Archive for May 2019

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary: Another Fine Mess (partial)   2 comments

The downside of resisting the use of hints is the stalling that accompanies it. Rather than waiting any longer for me to finish this episode, I’ll do a work-in-progress post.

Another Fine Mess sees the Enterprise called to investigate some Elasi pirate activity and starts with the usual ship combat, but against two ships rather than one. I was stuck here for quite a while until I realized: a.) against one ship, even flying head-on, the Enterprise can tank hits better than the other ship can and b.) if you fly around for long enough Scotty will repair the vessel. So my strategy involved what wasn’t exactly a kamikaze dive, but still pretty much laying on maximum firepower on one ship without caring much about damage; then booking it away as far as I could to give the Enterprise time to return to health before taking down ship #2.

Both Elasi ships flew away and the Enterprise tracked them to a nearby star system (Harappan) which led to an unpleasant surprise.

Harry Mudd is a recurring character who appeared twice in the original series (Mudd’s Women, and I, Mudd) and described by the writer who invented him as “an interstellar con man hustling whatever he can hustle”.

This time Mr. Mudd seems to be involved in a surprisingly legitimate salvage operation on an alien ship, and has sold numerous items to various parties but, mysteriously, the Elasi pirates are demanding to know Harry’s source. Only the fact the alien ship is near a neutron ship has let Harry escape so far unscathed.

My suspicion is not that Harry tried to scam the pirates, but that he ran across something much more interesting than he realized. (Again, this is work-in-progress, so I don’t know for sure.)

Kirk points out the unfortunate reality that because Harry Mudd is involved in legitimate business under the purview of the Federation, the Enterprise is obligated to protect him. The Enterprise manages to beam the usual away team over (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt) but afterward is out of contact due to the neutron star.

Upon arrival, Harry Mudd himself is rummaging through supplies looking for more things to sell. The events that follow are strangely low-pressure. Essentially, you’re given free rein to roam around the ship and learn about the aliens, with minor incidents involving aforementioned intergalactic con man. While I’m sure a pressing crisis will come — probably the pirates will find the location of the alien ship — at least at the start, the gameplay involves wandering around, scanning things with a tricorder, and activating alien machines. (It’s a nice change of pace, but I’m stuck not due to some specific puzzle, but what I assume is a story trigger that hasn’t gone off.)

The fact an entire location is devoted to a special torpedo weapon with higher range than an existing known technology might be considered a tell.

My first hour on the ship consisted of wandering back and forth across the same series of three rooms without much luck. This game is very difficult when it comes to telling where exits are. In the screenshot above, for instance, there’s a door to the left hidden behind the equipment; I only found out it existed when I came the other way.

I finally came across a computer room and managed to activate it via some odd deductions of Spock involving the fact the alien species likes to organize things in sixes.

Because they have six eyes and six fingers, you see. This is one of things that’s totally plausible in reality but in story practice here felt rather goofy.

On a visit back from the computer room through a medical lab, the crew found Mudd trying to take a capsule from a medical cabinet. He was startled, tried to hide the capsule behind his back, and dropped it causing him to go into a paranoid state. Spock used the Vulcan nerve pinch to bring him down, and McCoy fixed the alien medical bed in order to treat Mudd’s condition.

Hm, I just made those events sound almost normal. In game reality, here’s what happened:

The scene with Mudd dropping the capsule happened as described. Then I tried a bunch of actions to subdue Mudd but had no luck; a phaser wouldn’t work for some reason, and McCoy said he wasn’t fast enough to apply a hypo. I ended up having to wander elsewhere without having solved the puzzle, and found a perfectly well and conscious Harry Mudd in the opening room still unloading a box. At the same time he was having a paranoid freak-out two rooms over. It took me a little while to process that this was a bug and not some futuristic twist.

Eventually I did get down to trying (click Use)-(click Spock)-(click Mudd) but Spock just sort of saunters over casually and applies the nerve pinch, so I’m not sure why McCoy or a phaser wouldn’t have worked. Spock then moves Mudd to the medical bed where I had to do a convoluted set of clicks to get to

(use McCoy on patient)
(use Pick Up on the capsules)
(use capsule just Picked up on the console below the capsules)
(then go back and use McCoy on patient)

The “Pick Up” thing threw me awry. The game essentially has 3 ways of reasonably delivering the same command but only wants to recognize one of them.

There was also a very brief scene where a temporary life support system goes awry; a repair tool from elsewhere on the ship fixed it.

Finally, I managed to operate a control panel and open a viewscreen … to see stars.

I’m sure if I go in circles enough the next story trigger will happen, otherwise, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing? Again, there doesn’t seem to be any pressing crisis, the only thing to worry about is the Enterprise can’t get through (so we can’t just beam off the ship at the moment).

