Mad Scientist (1980)   2 comments

IT IS YOUR MISSION TO RESCUE THE MAD SCIENTIST’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER FROM HIS HAUNTED MANSION. THERE ARE MANY HIDDEN PASSAGEWAYS (OF COURSE!) WHICH MAY BE FOUND ALL OVER THE HOUSE. ALSO HIDDEN SOMEWHERE IN THE HOUSE IS A WEAPON, WHICH MAY PROVE USEFUL IF YOU RUN INTO ONE OF THE RESIDENT MONSTERS, THOUGH THEY MAY BE SUCCESSFULLY DEALT WITH IN OTHER WAYS. ‘SCORE’ TELLS YOU THE MOVES YOU’VE GONE– THE REMAINING COMMANDS YOU MUST DISCOVER FOR YOURSELF!

From Softside Selections #44, 1983.

Mad Scientist was a type-in by Thomas Hamlin III printed in the November 1980 issue of Softside (dated April 26, giving an idea how much lag between writing and publication there could be). It was later reprinted in 1983 and just to share what kind of pain these sort of things were, here is the source code from the 1983 edition:

By 1983, Softside printed their adventures with an encryption algorithm so that people couldn’t spoil the events of a game for themselves by typing it in. While this might be faintly positive, it meant typing pages of gibberish.

THE DAUGHTER CAN’T BE REACHED TIL A CERTAIN ROOM’S BEEN ENTERED; KEEP THIS IN MIND DURING YOUR EXPLORATIONS. YOU ARE GIVEN THE OBVIOUS DIRECTIONS YOU CAN GO IN THE LOWER CORNERS OF THE SCREEN. SHUT DOORS AND SECRET PASSAGEWAYS ARE NOT SHOWN, SO USE YOUR INTUITION IF YOU THINK EITHER MIGHT BE NEARBY.

This game falls in my theoretical puzzle-sparse-exploration-heavy genre (see: Death Dreadnaught, Haunted Mansion) where the vast majority of the game is exploration. The only “puzzles” here really are finding secret doors by applying MOVE to things.

HAVE A NICE TRIP, BEWARE OF THE GHOSTS, WATCH OUT FOR THE MAD SCIENTIST, AND, ABOVE ALL, DO RESCUE THE BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER!

I feel like the plot must be eliding something: why do we know there is a beautiful daughter to be rescued? Does she know we’re coming to rescue her? How creepy is the whole situation given the “beautiful” moniker? I choose to believe the genre is “PG-rated 1980s teen horror-comedy” and the totally bogus dad pulled our best friend from school and we knew she was in danger, and the PG rating keeps it from getting too creepy. (This also fits the tone of the game, so I’m not reaching too much.)

Anyhow, as the all-caps intro implies, there’s “obvious directions” given on the screen, in compass rose fashion. Here’s the 1980 TRS-80 version:

Here’s the later Apple II port:

I ended up playing the Apple II version because it runs faster (the TRS-80 version even includes intentional delays on top of being sluggish) although I did test out the TRS-80 enough to note this nifty skeleton graphic that the Apple version lacks:

skel

By having the compass rose built into the interface, the author was free to have room descriptions that don’t bother to describe exits. This can result in elegant prose, as in this room description from Beyond Zork:

Home of the most famous of all Enchanters’ Guilds, Accardi is usually crowded with autograph seekers and hopeful young apprentices. But the crooked streets are oddly quiet today.

The effect with Mad Scientist … is a little less elegant, and sometimes the author describes events rather than places, so the map is a confusing mishmash.

Even given the weird inconsentency of room descriptions that don’t describe the room, I find something refreshing in the minimalism here that I don’t get from the standard Scott Adams minimalism. (That is, this is a sentence someone would voluntarily write, as opposed to being forced to have due to a lack of space.)

You embark on your journey through a gate which slams behind you; an electric fence activates. (This is already a little confusing, since the security system seems intended to keep people out, but it let you in; again, I’ll assume some part of the story is elided, with wacky horror-comedy shenanigans.)

After a little farther in, you run into a door, more or less literally, because the door isn’t mentioned in the room description. The game just says you’re at the entrance, and the compass rose has no exit to the south, so you have to try to go south anyway and get the response THE DOOR IS SHUT.

