The Tarturian: The Final Battle   7 comments

Into the breach we go. This post will only make sense if you’ve read my previous ones first.

From the cover of the game’s manual, via the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

Before approaching the final battle, I needed to get all the weapons in addition to all the treasures.

daggers, potions, swords, spears, darts, maces

Some of these are dependent on if you are holding certain treasures; for example, if you are holding Rexxon’s Arc (that was the one that required doing the USE RING/MAGIC puzzle) you can find the daggers in a random dead end.

This is after the vast majority of people will have everything mapped out. Just to be clear how annoying this is, here is a merged version of all the maps together.

I’m not sure what the expectations of the authors was — that the entire map get combed over again?

The maces are the same way — they are in a random dead end, and you can find them while holding the pendant (it’s more feasible a player would be holding the pendant by the time they first reach this location, but I hadn’t).

There are swords are at yet another random dead end, this time while holding the crown (which is likely one of the last treasures the player would find!)

Oddly enough, another place has swords. It’s in a location with a whole stash: darts, potions, spears, and swords all together.

This is the only “interesting” weapon spot, insofar as reaching it requires going past a slaver raid (there’s no way past it) …

After this I was out of strongmen and elves.

… and down a shaft, where there’s no way to get back up. I hence had one somewhat random puzzle left to solve, although my solution came from taking the magician I happened to have out and trying MAGIC in every room. In one of the rooms you find a bicyclops. (A cyclops with two eyes. Yes.)

From the source code

2917 IF A$ = “” THEN PRINT “YES THAT IS THE CARRIAGE RETURN KEY NOW LETS SEE YOU FIND SOME OTHERS”: GOTO 2910

2920 IF A$ = “SEX” THEN FOR I = 1 TO 5: XDRAW 38 AT 120,60: XDRAW 38 AT 135,60: DRAW 38 AT 120,90: DRAW 38 AT 135,90: XDRAW 38 AT 120,90: XDRAW 38 AT 135,90: DRAW 38 AT 120,60: DRAW 38 AT 135,60: NEXT I: PRINT “OOOGA OOOGA”: GOTO 2910

2925 IF LEFT$(A$,4) = “HELP” THEN PRINT “TELL ME ONLY WHAT YOU NEED HELP WITH”: GOTO 2910

2930 IF LEFT$(A$,4) = “FIND” THEN PRINT “TELL ME ONLY WHAT YOU NEED TO FIND”: GOTO 2910

2940 IF A$ = “EXIT” OR A$ = “ENTRANCE” OR A$ = “LEAVE” THEN GOTO 8140

2950 IF A$ = “GOLD” OR A$ = “TREASURE” OR A$ = “WEAPONS” THEN PRINT “I DON’T SEE ANY”: GOTO 2910

(If you pick SEX the eyes move rapidly up and down, followed by OOOGA OOOGA. I will spare you a screenshot.)

After enough turns have passed the bicyclops helpfully states IF YOU SAY ‘EXIT’ I WILL GET YOU OUT so at least this isn’t a complete guessing game.

With all that taken care of, I first needed to restock my supply of elves and strongmen.

Urgh. This is the only thing money in the game is used for.

Then it was just the Tarturian to worry about. I mentioned I already found it last time. What happened is I had found some food for the yummy yakky (two posts ago, so let me reproduce the picture)…

…who, after USE FOOD, gives you a hint.

BURP THANKS.I TRIED TO EAT A SPIDER HANGING FROM THE CEILING ONCE BUT SOMEBODY MEAN PUSHED IT TOO HIGH FOR ME

Way back in one of the early rooms of the game I remembered a spider.

I tried doing the Strongman’s various maneuvers: MOVE unveiled the passage to the Tarturian.

THIS IS THE ENTRANCE TO THE TARTURIANS LAIR. IF YOU ENTER IT THERE WILL BE NO RETURNING.

DO YOU WISH TO FACE THE TERRIBLE TARTURIAN Y(YES) N(NO)?

This leads to the final showdown, which has no interactivity at all (as long as you’ve brought all the weapons and treasures).

The game then kicks to the Apple II prompt and ends by informing you that GOTO 10 will let you watch the whole sequence again, if you want.

Utterly, utterly, exhausting. Easily 80% of my gameplay was either a.) mapping, where I had to test every room exit since none are listed b.) trawling through the map a second time once I realized what was going on with the how the weapons showed up and c.) the logistics of a decreasing strength meter and losing party members. It was hard to find satisfaction even in the puzzles that had hints to them. But at least I’m done with it.

Posted January 14, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Tarturian: Ten Treasures   3 comments

I found The Tarturian. It didn’t go well. Could I just end the game here?

There’s just something stressful about this game, moreso than Oldorf’s. There’s a decreasing “strength” meter in addition to all the weirdness, and sometimes my party just dies without me understanding why.

