Ripley's Believe It or Not!: The Riddle of Master Lu
Ripley's Believe It or Not!: The Riddle of Master Lu

* Part 1: The Story of The Riddle of Master Lu

* Part 2: Interview with the co-designer/graphic artist: Richard Hescox

* Part 3: Background of Master Lu

* Part 4: Some comments

Background of Master Lu

Game title

Robert Ripley
The title of the game refers to Robert LeRoy Ripley, artist, author, radio broadcaster, traveler, but above all the man who created the cartoon about odd facts and feats that was published in the New York Globe in 1918 and that was called "Believe It or Not!". The cartoon was a huge success and the phrase "Believe It or Not!" became part of everyday speech.
Today, the cartoons are still printed in nearly 200 newspapers in 42 countries, but now drawn of course (as Ripley died in 1949) by another artist (John Graziano, being the fourth person who is drawing the cartoons after Ripley).1

The main character in the game is modeled after Ripley and bears his name. The game starts in the so-called "Odditorium", the name that Ripley gave to the large collection of unusual items that were exhibited at the Chicago World Fair in 1933, which gave birth to the 50 Ripley Entertainment attractions in 10 countries that exist today. The main character draws cartoons like the real Ripley, and he also travels all over the world to seek bizarre stories and to collect strange artifacts, which he displayes in his "Believe-It-Or-Not!-Odditorium."

Qin Shi Huang
"Master Lu" is an architect in the game. The name also refers to the masters of the chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (aka Shihuangdi and in the manual Chin Shih Huang-di) who created the first unfied Chinese empire. He was interested in magic and alchemy, and he searched masters in these arts who could provide him with the elixir of immortality.2

Some design notes

Master Lu was developed in-house by Sanctuary Wood, though they called it a "Woodworks Studio production" in the credits, probably to differentiate the game from products built by outside developers like Presto Studios or to separate it from the kids products.

The company had bought MADS (Microprose Adventure Development System) from Microprose, and hired Matt Gruson, Paul Lahaise, and Mike Gibson to come along and work on their games (including work on Master Lu). At Micropose they had been working on well-known games such as Rex Nebular and Civilization. An updated version of the engine (M4DS) was used to built Master Lu and Orion Burger.

When Sanctuary Woods purchased the mulltimedia rights, they wanted to make something out of it. Peter Donally (writer) became involved, and in this period he must have been quite busy, as he worked besides Master Lu on another game by Sanctuary Woods ("Awesome Adventures of Victor Vector and Yondo", published in the same year, 1995).3 For Master Lu he developed the story and designed most of the puzzles, and he was responsibe for the infamous puzzle in the Baron's Lab.4

Lee sheldon

François Robillard
However, in time his role was taken over by Lee Sheldon and François Robillard.5 In the credits Donally was still credited (for orginal concept); Sheldon was credited for design and script, Robillard for design and production.

Sheldon refers in one of his writings6 to Master Lu and the so-called "Chaos Intelligent conversation Module". According to him, they used in Master Lu "Chaos" to provide

"us with subsequent visit speeches of at least three elements each. This gives us 125 permutations. They aren't chosen randomly, but shuffled and dealt as if from a stack of cards, then the cards dealt are removed until all permutations have been exhausted. Not one repeats. This means that a player would have to return to the same location and choose to talk to the character there 126 times before he or she reached an exact repetition. The odds are slim indeed that would ever happen."

In-game Ripley cartoon
The design team based the designs on various Ripley cartoons. On the wall in the Odditorium some of his cartoons can be found, and he will send back new cartoons during his travels.

Sikkim was choosen as a setting because of its unique mixture of Hindu and Tibetan Bhudhist cultures, and because prayer wheels are shown in several Ripley cartoons. The Hall of Classic where the great works of Chinese literature are engraved on stone tablet, is authentic, and is also shown in a Ripley cartoon.

Some of the settings were based on imagination (such as the pre-Inca city of Mocha Moche), but others were inspired by real world examples. For instance, the Baron's house with the ace of space theme was based on a similar house in England that was built in honor of the ace of spades club.

According to Richard Hescox, the background designer of Master Lu, the castle was based on a different suit of cards. It may have been Midford Castle, which is designed as an ace of clubs, and was once owned by Holywood actor Nicolas Cage.

Midford Castle and in-game castle

It took about 18 months to develop and program the game, and it got a script over 800 pages long. Everything in the game was done from scratch without using stock objects and textures. The actors were videotaped against a blue screen and the videos were saved in digital Animator Pro flics and then manualluy edited to increase detail.7

Example of storyboard intro
The intro of the game was based on storyboards created by Stephen McCallum, the lead animator of Master Lu.8 Not all boards were used in the final version of the intro, as can be seen here.

Master Lu was published late 1995 and got a DOS and Macintosh version.

It was published in English, French, German and Italian.9 The Master Lu box cover is based on a painting by Dave Kramer (Oil on Woodpanel, 13 x 14.5), who wasn't credited in the game (see for picture of the painting here).


The game won various awards. It was one of the finalists of CGW's Adventure Game of the Year (CGW JUne 1996):

"The result is satisfying and even charming - an "old-fashioned" adventure game in the best sense because it depends on strenght of writing and interaction with characters to win".10

The game was also PC Gamer's editor's choice and was called one of the most impressive games of the year, with a rating of 91%.11 Overall Master Lu was very well received: the rating of the game in most review is around 80%.12


A planned sequel was called "Ripley's Belive it or Not!: The Siberian Cipher." It featured a race against a mysterious group to uncover "something" that had been part of the Tunguska meteor, but could also be found at certain other meteor sites in Africa, Australia etc.13

It included a section centered around Bodleian Library at Oxford University and another section at the Ripley Museum in New York as in Master Lu. There was a small section in China too tie up some loose end from Master Lu, as some major characters prepared to board the Trans-Siberan Express (a major section), and of course a journey to the Tunguska blast site.

Artist's impression of the Tunguska blast
Results of the real blast wave
The sequel never made it to actual production. The game was outlined, with several sections of the design document, like the Geneva Section (for a script of one of the puzzles, see
here). The next generation of the engine was also well along and the cating of the actors was finished.

The rights of The Siberian Cipher were acquired by "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" and all material was handed over to them, but they never did anything with it.


The developer and publisher of the game Sanctuary Woods was founded in 1988 by the Canadian financier Brian Beninger.14 It existed as far as it was an entertainment studio until 1996, when the studio was sold to Disney Interactive. They were dissolved in 2003. The company developed educational software and published, besides Master Lu, Presto's games "The Journeyman Project Turbo" (1994) and "The Journeyman Project II: Buried in Tme" (1995). They also developed "Orion Burger", which was published by Eidos Interactive (1996).

See for notes here.

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(c) All artwork copyright Sanctuary Woods
(c) Text 2020