Temple of the Sun (1980)   2 comments

Playing Temple of the Sun by Jack Powers led me to wonder, philosophically, what I really mean when I judge the quality of an adventure game. How much is based on context and what I’m used to, and how much is truly bad in an intrinsic way; that is, some design choice that is a poor call no matter what alternate gaming universe I might be writing from?

Just as an experiment, I’m going to mark game design flaws with

(C) this is probably because I’m used to it from other text adventures but it still annoys me

(U) this is probably reviled even amongst the aliens of Universe #5612 who type by vibrating their squid-tentacles

(?) I have no idea if this is really universally bad or not but it still made me feel unpleasant at the time

This commercial cover says “1981” but the BASIC source code states “1980” so I’m rolling with that. Image via the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History.

As my intro might have hinted, I’m going to tear into this one, but first, let me be positive on the introduction setup. Our previous encounters with ancient ruins (see: King Tut’s Tomb, Pyramid of Doom) had us raiding treasures without a care or even a “it belongs in a museum!” line. To be fair, this is just the games being flatly equivalent to all the other treasure collect-a-thons of the time.

Temple of the Sun has a slightly different conceit:

Our goal is to enter an ancient temple and do the rituals needed to become a shaman. The implications are: the main character is doing something as part of a culture, not as a money grab. The end result is still picking up treasures, but at least the motivation is slightly different. The SCORE command straight-out lists what you already have and what you still need to beat the game:

CROWN
ROBE
MASK
POUCH AND APRON
PRECIOUS GEM-IN POUCH
GOLD-IN POUCH
SACRED ITEM-IN POUCH
CHARRED WOOD-IN POUCH

The game is also nice enough to include a LIST command that gives all the verbs available:

ATTACK, DRINK, DROP, EXAMINE, JUMP, KILL, GET, GO, INVENTORY, LIGHT, LIST, PRAY, PUT, QUIT, READ, RUN, SAY, SCORE, SWIM, THROW, TURN, USE, WEAR

I initially thought this meant the parser experience would be nice. I was very, very, wrong.

Here’s the opening screen. The “Dark Entrance” can’t be referred to or entered. It’s just “scenery” but is supposed to represent the south exit. (?)
I had a bit of confusion thinking the starting place had two exits.

Incidentally, just S or SOUTH doesn’t work, you have to type GO SOUTH. (C)

The next place has a “calendar”, “hieroglyphics” and “knapsack”. Both READ CALENDAR and READ HIEROGLYPHICS have the same response, and I spent a fair amount of time re-confirming there was no way to get a different message by referring to either in a different way. (?) I suppose it could be implying a calendar was in the form of hieroglyphics, but I still get the uncomfortable impression this is just a bug in one of the first rooms of the game. The message you get

IT SHOWS A SHAMAN SKINNING A DEER TO MAKE A POUCH AND APRON.

is kind of nice; there are other hieroglyphs throughout the game that indicate what you’re supposed to be finding. This is only undercut by the fact one of the basic commands of the game already states exactly what items you need to get. (?)

Also, TAKE KNAPSACK doesn’t work. (U)

SORRY BUT YOU CANNOT TAKE KNAPSACK

Oops! Checking the verb list at LIST, the word is GET …

YOU CAN ONLY WEAR IT.

… huh? The object is modeled in a way that wearing the knapsack is the same thing as picking it up, and you can’t be carrying the knapsack. (?) I also could not find a way to open it or look inside. (U)

Moving on to the southwest, I find a room with shrinking walls and die. Oops.

I’ll see this room a lot. There’s a turn (or two?) before you die suggesting there’s a way out, but if you use the command PRAY (which seems to be the games “hint” command) the game just suggests quitting and trying over. (?)

Restart! Back to the knapsack room, then south:

>GO POOL
SORRY BUT YOU CAN’T DO THAT.

Oh, SWIM is a verb off the list, ok. (C)

>SWIM POOL
YOU SEE A LARGE TUNNEL

The room description didn’t change other than OBVIOUS EXITS are now just “UP”. This felt uncomfortable and I was confused for a while if I was still in the same room somehow. (C)

>SWIM TUNNEL
YOU HAVE JUST ENTERED THE MOUTH OF A LARGE TURTLE. YOU NEEDED MORE SALT, BUT YUMMY.

Yay, death traps! Let’s accelerate things a little with a map:

Note how in the upper left corner there’s a bunch of one-way arrows leading to one room. This is the shrinking walls room which always killed my character, and once I realized the layout was a grid (mostly) I was able to predict what was going to happen, but I still had to test to be sure.

The “mostly grid” part led to far more annoyance than the map needed to; there are a fair number of “one-way” places where you have to detour to get back to where you start rather than just going there in a single step. I’ve seen plenty of crazy map connections in my day, but the fact this was almost a perfect grid made the whole setup more grating than usual. (?)

I have no idea how to get the game to recognize any input regarding the steel box either.

There were lots of items that seemed like you should be able to take them or manipulate them, but the game just either flat out refused to recognize the input or responded with SORRY YOU CAN’T DO THAT … YET without any good reason at all the action might be prohibited. (?) In some cases, I suspect this response applied to some actions that were never intended to happen in the future. (U)

Near the end of my play session, I had no idea how to get most of the items (like the mask) mentioned from the SCORE command. Out of curiosity I checked the start of Gaming After 40’s writeup and found (in the non-spoiler section) something which made the game completely different.

Most critical objects are randomly hidden in the game world — the player must EXAMINE ROOM in every location to unearth these items. I had to dig into the code to figure out why so many necessary items didn’t seem to be available.

Erf, argh! This would have been helpful to include in the instructions, perhaps? (EDIT: I read carefully through the start game instructions and it does get included as an example suggested command.) I tried EXAMINE ROOM immediately after this and found two of the important items in the room my character was in. Then I was annoyed enough I decided to call it for a day.

Hopefully I’ll finish this off next time; otherwise, I’ll be making the squid aliens take over on this one.

Posted February 12, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Temple of the Sun (1980)

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  1. Having to say LIGHT FLASH to turn it off as well as to turn it on is kind of weird.

    The object is modeled in a way that wearing the knapsack is the same thing as picking it up, and you can’t be carrying the knapsack.

    I think the knapsack in Infidel acts this way, too. I suppose it would be a little odd to be carrying such a thing around in your hands when the point of it is to free your hands to carry other objects. (That one is openable, although only when you’re not wearing it, which is reasonable modeling if a little bit irritating in that you have to specifically take it off to do so as I think the game doesn’t infer that action if you try to OPEN KNAPSACK while wearing it.)

    The misspelling in the prompt, “What do you wish to do know?“, is really annoying me. (The first time I read it I skipped over “do” and read it as “What do you wish to know?” which seemed like a really weird prompt.)

    In some cases I suspect this response applied to some actions that are never intended to happen in the future. (U)

    I suspect a generic “unhandled” message here as well.

    • The other items that you can wear have the same problem as the knapsack (like the robe) so it’s not really just the fact the knapsack is too big.

      The misspelling is annoying enough I may straight up edit the BASIC source code before I try finishing the game.

      The generic message thing is a definite danger of trying to be anything other than neutral (see also: Haunt and MUD1’s somewhat insulting messages for a wrongly parsed command).

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