To diagnose the problem generally, this seems to be another case of an author (or authors) having an easy game with a parser’s capacity for solving an easy game, followed by a harder game where the parser can’t catch up. Here, there isn’t even really a parser; the game’s method of parsing character commands where objects aren’t needed (except for USE) is not a “feature” as much as a “kludge to cover up the fact every command is bespoke”. Here’s a clip from the source code:

3560 IF LEFT$(A$,4) = “READ” THEN PRINT “I CAN’T IT’S IN GNOMESE”: GOTO 3540
3570 IF LEFT$(A$,9) = “TRANSLATE” THEN PRINT “STRONGBOX HIDES JEWELS”: GOTO 3540

There’s one section that involves three doors; there’s a chance opening open will reveal some gold, but there’s a higher chance opening one will reveal a monster attack.

There’s a switch out in a hall with no indication of what it does. What it does is cause a minotaur to escape its cage on an entirely different part of the map, and if you do this early (you’re going to do this early) you’ve softlocked the game.

Mind you, at least I had a good guess this switch could lead to a softlock. That didn’t make hitting it any more pleasant.

Sometimes slavers come along and just kidnap a bunch of your party. This happens at two fixed points I have found (hopefully no more) and it looks like one spot is avoidable, but the other isn’t.

I did eventually find all ten treasures.

Pendant of Bodil, Ancient Gold, Powerful Ring, Wand of Palx, Rexxon’s Arc, Scholl’s Crown, Marin’s Jewels, Kimmor’s Staff, Platinum Hand, Herc’s Elixir

Your party incidentally also needs weapons (I think?) to take on The Tarturian. They’re listed in the manual

dagger, potion, sword, spear, dart, mace

although I hadn’t found any until this session.

Let’s run through the treasures roughly in the order I found them. I already discussed the Ring last time and Herc’s Elixir.

Treasure #3: I finally found a use for the word WUCI which was randomly written on a wall.

WUCI here will free the spirit and yields the Pendant of Bodil.

Treasure #4: One box in the complex contains nothing except snakes.

If you have the Strongman MOVE the box instead of opening it, you’ll find Marin’s Jewels.

Treasure #5: Another box is also a trap if you try to open it. There’s some message about it being the box the spirit warned you about, which is supposed to be referring to the section earlier with WUCI, except there was no such warning (I checked the source code to be sure). This is supposed to be a hint that the Elf can USE PENDANT here and get another treasure (the Wand of Palx).

Treasure #6: Near those doors which randomly yield either gold or death there is a “magnetic vortex”. Sometimes one of the directions will have Kimmor’s Staff.

Treasure #7: This is where I started trudging over the source code in earnest. There’s a fissure where you can take the traveler’s ring and USE RING to magically jump over.

This was bad enough — the ring doesn’t generally work in most locations, and I didn’t really have an indication until this moment it might do something useful. To top things off, though, while there’s some rooms past the fissure (including that incident with the slavers I posted earlier) there’s no treasure past the fissure. You’re supposed to use MAGIC to jump back to an middle spot between the two sides of the fissure, which lets you walk over to a grave where you can find Rexxon’s Battle Arc.

There is a hint for this elsewhere. How fair it is I’ll let you decide.

Treasure #8: The battle arc is sufficient to defeat the Minotaur (the one you can get softlocked by if you release it too early) which lets you into a lair and a mighty caterpillar. Then you can USE WAND (that’s Treasure #5) to defeat the caterpillar and get a crown, and there is no hint for this part.

Treasure #9: You can then take the crown to an entirely different part of the map to find Scholl’s Bust. USE CROWN yields a Hand.

Treasure #10: Finally, there’s a “Pentagon Room” where using the Wizard’s cast ABILITY shows

A MULTI SIDED PASSAGE DOWN!!!!!!!

and some Ancient Gold, in some ways the most important treasure of all, with an ability I had to check the source code for. While you’re in the same place you find the gold (and only in that place) if you USE GOLD the party’s strength will increase:

This is absolutely necessary for winning the game — there’s no way to optimally get everything without running out of overall strength and dying.

I haven’t even talked about getting weapons yet (dagger, potion, sword, etc.) but I’ll save that for my final (?) post. Two of them are laying out in the open at random, but the other four require you to be holding specific treasures to find them and there’s no particular reason why. Again: stressful!

Posted January 5, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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New Documents Related to Crowther/Woods Adventure Unearthed   Leave a comment

Ethan Johnson has found some 1977-era material related to the release of Crowther/Woods Adventure; Twitter thread here.

The “release” messages are archived here.

In addition to a specific “release date” of June 3rd, 1977, it describes Adventure as “effectively a problem-solving solitaire game”, and includes some anxiety in it not really a computer science research project:

The program is not intended to be any significant advance in language understanding. About all that can be said about it in this regars is that one might be able to point to it as an example of the sort of ambiguities which can arise in even the most restricted universes of discourse. In particular, many difficulties arise from the structure of the program, which (with a very few exceptions) require that no word be both a noun and a verb.

There’s also some discussion of the possibility of commercializing Adventure: “It is conceivable that a sale could be arranged in which you might share, but it sounds a bit hairy.”

An aside in one of the messages also means that Haunt started development in 1978, not 1979!

My apologies for being sluggish to post lately; I’ve been swarmed with holiday obligations. I also was busy last week writing a post for AskHistorians commemorating the rollover to 2021, which means 2001 questions are fair game, and a certain heavy event.

