Shalom: Knightmare III – Goodbye Popolon, Hello world

Year: 1987 |Publisher: Konami|Developer: Konami|Original format: MSX | Version played: MSX

After the intense shoot-‘em-up action of Knightmare, and the genre defining, non-linear platforming of The Maze Of Galious, my hopes were high for the third and final game in Konami’s MSX trilogy. Yet while Shalom expands on the open puzzle box formula of its immediate predecessor with 15 islands to explore across Konami’s biggest ever MSX 1 cartridge – a whopping 256Kb! – it sadly does away with pretty much all of the action that made the previous games such a fun test of skill. Yet while Shalom disappoints when held up to the impeccable standard of The Maze Of Galious, it is a wonderful 8-bit adventure in its own right and a touching conclusion to the Knightmare saga.

If there’s one thing this disparate trilogy does have in common, it’s the ability to surprise the player, and Shalom delivers its biggest shock right from the start! Not only do you not play as legendary hero Popolon this time, you also don’t start in the world of Greek at all. Instead, the game begins in the real world at a computer club, where you and a girl are about to try the new Konami game, “Shalom”.

You’re asked to name your character, a boy, as well as the girl who’s your love interest. The intended sense of immersion is a tad hetero-normative, as you’d expect from 1987 but as a heterosexual man I’m privileged to be in the assumed demographic, and so I named the boy after myself and the girl after my own real life partner. Little did I know at the time, how important this choice would turn out to be!

Within seconds of starting the game, the boy is zapped into the screen in typical Tron fashion and wakes up in the world of Greek. His only companion is Butako, a talking pig, and together they eventually find themselves in the kingdom of King Pampas, who we last saw as a baby when Popolon and Aphrodite rescued him at the end of The Maze Of Galious, and is now an incredible 100 years old, his parents long since passed away.

This strange opening is far from what I expected from a Knightmare III and I must admit that I initially questioned why it was necessary to include a meta-textual layer to the narrative, though the inclusion of Pampas provided just enough familiarity to instil some faith in the idea. Likewise, I was confounded by the extreme change in gameplay direction.

The Maze Of Galious hit upon such a satisfying combination of gameplay elements that I’m truly surprised Konami didn’t choose to build atop their foundations. Shalom feels stripped back by comparison. It doubles down on the exploration and puzzle solving, taking its Legend Of Zelda influence even further with a huge top-down map to delve into, but it does away with the action almost completely. There are no enemies in the overworld whatsoever and the only conflict comes from eight brief, and very easy, boss battles.

The core challenge of the game is more like a point & click adventure than anything else. You spend a lot of time talking to NPCs, acquiring items, solving puzzles both in the environment and in dialogue, and generally figuring out how to uncover the map and move the story along. Just like The Maze Of Galious, and The Legend Of Zelda, there’s as much satisfaction in this as there is frustration at some of the more obtuse logic…

Most of the puzzles pleasingly revolve around smaller story arcs within the wider narrative. You’ve got the two mermaids, for example, separated by landmasses, who you can reunite with a long lost marriage proposal found as a message in a bottle. Or the villagers cursed to be invisible. After comically bumping into some of them, you restore their visibility by sprinkling water on them… Why that makes sense, I’m not really sure, but I loved the little story anyway. It evoked the same feeling in me as the charming vignettes you see in the Dragon Quest games.

If you’re using a walkthrough to finish Shalom – and most mortal players will definitely need to – the story can be finished in around three hours. But take the direct route through the game and you’ll miss out on some of the more fun and memorable moments. There’s the area with rockslides where Butako can lose her memory and become useless if you let a rock fall on her head. You’ll need to go back to a previous island and speak to the doctor to fix her. There’s the desert quicksand, which swallows you up and presents you with a fake game over screen that you can escape if you’ve already spoken to the NPC who tells you the secret key to press on your keyboard. There’s even an entirely optional island called Staff Village where you can meet the developers of the game, though this section sadly remains un-localised in the incomplete fan translation.

Intermission… Though Shalom was Konami’s final game in the Knightmare trilogy, the series had an unofficial continuation in Tales Of Popolon, a 2017 homebrew MSX game by Santiago Villar. The game fittingly explores a new genre – a 3D dungeon crawler – and is so technically impressive it will even run on a standard MSX 1. You can download the ROM for free, or buy a physical cartridge. Perhaps some day I’ll play it for the blog. It looks cool!