Posted May 13, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Great Pyramid (1980)   7 comments

I decided to continue with the O’Hare trilogy.

Adventure 1: Cavern of Riches
Adventure 2: The Great Pyramid <—
Adventure 3: Haunted Mansion

Last time we saw what was a mashing together of Crowther/Woods Adventure with what might literally have been the code from Scott Adams Adventureland. Everyone has to start somewhere.

As I expected, this game feels more "original" … still gathering treasures, mind you. However, it flat out tricked me for the last treasure in a way that managed to be simple and very clever at the same time.

This animation is in the 1980 PET version but not the later C64 one.

Pyramid games seem to like tricky openings, like Pyramid of Doom (1979) which kills you if you just try to walk in, or Infocom’s Infidel (1983) where I remember being stuck a long time. While I have now finished this game, I originally thought I was going to have to open with a post where I was stuck outside.

There’s a spot where you can dig and get some items (flashlight, flute, matches, crowbar, copper key) but the front of the pyramid is blocked by a brass door so the copper key doesn’t work, since the rule in videogameland is that all doors and keys must color-match.

Specifically, a backpack is buried in the desert. My grizzled-adventurer instincts were enough for me to remember to try “open backpack” multiple times.

I seriously thought for a while perhaps there was some deranged way to turn the copper into brass (I’ve come across situations before with roughly the same logic). I eventually resorted to verb-checking, by going through an old verb list I made playing Pyramid of Doom to see which ones would work.

PUT, PUSH, BURN, TOUCH, OPEN, UNLOCK, CLIMB, READ, SEARCH, TALK, ASK, WEAR, KICK, SHOOT, DRINK, EAT, JUMP, YELL, …

CLIMB turned out to be the magical solution.

Mind you, “up” says YOU CAN’T GO IN THAT DIRECTION.

Eh, well. I guess the opening made me think the game might be slightly more difficult than its predecessor? For the most part, no.

There’s a mummy that you burn, a snake you play the flute for, secret passages that open to magic words given right next to them. There’s a vault and the nearby numbers 762, 112, 777 (it turns out you only need to enter the last number for the vault to open, which I guess is a low-effort way to avoid worrying about keeping track of state).

In adventure games of this era rust happens really fast.

All this dropped me into false complacency: I had gathered 11 treasures with 1 more to go. The last one was at a hungry tiger:

>FEED TIGER gave me “I have nothing to feed it.” so I knew the verb existed, I just need to find the right slab of meat or piece of bread or whatever.

I assumed I must have missed an exit somewhere (not uncommon for me), so I combed over the whole map … twice. No food. (It’s really weird to have viable food in an ancient pyramid, but adventure-game logic has led us to finding a Coke machine in the center of the Earth.)

The “hungry” thing is just a red herring. The proper solution is force. Specifically, one of the treasures is a “silver sword”.

Poor tiger, he just wanted a treat.

I never would have thought using a weapon to fight an enemy would be a puzzle worthy of stumping me for hours, but I always seem to discover new things with these games. This puzzle only could work within this particular structure: the author must have known exactly what he was doing, and how the simple frame would lull the player into falling for the red herring. (Additionally, none of the other treasures were useful as items before this point — remember, this is at the end of the game — so they weren’t even on my radar for puzzle-solving.)

Curiously, this location is *inside* the pyramid. It’s like the player is just being an interior decorator rather than the usual tomb robber.

So, kudos to Mr. O’Hare, and hopefully we’ll see some more interesting developments in his last adventure game, Haunted Mansion.

Posted May 7, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Star Trek: 25th Anniversary: Love’s Labor Jeopardized   2 comments

The next episode gave me a lot of headaches with interface issues, so I want to spend a moment going over how the interface for this game works. These kind of adventure games often get lumped together as “point-and-click” but there’s a lot of variety in what that means: pointing at what, exactly, and clicking how many times, and how exact a command is it possible to give?

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary falls squarely in the era of click-on-verb-then-click-on-object. The issues pop up most clearly with a compare-and-contrast, so let me first go over the opening screen of an entirely different game from roughly the same time, Space Quest IV.

If you move the mouse cursor to the top of the screen, the list of verbs appears as in the screenshot. You can then click on the verb you want and it becomes active. You can right click to switch between verbs (in the order they appear on the screen) and you can also click directly on the inventory if you want to use an inventory object. The last inventory object used also shows up directly on the bar.

You only need to click once to access a verb (and it’s very easy to remember where to find the verb) and at most twice to access an inventory object.

Here is the Star Trek interface:

Right-clicking brings up the “body” menu as shown above. Different parts of the body correspond to different verbs.