Posted January 4, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

The Tarturian: Kileng the Traveler’s Powerful Ring   5 comments

The entire operation was run out of our basements and all the manuals were produced by us and a local printing firm. We started on a shoe string and it was just a passion for writing programs that would drive us. There were all night sessions, lost weekends and it was strictly learn as you go. As I recall, the two Utilities (MCAT, CRAE) probably took close to 6 months of development because we were picking apart the Apple OS and learning how things worked. We would ask questions at the A.P.P.L.E. meetings and one person or another had the answer then we would be up 2 days straight making some new feature work. Creature Venture made it up number 8 or 9 on the best seller list then quickly faded.

The games went faster once we developed the utilities we need to make screens and parse input but it still took 3-4 months to generate a game. Sometimes, the phone would ring and I would answer it then ask what they needed. If they needed a hint, I would pretend they had reached the right person and give them a clue or answer their questions any time day or night.

— From an interview with Butch Greathouse, one of the duo that formed Highland Computer Services

Some fussy history to get out of the way first — I’ve been using “1981” as the date because that’s what the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities (host of the interview above) uses and what the title screen of the game has, but Mobygames uses 1980, presumably because of the copyright listed on the manual. Highland Computer Services started early 1980, so based on their own estimate of “6 months” for their first utilities, then “3-4 months” for each game, and the fact the Tarturian came after Oldorf’s Revenge, means the game was developed late 1980 and not published until 1981.

This update will be relatively short; in addition to a busy push at work, The Tarturian has been an uphill trudge. There’s a lot to map and at each step I need to

a.) check every direction, since the game doesn’t describe exits

b.) SEARCH every room with the gladiator, sometimes there’s a secret exit

The majority of rooms don’t use NE/SE/SW/NW but there have been a few tiny exceptions, enough so I need to test those exits out too.

The philosophy behind room descriptions is a little odd, too. They often aren’t describing the room as directing messages directly at the player:

I’m unclear how I’m supposed to be parsing that last one. Despite some extensive mapping, I’ve only found two of the supposed ten treasures which will help defeat the Tarturian. In one of them, after encountering the Count from last time…

I am contractually obliged to show the screenshot again.

…I simply had to return to the room after leaving and there’s a potion of strength left behind. The other was at the end of a maze, and it turned out slightly more interesting than I expected because there was a new trick.

The “hint” is just the word “WRITE”. That’s one of the Cleric’s powers. Normally all the rooms of the maze are indistinguishable (and there’s no DROP command in this game so you can’t use a trail of items) but writing puts letters on the floor.

The maze then becomes a relatively straightforward exercise. It lead to a dead and but the Strongman’s SMASH ability led to the treasure.

More to report next time, I hope? Here’s another silly creature.

No idea what to do here. Fun looking, though!

Posted December 19, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Tarturian (1981)   3 comments

One of the more original games from 1980 we ran across was Oldorf’s Revenge, where the player character represents an entire party (akin to CRPGs) where you could switch between characters that had different abilities. The Tarturian (again for Apple II, again by Butch Greathouse and Garry Rheinhardt) is the follow-up.

From the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities. Count Snoottweeker clearly needs to make a cameo in Star Wars.

Re-reading my posts on Oldorf’s, I realize they don’t radiate enthusiasm — there’s a lot of flaws to pick on — but the overall idea was genuinely interesting and I was curious where else it could go. It goes some strange places indeed.

To recap briefly, in that game you had 7 characters you could switch between, each with different abilities. For The Tarturian, the characters return:

CLERIC: READ, WRITE, SPEAK, LISTEN, TRANSLATE, DECIPHER

THIEF: PICK, REST, OPEN, UNLOCK

GLADIATOR: KILL, FIGHT, SEARCH, ATTACK

STRONGMAN: LIFT, PUSH, MOVE, BREAK, SMASH

MAGICIAN: MAGIC, GAZE

WIZARD: CAST

ELF: USE, EAT, FEED, JUMP

Since their last quest the thief has picked up “rest”, the gladiator can now “search”, the magician can now “gaze”, and the elf … well, now can actually do stuff. Before even getting started I’m wondering about the elf being the only one with the “eat” command.

Here’s the thing: instead of you controlling the 7 characters shown above, you’re now controlling 70 of them.

Previously, we had could bring up each character 10 times, and there wasn’t much of an explanation why; it was just gameplay dissonance that wasn’t resolved with the narrative. With The Tarturian the authors instead made all the people listed above separate characters; that is, you’re traveling with 10 clerics, 10 thieves, 10 gladiators, 10 strongmen, 10 wizards, 10 elves, and … a whole lot of morticians, or possibly just one that doesn’t follow the same mechanics as the other characters.

Every time a character dies, you automatically switch to the mortician who buries them. Then you switch back to one of the main characters (the game says the mortician can’t lead the party if you try to do anything other than switching). Part of the reason for this mechanic — other than the amusing/horrifying thought of the adventuring party being followed by a gaggle of morticians — is the random encounters with a menagerie of critters.

