Archive for September 2017

Quondam (1980)   3 comments

Let’s take a break from light TRS-80 games and bring the pain instead.

From IFDB.

Quondam is the third game written for the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University. If you’re a regular reader, you might recall the first was Acheton, which was somewhat intended as a more challenging version of the original Crowther and Woods Adventure.

Philosopher’s Quest followed and was even harder than Acheton. Philosopher’s Quest is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played.

Rod Underwood must have taken a look at both games, decided they just weren’t hard enough, and wrote Quondam.

The original mainframe version has been lost, but a port by Peter Killworth survives for the BBC Computer, so that’s the version I’m playing. To give you a sense of what I’m up against, here is my attempt to “save” at the start of the game:

This marks the first and possibly last time a save game feature ever killed me. (At least you get some cool shades to die with.)

Quondam is otherwise (so far) bog-standard fantasy, although it’s clear the tone is tending to the silly:

There’s treasure collection (again) but the manual is enigmatic about what to do with the treasures:

During the game you can display your score by typing SCORE and pressing RETURN. You can earn points by visiting risky areas, but most points are scored by depositing treasures in the ‘safe place’. This place is accessible at various times, but needs thought. Beware of puns!

Posted September 12, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Atlantean Odyssey (1979)   5 comments

Via an old eBay auction.

The obsession to find the first instance of something can occasionally make sense. We can trace patterns that stem all the way to the beginning. For example, the first Sierra game (Mystery House) established a penchant for instant-death that became nearly a Sierra trademark for a decade and a half, and the attitude was one that their competitor Lucasarts specifically was in opposition to.

As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time.
— Ron Gilbert, Why Adventure Games Suck And What We Can Do About It (1989)

Even in the case where the first instance of something was never followed as an example (due to obscurity of the work itself, the idea being too far ahead of its time, or random luck), it’s interesting to see as a proto-concept free from outside influence. A good example of this would be how Mystery Fun House manages participatory comedy even when the text is typical 1979-level sparseness.

Alternately, we can see early ideas that die as object lessons, getting a good notion of why nobody desired to copy a particular concept and if those conditions still hold now. The lack of compass directions in Empire of the Over-Mind come to mind; we can see the concept doesn’t mesh well with large-scale maps, and this also suggests that a map without much traversal (like some modern interactive fiction) would fare a lot better.

However, I don’t think it’s useful to think of being first as some sort of trophy, a historical totem to claim person Q’s biography is superior to person R’s, or to insinuate group X is better than group Y. First, this suggests history itself is some sort of competition. Also, convergent evolution can lead to entirely separate people coming up with the same thing (see how Wander did adventures before Adventure) and just because something made it to market in July rather than August doesn’t mean it is a superior. In fact, due to the factors of obscurity/luck the second or third to arrive at an idea can be much more influential than the first.

This is my rather long-winded way of introducing Atlantean Odyssey as likely the first full graphical adventure game, ahead of Mystery House.

Some caveats:

“Likely the first”: We have the source code above, solely credited to Teri Li (which includes lots of POKE statements to make the graphics, basically making assembly language in BASIC source) although I haven’t been able to find it published anywhere except The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures which came two years later. Based on the history of how Spider Mountain was written, there is strong reason to suspect this version had a 1979 release in stores. However, the only extent tape copy I have been able to find (see eBay picture above) is a machine language version released a year later which adds Mark Robinson to the credits. It’s still possible with a 1980 release it came first, but I haven’t been able to dig up any records.

“Full”: One could reasonably point out that earlier mainframe work like Zork and Stuga had the occasional ASCII art, which arguably counts as “graphics.” However, the use was intermittent; it’s not like every room had an illustration.

In any case, with the fussy details out of the way, how does Atlantean Odyssey play?

The goal, as usual, is to find all the treasures (6 of them).

The very first room has a sailboat you can board with a knapsack, a speargun, a flashlight, and scuba gear. All of these items are entirely unnecessary. The scuba gear does let you dive underwater, but the capacity runs out fast enough I believe it won’t last the whole game (there’s a magical solution the game gives you right away that lets you avoid the issue). The flashlight is rusted and broken. The speargun can be used on a nearby shark but the shark just kicks the player to “Davy Jones Locker” (aka death).

