Explore (1979)   2 comments

Amawalk, New York, is just a bit north of Manhattan (an hour’s drive, according to Google) and comes close to the Connecticut border. It was also the home of Basics & Beyond, Inc, incorporation date May 23, 1979, whose only claim to technology fame (or rather, complete and utter obscurity) is three products for TRS-80: Microcosm I, Microcosm II, and Microcosm III.

From 80 Micro, January 1980.

All three were package sets where the gimmick was receiving 30 pieces of software (not just games) for the low, low price of $19.95 (later $24.95). The manuals (here for I, here for II) passive-aggressively take shots at their competitors of Creative Computing…

They are not retyped listings of very old programs that are labeled “creative” rather than historical.

…and Instant Software.

Neither are they “instant.”

Both of the aforementioned competitors had far, far, more many products.

Trash talking aside, as far as the games themselves go, South Pole from the Microcosm I collection sounds like it might be an adventure, but falls into the “narrative strategy” genre akin to Oregon Trail. It’s out of scope for this project, but potentially interesting for anyone who likes early text narrative in general.

Evaluating the health of my dogs in South Pole.

Microcosm II contains today’s subject, the generically titled Explore, internal copyright date given as 1979. (Ira Goldklang, who dumped the software off original cassette, also gives a date of 1979, so the date may additionally have been on the physical object itself.)

Being a 1979 game, we are not shockingly hunting treasures again, or as the instructions put it, “YOUR TASK IS TO EXPLORE AN IMMENSE CAVE. AS YOU EXPLORE YOU MAY FIND VALUABLES WHICH YOU SHOULD TAKE OUT OF THE CAVE WITH YOU!”

The instructions also are explicit that the game only uses one-word commands: directions, TAKE, INVENTORY, SCORE, END, and a “FEW MORE COMMANDS I KNOW, BUT YOU MUST DISCOVER THEM YOURSELF.”

This puts the game firmly in the odd period where while Dog Star Adventure had been published (the issue of Softside with Dog Star came out the same month Basics & Beyond was incorporated), but there wasn’t general technological knowledge amongst TRS-80 coders yet on how to write a parser, getting odd games like Dante’s Inferno which was almost purely based on navigation, or Mad Scientist, which technically had a parser but did hacks like checking if a string was long enough to have a noun but not bothering to see what that noun actually was.

In a way, I enjoy these more minimalist games — they are, after all, harkening over to the style of modern “walking simulator” where part of the point is just to look at things, only here it is by technical accident (and the need for stuffing all the games in the collection on one side of one tape) rather than intent.

On the other hand, this is essentially the weakest of the games of this sort I’ve seen so far, comparing with Chaffee’s Quest from 1978, Bernor’s Dante’s Inferno from 1979/1980, and Gold from 1982. I’ll try to unpack why, but the first reason is the map is even more random than usual.

Green marks the starting room.

For example, while you have at least some connectiveness from the starting canyon with the sound of faint chimes to the north, and heading that way leads to a music room…

YOU ARE IN THE MUSIC ROOM WITH A GRAND PIANO TO YOUR LEFT. BANDS OF FRIENDLY ELVES ARE PLAYING FLUTES.

…heading north again leads to a “fingerprint room”.

YOU ARE IN A ROOM COVERED WITH FINGERPRINTS. ALL OF THE FINGERPRINTS ARE ALIKE.

Conceptually, a room covered with fingerprints that all come from the same hand is kind of interesting, but it’s just a room hanging with no purpose, other than holding a silver bar to grab. It’s not sensible enough for even an “implied plot”.

YOU ARE IN THE FEATHER ROOM. THE ENTIRE ROOM IS COVERED WITH FEATHERS.

No connection to the feather room with anything sensible either. Yes, Crowther/Woods has a “soft room” which is kind of random, but even it has some cave-like connection with moss.

You are in the soft room. The walls are covered with heavy curtains, the floor with a thick pile carpet. Moss covers the ceiling.

There was clearly some imagination flowing, but most of it serves just as window dressing, neither building a coherent environment nor a plot.

This is one of the first rooms I encountered and I anticipated it leading to something satisfying, but no: it’s just here.

The second level has — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — a maze made unsatisfying by being too easy.

It doesn’t even make a good joke. I do appreciate the author’s impulse to avoid having asymmetrical connections (going east and then west will return the player back to where they started) but the obligatory maze should have just been dropped.

YOU ARE IN THE GREEN ROOM. THE ONLY THING THAT ISN’T GREEN IN THIS ROOM IS YOU.

The room contains an emerald. Truly inspired.

The third floor is a little more interesting.

The “Match Room” has a giant which tosses you into a random room of the map. (Including the Maze, which I guess would be a little interesting for someone who hadn’t mapped it yet, but not by much.) There’s a “Needle Room” that warns you about touching the needles…

…and if you go UP, the game indeed kills you. (More on dying by going in a direction in a moment.) There’s a small themed “Halloween” area which comes off as a real coherent area; source code follows:

599 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE GOBLIN ROOM. POSTERS ON THE WALLS ARE DECORATED WITH GOBLINS.”
600 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE WITCH ROOM. TO YOUR RIGHT IS A ROW OF BROOMSTICKS ARRANGED VERY NEATLY.”
605 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE GHOST ROOM. SHADOWS SEEM TO APPEAR IN FRONT OF YOU. THIS MIGHT ME A TRICK.”
607 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE MONSTER ROOM. FRANKENSTEIN IS TIED UP TRYING TO GET FREE. YOU’D BETTER LEAVE BEFORE HE GRABS YOU.”

Finally, there’s a dragon with the game’s one and only puzzle.

Keep in mind, up to here, the only thing that’s worked has been directions, and one magic word (IAAPW) which only serves to teleport the player to the room the magic word is in.

If you type LIFT while in the dragon room:

YOU LIFT THE DRAGON AND FIND A DIAMOND.
TO SAVE TIME, I WILL PICK IT UP AND PLACE IT IN YOUR BANK.

This could have been an amusing and coherent puzzle with a different set-up (and match the dragon you can fistfight in original Adventure) but a sudden appearance of a single verb makes more of a random bit of frustrating rather than any real kind of solving experience.

The other major curveball the game has is the occasional death room. With the needles it works well (and was amusing) and with a waterfall that kills you if you go SOUTH it at least talks about sharp rocks:

THE STREAM TUMBLES OFF A WATERFALL THIRTY FEET HIGH. SHARP ROCKS ARE ON THE BOTTOM.

Deaths in quicksand and via a “Nork” are a little more unanticipated.

There’s also one minor curveball, and it is one I’ve never seen in an adventure before. I had collected nearly all the treasures and typed SCORE to check where I was at, and the game told me -24. (Yes, that’s negative twenty-four.) I was utterly baffled until I tried going in a random direction, whereupon the game told me “YOU BUMPED INTO A WALL. TRY ANOTHER DIRECTION.” My score was now -25. Every wall bump counts as minus one to the score, and the game doesn’t tell you where the exits are, so the only way to find out where the exits are is to keep bumping into walls and losing points!