Each of the critters listed above, starting with “Zellies”, are a nemesis to a particular character. In order, Zellies kill the elf, Quadis kill the strongman, Tays kill the magician, Locies kill the thief, Voks kill the cleric, and Dars kill the gladiator. Each one of those “icons” appears if a particular enemy is active.

For example, in the picture above, if you happen to be controlling a strongman, they die.

Another example, with a magician-killing Tay this time. The creatures appear with no pattern; the only real strategizing here is to avoid switching to a character while their nemesis is about, and to be honest, since I’m still mapping things out, I’m just tanking the hits if a character dies; it’s too much a pain to look things up every time. Also, as the screenshot above implies, there’s no way to interact with the Zelly/Tay/Vok/whatever, any combat or other actions refer to whatever else happens to be in the room. For the most part, actions don’t even allow nouns (except for USE; the game has an inventory this time that the elf can use).

Our job is to destroy The Tarturian who has stolen the eternal flame of WAU.

Often the moans and cries for help are heard filtering up through air passages, crevices and volcano vents from the caves, coming from parties that have grown too weak or lack enough survivors to continue. They are doomed to wandering aimlessly or meeting their fate at the hands of creatures, slave trades or the Tarturian.

The “ten treasures of Merlin” are required to take on the Tarturian, and all the party members must be “fully equipped”. Based on TABLE A later in the manual, the cleric needs a spear, the thief needs a dagger, the gladiator needs a sword, the strongman needs a mace, the magician needs potions, and the elf needs poison darts.

The structure of Oldorf’s had an opening area gated off by requiring 50 gold. This was a nice choice structurally in forcing the initial action to be in a small area; The Tarturian starts off wide open. Here’s the opening map, “Worlocks Realm”…

…but there’s a “Special Junction” (with a mark on the corner) that lets you go to multiple areas.

The opening area does not have much of interest (unless I’m messing something) other than a Tuliesweep who gets scared and run away unless you happen to be switched to the Elf…

I’ll talk about the money in a moment. Just like in the first game your party picks up objects and gold automatically.

…and a mysterious message.

The cleric’s TRANSLATE skill turns this into WUCI, but saying WUCI has no effect.

I’ve otherwise mostly been slowly building up my map, but I did find out what use money is, because there’s no set obstacle the gold is required for:

Conveniently enough, Jimmy Maher recently posted about slavery as depicted in games with some interesting follow-ups in the comments, so I’m just going to out-source my discussion to that.

I still haven’t grokked if this will be easy or hard to beat, but the go-anywhere opening certainly makes this feel big.

Posted December 14, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deadly Dungeon (1980)   1 comment

If you’re wanting a really long digression start things off, here’s a concert from the indie rock group Blake Babies. Freda Boner (aka Freda Love) was on drums.

She’s a co-author today with her father Don Boner; previously we’ve looked at their Smokey-and-the-Bandit-fanfic game called Thunder Road.

I’m not sure how to place things date-wise here, but Deadly Dungeon has an internal copyright date of 1980, was published in the Captain 80 Book of Basic Games in 1981, and showed up in the Programmer’s Guild catalog by 1982. I’m shelving it with 1980 rather than the 1980/1981 split I did with Thunder Road in that it feels very early; a bit sloppier parser-wise than Thunder Road.

From The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures. Like almost all the illustrations in that book, there is no relation to the game itself.

What this game does share with Thunder Road is a very gamebook feel, up to the point it starts by generating you a combat skill and giving you a random set of arrows, like you were rolling dice to fill your character sheet and if you follow the rules you have to stick with that 2 out of 12 for combat skill if you’re really that unlucky.

This combat rating is out of a possible 6.

DISCOVER THE SECRET OF THE DEADLY DUNGEON AND EMERGE VICTORIOUS AND WEALTHY.

That’s from the ad copy. Yep, it’s a treasure hunt again; this time there’s seven treasures. You start in a temple which announces it will be where you store the treasures, standard enough opening…

…but then you EXIT TEMPLE to leave and find yourself in one of at least four different starting areas, which with a different monster to fight.

With the combat above I fought against a tiger, but the enemies are mostly interchangable. Here’s a different possible start:

There’s no strategy other than you choose to fight with a sword, or arrows. Sword means you have a chance of dying immediately if you lose an exchange of blows, whereas arrows you can keep going but you’ll die if you run out of arrows.

Sometimes you just die to the opening combat by bad luck, and there’s not really much use in strategizing here. I checked a walkthrough later (for the C64 version) and the author just says to restart if you lose.

Past the opening room is weirdly disconnected complex of rooms that made my brain hurt to map it.

I have trouble describing what’s so bad, or at least unconventional; my best analogy is like getting motion sick at a 3D game. Most games with maze-like sections there’s at least a pretense of explanation why connections would be so arbitrary, but here it was never clear why a graveyard was next to a Victorian room was next to a rock mine, and then, oops, you looped back to the Victorian room again. (Also, the Victorian room contains a box that kills you, but at least it is helpfully marked DO NOT OPEN.)

I might say it was again trying to recreate the game book experience a little bit (lots of one-way choices, especially in the early ones) except you can loop around and revisit rooms, it’s just a little circuitous.

