Lost mainframe games   60 comments

Some games I’ve investigated for the All the Adventures project simply don’t seem to exist any more. I have cataloged them here for reference and especially if someone has a lead.

“Lost” doesn’t have to mean “lost forever”. For instance, the book Twisty Little Passages mentions Lugi as not even having a known author, but now the author has a web page.

Wander (1974, Peter Langston)

This is probably my “most wanted”, not only because comments on old newsgroups indicate wide distrubtion, but also the early date (earlier than Adventure!) and author (who earlier wrote Empire and later went on to fame at Lucasarts).

Wander uses “databases” as its worlds. These are reportedly by Peter:

castle: you explore a rural area and a castle searching for a beautiful damsel.
a3: you are the diplomat Retief (A sf character written by Keith Laumer) assigned to save earthmen on Aldebaran III
library: You explore a library after civilization has been destroyed.
tut: the player receives a tutorial in binary arithmetic.

The date of 1974 I have only seen mentioned in one place, the Inform Designer Manual.

Peter Langston’s ‘Wander’ (1974), a text-based world modelling program included in his PSL games distribution for Unix and incorporating rooms, states and portable objects, was at least a proto-adventure: perhaps many others existed, but failed to find a Don Woods to complete the task?

The PSL games distribution might still be active somewhere (it’s mentioned on a gopher at MIT), but not any account I have access to.

We now know that Crowther’s Adventure was already an adventure before Don Woods got to it. Could Wander be an adventure before Crowther? I won’t know unless I find I copy.

(ADD: Big update here.)

LORD (1981, Olli J. Paavola)

I’ve got dual interest in this one, not only from it being a mainframe game from Finland (it was written while Olli was at the Helsinki University of Technology) but also for being allegedly the first interactive fiction book adaptation.

However, by all reports I’ve seen this didn’t have wide distribution and is probably lost forever.

There’s a touch more detail at this newsgroup post from 1995:

With 550 separate locations, this game is huge by most standards. It does not really try to be completely consistent with Tolkien but mixes elements from many other sources. It is clear, however, that it is made with a great love for and knowledge of Tolkien’s books.

The same post mentions The Shire as a text adventure from possibly 1979, which puts the “earliest book adaptation” statement into question. (Orthanc is also mentioned but is an RPG.)

New Adventure (1979/1980, Mark Niemiec)
Martian Adventure (1979/1980, Brad Templeton and Kieran Carroll)

These were written at the University of Waterloo and it mentions here that “Archive tapes for this mainframe exist and it might prove possible to get at the source code for these games.”

FisK (1980, John Sobotik and Richard Beigel)

From here: “A really big, Zork-like game that started at an innocuous house like Zork and led to a big complex of rooms with treasures and bad guys.”

Underground (1978, Gary Kleppe)

According to David Cornelson, this was on the Milwaukee Public School’s mainframe in PDP Basic. While the original tape is lost it is possible the game made its way elsewhere.

Gary Kleppe himself later has added some details. The full list is in the comments, but here’s a few relevant parts that might help identify the game:

* At the entrance to the caves is a robot, but you have a laser pistol with which you can shoot it.

* There is a chess set locked down by a computer. If you initially play against the computer you will lose, but if you’ve found and read a certain book then you can beat it and it will give you a trophy (a treasure). After that you can blast the computer to take the set which is also a treasure.

* There’s a room where the description is written backwards, as is any message that gets displayed to you while you’re there. You also need to type commands backwards for the parser to understand them.

Posted March 19, 2015 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

60 responses to “Lost mainframe games

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  1. I may have actually played the University of Waterloo games but all I can remember for sure is there was a point in one game where you needed a princess to tell you which of several doors was safe to open. The authoring language was called F (for Fantasy), and F was written in B, the precursor to C.

    I have some printouts of B code from 1980 when I was at the University of Waterloo that I’ve wanted to transcribe some day, but unfortunately none of them seem to be about any particular game except a port of Adventure, so I don’t think they’d be of much use to you, really, except as a curiosity.

    I also know Brad Templeton, although not because of this. We were both part of the amateur theatre group FASS at UW back then. His website is at http://www.templetons.com/brad/ ; I most recently saw him in a YouTube video for Big Think.