If you want the inventory, you click the verb you want to apply, then on a “bag” that appears which is your inventory, then pick the inventory item that you want to use.

Notice that:

1. Using the mouse to select a regular verb takes two clicks.

2. There is no right-click-to-swap-verbs feature, because the right click is already used to pull up the menu.

3. The verbs are arranged in an unusual way that makes it take a little fiddling to move to the right position. It’s also very easy to confuse “use” with “pick up”; during the first episode, I got confused which was which.

4. Inventory takes three clicks, even though the majority of the time you’re wanting “use” as the verb. The Sierra interface does require an extra click if you want to “look” at an inventory item…

…but that’s not nearly as common, so it’s sensible to “default” to use.

Note also the Sierra default makes it fairly straightforward to use one inventory item on another; click on the inventory item so the cursor “becomes” that item, then click on what you want to use it on (and the game will always give you feedback if what you’re attempting even if it doesn’t work).

In Star Trek, the pattern is (click use)-(click inventory bag)-(click the new item you want to use the first item on), so one extra click.

Now we approach the absolute worst thing about the interface.

You see, if the combination of items doesn’t work, the game simply switches what item is active to the new item. In other words, it gives no feedback whatsoever that combining items is even possible in the game! (I didn’t know it was possible until I checked the cluebook during the episode Hijacked.)

This lack of feedback carries to the regular verbs-on-objects part of the game; doing something “wrong” sometimes gets no response at all from the game, suggesting that the pixel that you’re clicking on isn’t even recognized. (Maybe you need to be holding a specific object but you’re just doing the verb “use” on its own.)

There is a saving grace: keyboard commands. I’m pressing “T” for talk and “U” for use and so forth rather than adding the extra click.

I’m still leaving one complaint out which keyboard commands do nothing to alleviate, but let me get to it in context–

Episode 3, Love’s Labor Jeopardized, starts with a message from the space station ARK7, which is being raided by Romulans past the neutral zone. ARK7 also happens to be the residence of Dr. Carol Marcus, who has an old history with Kirk.

After setting a course, the Enterprise is pounced upon by a Romulan vessel.

This leads, predictably, to ship combat (I’m guessing every episode starts with ship combat). There’s a little variety here because the Romulan ship can use its cloaking device to disappear, but I was often able to suss out which direction to shoot anyway and get some hits in.

After the combat, the Romulan ship self-destructs to avoid capture, and the Enterprise makes it to ARK7.

Upon opening hailing frequencies, we find the Romulans think the Federation is developing a bio-weapon to kill Romulans (and kind of did, by accident).

Specifically, Dr. Carol Marcus and her team were working on an experiment on the origins of life, and inadvertently made a virus in the process. (Trying to echo the plot of the movies Star Trek 2-4, I guess, and how the Klingons thought the Genesis device was designed for genocide when it was just an inadvertent side effect.)

In any case, the Romulans aren’t in good enough shape to stop the Enterprise from transporting over an away team. We don’t get any choice in the matter as to who is going: it’s still Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt.

In the first room, there’s a computer which mentions the Oroborus Virus being harmful to Romulans … and Vulcans. Whoops! (It’s funny, with the amount of choices elsewhere, how the game forces you to put Spock into danger here.)

Now we hit the last interface complaint I’ve been saving. Spock talks about how there’s a file attached that would interest McCoy. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get McCoy to use the computer.

In prior episodes, when I wanted a crew member to do something, I used an appropriate item from the inventory. Using the science tricorder, for example, was equivalent to asking Spock to use the tricorder. Using the medical bag or medical tricorder was equivalent to asking for McCoy’s help. Here, I kept getting a response along the lines of “that doesn’t need a medical officer”. I tried painstakingly clicking every pixel on the computer, assuming there was a specific pane the game was wanting me to use.

Nope, I just had the interface wrong. Usually, Kirk is doing the actions, but if you want to specifically tell a crew member to do an action, you can click on that crew member after “use”, and then click on whatever object you want them to use. This feature wasn’t even necessary until this point in the game. Figuring this one out took me reading the relevant portion of the clue book, being still baffled, and combing through the manual to see if I missed something. This particular bit of interface is, in fact, in the manual, but it might be the first time I’ve ever had to check the manual to use an adventure point-and-click interface.

Most of the rest of the episode involves wrangling with scientific doodads in order to a.) come up with a gas that will knock out the Romulans so the away team can safely enter the lower part of the station and b.) coming up with a cure for the Ouroborus Virus. Here’s a specific moment in the process.