Nearby you find a medallion:

A FLAT HEXAGON WITH A RUBY-SAPPHIRE-BLUE DIAMOND AROUND A GREEN OPAL

and a hint on a temple wall:

I SEE A BAS-RELIEF SCULPTURE OF A MAN WEARING A MEDALLION. HE IS UNDERWATER, AND THE MEDALLIONS RUBY IS GLOWING!

By typing “PUSH RUBY” you are able to dive underwater, finding a second temple.

There’s another mural, which hints that “PUSH OPAL” will be useful; it takes you to another portion of the ocean where the game continues.

I’m not going to walk through every event that follows (it’s straightforward looking at everything in the environment, and further use of the medallion) but I did want to point out the main difference between this game and Mystery House: the game is entirely self-sustaining without the graphics (there’s even a later C64 version which doesn’t have graphics). Items are described in the text, rather than drawn in the room, so you don’t have the Mystery House situation of trying to guess what sort of object a squiggle is indicating. When there’s a door, the “open door” and “closed door” variations of the room look exactly the same.

Atlantean Odyssey’s method became the mainstream for text adventures; Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, and Legend games generally had all the necessary content in the text, and even allowed for turning the graphics off if desired. (Zork Zero is the only exception from those companies I can think of, and that’s simply on particular puzzles like a peg-jumping one where graphics are needed.)

Mystery House’s method, on the other hand, led directly to the thread of interactivity directly dealing with with graphics instead of text, resulting in 1984’s King’s Quest I and all those games that followed.

My usual online-Javascript site doesn’t do well with this game, so if you’d like to try it out, you’ll need an emulator and a download. It’s a little less ambitious / revolutionary than Mystery House and consequently a little more playable.

Posted September 11, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Spider Mountain Adventure (1979)   1 comment

Teri Li wrote Spider Mountain and Lost Dutchman’s Gold almost back to back in the early days of commercial adventure. If one examines the two programs it is easy to see that the same structure was used in both. However, the map paths are profoundly different.

— From The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures

The above quote comes from Bob Liddil, who is also listed as a co-author (he states elsewhere that he “finished” the work). It is something of an understatement.

This is a fantasy reskinning of The Lost Dutchman’s Gold. The author essentially cut and paste the source code as the basis for a new game.

You start, as in the previous game, with a mule, er, “burdenbeast”. You get “beast snacks” and a “handweapon”. (Unlike the mule, you can ride this animal. Still a neat piece of atmosphere.) After heading west a bit there is a village to the south with a tavern that is nearly a clone of Lost Dutchman’s Gold.

Perhaps most bizarrely, the scene with “Indians” is still present, but has been substituted with “Orcs”. The scene is just as useless in this game, and somehow even more uncomfortable knowing the substitution was made.

The “dungeon” area this time is hidden in the tavern instead of the mountain. The area below is quite simple and essentially danger-free — the only way I found to die was to forget to light my torch before exploring, where I was dramatically eaten by the spider Shelob.

I did like how YOUR LIFE FLASHING IN FRONT OF YOUR EYES is an item, but there is no danger here.

There are essentially no puzzles (you have to dig in one place, but the game telegraphs this clearly) except for one room, where getting a treasure causes the door to close and seal you in.

There is a hint from earlier: “THERE’S SOMETHING MAGIC ABOUT HOME.” If you SAY HOME while holding one of the other treasures (a gold ring) you are teleported back to the base camp and escape the trap.

I’m suspect (given the origin history) that Teri somehow planned to make a lot more changes, but gave up early. Then Bob Liddil offered to finish and publish the game, and the odd parts stayed in. I’ll call this an early blip in history, because Teri Li has one more adventure up his sleeve after this, and it’s a far more important one to the history of games.