Once everything is mapped it isn’t too hard to gather all treasures and head to the exit (see above) but despite all the complaints, that still doesn’t quite nail why this felt like an inferior experience. I think the issue here is: all three of those games I’ve compared with (Quest, Gold, Dante’s Inferno) had a sort of plot twist where you lost an item and had to find it, or had a route blocked off and had to take an alternate route. This meant there was, however slight in each game, some semblance of plot. Explore doesn’t try anything of that sort (even given possible threads like the mysterious black figure) so is only a half-step above the bare-bones experience of the 1973 game Caves.

This was an independent author whose only other adventure experience was likely Crowther/Woods (the author definitely had exposure to that, because the oddly-described CLEAN CLIMABLE PIT is in), so it was interesting to play in a historical-artifact sense, but this mostly served as an anti-example to good game design. South Pole from Microcosm I is honestly more interesting, but that’ll have to be a project for someone else’s blog.

Posted August 16, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Klondike Adventure (1982)   8 comments

While ICL Quest remains a serious nightmare, I thought I’d pull something out that’d be a little easier: the next installment in the Softside Adventure of the Month series.

The cover is for the action game Space Rescue.

Just as a reminder, the Softside series is a long-running set of games published monthly based on adventures submitted by outside authors for publication. A six month subscription on tape was $27; on disk, $45. You could choose Atari, Apple, or TRS-80 as the platform, and the game each month was ported for all three systems.

Here, the TRS-80 version seems to be the original because James Bash’s other works are also for TRS-80. The usual setup with Softside Adventure of the Month games has been to scrub the name from any ports, but interestingly enough here, “James Bash” also appears in the Atari version (the Apple II version has been lost). I do get the impression there wasn’t an official Policy as much as a lackadaisical attitude.

(Incidentally, Black Hole Adventures from December 1981 — which we still don’t have credits for — might have been originally written for Apple II, except we don’t have that version to check. Alternately, the author may have decided they didn’t care about credit, or it was a game internal to Softside, even though the style and coding definitely mean it was by someone other than their usual person, Peter Kirsch. Despite my negative review of the game itself, it is a very early example of an adventure game with plot-based multiple endings, so I’d love to have the mystery resolved.)

James Bash’s other two works are both action games, so this will be yet another author who we only visit once.

I played the Atari version (more or less based on a coin flip) although the TRS-80 version seems to be more or less functionally identical, including the addition of a saved game feature (which is I think is the first time that’s occurred in a Softside adventure!)

Find the treasures again, fine. In this case, the game somewhat leans into the dubious aspect of the exercise, player as thief rather than noble adventurer, as you’ll see as we progress.

The first most obvious problem to resolve is the fact that you will slowly freeze to death if you go outside. Fortunately, the machine here gives out fur coats. Unfortunately, you have no money to buy one, so you have to use the five finger discount.

Just don’t push your luck!

Exploring a little, there’s a pan to the south; too high, and it says not the kind for cooking in.

To the east there’s a locked door. Stepping to the north goes outside.

I wandered a bit before I realized what would help here, but to shorten things down, typing HELP gets

Think of some other way to get help…

which led me to try YELL HELP

AVALANCHE!
The huge snowbank collapses into a harmless pile of snow

This left a KEY and some SNOW. The key’s use was immediately obvious; I was able to get back inside the trading post and get inside the locked door to find a “tool room” with a scrap of paper.

I admit this is the first moment it occurred to me this game would be Slightly Askew. One might expect in a normal game to find a hammer or some other useful device instead of a Christmas wish list.

Moving on and wandering around a little, I found a pipeline and a frozen pond (more or those later) as well as a MOUNTAIN PASS with a KILLER WALRUS. Oddly enough, I was able to quickly realize I could go back to the SNOW I had left behind at the avalanche and MAKE SNOWBALL.

This opens a way to a frozen river, a hole in the ice, and Santa’s workshop. Now is a good time to show the overall map:

Dealing with Santa’s workshop first, you can find a FAT GUY IN A RED SUIT. This led to one of the most frustrating parts of the game.

GIVE turns out to do nothing here. Looking at Santa indicates he’s expecting something. A … bribe for Santa? That doesn’t make sense. I did a run-through of various possible verbs…

Pale purple means fake-out verbs — it only understand the first three letters, so THROW and THREAD (for instance) mean the same thing.

…and noticed the quite curious presence of SIT. It struck me maybe on I could SIT SANTA (not SIT ON SANTA, this is a two-word parser) but the game didn’t understand it. I finally had to check hints which came up with SIT LAP.

Grrrr. This is most decidedly a game about guess-the-noun in a few places. After SIT LAP I was still stumped waving the Christmas list (which wasn’t even mine). I had the thought Santa would be delivering the presents to the original author, Yukon Bill. But no: we’re just taking the stuff for ourselves. We need to ASK PICKAX (which gets us a platinum pickax, one of the five treasures we need) and … a mystery item? I’ll spoil things right now and say it is a bottle of ink, but it doesn’t make sense until a little later why you’d want one.

Jumping off Santa, we can head over to some Stables and find Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and our goal is to gank his nose. Seriously.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer … HAD a very shiny nose …

It took a while for enlightenment to hit but it is the only thing in the game resembling a light source. If you LOOK NOSE the game informs you it is ’45 watts’.

This is fully into the range of jerkface-adventurer, like one of those Euro point-and-clicks from the 2000s (Deponia or Runaway). Anyway, the magical glowing light bulb is enough to get into a dark hole in the ice (that’s to the northeast on my map) and find the frozen corpse of Yukon Bill, he of the trading post and the Christmas wish list we just stole.

I’d say “rest in peace” but we have to steal his boots. Also, a little farther in we can dig and get a silver nugget, another of the five treasures.

Heading back to the pipeline I mentioned a while ago, it turns out you can climb in and crawl around until you find an oil rig. There you can find an old parchment which will let you claim an oil rig if you can manage to sign it.

This is what the bottle of ink is for, but you still need to put the bottle in something. It turns out you can dive into a frozen lake (with DIG), find it is strangely warm…

…go all the way to the bottom, dig again to find an old rusty pen. The pen can then be filled with the ink (from Santa) and used to sign the deed, which finally turns into treasure #3.

For treasure #4, you need to go back to the trading post, and the pan I said was too high. That machine that you really don’t want to kick twice? You can still push it, then climb to the TOP OF THE VENDING MACHINE in order to reach the pan. (This was admittedly clever and I am annoyed I didn’t think of it! Just the game’s physical modeling isn’t that intense, so it never occurred to me it would even let me move a large object around.) With the pan and the boots stolen from Yukon Bill’s corpse we are able to enter a frozen river and pan for GOLD FLAKES.

For the last treasure, well, we’re back to guess the noun. Rather, something I worked out at the start of the game by typing LOOK COAT, the one from the vending machine:

I had to check hints: the only way through here is to LOOK LABEL. Then you find out it is *GENUINE MINK*, that is it, turns into treasure #5.