The Oxygen and Hydrogen are hooked up to a machine which can combine the gases together. Using it by default as is generates water. To be able to use it, the gases must first be turned on. Clicking “use” on either tank or what looks like the knob about the tank doesn’t work. I was getting no response at all.

I managed to open the gases once by trying to use the machine repeatedly and having Spock step in and open the gas valves, but then I couldn’t get them closed again afterward. Finally, I realized that a wrench from elsewhere needed to be used on the top of the tank (not the tank itself) and the right action would happen. There was no message at all about “you need a tool, you can’t open the valve by hand” or … really, anything more helpful than nothing.

Things weren’t much better even when I understood what I was doing. I needed to switch in nitrogen for oxygen; I wasn’t sure why, but the game had gone through the trouble of putting a nitrogen tank elsewhere, so I figured it had to go here. The perfectly reasonable route of (use)-(click nitrogen)-(click on oxygen) didn’t work. Eventually, I hit upon picking up the oxygen and leaving an empty gap, but I still wasn’t able to put the nitrogen in. I was clicking the nitrogen on the end of the gas valve with no luck. Roughly an hour later I realized I needed to use the nitrogen on the empty space where the oxygen had been; that is, use the item on a location where there was nothing at the location.

I’m not even going through every step, but this sort of thing happened multiple times through the episode, including with a device for making the cure where Kirk kept picking up and dropping the Ouroborus virus inside because I couldn’t figure out how to interact with it.

After much mouse-throwing and a deep reliance on the hint book (wasn’t even trying to hold back at this point) I finally got to the point where I had a cure, used it on Spock, used a knockout gas on the Romulans, freed the humans (including Carol Marcus), and finally used the cure on all the unconscious Romulans including the commander.

After curing the commander, he was gracious enough to accept that it was all a wacky misunderstanding and call the assault off. (This seems out of character from the Romulans I remember in the actual TV shows, but ok.)

Wrr. At least the episodic structure makes it feel like I have a “reset” button. I’ll try my best to approach the next episode hintless (it involves Harry Mudd, a recurring character from the original TV show).

Posted May 3, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Cavern of Riches (1980)   12 comments

In 1980, John O’Hare wrote a trio of games for the Commodore PET:

Adventure 1: Cavern of Riches
Adventure 2: The Great Pyramid
Adventure 3: Haunted Mansion

All three were later ported to C64, including one version sold by Keypunch Software in 1985 in such a way I am fairly certain the original author never got any money.

Via The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History. Ah, the halycon days where you could grab some BASIC games off somewhere, slap them on a disk, and put them on sale.

I played the C64 version which ended up having a major bug I’ll talk about at the end of this, so I’d recommend using the original PET version instead. I’ve confirmed the PET version doesn’t have the same bug.

The complete game map. Click to enlarge.

Now, we’ve seen a lot of creativity by 1980, enough so that there have been more non-treasure-hunt games than treasure-hunt games. I’m sad to say that’s not the case here. Not only is this a raw plotless treasure hunt, the author more or less stole more than half of the locations and puzzles from Adventure.

Exhibit A:

This is not actually the first screen of the game; you start outside a log cabin instead.

Exhibit B:

I find it interesting how even though the game clearly understood what I meant from >enter bridge it enforced I go back and type it as >cross bridge.

Exhibit C:

Ah, another round of “guess the noun”.

Exhibit D:

This is simplified from Adventure in that you only have to water the plant once.

Ok, enough ragging: complex programming within the limits of the PET was a bit of a hassle, so this was clearly just a game where the author was figuring things out. Despite slavishly copying Adventure, the game has two interesting creative touches.

First, if you die (a little tricky to do, but you can jump into a volcano, for instance) the game sends you to “Limbo”.

Assuming no knowledge, you then have a 1/6 chance of living, since 5 of the exits take you to the gates of heaven, whereas only one (east) brings you to life. (ADD: As Wade points out in the comments, this is a moment cribbed straight from the Scott Adams game Adventureland.)

I also liked this moment with a blue light.

If you try to take the floating sphere, you die (you get electrocuted). It serves no purpose at all. It doesn’t even model light correctly (if you turn your lamp off, you can’t see it). But still, for a brief moment, I got a feel of Atmosphere. I’d like this to be the start of the game. Where is the light coming from? Is it a creature, or a ghost, or a projection created by some device?

Oh, and the bug:

I gathered all 12 treasures, but dropping a treasure does not register anything on the score (I ended with 0 out of 120 points), so there’s no win screen. I’m fairly sure the version I had was the Keypunch one.

Yes, Keypunch put on a sale a game that was broken so that not only is it impossible to win, it’s impossible to score any points at all. I’ll still calling this one done, but I’ll stick with the classic PET version when I get to O’Hare Adventure #2.

Posted May 1, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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