayer strategy RPG that just happened to feature horrifically graphic real time battles.
The plot, which could easily have been used to sell the game as a Spinal Tap tie-in, revolved around that most mysterious of locations, Stonehenge (where the banshees live, and they do live well). Four knights, all on the same quest, fought their way across a free-roaming world map, trying to find the four keys that would allow them to enter the Valley of the Gods, defeat the guardian within and earn the Moonstone of the title, which had to be returned to Stonehenge (where a man is a man, and the children dance to the pipes of Pan) for reasons that were never entirely clear.
Right from the start, Moonstone whirled giddily from one gameplay style to another. Each player moved their knight around the map, entering battle arenas in search of the magical keys, or visiting towns and other locations to buy supplies, gamble or discover cunning secrets. Characters could also be levelled up, earning XP for each successful fight, making them more powerful but increasing the number of enemies they'd encounter by way of balance.
There was real strategy at work here, as all four knights were in competition with each other, and any not controlled by human players fell to a ruthless computer AI. With limited time to work your way from one spot to another, and with mountains and rivers on the map slowing your helmeted cursor, you couldn't just charge around recklessly. If you were in a griefing mood, you could chase after other players and challenge them to direct combat, and they could do the same to you. The winner would then be able to loot their victim for one item, leaving the corpse to be pillaged by whoever came across it first.
The more you explored the single screen gameworld, the more things you could discover; such as the wizards, who could grant magical benefits, rob you blind or turn you into a frog depending on their mood. In keeping with its title, the game also followed its own internal calendar through a day and night cycle, with the full moon granting certain enemies enhanced strength and the passage of time bringing an enormous dragon into play, swooping over the map and attacking any knights in its path. The dragon was beatable, but only by a knight who had stocked up on magical weapons.
It all comes back to the fighting, however, and the numerous grisly ways your knight can end his quest. I'm sure I wasn't alone in often playing badly on purpose, just to see what revolting death animations I could discover.
Combat itself was more in the wandering style of beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage (though set on a single screen) than the single plane one-on-one brawls of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, and each monster lair would throw numerous enemies at you. It was also delightfully ruthless. Enter the swamp area of the map and it was entirely possible to be killed instantly by murky creatures that burst from the earth and dragged you down. Some of the larger enemies could squash you flat in a single blow. And yet, perversely, once you'd worked out the correct combination of attack and distance for each type of foe it was fairly easy to romp through every encounter unscathed.
The genius of Moonstone was that it could be as shallow or deep as you fancied. You could play it as a single player gibfest and just dive in, heading straight for the lairs and slicing up whatever lay within. Or it could be an epic four-player quest, with all the backstabbing, stat levelling and inventory hoarding you could possibly want.
What stands out most, revisiting Moonstone in 2011, is that it really couldn't be made today. Not because of the violence, which now seems rather quaint set against a gaming landscape overflowing with first-person stealth kills and ragdoll abuse, but because so much of what made Moonstone memorable came about because of the limitations of the technology.
The disparate elements that Moonstone pulled together are no longer strange bedfellows. Almost every game now has a layer of RPG experience points built into its guts. The prospect of an open game map, where you could plot your own course, is standard fare today. And pitting multiple players against each other in a shared gamespace is nothing out of the ordinary.
No, if Moonstone were made today it would probably be a third person hack and slash game with little to distinguish it. Everything it tried to do would be achievable through the easiest and most direct means. It'd be The Last Templar, basically. By having to constrain its ambition in a 2D sprite-based world, by having to cram its multiplayer action onto one offline screen, by having to reconcile its deeper adventure elements with the visceral demands of arcade combat, Moonstone was forced to find design solutions that were more interesting, more ingenious, more distinctive.
That's why Moonstone endures for me. Not just because it's a great game, although it undoubtedly is, but because it represents a time when the design boundaries were tighter, the obstacles taller, and developers had to invent new ways to get past them. Technology has marched on, and those boundaries have been pushed back, thanks in part to games like Moonstone. Game worlds can now sprawl and grow, and genres bleed into one another. And yet so often the result is games that feel increasingly homogeneous, more similar than unique, and those brilliant oddball gems are fewer in number as a result.
It seems fitting to end on a quote from the poet David St. Hubbins, whose work provides so many obvious stitches in Moonstone's ferocious tapestry. Although he was writing at a time when video games were still in their infancy, Hubbins understood that modern man could still learn a lot from ancient wisdom. Today's developers would do well to take note.
And where are they now?
The little children of Stonehenge
And what would they say to us
If they were here... tonight?