This game was a near miss for me; if it didn’t have guess-the-noun moments I likely would have found it one of the strongest of the Softside games. It does manage to be compact in a modern way, and put some unusual object uses out there, and the comedy means the slightly odd physics don’t really matter (unscrewing Rudolf’s nose, say). The morality is an interesting factor, and as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind an amoral protagonist as long as I’m clued in to the fact; what’s startling is being a paragon of Good and then having to steal some child’s last dollar. While the game doesn’t tip its hand that quickly, my danger sense was alerted with that Christmas wish list, so at least at a conceptual level the puzzles went smoothly for me.

If nothing else, I appreciate this is another “re-formulation” of the Treasure Hunt; we’re deep enough in now that games like Program Power’s Adventure and Hog Jowl Adventure have started to play with the very idea of obtaining all the stuff being your one end goal.

Posted August 13, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Two Kickstarters (Stereotypical, Andromeda Acolytes)   Leave a comment

Sorry for the delay in my next post! Trying to bring Quest to some sort of satisfactory landing so we can get into all sorts of other shenanigans. In the meantime, I have two Kickstarters to mention:

Sterotypical

In this point-and-click, choice-based puzzle adventure, you’ll solve cases as a quirky detective and his super spy partner through stories you’ll think you’ve seen before. But be careful! You’ll have to look past the stereotypes to uncover the story’s true ending.

This one is of particular interest as it is a project of Clopas LLC, that of none other than Scott Adams (of Adventureland, The Count, etc.)

This is not a regular text adventure (that’d be Adventureland XL), but a mobile game with character stats, akin to something from Choice of Games.

Andromeda Acolytes is from Wade Clarke who you might know from Leadlight and Six, and is developing a text adventure in the Andromeda “shared universe” with other games like Andromeda Apocalypse.

You’ll play four very different heroines drawn into each other’s orbit when an accident awakens a mysterious power on the planet Monarch. You’ll negotiate underwater mechs, artificial intelligences, abandoned cities, crime, friendship, suspense, horror, humour, an art exhibition, virtual realities and a tank. Experience each PC via first-person prose as you puzzle, converse and explore.

Kickstarter link here

This one’s actually got a demo for the first chapter that you can try here and looks to be a fairly elaborate traditional adventure.

Posted August 6, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

Quest: The Quantum Princess   8 comments

The PCL version of Quest is buggy in a way where it isn’t obvious if a particular glitch is really a bug.

System 10, the system Quest was programmed on, from Bitsavers. The original System 10 was made by Singer — that’s the same as the sewing machine company — before being bought by ICL.

To give a straightforward example: I mentioned last time a room with a dog show.

You are at the national elvish dog show. All around, all breeds both the familiar and the strangely novel are being put through their paces and judged by elderly and distinguished looking elves. The general show like atmosphere continues to the east, but there don’t seem to be any dogs up that end of the hall.

There is another room with an elvish fox hound. It can follow you to the room to the immediate west, but doesn’t like to go south so can’t reach the show (map below, the two pertinent locations are marked in blue).

Leaving the fox hound behind and then immediately going back north finds a normal, intact fox hound still waiting. Repeating the process has the hound still there, but is now dead.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound is dead.

I originally thought perhaps I was missing some subtle clue that was causing this to happen (there’s a “ravenous man-eating orchid” nearby that I thought might be related), but now I’m relatively convinced the game is just being buggy, especially once I discovered the quantum princess. (Before going on, I should add that Roger Durrant who has been keeping up a long stream of notes in my last post, managed to pick the hound up with the verb CARRY and take it to the show for some points. I have been unable to do this; the game just claims what I’m picking up isn’t portable. It is possible Roger had some extra unmentioned object that is helping, but I’m 75% sure it’s just another bug.)

To reach the quantum princess, you need to head north from the Western town, the west to the front of a castle. There’s a cannon nestled nearby.

Assuming you have a cannonball and gunpowder (both just lying around elsewhere on the map) you can load the cannon up and then fire it. This breaks open the portcullis leading in the castle so you can sneak in and find a logic puzzle.

You are now in the main keep of the castle of El Numero the Wise, numerologist, extraordinary and tyrant ruler of these parts. In the comer of his office there is a large safe with combination lock and the following inscription:

if forty + ten + ten = sixty

then my key is onyx.

(No, I haven’t bothered to solve this yet, it’s clearly a number cryptogram, and you’re welcome to take a crack in the comments.)

Downstairs you can find a series of cells (see the map). One always has a skeleton, and two of them are sometimes empty. I say sometimes because one of the times I went through I found a princess.

You are in a small cell. In one comer, bound hand and foot with thick ropes and sobbing loudly is the (obviously distressed) figure of a beautiful fair damsel.

You can free the damsel who will follow you briefly before saying she has to go back to her family farm, whereupon she teleports off (I assume the idea is she “walks off” but game-mechanically she telports).

The catch is: I’ve only found the princess once. There doesn’t seem to be any procedural generation going on, and I haven’t traced any different actions I’ve taken through alternate playthroughs. It’s like the princess is simultaneously there and not there at the same time.

At the far north of the hall, rather than the door opening into a cell it opens into the vastness of space.

One portion of a screenshot just as a reminder what things look like on my end. And yes, the princess followed me into space and teleported from there.

You are floating too far away to get into the blue box. In order to move closer you need to throw an item at let Newton do the rest, but not any item; out of the inventory I had the first time around the only thing that worked without some sort of “I don’t understand that” error was my set of keys. I get the strong impression there is zero world modeling in this game, but rather everything is coded in a bespoke way, so the game can’t interpret the properties of objects in a way that allows any sufficiently hefty item to work. The only items that work are whatever the person doing the port happened to add by hand to their list.

It leaves your hand, and you start to float gracefully toward the phone box, until a few seconds later, you bump gently into it, You are now hovering just by the door to the phone box.

Inside the TARDIS (same description as before, including K-9) I was able to push a button and found myself warped into an empty courtyard with a minor puzzle; a plant crying for water. Where have we seen this before?

There’s also a rusty can with a hole and a puddle of water. You can FIX CAN to take care of the hole (with what? I don’t know, but it worked, and gave me no message) and then fill the can (it gave me an error message but I guess worked anyway) and get the plant to turn into a tall vine.

Your score has been increased for perseverance, patience, and attention to detail. Congratulations!! You are now atop the southern wall of the court- yard. Looking down, you can see that there are handholds down the outside of the wall. The vine has shrunk to its original size after its enormous effort.

Heading off the wall drops you back to an enchanted forest right near the log cabin at the start of the game. (The forest incidentally has a murderous elf, but I had fortunately blasted it with my gun before going through this scene so I didn’t have to worry about it.)

So, the whole purpose of that sequence was … points? I’m not clear if I missed something. Maybe a digging spot? I can say the game has a bizarre relationship with score — or at least I should say, a very different conception than I’ve seen from other games. Points can go up or down for actions that clearly are optional. For example, there’s a fruit machine that you can play, and eventually get a winning combination; this causes your score to go up by 15, but nothing else to happen. I have not verified but it is possible you can keep playing the machine forever to infinitely increase your score. Roger Durrant somehow got to 27,325 points at one point, and I’ve gotten to something abysmal before like -500 for reasons I don’t understand.