  2. Oops, make that F was written in C. The file names of the code have .C extensions.

  3. A high school friend created a game called “Underground” on the Milwaukee Public School’s mainframe in PDP Basic. I tried tracking it down through MPS’s retired IT manager, but he said all the tapes are long gone. But you never know if it lives somewhere. It was very Zork-like.

    • The author was Gary Kleppe.

    • Could you describe what you remember (or what he or she remembers) it in a little more detail at least, for historical record?

      • There was a gnome, a barrel, caves. It’s been 34 years. I poked Gary to see if he would add any of his memories.

      • At first I remembered even less than Dave, but I was lucky enough to find an old printout of one of the game’s text files. Here’s a few things that were in the game:

        * At the entrance to the caves is a robot, but you have a laser pistol with which you can shoot it.

        * There is a chess set locked down by a computer. If you initially play against the computer you will lose, but if you’ve found and read a certain book then you can beat it and it will give you a trophy (a treasure). After that you can blast the computer to take the set which is also a treasure.

        * The gnome attacks you when you meet him but if you throw a rock at him then he falls down a cliff and you can get into his city. Inside is a recording studio where you find a (literal) gold record (“Gnome me” by Gerry and the Gnomes, produced by Arthur H. Gnome; a treasure) and a flute.

        * A one-way entrance leads to a room with an empty barrel (which gets described in those words every time). You can’t climb into the barrel but typing “EMPTY BARREL” will transport you back to the main section.

        * There’s a room where the description is written backwards, as is any message that gets displayed to you while you’re there. You also need to type commands backwards for the parser to understand them.

        * An emerald will fall out of your hand when you pick it up, but if you rub it then it will stick to your hand, and rubbing it again will make it fall.

        * In one location there’s a piece of cheese, poisoned so that if you eat it you die. In another place there’s a rat that you can feed the cheese to. In a third place there’s a tiger which won’t let you pass. Playing the flute (see above) will change it into a friendly cat, but the cat is hungry and won’t follow you until you feed it the dead rat.

        * There’s a spaceship that takes you to another world to pick up something but I can’t remember what that was.

        * In one room there’s a sorceress sitting on a treasure chest. She’s far too powerful to defeat but if you give her the cat (see above) she’ll disappear and you can get into the chest (I think there was a key you needed to find somewhere else) to find a jewel-encrusted wand (a treasure, may have had some use as well but I can’t recall what). The sorceress also shows up once you’ve found all the treasures and makes you king.

      • Thanks so much for stopping by!

        Do you know what year(s) you wrote it?

      • Probably 1978 or thereabouts. I released two versions and worked on a third but that never got finished because I went off to college.

  4. The more I look at my UW printouts, the less I think I have anything from F at all. I now believe it’s all a C port of Adventure, and the .d files were considered “data” files. Still, I could try visiting UW campus and seeing if their library has any old issues of mathNews from the 1980s around. It’s posslble *something* about F might’ve been mentioned there. MathNews is MathSoc’s student mini-newsletter; I notice they’re still using my Gridword logo for the crossword puzzles even after all these years.

  5. Re Wander, I emailed the author, Peter Langston, who replied thus:

    I’m not sure I would even know where to look anymore. It’s possible that
    some archivist type from the early Bell Labs and Unix days (circa 1975-80)
    would have a copy or two of the “PSL Games Tape” that included Empire,
    StarDrek, Wander, FastFood, Convoy, the Oracle, etc. I can also ask a couple
    of people who were particular fans of Wander if they have any remaining bits
    of it.

  6. I probably have the whole archive of early versions of the various PSL games on 8mm tape and/or cassettes and/or 9-track tape, but it’s unlikely that any of them are still readable. I did uncover a 1980s C implementation of Wander that Lou Katz had preserved in email messages which he archived. As I remember I came up with the idea for Wander and wrote an early version in HP Basic while I was still teaching at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA (that system limited names to six letters, so: WANDER, EMPIRE, CONVOY, SDRECK, GALAXY, etc.). Then I rewrote Wander in C on Harvard’s Unix V5 system shortly after our band moved to Boston in 1974. I got around to putting a copyright notice on it in 1978. It compiles with a bit of tweaking (C compilers are a bit more persnickety now and there was a whole PSL games subroutine library available back then) but the documentation uses ancient nroff macros and will take a bit more tweaking. The worst part is that I only have the partial Aldebaran III world (a3) that I used to include in the distribution as an example. There are still one or two more people who may have those files archived. . .
    Thanks to Ant for prodding me to look and telling me about this blog.