For a while I was stumped until I broke out my verb list and found MOVE amongst the candidates. There aren’t many; the game also recognizes YELL, SAY, PLAY, GO, ENTER, FIGHT, EXAMINE, THROW, HIT, OPEN, READ, and CLIMB. I was able to MOVE a TOMBSTONE randomly in the middle of the map and find a SORCERORS MAGIC ROOM.

The coal pick is important later. There’s also a diamond ring hidden if you EXAMINE TABLE.

I was able to dive into a nearby pit and find a “Council Room” at the bottom, containing two more treasures (a valuable painting and a deed to the castle we’ve been tromping through).

Look, don’t try to make geographic sense of it, unless you want motion sickness.

The sign as shown in the room description above indicates we can ENTER TEMPLE from here, and when we EXIT TEMPLE again we will be on Level 2.

Kind of like an arcade game, I suppose? The general effect was to punch verisimilitude in the head, but I at least see what the authors were getting at. Each “level” starts has a new random start with a new enemy to FIGHT. For level 2, you can get a wolf, a dwarf, or a grasshopper.

You may be wondering why I didn’t drop the deed. You’ll see why in a moment.

The geography of the second level is even more egregious, as you travel from a cave to a mountain to a forest to a tunnel to some senate chambers.

South of the senate chambers are a field of poppies with a rope, but if you try to leave the field without the deed, the game dutifully informs you I DON’T HAVE THE DEED, and soon after you die of poison gas.

If you are holding the deed you can land at a room marked “inside castle” with a copper lamp (another treasure, but you need to hang on to it until you’re done with level 3) and another message informing you that you can ENTER TEMPLE to reset to the next section.

Entering level 3! There’s two possibilities, a vampire bat (dangerous, I died a couple times) and this very helpful troll, where you can just READ SIGN, be told to go east, and you can do it without even bothering to get in a fight. I assume this was a programming oversight.

The third level has a candlestick and a message on a stone cavern that informs you to H I T M E. As long as you have the pick you can do so and as long as you still have the rope from the poppy field you can then climb down a pit to a treasure room.

As long as you haven’t forgotten anything on the way (my first run where I reached this point and I had forgotten the diamond ring, even though I had got it on a previous try) this lets you accumulate enough treasures to win.

Summarizing the “innovations” going on:

1.) Arcade-style level resets (Kidnapped had mini-levels, but was logically proceeding down levels of a building, this made “EXIT TEMPLE” change its destination)

2.) Random room starts with different enemies (even though there wasn’t much actual difference other than their name)

3.) Combat where you could choose from sword or bow and arrow

Without a lot of system density, RPG combat in an adventure game is a tough sell. Without making actual puzzles, there just isn’t enough going on to make fights interesting; Zork managed with the thief by having him be a long-running enemy, integrating him with the treasure hunt itself (he’s even required to get at one of the tougher treasures) and still keeping an “experience point” system of sorts going by using the overall score. I’d love to be proven wrong sometime, but in one of these TRS-80 miniatures I’m not sure a satisfying adventure/RPG hybrid is even possible.

Posted December 11, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Domes of Kilgari (1981)   5 comments

In the far reaches of the Outrim, the Adventure continues.

80 Micro, February 1982.

Death Dreadnaught (1980) was a release of the Programmer’s Guild by “The Dog Brothers” who were probably Robert and Richard Arnstein. It was self-rated R (“due to EXTREME depictions of VIOLENCE”) and distinguished itself with an unusually high level of gore.

The Domes of Kilgari is instead by Alex Kreis (who talks briefly about it here) and was originally written with no relation at all to the other game, but Death Dreadnaught sold briskly enough that Kilgari was packaged as a sequel. There is a direct reference that’s integrated as part of the plot, so it’s not just a marketing ploy.

Not having the ability to save might be just lazy programming for some, but arguably the game here leverages it into a feature: your goal, to find an ion rod to fuel your ship, is mostly a linear quest with lots of stuff that can kill you, sometimes in amusing ways reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure™ book. We have had a CYOA-style game with Assignment 45 where the restarts became tiresome, but they felt a little different here; mainly in that it feels possible to ratiocinate through the obstacles of Kilgari and live, whereas picking the “right” choice in Assignment 45 came off as random. (I wouldn’t call Kilgari’s deaths “fair” exactly either, just “not random”. Let me explain more when get to that in context.)

The required restarts enhance the gamebook feel, and the drastically low recognized verb list does as well:

READ, OPEN, KILL, THROW, PUSH, PULL, PRESS, SHOOT, CLOSE

(There’s also a couple “magic words” which are standalone verbs.)

One curious feature is despite the minimal parser, if you enter a verb, it will prompt for the noun

-CLOSE
CLOSE WHAT?

or if you just type the noun, it will prompt for the verb

-CARD
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO WITH THE CARD?

(I recently saw a Twitter thread where someone was frustrated playing Zork because they heard a songbird and then just typed >BIRD with the typical Infocom response of needing a verb, followed by >BIRD IS THE VERB. People from the early 80s era, even when using bare-bones parsers, were aware of interaction problems people were having.)