As in the previous games, Shalom’s boss battles are also a treat. Each is so visually impressive it feels like Konami showing off, and while some represent an opportunity to briefly reprise the platform-shooting gameplay of Maze Of Galious, some of the designs are more like mini-games and are among Shalom’s biggest surprises. One giant demon is destroyed brick-by-brick in a clever homage to Breakout. Another sees you rescue the princess from the middle of a sliding block puzzle. While one doesn’t need to be “beaten” at all; instead the ancient cursed witch begs you to free her from her eternal life and you’ll need to go away and return with an exorcist to help her!

Though light on skill-based gameplay, Shalom makes up for it with its sense of surprise, rewarding exploration and an uncommonly good story, which, for me, peaks when you’re finally reunited with Popolon and Aphrodite. Deep into the adventure comes a sequence where you ascend up to heaven on a cloud and meet the Knightmare and Maze Of Galious protagonists, who are now guiding angels watching over King Pampas and Greek. After playing through the whole trilogy, this moment felt like meeting two old friends, and their parting words naturally resonated.

Popolon and Aphrodite it seems are well aware that you come from the world outside the game. They speak to you about the various evil menaces that have threatened the land of Greek throughout the trilogy and urge you to keep fighting the greatest evil of all, the dark influence of “Satan” in your own life. On a more personal note, they also make reference to the girl you named in computer club at the start of the game. “Jen is a special person,” Popolon told me. “Always be kind to her!”

On any ordinary day I would love this sentiment. It’s cute, it’s just about the right side of cheesy and it’s very much in keeping with the sense of playfulness that permeates Konami’s MSX catalogue. But on this particular day it had an altogether more poignant effect. It just so happens I was having one of the worst weeks in a very long time, and this specific day was especially bad for both my partner and me. Naturally, emotions were riding high and while I don’t need a videogame to remind me to care for my significant other, the timing of this pure, heartfelt message certainly carried extra weight within its unintended context.

Perhaps it’s because of this context, or maybe because of the emotional crescendo of reaching the end of this trilogy I’d enjoyed so much, but by the very end this strange decision to make Shalom a game-within-a-game felt more profound than I’d been prepared to give it credit.

In many ways, Shalom reminds me of Lovedelic’s moon, another game-within-a-game and another adventure masquerading as RPG. That game packed a huge emotional punch, with aftershocks that reverberate beyond the fictional world. Likewise there’s Earthbound creator, Shigesato Itoi’s assertion that “Mother 4” is “the very lives you are living now,” reminding the player that life itself is an adventure filled with heroes, villains, difficult challenges and weird, random moments of surprise.

There’s something about these messages that rings true for me. After you’ve brought peace to Pampas’ kingdom once more and you’re returned to the real world, its characters urge you once more to carry the lessons and experience of the Knightmare trilogy into your own life and to spread the meaning of the word “Shalom” as you go.

This versatile Hebrew word, simultaneously meaning “hello”, “goodbye” and “peace”, is initially an odd and confusing title for the game, until the ending reveals it’s actually the name of the baby and heir to the kingdom that you helped rescue on your adventure. In this fantasy world that seems to plunge into darkness every generation, babies represent a fresh start and a new hope. At the end of The Maze Of Galious that hope is Pampas, who grows up to be the kind, old king of this game, and here the new hope is Shalom, who ushers in a renewed era of peace for Greek.

As the cast of the game urged me to carry the concept of Shalom forward while also encouraging me to take care of my loved ones, I left the Knightmare saga with a warm feeling of both closure and continuation. There would never be another Knightmare game after Shalom. It ended here with the third game and it ends where it started, on the MSX. But by carrying its messages, its memories and feeling into my own life, can I ever truly consider the adventure complete?

Hello… goodbye… peace… shalom.

FIVE LITTLE THINGS ABOUT SHALOM THAT I RATHER LIKED

1. When you first wake up in the land of Greek, this view of Butako is drawn in two lines at a time to simulate slowly opening your eyes, and there’s something comically horrifying about it!

2. Being mentioned in the same desperate breath as all these gods really raised a chuckle!

3. While most of the verb commands are standard for the genre – Talk, Look, Get – the final command – To Do – opens up a sub menu with context-specific commands for each individual interaction. It’s a smart move that really unlocks some fun scenarios.

4. I love this part of the intro sequence where the two main characters are subtly reflected in the computer screen.

5. This section, right near the end of the game when the overworld music unexpectedly changed to the main theme from Knightmare, really got me pumped for the final confrontation. Watch the video clip here.

ONE HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT ABOUT SHALOM

Both Knightmare and The Maze Of Galious had funny pause screens. In the first, Popolon tucks up in bed, while in the second our heroes have a little break on the toilet. I was really looking forward to seeing how Shalom continues this tradition but there’s actually no pause function at all. If there’s ever a remake (there won’t be) then this needs fixing!


Finally, how about some music from Shalom…

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