  7. Pingback: Wander (1974) — a lost mainframe game is found! | Retroactive Fiction

  8. With regard to Wander by Peter Langston, you might be interested in this: https://ahopeful.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/wander-1974-a-lost-mainframe-game-is-found/


  9. Peter Langston distributed Wander in 1980 along with games “Fast Food” (source), “Empire” (PDP-11 binaries only), and “Star_Drek” [sic] (binaries again).

    I have a copy from a web mirror, which used to be an ftp mirror — I don’t think that his distribution has *ever* been unavailable, it just became more obscure over the years.

    (I arrived here from the Y Combinator story on the “a lost mainframe game is found” blog that Ant posted immediately above, and the blog links here)

    • Intriguing! Does your copy contain any of the Wander “worlds” other than “a3”?

      • Looking again, this may in fact be the previously mentioned “P.S.L. games” distribution; I wasn’t sure what that was, previously.

        Yes, it has exactly the 4 listed in the article above: a3, castle, library, and tut. The earliest date mentioned is “copyright 1978”, sometimes to PSL, sometimes to P. Langston, and a3 has “P. Langston & N. Howard”.

        That’s just of interest, not proof that it didn’t originate in 1974. Some files like a3 have sccs(1) version control strings in input rather than output format, meaning it has a template for a date rather than an actual date.

        The previously mentioned games are in subdirs; it also has some smaller games/utilities at the top level, one game per C file: Beasts (guessing game like 20 questions), Bog word game, Bsnoop (aid for Beasts), Cursor (“x y positioning”, probably alternative to curses(1)), Gomoku (learning version; this is a traditional japanese 5-in-a-row game), Grams (anagrams), Into (some kind of utility to use with pipes), Mastermind, Oracle (humorous fortune telling), Oxo (Othello/Reversi), Replace (something like a simple sed(1)).

      • Doug, that’s a great find!

    • Nice! Could you make the files available somewhere (even if it’s only a3, it might be a different copy than we have)?

      I suspect most of the games on my “lost” list are available _somewhere_ (except maybe LORD, but I remain optimistic) but it’s just a matter of finding the right people who have access.

      Wander by this point had wandered into a literal footnote. That is the only post 1980s reference I could find.

  10. The blog that broke the story that Wander was found got the source from Peter Langston, got it working on OS X, but didn’t release the source, and said something about Langston wanting to modernize it.

    I left a comment there asking if they hadn’t released the ancient source because Langston didn’t want it released, but 6 hours later the comment hasn’t been moderated for acceptance yet, let alone replied to. And the source has been public (albeit obscure) continuously all these decades, so:

    See my overview of the files in my response to Ant immediately above. The archive I got it from has, I think, been on that server for decades. It’s the software distribution from the Usenix 1980 conference.


    Unpacks to around 40 MB. There’s a lot of random-looking stuff that was distributed there; the part you want is in:


    …or the whole of delaware/langston.

    What, don’t you always snoop ancient mirrors 6 levels down and then unpack archives and scrutinize all the subdirs for anything that looks interesting? :)

    [Some years ago I had to recreate the 1976 ar(1) archive program in order to examine some really old archive files on some server. I think more recently such things (ancient tools supporting ancient formats ported to modern C/modern CPUs) are way more publicly available.]

  11. I knew there had to be copies of the PSL Games distribution somewhere. Thanks for finding it! Of course, I thought I had copies all along, but disks die and backup formats become obsolete… Sigh! Anyway, I hope people enjoy what’s there.

    • You’re welcome, glad to be of help. :)

      I too have had disks/backups die and such, very painfully losing projects. My sympathies.