ADD: Ok, the backstory is a little more interesting. From Terry Kepner himself:

The only thing I would add is that, typical Bob, when he returned from his first run at showing Lost Dutchman’s Gold with orders for three more titles, he told me we had a whole week to write the second game, as he had promised it to the store owners the next Friday! My conversation for the next hour was mostly four-letter words. But we did it.

That would explain the cut-and-paste!

Posted September 6, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Lost Dutchman’s Gold (1979)   4 comments

Well, I suppose it was inevitable. I announce I’m done with 197X and almost immediately afterwards I discover a game that’s been misfiled. To be fair, most copies state “copyright 1980” (and seem to be derived off the source code published in Byte magazine, December 1980) but the TRS-80 version at least is clear:

This game (and the followup, Spider Mountain Adventure) was written by Teri Li (a pseudonym for Terry Kepner). The goal is simply to find the secret Lost Dutchman’s Mine and retrieve four treasures.

Really, based on the first couple screens, this game has amazing atmosphere: you get full saddlebags, a rifle *and* a gun, a map, and a mule that you can load the saddlebags on.

As seen in the title screen shot, the “computer voice” is actually a dead character (“the ghost of Backpack Sam”) inside the game world. Later, you even find a room with PILE OF BONES (MINE). The default messages keep this unique flavor:

>GET MULE
JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, PAUL BUNYON? YOU’RE NOT STRONG ENOUGH.

>DIG
OK
DAG NAB IT! THAR’S NOTHIN’ HERE!

You can feed the mule and lead it around, and it can carry your saddlebags around for you. Nice!

Unfortunately, after this opening phase, things break down pretty quickly. To get to the mine, you need to be holding the map, and then in one of the locations type >FOLLOW ROAD. Note that >GO ROAD is actually parsed and goes to an entirely different location!

The saddlebags have some lovely mimesis, but they end up being a pain. While they can hold quite a bit, the the number of items you can hold in your hands is a low number. This means at nearly every action I was doing inventory juggling; this is similar to the issue I had in Adventure 501 where a smarter container system actually made for worse gameplay. Historically, this sort of thing is cured once automatic item juggling becomes common (that is, if you need to use the map, having the game automatically put items and take them out for you).

When I found my first treasure, *SPANISH COINS*, I had no idea how to pick it up. After checking the source code, I realized that unlike every other game of this time, the “*” marks aren’t just decoration noting the item is a treasure – you have to use them in the parser. That is, >GET SPANISH is unrecognized, but >GET *SPANISH is.

The mines are simplistic. You go to three different rooms and DIG to find the treasures. The only real danger is from the fact there’s a maze with no exit whatsoever.

Then there’s this:

THAR’S NOISE UP AHEAD.
SOUNDS LIKE INJUNS.
>GO BUSHES
YER BEHIND A BUSH.
YA SEE: INDIANS. BUSH.
OBVIOUS EXITS: WEST

It’s hard to come across this scene without feeling uncomfortable. The entire genre of Westerns has always had trouble with Native Americans, in the same fashion that a story about colonialism has intrinsic issues that can’t be shuffled away. Throughout much of its history the genre stomped through them without much self-consciousness; I think perhaps the turning point was John Ford’s last western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), which nearly comes off as an apology for his earlier work. In any case, by the 1970s the genre was still out there, and books could still refer to “injuns”, but there was definite awareness of a Problem.

Oddly, the case here is redeemed, perhaps accidentally, by: a.) the line being delivered by a dead character in the story as opposed to a “modern narrator” and b.) the fact that if you try to fight, you will get killed. There is no way to “win” against them. This marks the third game I’ve played so far (here’s the first, here’s the second) where you are given a weapon (here two weapons!) that serves no purpose at all.

From the published game cover.

Still: the first adventure game western! (Not the first electronic game — there’s Highnoon (1970) and The Oregon Trail (1971) for instance.) It must also be said that computer-narrator-as-in-universe character is pretty unique for the time, so even though this game is extremely rough, it’s got genuinely intriguing innovation going for it.

A winner is me. I switched later in play to the Apple II version, which is why this screenshot looks different from the others.

Posted September 1, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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