You may incidentally notice my screenshots look slightly different from my other recent TRS-80 plays. I had to use Model I mode (the original computer from 1977) as opposed to the Model III mode (the version released 1980); I don’t know if this was related to emulator issues or the game would have genuine problems on a real Model III.

You start relatively safely, in a desert aboveground with an elevator; the first floor just has a card, an “ion meter” (not a measuring stick, a detector) and a lever that shuts off “LASER PROTECTION”. There’s a room later that fries you if you haven’t pulled the lever.

The second floor is where danger starts. There’s a locked door requiring a word from the card in the screenshot above to open (“SATURN”) followed by a second elevator with ominous vents:

A MEAN VOICE OUT OF THE FRONT PANEL SAYS, “GIVE THE PASSWORD TO GO TO LEVEL 3. NOW!” (I THINK YOU BETTER GIVE IT WHAT IT WANTS. THE VOICE SOUNDS AS IF IT MEANS BUSINESS!)

If you try to use SATURN again:

A VOICE FROM THE FRONT PANEL SAYS, “INCORRECT!”. AS IT SPEAKS, NOT-TOO-BENEFICIAL-FOR-THE-LUNGS GAS POURS OUT OF THE VENTS. OH WELL, SO WHAT IF THERE IS NO OXYGEN TO BREATHE?

The right move is another word from the card; it mentions the Digitron Corporation, and the right word is DIGITRON.

A VOICE FROM THE FRONT PANEL SAYS, “CORRECT. GOING TO LEVEL 3.”

Looping back to what I said about “not random” but also not exactly “fair”, this is a good example — in a real-world logical sense it doesn’t make sense that the code word is Digitron, but in a game-reality sense it came to me quite quickly to try it. It never would have been my first try, but I still found it satisfying to solve.

Moving on, a red herring:

Yes, it’s another in the long list of weapons in adventure games that are unhelpful. There’s temptation to use it later, but it’s a trap.

Moving in farther gets you close to a “blue rectangle”, which is described as being inside a ring of rooms:

Here you get fair warning of a deathtrap; the “Core Observation Floor” mentions the passage north is hot, and if you (wisely) try the other direction you find some insulation.

The insulation is sufficient to get you past the red-marked room and death by heat. (In Assignment 45, the wrong direction would have just melted you without warning, so the player gets denied making a rational choice.)

You next pass by an emergency exit, and enter “The Rectangle”.

Going down at the next level, you find a room which is blank except for encouraging you to use a “magic word”. On the same level, you find a monster, try to use violence, and die.

This is the Death Dreadnaught reference; the creature there is “multilegged, flat-faced, one-eyed, elephant-nosed”, which I’d say is close enough, especially because you can attempt the solution from the original game, which was to throw your weapon (it would accidentally shoot itself).

The weapon, as I said, is a total red herring. Back in the rectangle where you “barely see” an exit down, it turns out you can go up as well. There you find a “miniature rubber monster” which you can take back to the real one:

WHEN YOU DROP THE RUBBER MONSTER, THE CREATURE LOOKS AT IT AND THINKS IT IS A MIRROR IMAGE OF HIM. HE LETS OUT A SHREAK AND RUNS OFF.

Past the monster is a protection suit, that you need for the next obstacle.

Here’s what happens without the suit.

Notice, again, the game tries to give warning: the ion meter from earlier starts going off, and it’s quite possible to veer away and only return once the suit is in hand. (Of course, as a chronicler, I had to experience the deaths for recording purposes, and I didn’t plow ahead just because I thought I’d be lucky and there’s only be a time limit or some such. Nope, didn’t do that. Speaking of time limits, there doesn’t seem to be any until right to the end, which is another gesture towards fairness.)

Getting by the ions allowed grabbing a key, which opens a nearby door with a convenient box for containing ion rods (albeit an easy-to-miss one, the exit is not described), and a hint about that “magic word” room from earlier.

Not too rough; I’ll leave the identity of the magic word unspoiled for anyone who wants to solve it.

The magic word then leads to THE FINAL COUNTDOWN.

I knew something was fishy with “RODA” but I decided to go with it.

Rushing to the emergency exit, I tried to leave and died. The exit was tight, and I couldn’t carry my inventory through so I wasted time dropping stuff. Oddly, the game has no general inventory limit, but that allows for the trap where it gets enforced.

Another go: this time I dropped everything but the box. I was able to get RODA, slide out the emergency exit, drop the rod in the ship at the start of the game.

I absolutely knew this was coming, but I wanted to see it. Nice job, game. (Again, not “fair”, but not “random” either, especially given the meta-parser hint about there being multiple rods.)

Even though not described, the room that has RODA lets you go south to find RODB and south again to RODC. RODC is the one that’s just right.

Fun for what it was, I suppose; I was in the right mood so the deaths gave me amusement rather than frustration. I’m glad it didn’t go any longer (see: no saved game feature, having to retrace my steps every single death).

We’re nearing the end of Programmer’s Guild games. This April 1982 ad I believe shows all of them.

80-US Journal, April 1982.

Gauntlet of Death and Maze of Darkness are semi-roguelike action games. (From the latter: “The MAZE is filled with invisible traps, avoidable only by the skilled, the experienced and the lucky. To move your figure through the MAZE, use the arrow keys.”)