  12. Pingback: Wander (1974) release, and questions answered | Renga in Blue

  13. Another ‘lost’ mainframe text adventure game was “Dor Sageth” which I played on GEnie back in the day. Here is a description of it: “The Dor Sageth is an ancient and derelict space vessel. Your mission is to discover how to operate it and start it on a path for Earth. However, there are many dangers (from robots to tribbles) that you must overcome.” Authors were L. Runge and Thonssen. No doubt it too is languishing on a mainframe tape somewhere.

    Description source: http://cd.textfiles.com/geminiatari/FILES/GENIE/SERVL.TXT

  14. Pingback: Earliest text adventure rediscovered, available to public | NAG Online

  15. Pingback: Wander follow-up | Retroactive Fiction

  16. Hi,

    We had a number of adventure games on the UMass Amherst Cyber mainframe(s) in the early 1980s. I never got very far in them so my memory is sketchy.

    Quest – all I really remember about this one is that it had a lake you could cross.
    Dragon – This was written in CDC Basic and I once had a listing of the source code. Similar to Colossal Caverns, you had to collect treasures. There was a cinnabar room (where you collected cinnabar, of course) and another room that contained a dragon that you had to defeat. Despite having access to the source code, I never did.
    Amherst – Set in a post-apocalyptic Amherst, Massachusetts. Written by a local high school student whose nickname was Peter Rabbit. I think his real name was Peter Wu. Probably written in Pascal.
    Bash – This was, quite literally, a simple hack-and-slash. You were trapped deep in an underground complex, perhaps a mall, and had to make your way to the surface. But you were surrounded by nebbishes, so you would ‘hack nebbish’ to clear a path. I believe it was written in APL.

    • I don’t suppose the source code of Dragon might still be around somewhere?

    • I was in high school in the 80s, but I played a bunch of these games on the UMass Cyber mainframes thanks to my father, who ran the computer lab in the math department. I’ve been trying to track Quest and Dragon down for years.

      Some details I remember: in Dragon, there were a bunch of Wagner/Nibelungenlied references (for example, a Tarnhelm which allowed you to understand bird songs) and the magic word “Totentanz”. In Quest, there was an infinite ascending/descending staircase; a chess problem which I never solved; and a room with a bunch of polyhedra. If you quit or died, the tagline was “What a pity you never found the rare and royal mountain peacock!”

      • Interesting!

        I don’t think these are tucked away in a public archive somewhere (I did do a lot of searching), but it is faintly possible they’re still stashed at UMass itself somewhere. Someone (probably someone local) one need to contact them in person.

    • Not that this helps much (at all), but I played QUEST on a Burroughs Mainframe at the Helsinki University dpt of Physics sometime in the early 1980’s. Did not get far as I was playing on a paper terminal (sic!), and have no recollection other than that it was difficult and that the name was QUEST and luckily no one caught me (MF time was not cheap).

      • Maaaaaybe. In the event I ever get to talk with Olli J. Paavola or the museum he’s been working with, it’s possible the same mainframe they rescued LORD off of also has Quest etc.

  17. Also “The Pits”, by Jim Walters and Dave Broadhurst, which was on The Source (a competitor to Compuserve) circa 1980.

    • Do you happen to have any recollections of this game? I have only heard rumors of its existence but absolutely no information about its content other than it used the same engine as ADV550.

      • While I spent about three hours playing it, and probably barely scratching the surface, I don’t remember any substantive details.

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  19. Pingback: One Of the Lost Mainframe Games Found | Renga in Blue

  20. I just found a program that isfun for fans of ’80s and ’90s games: New Retro Neon Arcade. It is a fun program that lets you play NES, SNES, Genesis and MAME ROMs in a colorful ’80s arcade setting. It has some bugs, and recommend classic mode because there are fewer problems there, but almost every game I tried on it worked and the setting was fun.

  21. Here is another old game, with full source code from 1969-1970, Highnoon. http://www.mybitbox.com/highnoon-1970/

    • Nice! I might put this on my list soon – it looks like it’s already setup to run in simh? (Mainframe Pascal does tend to behave nicely with modern OSes so it’s tempting to try compiling a port.)

    • This is giving me some headaches – does there happen to be a simh disk that already has the Lugi file on it?

  22. Pingback: Wander | RetroZock

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