Most adventure games treat score as a sort of progress counter, with some points for optional puzzles, with the possibility of losing points for taking hints and the like on games close in spirit to Crowther-Woods. This game clearly is adding and subtracting points at the right moments but with no sense of limits, and the general feels is akin to an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? (“where everything is made up and the points don’t matter”) or possibly Calvinball.

Now, there are such a thing as treasures — or at least I managed to store one treasure — but the experience was odd. If you go down the stairs at the very start you can find a gold nugget; while it is “too heavy” to bring back up the stairs, you can do an alternate route up through the Enchanted Forest (where that murderous elf I mentioned is) and make it back to the Log Cabin. Dropping the gold nugget yields 20 points, indicating that is likely the right action, but in the process the gold nugget entirely disappears. I tried picking it up again and the item was gone. Perhaps it was getting “stored”? There’s no message, just the score going up.

Yes, this thing is an experience. I certainly will get at least one more entry — I haven’t explored the dinosaur area yet (reached via a different TARDIS) and I’d like to find at least a few more treasures, but based on my luck with the game so far there is no such concept as a maximum score and the player won’t even have a mechanism for recognizing all the treasures are found. Despite the extreme jank, I at least can’t say the game has been boring.

Posted July 20, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Quest: High Noon with Billy the Gnome   38 comments

I’ve tried to play up to a point where I feel like I’ve “colored” in a lot of the edges but the game keeps going and going. I’m just going to highlight a few events just to give you a sense of what I’m up against.

From Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society. The System 25 was ICL’s followup to the System 10, which Quest was originally written for.

This game is dense in a way that’s odd to describe. There’s a colorful events and characters and rooms, but for the most part you can’t refer to the world modeling that gets implied and where a good chunk of the text is there for pure scenery. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a bit where I managed to get a lamp:

The door is opened by Bert, wearing a fine red cap and olive green suit. Traditional elf hospitality being what it is, he invites you in. You are now in old Bert’s house. The shelves are lined with all manner of strange artifacts gathered during old Bert’s 357 years of life. “I shall show you some of my more prized possessions later if you like” says old Bert “will you stay to tea?”

>YES

Tea is (as always in an elvish household) magnificent. The traditional 27 different courses are all served with the necessary pomp and ceremony. The dishes range from the piquant pickled subterranian mushrooms in oak root sauce to the rare and succulent delicacy of boiled arboron ears in jelly. After tea (which lasts some five hours) Bert takes you through into his back room museum in which his favourite treasures are housed, After browsing, for a pleasant half hour among such rare exhibits as a complete set of coinage from the reign of elf king Zorgat the large, and an autographed copy of the complete works of Cedric Dewdrop, Bert wishes you a fond farewell with a parting gift of a beautiful silver oil lamp with hand painted scenes of the orient on it, You are outside the house of Bert the elf.

You don’t even have a chance to refer to the 27 courses of the coinage or whatnot — this is a scene that just lands the oil lamp in your hands, which you incidentally don’t even have to turn on, it works automatically in previously dark areas.

I wouldn’t say all this extra material is “fluff”, but it can be a little disconcerting compared to one of the Cambridge mainframe games where every ounce of text needs to be pored over as a clue. The game is not afraid to randomly toss you in a “Gnome of Year” Ideal Gnome Show (immediately adjacent to a Dog Show) where you have to pick one of two contestants to win (neither which can be examined or talked to for more detail), and if you make a choice the loser socks you and your score goes down.

You are at “Elves Court” where the annual Ideal Gnome Show is being held. A number of gnomes of all sizes and genders are exhibiting themselves in the hope of being judged “Gnome of the Year”.

The judges however are in a quandary, being unable to decide between two finalists – Basil Wolstegnome and Maria Gnomesick.

As an unbiased outsider, your opinion is sought who do you choose?

Close to this scene — east and down some stairs, although you need the lamp to make it through — there’s a Western town.

You are in what looks like the main street of an old western town. An icy wind is blowing, along the street from the south, sending the odd ball of tumbleweed hurtling past, Above the high pitched shriek of the wind, the sound of piano music can be heard from the saloon to the west. On the building on the east side of the street the sign “sherrif” hangs at a slight angle.

The “sheriff” is asleep and has a gun you can get; as far as I can tell there’s no way to wake the sheriff (the game doesn’t even recognize any related words). You can go into the saloon where you come across Billy the gnome, who starts following you and being aggressive, eventually shooting you to death no matter which way you walk:

You are in a ladies boudoir. The occupant is (unfortunately) not present, but discarded items of clothing scattered here and there tend to indicate that she is in the habit of dressing in the manner of a bygone age (and in rather a hurry !). There are no windows, but the light from a small gas lamp reveals a small bed against the north wall, and a wardrobe against the west wall. The main door is to the east. Standing quietly nearby sneering at you is the tall rugged figure of Billy the gnome, the infamous outlaw. Billy the gnome draws his gun and fires, As you are now dead, would you like to be re-incarnated?

There’s ammo elsewhere for the sheriff’s gun; so you can have a shootout if you like. Unfortunately the game doesn’t let you bring the gun in the saloon where Billy is (even though he has his gun) so I had to leave the gun in the street, run outside after he started chasing, and try to shoot back.

B a n g !!! Unfortunately Billy beat you to the draw. You have been shot in the arm, but I think it should heal. Billy the gnome draws his gun and fires. As you are now dead, would you like to be re-incarnated?

Score: -140

So, things not going terribly well so far. Weirdly, I had an easier time killing a dragon:

You are in a vast, slimy cavern with festoons of phosphorescent moss hanging from the roof. Illuminated in the leprous, green glow, you can see a winding tunnel snaking off to the east, disappearing through the floor is what appears to be a fireman’s pole. To the west is the remains of a brick wall. Leaning against a wall is a dayglo-green dragon with smoke billowing from its mouth, and a strong smell of paraffin.

You can eventually keep trying to shoot it and it will die, but it doesn’t block anything; it just causes a danger if you try to pick up a torch while the dragon is tailing along (“there is a satisfactory loud whoomf!!! and the dragon explodes in a sheet of flame”), if you want to pick up the torch you have to kill it anyway.

I’m still trying to get a grip on the geography — it’s pretty randomly connected — and just as one more thing, past the dragon there’s a river leading up to an ocean, and past the ocean there’s … a German beach?

Sie befinden sich nun am noerdlichen Badestrand im deutschsprachigen Viertel der Hoehle. Die sonnengebraeunten Koerper der faulen Reichen sonnen sich in den Sonnenstrahlen welche durch Loecher in der Hoehlendecke in die Hoeble hinein strahlen, Im westen glitzert der tiefblaue ozean im sonnenlicht, Die hitze schimmert ueber dem heissen sand.

Yes, the game switches to German for that room description, and just that room description. I originally wondered if there was a file corruption or the like, but this was clearly intentional.