That leaves Deadly Dungeon, which I’ll be playing next. It will bring us the return of Don and Freda Boner (previously: Thunder Road). It looks like there are RPG elements, but we’ll see?

Posted December 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Black Sanctum (1981)   5 comments

Your object in this game is to overcome the forces of evil.

— From the instructions for the Dragon version of The Black Sanctum

The Black Sanctum (original version 1981, graphics added 1984) is the second game by Ron Krebs to be converted by Stephen O’Dea and Bob Withers for TRS-80 Color Computer. It is also the last game from Mr. Krebs, which is rather a pity because it’s rather good, honestly one of the best I’ve encountered for All the Adventures. (If you’d prefer to try it yourself and avoid spoilers, I give instructions for getting the game at the end of this post.)

The setup rather nebulously places you outside a cabin with no explanation of how or why you are there; I went with the notion this was accidental and the protagonist was looking for shelter, but I could also see rolling with the idea that they arrived intentionally looking for someone in danger, who you’ll see in a moment.

The outdoors just loops you in a circle, the only way forward is in:

The “it’s getting cold in here” message occurs after a few turns, and was sufficient for me to feel the cold. What I mean is that I’ve seen many deserts and snowy valleys in adventure games, but only sometimes do my imaginings contain any real temperature, hot or cold (even the thirst puzzle in the desert of Acheton was more an intellectual exercise than sensing the inexorable heat of the sun).

By waiting a beat before the cold message, the game leveraged the passage of time itself to increase the effect, essentially integrating atmosphere with mechanics; the door will also come into the plot later.

Upstairs is the person in danger I mentioned, in a magical coma and clutching the note shown above.

You can, if you want, carry her with you.

The closet contains a black robe and mirror, looking in the mirror takes you through to the Sanctum. While in the Sanctum black-hooded figures will occasionally appear; if you don’t have the robe they will try to turn you to stone (you can break out by saying “invocare episcopus”, but that teleports you to the closet and it means the robe might be somewhere difficult to reach).

A plaque announces we are at St. Sebastian’s, founded 1739, and a manuscript announces things went wrong in the same century, shelved next to a Bach fugue.

The only antagonist who isn’t a monk is the old man above, although he is placated by a jug full of wine and falls asleep (you can get the jug back). From the man you can get the items above (keys, shears, a saw) and the keys let you into a locked room with an organ.

Playing a fugue at the organ will open a secret area where clearly the Bad Things happen.

A passage behind the lectern leads further to a crypt, where the bishop from the 1700s awaits us…

…and explains how to overcome the forces of evil.

Looking at the more satisfying adventure games we’ve encountered, many have been a sort of “climax” puzzle, one that puts together the pieces throughout the game for a final push, heroic or antiheroic. Zork II had you collect treasures for a demon, who you used to defeat the wizard that tormented you all throughout the game; Voodoo Castle had a ritual that you put together in pieces; Frankenstein had the ultimate revival of the monster (who you then had to defeat).

The collection of the ritual above fell in the same category, as it was a treasure hunt across the whole map. For building an altar, there’s a boarded up door; removing the nails with the hammer lets you reuse the boards and nails. The white cloth (which took a little thought) is from the bed that woman is sleeping on. The pine needles are from outside, although going outside presents a problem:

You can use a shovel to get through to get needles; you also need to GET SNOW while holding the jug. After you’ve gone through this, the woman has disappeared. There’s no way to prevent this; she’s a statue back at the pentagram and the raven. (Even if you’re carrying her — I guess it’s a magic curse rather than a kidnapping. I would have loved there to be an alternate ending, but this is on a TRS-80 CoCo, so I understand there are limits.)

This does unfortunately present a potential softlock, because you need have gotten a lock of her hair (using the shears) before she gets statue-fied. (Another possible softlock comes from not getting the shovel before the snow blocks the door, but the shovel is just laying outside and I’m guessing very few adventurers would leave an item behind.)

Bringing everything back yields sanctified ash, as mentioned above, and it is only a few steps to victory: THROW ASH followed by INVOCARE EPISCOPUS.

I can’t say the game felt “modern”, but it aced its atmosphere, and even though they essentially present no danger when you have the black robe, the constant appearance of monks was nerve wracking. The puzzles weren’t difficult but they felt substantial, especially in collecting for the ritual, and the cursed woman gave the plot a bit of heft.

There wasn’t any especially artful prose, but nothing was sloppy or egregious either. There were not, in retrospect, that many dynamic elements, but the small pieces the game had (combined with the semi-tragic ending) elevated what could have been a regular scavenger hunt into something else.

From Mobygames.

Here is where I’d normally give a link to play online; there in fact is one, but only for the DOS version of the game. If you want the more-attractive TRS-80 CoCo, you’ll need to find the download here and use the online emulator here to load the disk.

Posted December 6, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2020 Results   Leave a comment

The results for IFComp 2020 have been announced.

3rd place:

Vain Empires by Thomas Mack and Xavid

The memoir of a demonic spy in the Cold War between Heaven and Hell.