After opening the door and going in, the door closes shut and locks behind you. This is a relatively elegant way to set-up that the escape (after finding the daughter) is in two layers: first, get back to the area with the driveway and front lawn; second, get past the electrified fence.

After that, the map opens up quite a bit:

Really, most of the game is mapping and the occasional MOVE to an object in view to open some sort of secret. The command list is extremely limited; other than directions, I found just OPEN, TAKE, SHOOT, MOVE, TURN, and CLIMB. These days the limited-command parser is well regarded (see: Midnight. Swordfight. or The Wand) but the problem here is the game pretends to have a parser and objects, but really doesn’t. Mad Scientist should have just announced its limited verb set straightforwardly (like how Eamon lists its verb set if you use an unrecognized verb).

Rooms like this one and the supply room tempt the player into trying to use and/or take stuff, but it’s all scenery.

Early on, I found a ghost; I had one turn to react, but it was apparently the wrong reaction, because the ghost killed me. On a replay I found a LASER GUN and that took care of any ghosts (and skeletons) that randomly popped up as I explored. The game instructions hint there’s some method of handling the monsters that doesn’t involve shooting them, and the laser gun does have a limited number of shots, but I never reached that limit so I never had to reckon with whatever other response the game was looking for.

Next to the room with the laser gun I ran across the mad scientist himself.

He trapped me in a room with a table and surrounded by green burning flames, although didn’t bother to stick around in person. MOVE TABLE revealed a secret passage going down and I was able to escape. (If you go back to the same place you got captured you get captured again, and brought to the same place again; the scientist must be one of those loopy absent-minded ones.)

Nearby where the escape happens, there is a “moon room”, and a helpful sign indicating the daughter is nearby.

If you head north you find the daughter’s bedroom and can >TAKE DAUGHTER with you and try for an escape. Note that this is only open after you’ve done the escape from the lair; I had actually found the moon room early and was futilely poking around looking for secret levers and the like.

Getting out then involved

a.) finding the secret room with a switch that deactivated the electric fence

and

b.) finding a secret passage under a rug that led me next to the gate (remember the front door locked itself so I needed an alternate route to get back to the fence)

Then, victory!

Oops, wrong screenshot. (This happens if you try to QUIT early.) You’ll have to play the game yourself if you want to see the last screen.

Before closing out, I want to point out the blog Gaming After 40 played this back in 2015. It states that when this was written, the “best practices” for writing adventure games had not yet been established. This is expanded upon with a comment by Roger M. Wilcox, who mentions a “How to Write Adventures” article of Greg Hassett:

… split the input into verb and noun, look up both on a game-wide table of all known verbs and nouns and turn both into a number, then have separate code for handling each verb which you branch to via a large ON-GOTO statement. Rooms and objects were likewise numbered; room descriptions were held in the array P$(), object names were held in the array OB$(), and the room number that each object was in was held in the array OB().

Compare with a line from the 1980 source code of Mad Scientist:

330 IFWH$=”GET LASER”ANDLF=0THENPRINT@594,”YOU’VE ALREADY GOT IT, STUPID!”;:TIME=15:GOTO610

“GET” and the noun it goes with are not treated separately! No wonder there’s almost no objects in this game. Most actions are bespoke. Consider also the code for “SHOOT” that goes with the laser:

335 IFSH>0ANDLEN(WH$)>5ANDLEFT$(WH$,5)=”SHOOT”ANDLF=0THENPRINT@603,”ZZZZZZATTT!”

The game checks if the leftmost 5 letters of the player’s input is SHOOT and if the length of the string is long enough for the player to have typed some kind of noun. However, the game never bothers to check what the noun actually is. It’s easy to take for granted the idea parser commands in a text adventure will be checked against some kind of world model, but in this era, it was possible to fake it.

Posted August 8, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Mad Scientist (1980)

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  1. I can see a laser gun affecting a skeleton, but what exactly is it supposed to do against a ghost?

    The game checks if the leftmost 5 letters of the player’s input is SHOOT and if the length of the string is long enough for the player to have typed some kind of noun.

    Now that’s some mad science.

    • It reminds me a little of the reason Microsoft skipping Windows 9 and going straight to 10 is too many programs checking the “what OS do you have” string and assuming starting with “Windows 9” meant either “95” or 98″ without bothering to look any farther.

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