3 Skulls of the Toltecs

Review by Scout
March 2003

I was 16 the first time I saw The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. Tiny figures rode across vast Spanish landscapes beneath vaulted blue skies. Steely-eyed desperados faced off in the searing heat and swirling dust. I loved this movie, so much that I watched it three more times before my 17th birthday. I even bought the soundtrack. Imagine my surprise, when reading the manual for 3 Skulls of the Toltecs, to see that the main character had originally been called the Man with No Name before being renamed the more appropriate Fenimore Fillmore. As the opening credits scrolled down my screen I saw that the game's writer had been given a screenplay credit. Hmm. What was this? I wondered. An adventure game or a cowboy movie?

It's every bit a game as it turns out, but with enough movie sources and references to gratify the most insatiable western movie fanatic.

3 Skulls of the Toltecs is a traditional third-person, 2D, cartoon, point-and-click adventure game. The commands and inventory are laid out at the bottom of the screen in a straightforward manner that every adventure gamer will recognize.

Before I get much further I have to say something about the colors in this game. These colors are hot and sizzling. These colors will burn out your retina. These colors are beautiful. The screen is saturated with brilliant yellows and umbers and oranges and reds. And like in those old Clint Eastwood movies the sky here is enormous—but it's orange, not blue. You could get lost in this sky with its sheets of sugary gold and copper and a sun like a freshly fried egg.

If you've ever seen a western movie or TV series you'll feel right at home in this game world. There's Fort Apache, with its requisite outer wall of pointy-tipped logs, an Indian village, a cemetery on Boot Hill, a monastery perched atop a vertigo-inducing mountain cliff and an authentic old western town called, well, Big Town. In Big Town there is a stable with a blacksmith, a bank, a general store, a church, a saloon with gamblers and dancing girls and licorice water instead of whiskey, a train station with a deaf telegraph operator and, of course, a jail. Are you starting to get the picture? I would guess that the game developers spent a formidable part of their childhood watching western movies because they have packed about every cliché possible into 3 Skulls of the Toltecs—and yet it works and that's because these guys obviously love their subject matter.

That's a good thing too, because you spend a lot of time in Big Town and the surrounding area. 3 Skulls of the Toltecs is the adventure gaming equivalent of those two-and-a-half-hour epic westerns Sergio Leone turned out in the early 60s. I spent somewhere between 30 and 40 hours playing this game.

3 Skulls opens with your character, Fenimore Fillmore, inadvertently coming into possession of a golden skull and then just as quickly losing it to an outlaw called One-Eyed Dickson. A dying peddler tells our hero that there are two more skulls and whoever comes into possession of all three will hold the key to a vast, untold fortune. Getting (and keeping) these three skulls is what the rest of this game is about.

Fenimore travels by donkey, hoppity hopping along, and later by hand-pumped rail trolley and, finally, mercifully, via a nifty, easily accessible game map. The territory Fenimore covers is pretty restricted, basically the town, the monastery, the fort and the Indian village with some woods thrown in for contrast, but within that limited geography is a vast universe of possibilities. What I'm saying is there's a lot to do in this game. Your inventory quickly swells off the screen and the puzzles become increasingly harder as you progress. Luckily the game opens up once you get past the first few hurdles, and so much of the first third (first act?) is taken up just exploring all the locations and acquiring and using inventory items—mapping the territory, so to speak. Then the game begins to slow, the puzzles get harder, and that is where the problems begin.

For one thing, Fenimore Fillmore is in no hurry. Nope. Not at all. And there's no way to move him along (unless there is a clickable door in sight) so that most of the time you just have to sit back and wait for him to catch up to your cursor. This is especially vexing at the Indian village and Fort Apache. Fenimore seems to take perverse delight in picking the most contorted route possible and then taking it one ... step ... at ... a ... time.

Another problem, and it's pretty endemic in these kinds of games, is the responses when you misuse an inventory item. They are limited to two or three kinda whiny phrases, and after hearing them several hundred times I was tempted to turn my speakers down. But I didn't because I would have missed one of the great strengths of this game, the excellent voice acting. All of the acting is top-notch, and though I thought I heard the same actor in a few different roles, none of it ever rang untrue, even when the train engineer spoke in a modern New Yorker's accent. Some might not particularly agree with the choices the actors made (I did) but they were informed choices. Only once did I have to toggle on the dialogue text, and that was to decipher if a character was saying "leeks" or "leaks." The diction was clear and understandable and the recording quality was for the most part perfectly acceptable.

By the way, you can install and play this game in either DOS or Windows. I would suggest DOS as you have more settings options. In Windows some of the sound effects were mixed so low as to be inaudible. In DOS I was able to adjust the settings nicely.

The dialogue tree wasn't the most intuitive, and the correct line of questioning wasn't always obvious. Take the wrong branch and the conversation ends abruptly. Luckily the game lets you right back in, but you'll have to dig and dig and try every line of questioning. You'll need to rerun the dialogue until you are satisfied because 3 Skulls does not give up its secrets easily. When Fenimore begins to offer up lines on his own you've probably exhausted the dialogue.

The same approach holds true for inventory. Look closely, then look again. Click on all of the items and pay attention to Fenimore's descriptions. Search each location carefully. A couple of times I overlooked vital inventory items that were smack in front of me. Luckily you can move onto another area if you're stumped. There is a lot to do here, so much that the patience of some players may eventually wear thin.

This is one of those games that makes you think. There are social and political references everywhere, and even though 3 Skulls of the Toltecs is almost eight years old I was repeatedly struck by the timeliness of the dialogue. You could write a term paper on the subtexts woven through this sucker, but never for a second did this take precedence over the gameplay. Paradoxically, at the same time the developers laced the game with astute asides, they included every old western stereotype imaginable. There is the inept lieutenant, the bumbling raw recruits, the Harvard-educated Apache, the alcoholic sheriff, the dim-witted deputy, the craven monk, the pompous revolutionary, the spinsterish schoolmarm, the crooked banker and the loose-hipped saloon gal with a heart of gold.. The characters don't grow and they don't develop. They just are, like the sky, the desert and the tombstones on Boot Hill.

Despite these foibles, in the end I fell in love with this boy's best adventure of a game. It's long, hard, smart and exquisitely scripted. It has a strong visual appeal, and the cutscenes were so fun that several times I reloaded just to play a scene over again. There was even a big battle at the end, a hidden treasure room and a happy ending with a smoochy "ride into the sunset" finale that worked perfectly. 3 Skulls of the Toltecs is a game and a movie and a really fun trip that, though bumpy at times, was well worth the sore saddle at the end of this cowpoke's day. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Revistronic
Publisher: Time Warner
Release Date: 1996

Available for: DOS Windows

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System Requirements

2X CD-ROM drive
Keyboard, mouse

Where to Find It

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