2nd place: THERE IS NO SECOND PLACE

1st place: TIE! (first time ever)

Tavern Crawler by Josh Labelle

I wanted this game to capture what I loved about playing D&D with Sam – we always spent more time bouncing between colourful taverns and having wild interactions with interesting NPCs than we did slaying dragons in his campaigns.

The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson

Housework is only as dull as your imagination. Join Emma, six years old, on a playful adventure of peculiar proportions.

Complete results are at the IFComp website. With 103 entires, there’s quite a bit more good to be found on the list.

Posted December 5, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Wizard’s Gold (1981)   3 comments

I want to get back to the other Rob Krebs game from 1981 with the groovy graphics, but for a chaser let’s toss in another all-text game. This happens to have the same theme as Calixto Island, where our quest is not to find a bunch of treasures, but just one of them.

Find a hidden bar of gold a text adventure game

The APX, or Atari Program eXchange, was intended as a way for users to publish through Atari. Since the last APX games we’ve examined (Alien Egg and Castle, both by Robert Zdybel) I’ve learned more about the APX program itself and its interaction with the aforementioned users, but that discussion should wait for a different game, because Wizard’s Gold has no author name attached and might be by in-house staff at Atari (I’ll get into why later).

All the APX games so far seem to share a common codebase, which involves a slightly odd parser where, for example, L works to LOOK at a room but not the word LOOK itself, and GET works but not TAKE. Also, obstacles are only vaguely described with failure to go past one described as SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY and — most relevant to my start of gameplay — exits to rooms are only sometimes mentioned.

So, whacking against every wall it is:

I think the text width is supposed to be two characters smaller, but I’m not sure how to change the setting.

The opening house gives the impression the geography might be slightly coherent, with a rooftop garden containing a book where reading it says THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE, another quirk of the APX parser.

I typed GET first instead of TAKE almost every single time; sorry game, this is one habit you’re not going to train me out of. Look, GET is one character less: think of the efficiency!

A lamp is in a nearby “observatory”…

The wizard was keen on astronomy it seems, for this room is filled with many televisions and no windows.

…and the game gave its first hint this was not “fantasy” genre, exactly, but “wild gonzo surreal” (see also: Stuga). Eventually this sort of thing got overdone, but from the range of 1971-1981 I can’t pull many examples of sheer randomness. (Mines and Lugi maybe as well, but both of those involve genuine in-game randomizers.)

So I found it sort of refreshing, if not exactly satisfying on a deep art level. More examples:

BLANK ROOM
This room intentionally left blank.

ART GALLERY
This room is filled with many obviously valuable works of art.
Actually, all the works of art are forgeries and are valueless.

There is a large rusty key here.

EGG ROOM

You are in a room filled with rotten eggs.
From somewhere among the eggs you hear a voice saying “GLEEK”.

?SAY GLEEK
A very large egg appears. It splits open, and a weird guy jumps out and says “NANOO-NANOO”.

That last one is a Mork and Mindy reference, and serves no purpose in the game.

The complete map, where as you get deeper in it feels more and more like the author was just slapping on whatever they felt like.

After going underneath the Wizard’s house, you find a magic mushroom (which gives strength, not hallucinations), a magic broom, and a magic broom repair room (which never gets used, since the broom is in good condition). There’s also a library where you can read the book from the garden and get the magic word STELLA. Using STELLA yields a magic wand, which lets you go to the art gallery I quoted earlier and get the rusty key.

Another magic word yields itself up in a psychedelic room on a blacklight poster; you need to turn off the lamp to see it.

The magic word is COLLEEN. Anyone with a guess what it is a reference to?

Some more wandering will get you down to a computer room…

The wizard had many computers in his possession. Most of them look old by today’s standards.
There is even an ATARI 800, one of the first major home computers.

…immediately adjacent to a shooting range.

CROSSBOW FIRING RANGE
This was the sight of the firing range for the wizard and his crossbows.
There used to be a sign here that said “No Crossing on Foot”.

Wait, how do you know there “used” to be a sign here? Is the narrator adding details?

RIDE BROOM will let you go south to an aquarium.

This room has many aquariums in it. Some are broken, and some are not.

A fish tank full of piranha lies on the floor. The piranha look hungry.

As long as you’ve given yourself strength with the mushroom , you can MOVE TANK to reveal a trapdoor. The rusty key from the art gallery unlocks the trapdoor beneath to get to a treasure room.

The gold bar then can be toted back to the starting room for victory.

Why is this probably an internal Atari game? Well, other than not having an author name (which is pretty odd for the APX catalog, nearly everyone was credited) the name Stella refers to the original codename for the Atari 2600. While the Stella trivia is well-known now (an Atari 2600 emulator is even named Stella) it doesn’t seem to have been circulated to the public in 1981. Dale Dobson suspects Dennis Koble, who wrote two other 1981 APX games we haven’t gotten to yet, Chinese Puzzle and Sultan’s Palace.

Also, to be honest, this feels like a “let’s test out the system” type game more than a serious effort, where it got tossed in the catalog just because it was there. It wasn’t a terrible experience, though, and it’s nice to have another data point on the still-at-the-time-latent “surreal” genre which now has over 300 games listed at the Interactive Fiction Database.

Posted December 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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