I’ll try to wrap the game up into something coherent next time. One more random location for good measure, though, placed in the middle of a cave next to the ocean:

You are in the lounge bar of the Elf club of Great Britain. All around you, a variety of elves, gnomes and other minority groups are having a good time, eating drinking and making merry (who is having a pretty good time also). The door to the west has a sign above it in elfish which you cannot read. The door to the east has the word “exit” above it in 42 different languages (one of them english). Standing in a corner polishing some glasses is the jovial and rotund figure of the club barman.

Posted July 12, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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News: Narrascope & Fighting Fantasy   2 comments

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet, but I’ve been working on the presentation I’m giving for Narrascope, an online conference.

Saturday (July 30)

What I’ve Learned From (Attempting) to Play Every Adventure Game Ever Made – Jason Dyer
(12:00–1:00, Track 1)
Jason Dyer has taken the opposite tack from Aaron Reed, looking at every single playable adventure game up through 1981. Are old games only remarkable as history, or do they have interesting things to say about the modern design of games and narrative?

Registration for the conference is here; it only costs $10, or $3 if you happen to be shorter on funds.

And incidentally, as the text of the blurb for my talk implies, Aaron Reed is giving a talk as well, the keynote in fact! (Also, congrats to him for a successful Kickstarter which managed to make over half a million dollars for a book about text games.)

In other news, both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone — the original two — are coming out with new Fighting Fantasy books:

Steve Jackson’s Tweet

Ian Livingstone’s Tweet

While I’m at it, I should plug Nathan Mahney’s blog Your Adventure Ends Here, which has been playing through all the Fighting Fantasy books (and mini-adventures in magazines) in chronological order. If you read just one thing, try his assault on Dungeon of Justice (note the link will be reverse chronological) as it seems like a perfectly ordinary dungeon crawl except for one unhinged twist which violates all norms of game design.

Posted July 8, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Quest (1980-1983)   11 comments

Despite this blog’s visit with mainframes in Britain being solely through the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge (Acheton, Quondam, Hamil, etc.) they were hardly the only game in town. Britain’s big commercial mainframe company (and competitor to IBM) was ICL, itself a merger of multiple other companies, including one that dates all the way back to 1902.

Keypunch from the British Tabulating Machine Company, estimated to be from around 1915. The tabulating machine — originally designed to count the 1890 US Census — was also behind the founding of IBM.

ICL as a company proper was founded in 1968, and while it focused on larger machines at first it did start branching into desktop systems by the late 70s; today’s game was originally written for the their mainframe System 10, with a version by Doug Urquhart and Keith Sheppard developed from 1980 to 1981. Later Jerry McCarthy joined the team before a “final” version was released in 1983. As Doug writes:

Quest is, as they say, functionally rich. We packed over two hundred places into our small part of Cyberspace and peopled them with dragons, elves, insurance salesmen and some of our colleagues. One particularly hated manager was placed, name anagrammatized to avoid legal action, in a rubber goods shop down a sleazy alley near the railway line. He’s still there, if you care to look.

For a long time, the book I just referenced (An ICL Anthology: Anecdotes and Recollections from the People of ICL) is the only evidence we’ve had of the game even existing, even though it claims versions for “System 10, System 25, DRS 20, CPM, DOS and now Windows.” The problem is none of those had ever surfaced!

The game is also utterly obscure enough to not show up on any of my main references (CASA Solution Archive, Interactive Fiction Archive, Mobygames). I had come across it in the past, somehow, but it was in my “wishful thinking” list until a Dave Howorth from the UK (and former ICL employee) pinged me asking if I had heard of this game. I had, and was ready to give the bad news it was buried who-knows-where, when I was surprised to find, snuck two years ago on if-archive:

# Quest.zip

Quest, a text adventure written between 1980 and 1983 at ICL by Doug Urquhart, Keith Sheppard and Jerry McCarthy. Originally written to run on the ICL System 10 mainframe and later ported to System 25, DRS 20, CPM, MS-DOS and Windows. This is a Visual Basic 3 port that requires a version of Windows capable of running 16-bit Windows programs.

You may wonder “why isn’t it on the Interactive Fiction Database then?” Yes, the IFDB indexes nearly everything on if-archive, but it isn’t automatic, and there’s still the occasional “stealth” upload, as this one was.

I was thus able to deliver good news instead, although the version of Windows needed turned out to be all the way back to Windows 98. Instead of going through making a virtual machine I used a version of DOSBOX pre-set for Windows 98.

All the text for every room description is centered and also delivered all as one paragraph. The last point has major gameplay ramifications; there’s been a standard since Adventure to always separate out items that can be manipulated by at least a line break, but here you just have to parse them as the regular text.

I’m not 100% clear if the original game was like this, but I suspect the mash-the-paragraph-together formatting would be odd to add in the Windowsification phase so is authentic. I’m going to convert the text into ASCII rather than forcing you to parse screenshots. The opening screen above reads:

You are in a small log cabin in the mountains. There is a door to the north and a trapdoor in the floor. Looking upwards into the cobwebbed gloom, you perceive an air-conditioning duct. Lying in one corner there is a short black rod with a gold star on one end. Hanging crookedly above the fireplace is a picture of Whistler’s mother, with the following inscription underneath: ‘If death strikes and all is lost – I shall put you straight’.

(Notice how there’s an item that you can pick up jammed in the middle of the paragraph.)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, aka Whistler’s Mother, from 1871. Her name was Anna.

I haven’t gotten deep enough in to give a full lay of the land, but I can say the general structure seems to have entirely distinct “adventures” based on which direction you travel. If you go down to the underground you find the land of the Arborens.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound has followed you. You are now in the land of the Arborons or tree folk. All around you in the dim light, unblinking pairs of pink eyes can be seen peeping at you through the tree roots. Arboron burrows lead off to the west and south. Lying in one comer there is a small box of .45 calibre ammunition.

I suspect this section may have been written first, given the instructions for the game state: “The object of the quest is to collect as much treasure as you can, and convey it back to the start, without suffering too much harm at the hands of the denizens of the caves.” There are plenty of non-caves to be found, though. If you go outside you can grab a parachute and jump your way into an open range with lots of directions you can go, including this strange machine room:

All your molecules are being disassembled. It is not a particularly pleasant process. You are standing on a dull metal floor, in the middle of a brightly lit room. All around you are banks of machinery whose thin film of dust betrays long disuse. The air is warm, with a hint of ozone, and a low humming noise is coming from the one console which is still functioning, The console comprises a row of eight numbered buttons and a large lever. The button labelled number 6 is illuminated. There is an airlock door to the north. A lambent pool of shimmering light is dancing on the floor, before the console.

If you go up you can find a steel tunnel…

Fighting against a current of air, toffee papers, and other less mentionable objects, you eventually stagger out high up in a mountain range. Looking down (a long, long, long way down) you can just see the log cabin wherein all this business started. To the west is an stainless steel tunnel mouth. In the far distance to the east, a barely discernible object is barely discernible.

…and a blue police box (this is a Brit-game, remember)…

You are now inside the police telephone box; much to your surprise, you discover that there is much more room inside than you would have expected by looking at the outside. In the centre is a control panel; a large button marked “press” is clearly visible thereon. There, standing wagging a cute little metal tail, with its cute little metal head to one side is a BASIC variable (ANSI standard only).

…and get teleported to a jungle land where you get chased by a dinosaur.

The great dinosaur, twice the size of an elephant and ten times as fierce looking has followed you. The passage opens out here, and in some strange strong light, the source of which is not obvious, the walls and ceiling shine with the brilliance of cut glass. They are not made of glass however, they are made of great clusters of sapphires and emeralds, many of them as large as walnuts, and each twinkling out that promise of untold riches that has driven men to war, crime or madness, since history began.

Even if all of the puzzles turn out to be the absurd unsolvable variety, I’ll at least have fun exploring the sheer chaos that seems to be the setting mash-up the game promises. And based on that last room description, at least one of the authors seemed to be all-in to making the writing look good, and being originally on a mainframe means they didn’t need to worry about word count!

Posted June 25, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Skull Cave (1982?)   13 comments

In the history of personal computers, the first significant home computer was the Altair 8800, which briefly made a cameo on this blog with the game Kadath. Quite soon after — designed originally as a terminal to use the Altair before it became its own project — was the Sol line, which appeared on the July 1976 cover of Popular Electronics and was sold in three ways: in kit form, without expansion slots (Sol-10) and with expansion slots (Sol-20). At the time it was called the first complete small computer; it is now sometimes called the first “modern computer” or first “all-in-one” computer.

It did reasonably well — 10,000 units — but in historical memory it is overshadowed by the Altair and Apple I, and shortly after it landed it got bowled over by the Trinity of 1977 (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET).

At the Smithsonian, from DigiBarn. The Apple I and Altair are on the table above, carefully labeled, while the SOL-20 is hiding underneath on the floor with no label at all. I’m not sure if the curator meant this as a metaphor.

The machine eventually was discontinued in 1979; the designer, Lee Felsenstein, ended up going on to design the first successful portable computer (the Osborne 1) but that’s a story for a different time.

Even when a computer is “discontinued” it still can have fans, and the SOL-20 has its diehards and events, like a 30th anniversary party. One such fan, Ray White, wrote what was more or less a private collection of games, including an RPG called Deathmaze. Skull Cave, his only text adventure (and what appears to be the SOL-20’s only text adventure) he estimates to be from 1982.

The setup has an Infidel vibe (“disease, hunger, monsters and desertion” taking their “toll” on your “hirelings”) but the better comparison is Dungeons and Dragons, especially because the final obstacle feels like a scene from one of the very famous early campaigns.

But also: there’s random enemies seeded around for combat. From the opening room above, you can head south (into the “mouth”) to do combat with a skeleton, or head up (through the “eyes”) to do combat with a goblin.

The author here ran into the same problem many adventure writers were running into: how to make the combat interesting? Adventure and Zork both used it a limited amount, so the encounter with (say) the Troll was colorful and not repetitive. Deadly Dungeon tried to give you arrows for a second method of attack, and Eamon added dynamic movement to the monsters, spells, RPG stats, and the possibility of emergent behavior.

Unfortunately, Skull Cave is just taking its cue from Adventure/Zork. Combat isn’t nearly as interesting as Eamon: the only thing possible to do is to ATTACK when entering a room with a monster and hope you win. You can’t even run away and choose to engage later.

YOU CAN’T JUST LEAVE IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT!!!

Sometimes this sort of game has a “experience path” where if you’ve killed weaker enemies you’ll have an easier time against stronger ones. Unfortunately things are too random for me to be sure if this is true, and I found the best strategy is to attack as minimally as possible, because there’s always a chance of random death. You can spend some points for one reincarnation, but after a second death the game is over.

The game is in two sections. The first spans from the skull cave entrance to a locked gate, with a “Guardian of the Gate” enemy. Other than the initial skeleton-or-goblin fight the next one you have to do for certain is the guardian, and you just need to hope you get lucky and restart if you don’t (the game has no saved game capability, either).

I marked the start room at the top and the gate room at the bottom.

In the middle you can choose to fight a troglodyte and get a jeweled wristband, swipe a number of treasures (silver bars, emerald, painting), smash a statue to take its jeweled “eyes”, swipe a glass bottle and a chain, and battle a dragon (which drops gold if you defeat it).

There’s also a room with a magic word (“PLTMP”) which teleports you there and seems to work every time, being the only escape from combat (too bad I found it last when I was mapping!) There’s also a completely unmappable maze, and I’m not exaggerating “hard and annoying”, I do mean unmappable:

If the author meant to copy the “all different” maze, then separate rooms need separate messages. The item-dropping method doesn’t work; any items just disappear instantly. I think the author may have literally messed things up from their intent.

Going back to the locked gate, if you defeat the Guardian (again, I just made a beeline and crossed my fingers, no tactics whatsoever) then you still have the locked-ness of the gate to deal with. I had found SEARCH worked from my various tests but mostly it shows nothing. However, if you happen to use it at the skeleton room at the very start, you can find a skeleton key.

This is _not_ a guaranteed search either! Again, I feel like the author might have had D&D in mind, but given SEARCH works almost nowhere, having it also possibly fail the one place it does work is just cruelty.

(The funky error line is because I made a typo and tried to hit BACKSPACE, which doesn’t work on this emulator. I assume SOL-20 had a backspace but I’m not sure how to trigger it.)

The key leads down to a slightly more interesting area.

Yes, slightly more interesting, just the usual Adventure puzzle where the bottle from the north side is useful to pour water on a plant to turn into a beanstalk. There’s also a scene with a “beautiful girl” which gives you a scroll with the spell NIGNOG which seems to be used for defeating one (1) enemy of your choice:

There’s a tiger attached to a pedestal where you can choose to walk away, but once you fight, you’re committed. Defeating the tiger reveals a gem. (I tried NIGNOG here and got no luck, but I think it was because I wasn’t technically fighting the enemy yet.)

With the gem in hand you can go back to revealing a sword stuck in a stone, and use the gem to free it. (MOUNT is a verb I got from the binary code of the game. Unfortunately it is in machine language so I can’t determine a lot of things otherwise.)

Then, with the sword, you can get to the scene which I mentioned reminded me quite directly of D&D.

Specifically, the infamous “Tomb of Horrors”, which originally debuted in the 1975 in tournament conditions, then got published in 1978 and has been used by GMs to gleefully torture players ever since. It has traps on traps on traps on traps, and a battle with a lich at the end assuming players even get that far (which is just a skull which floats and sucks out one soul per turn).

From a larger piece of art by Jason Thompson describing an actual play session.

I think there might be some more resources, but just NIGNOG (which stuns but doesn’t destroy) plus the sword were enough to destroy the skull. Just NIGNOG alone doesn’t cut it. I assume our player is the “monk” class since they’ve been going without a weapon most of the game taking down skeletons and so forth, but sometimes you need a little magic even when you’ve got fists of fury.

There’s a map up at CASA Solution Archive which includes a place with a “ring” I never got to visit — if you look at the plant room there’s hook where it seems a chain could go, but I could never find the right verb to make it work — and I also skipped entirely a spider guarding a room with a shield. These tools only came after the majority of combat in the game; Skull Cave really could have used spreading out some of the combat resources in a way that picking them up in the right order could have slowly leveled combat up so the player wouldn’t have to just roll the dice on the guardian or the tiger.

Oh, and I’ve failed to mention the thief. Ugh, yes, there’s a thief.

The thief grabs any treasures you’ve gotten — which seem to be purely for points — and stores them, I presume, in the maze. The problem is the mazes are broken! (In addition to the “all different” maze there’s an “all alike” maze which is equally broken.) So while the source code indicates a “lair” where presumably you can retrieve things…

YOU ARE IN THE THIEF’S LAIR. COMFORTABLE, (BUT CHEAP), FURNITURE LINES THE WALLS. IN THE CENTER OF THIS ROOM YOU SEE A LARGE ROCK.

…there is no plausible way to get there. Perhaps the author has the exact maze steps and if someone really was determined to hack at the binary code they could find out a way too, but as is, the treasure is all a sideshow to the main task of retrieving the pearl anyway.

For now, Skull Cave mainly serves as a warning as to how difficult it is to make combat fun in an adventure game without making any extra systems. The large number of adventures from this era where violence is actually a red herring seems to be linked to the same trouble: there need to be statistics, extra moves, a wealth of items, enemy AI, and so forth, none of which had an easy-to-copy model at the time–

From the printed Tomb of Horrors module.

–excepting Eamon, but if people wanted an Eamon game they just wrote it in that system. And incidentally, for those Eamon fans out there, yes, I might loop back sometime and do more than 2 adventures, even though they really lean much harder on the RPG than the adventure side. The backlog is just so, so long. And speaking of backlog, what I’ll be getting to next is a game which is very large, whose existence is recorded almost nowhere, and has only been available to the public quite recently.

Posted June 24, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Mad Monk (1982)   13 comments

From the Centre for Computing History.

Fans of my previous posts may remember a mysterious individual, Mr. A. Knight, who wrote Galactic Hitchhiker, a surprisingly decent riff on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while using the vanishingly small 8K available on the UK101 computer (shown above).

A. Knight was listed in 1980 as living at Simonside Walk, Ormesby, Middlesborough, Cleveland.

By the end of 1981 he mentioned another game, Mad Monk, that he had ready for sale; at least one person ordered it in March 1982 and never received it, and for a while it was thought perhaps the game was vaporware, until it appeared recently, recovered by baldwint from a stash of UK101 tapes on the Stardot forum. It seems to have taken until mid-1982 before it actually came out. Quoting from the August 1982 catalog:

A graphics Adventure program, all in machine code. We’re sorry about the delay in finishing this one but when you see it you will understand why it has taken so long. It is now receiving its finishing touches and, honest injun, it’ll be ready for mid August….yes, 1982. If you already have this one on order, please be patient just a little longer, as it really is worth waiting for. Again, apologies for the delay.

The catalog is incidentally for “Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd”; while Knight originally sold software as a personal venture with no company name at all, by 1982 he had branched into a selection from multiple authors with the aforementioned Merlin attached, and later switched names again to Knight Software.

Unlike his previous game, it is fully in the roguelike-adventure mode, like The 6 Keys of Tangrin, Lugi, Mines, and a few others games we’ve seen. Nearly all room placements and exits are randomly generated, and all objects and foes are also placed at random.

The adventure starts with you in the entrance hall of the Mad Monk’s Monastery and your missions is to find and rescue one Lord Magnil the Magnificient, who is being held ranson by the Mad Monk and his acolytes.

Not a princess! Good job, Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd.

You always start in an Entrance Hall, as shown above, and just to the south of Entrance Hall there is an entrance to a maze, which switches the game to 3D mode (!).

The text adventure part of the game contains a “magic map” and a “compass”. Having the compass will have the game always display what direction you’re facing; having the map will let you press M to get an automap.

While it isn’t clear from the instructions or the game itself, the 3D maze is the exit should only be entered once Lord Magnil is rescued; if you successfully pass through when he hasn’t been rescued, the game asks WHERE’S MAGNIL THE MAGNIFICENT? and ends.

The 3D maze is generated in such a way the right-hand rule works, so it honestly isn’t too distressing to have it in the game (even if the compass and/or map turn out to be elusive); if it was in the middle of the game it would be much worse to go through the effort, as the text adventure portion is quite deadly.

The way enemies work is they start “agitated” when you enter a particular room, and the longer you stay there the more likely they are to get angry and start hitting; other than CEREBUS as shown above you have to deal with THE SANDMAN, POTTY PRINCE YUSUPOV, CRAZY COUNT PAVLOVICH, IGOR THE INSANE, GREENY THE ERRANT INVADER, and the MAD MONK himself. The anger level seems to be a fixed increase, so you strategically only have 5 turns or so with an enemy to either eliminate it or skedaddle. Enemies can block exits so sometimes they have to be killed, although it is possible for them to also show at dead ends (meaning in such cases they can be ignored).

Some of them you can just stab with a dagger, assuming you have one (that’s a big assumption).

Others I have no idea what to do with and I just die. Greeny is only killable with a “zapper” as the instructions indicate, but he’s hard to hit.

The instructions hint that there’s some sort of mini-game to train your zapper ability: there’s an ARCADE GAME and a COIN and assuming you have them together (see animation below) you can put in the coin to get a Greeny Zapping session in with special controls. You need to (at least) entirely beat a wave in order to get enough accuracy, a feat I have (as of this writing) yet to manage.

The room description engine isn’t dense but it works out; most rooms are just “Monastery”, and sometimes with an environmental effect that is either permanent (“THE WALLS ARE COVERED WITH MOSS HERE.”) or temporary (“SOMETHING SLITHERS AWAY IN THE SHADOWS.”). Some rooms have special names like “Alcove” or “Pantry”; in a few cases the special rooms have fixed items. The Bathroom, if it appears, will always have a rubber duck. The bell tower, if it appears, will always have a rope you can pull.

Notice I said “if it appears”; I’m unclear about this for certain, but I think the map generator is busted. Sometimes it works, but sometimes you get one generated like so:

It is faintly possible I’m missing some trick but in this case the only thing available to reach was an arcade machine (and no coin, so I couldn’t test out the minigame). A much better generated map is something like this one:

There’s a bottom floor and a top floor; the top floor is constrained within a 5 by 5 section, and I think that’s in general the game’s default. That would imply the bottom floor also does the same, and it may have done so correctly, but my mapping was cut short by CEREBERUS THE SALTY DOG, and if an enemy is presenting as an obstacle, you can’t just sneak by.

I was able to get a DAGGER and stab both IGOR and the SANDMAN, but the parser just gets confused you even think about stabbing the dog. There’s a message (that has appeared only on a few iterations) about the dog being an “old softie” so I tried things like dropping a bear and a rubber duckie and some sausage in the room, but no dice. The verb list is heavily constrained, so I might be typing the wrong words.

This leaves out BLOW, which works because of a whistle which summons a police officer. The police officer is no help against the dog either.

I’ve done quite a fair number of tries, but it look the game’s logic force-makes Cereberus into a necessary-to-win obstacle, so I have to get by to succeed.

The only other aspect I’ve figured out (partially?) is the mad monk. The monk plays by its own rules and can “teleport in” to a room you’ve previously been in, as opposed to staying in place. Unfortunately, the monk stays put after, so if he’s blocking you (likely) you might be entirely stuck. The only way by I’ve found is to right the bell tower; for some reason this summons the monk away and you no longer have to worry about him at that location.

Despite the frustrations I was rooting for the game to work — or at least get me enough luck somehow I could ignore the dog — but after a significant number of lives wasted trying to find any verb that might be helpful (with the occasional “impossible” map) I’ll need to throw in the towel for now. If anyone is keen and giving it a whirl themselves, head over to here for a copy and instructions.

Neat concept, generally, but the game just didn’t work out. Hanging over it all was the lack of a saved game feature, which made experimenting very frustrating; I had the situation like Lugi where I wanted to test a theory about an object combined with a particular enemy, but I had to wait multiple restarts until the next situation rolled around only to find out my idea didn’t work. Having fatal puzzles combined with making it hard to test theories drains all the energy out of an adventure game.

We’re technically not done with the UK101 yet; the Merlin catalog I quoted earlier also has two games by David Harrison, Dragon’s Lair and Lost in Space, both cited as adventure games. It’s hard to know if they’re “really” adventures (as opposed to action games with a light skin) but tapes for neither have surfaced, so we’re left for now wondering unless another tape cache turns up.

Posted June 16, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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The Queen of Phobos: The Fabled Mask of Kuh-Thu-Lu   9 comments

Paul Berker has done an interview for the podcast ANTIC where he discussed Phoenix Software and Queen of Phobos.

He mentioned that the packaging for the game had “High-res graphic adventure” on the box…

…which was enough for On-Line Systems (of their Hi-Res Adventure line) to sue in California court. Unfortunately Phoenix was a small company out of Illinois so they just simply destroyed any remaining stock they had left, and Berker estimates he only made “about $2000” from the game.

His collaborator Bill Crawford passed away in 1984 so there’s no similar interview for him; Paul Berker said he might have otherwise made more games based on Crawford’s ideas. Paul went back to writing software for businesses, which had much more reliable paychecks.

I have finished the game, and it was excellent enough that before going on, I want toss down a link:

Click here to play The Queen of Phobos online

Complete spoilers follow, and you’ll need to have read prior posts for this one to make sense.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

As implied by my calling the game “excellent enough”, yes, the randomness ended up working out. This was partly due to the rogue’s gallery being less aggressive than they could be, but in a ludic sense they still gave the desired effect.

I had left off last time understanding part of the sequence I wanted:

a.) Get the nuclear weapon and the cable, and use the cable to dispose of the weapon. This is probably optional if you’re fast enough doing everything else! There’s lots of optional elements going on.

b.) Get the shovel and the map from the planet surface. Neither of these have randomized positions so no hunting is required. Again, technically optional, but the maze is randomized. I have some times just moved randomly and found the center with no effort, and sometimes go terribly lost, but I figured for my goal I needed the map.

c.) Somehow get the key from the claw machine; I hadn’t solved this yet.

d.) Use the key to open the locker in the captain’s room, which surely has a helpful item.

e.) Make it over to where the lasers are and throw the map to set the lasers off and have them shoot each other.

f.) Defeat the zombie by ???

g.) Get the mask by ???

h.) ???

i.) Profit!

With a bit more playing around with the claw machine — and a helpful warning not to hit the machine if you LOOK at it — I tried KICK MACHINE after playing, and the token came out again. (I tried this once already, but before playing, hah! I was thinking maybe I could just get the key to fall out on its own.)

By using the token a second time, I was able to get the key. Unlocking the locker gave me a … salt cube?

Not expecting much, I loaded up on some extra items (like a vibroaxe and a surgical chain-saw) with the hope that something I carried would take care of the zombie. The zombie comes out on its own so there’s no opportunity to use a command like ATTACK ZOMBIE, which should have been a clue that this would happen:

Ah yes, the well known aversion of zombies to salt. Actually, there’s a hint to this in a COOKBOOK lurking in the kitchen. You have to TURN PAGE to flip through the cookbook (something I was clued in on because it gets used in a prior Phoenix game). Page 4 states:

THE ZOMBIE: THE ZOMBIE WILL EAT ANYTHING, BUT ‘NO SALT’!

Moving past the zombie is the room with the mask! The mask is wired for electricity, unfortunately. Going back and exploring, I found that I could use a wrench to turn the mysterious spigot in the machine room I was having trouble with, which started dispensing electrolytes to ruin electronics. I also found a crock pot that I could use to take the liquid with me. (Note: both items are randomly distributed; I don’t know how keen the thieves are on stealing them, but I believe the wrench got moved around at least once.)

With the trap disabled, I was able to grab the mask, then die shortly after of a mysterious illness. You need to WEAR MASK to be filled with vitality and escape. Then all that’s needed is to head down to a shuttle and leave.

Note that the thieves become much more dangerous on your way out and will try to kill you. It is possible to run away but given any leeway they will do a surprise attack. On my winning run I had:

a.) found an electric crossbow which killed Dr. Hunter — the person with the sunglasses

b.) failed to find beer; however, the lizard-man and the beetle both by coincidence ended up in the same room, so I threw a gas grenade and took down both of them at the same time

c.) completely ignored the tree-person, as I couldn’t find anything to kill them; one rogue turns out to be not so bad to evade

Incidentally, after wearing the mask and going back to the central room, I found the beer and some footprints going northeast. I’m not sure what the meaning of this was. One might suspect the rogue was nearby and dropped the beer, or maybe the footprints were supposed to show you the way back? I just wandered randomly and kept going south until I found the exit.

But really, the game worked. The fact that the rogues could be killed in at least two ways or ignored was fantastic; it gave a risk-reward feel and opened the possibility to a “pacifist run” where you avoid killing any of them. (If any of them follow you into the shuttle, you don’t have time to push the launch button before they shoot you.)

There weren’t that many obstacles in the end, but that turned out to be a feature; I don’t know if the game’s central idea would have worked well for a more prolonged stay.

This suggests strongly that one of the main principles of a good roguelike-adventure is to allow alternate solutions or even skipping puzzles when randomness is involved. Also — noting that the nuclear device and cable were always in the same place — if something involves critical timing, don’t toss it in the random generator mix.

The game doesn’t quite go all the way to the fantasy of the infinitely repayable adventure, as the fundamental frame is always the same, but it does lend at least more than is typical. The wisdom it holds is good to keep in mind as the next game on my list is fully adventure-roguelike, and was completely lost to the world until quite recently.

Posted June 13, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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