Escape From Mars (1980)   9 comments

I played Death Ship recently and experienced one of the worst parsers I’ve ever seen, so it may seem strange I’m coming so soon back to the same source (Rodger Olsen, Aardvark Software) but I wanted to see if there was any improvement since last time, and while I easily remember plot and puzzle details from games I played many years ago, exact parser responses fade fast (so I had to get back to this sooner rather than later).

From a 1984 Aardvark software catalog.

At least >LOOK lets you look at the room now. Alas, I still have to reckon with a parser that only understands the first two letters of each word and actions that do something but have no response (I’ve trained myself to *always* LOOK after every action that doesn’t get an outright “HUH??” but it still leads to a disconcerting play experience.)

From the game’s manual. The same paper gives an exact date and time of April 20th, 1980 at 4:30 AM.

I didn’t have as much frustration as I did with Death Ship, but my smoother experience came more from knowing about the Aardvark system’s quirks rather than actual improvement. For example, here are the game’s verbs:

REad, BReak, OPen, LIght, HIt, UNload, LOok, PLay, INventory, PUsh, SMash, TAke, GEt, TIe.

I found “UN” while testing a list of common verbs including UNlock, I didn’t figure out what it actually meant until later. Specifically, I found out the main charcter has pockets (pockets!) and you can OPEN POCKET and LOOK POCKET to find a lighter and a harmonica; for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get the items out (just GET HARMONICA or EMPTY POCKET didn’t work). I eventually resorted to testing each of my two-letter verbs, already having assumed UN meant UNLOCK, but after typing UN I found the pocket items had been moved to my inventory. When things are this meta the parser itself can be a puzzle.

Escape From Mars, as the title implies, strands you on Mars with a crashed spaceship.

You need to replace an “injector” as well as make some fuel. To make fuel, you need


This style of the minimalist game relies a bit on outside imagery — i.e. you know what a dragon ought to look like, so THERE IS A DRAGON HERE conveys something without further details — but I admit I was a little fuzzy as to what conception of Mars this was.

Most of the map, excluding connections off the “Deserted Room”; I’ll talk about that in a moment.

Immediately upon setting foot outside the spaceship I stepped on a “barren plain” to find a “sandsled”, a “statue of flute player” and “airrocks”. What are airrocks? Is the flute player supposed to look human-ish or like a crazy tentacle monster? At least I guessed correctly the sandsled was a large vehicle rather than a small toy. (If you GO SANDSLED you find a jeweled club which is useful for breaking things.)

Directly north and south of the plain are moats with water — moats to what? Are there buildings? How does one transition directly from a barren plain to a pool of water?

A short distance away is “Xptl’s Shop of Mating Scents”. What does this shop look like? Do I want to know? How do you pronounce “Xptl” anyway?

I wouldn’t say the rooms are mashed together randomly, just it came off as if there was a background setting in mind only known to the author. To make an analogy, imagine coming across a scene with a minimally-described dragon without knowing what a dragon is.

This had real gameplay implications: there is a rustling sound you occasionally hear, and with a little effort you can get a martian to come into the room.








Again, I had no idea what to visualize, because there are enormous variations on what “Martian” can mean. I ended up settling on Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes.

The actual NASA Mars Spirit Rover mission patch.

This was partly to make me feel better about what came next: the appropriate action is to GET MARTIAN (and then specify you want to use a NET). Actually arriving at the idea that getting the Martian in a “net” was even feasible required visualizing the scene at least somewhat like the author; at first I imagined the alien as being little less, ah, portable.

Once “netified” you can then take the Martian’s helmet which is useful for … carrying water. Yep.

This ended up being a “hub” game design where the goal was simply to gather the ingredients. After collecting the WATER, POT, TUBING, and GRAIN, the right action was LIGHT FIRE, and no, I did not come up with that on my own; the action requires referring to a noun which does not yet exist, which is a high-risk endeavor even for games with a decent parser.

There’s one more major bit of interest: from the “Deserted Room” on the east side of the map above, there are two hidden exits: you can either TAKE RUG revealing a trapdoor, or BREAK MIRROR revealing a passage up with a rope. You can then either use the rope on an empty well to climb down or use the trapdoor (you need sneakers for the latter to avoid sliding and falling). Either action leads you to the same place, an area where you can get a replacement injector and the tubing for making fuel. While we’ve seen a fair number of alternate routes in games (prominently Zork) those instances had sprawling maps; this is a tight (8K) sized one where the author nevertheless put enough thought into the geography to have the same area reachable in two ways.

Posted August 14, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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9 responses to “Escape From Mars (1980)

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  1. If you never figured out what “airrocks” are, could they be a typo for “airlocks”?

    I think “Xptl” is pronounced like “Mxyzptlk,” except you don’t say the m, y, z, or k.

    • They’re quite literal rocks full of air. You have to drop them in making the fire.

      (You also need a “fuel source” and have to drop a table in the room where you LIGHT FIRE to be used as wood.)

  2. I like the Star Wars font for the word MARS in Aardvark’s catalogue :-)

  3. It does seem a pretty goofy conception of Mars given the various artifacts; the existence of a perfume shop sort of reminds me of Leather Goddeses of Phobos.

    To make fuel, you need WATER, POT, TUBING, FIRE, GRAIN

    Sooo… you need to make (ahem) moonshine?

    Is the “sandsled” maybe something like a snowmobile, which may also be called a “sled”?


    “Rusting”, so spelled?

    • Yes, you get “alchohol” at the end.

      It does say “rusting”. Most in-game typos just give these games a retro charm, but I admit “rusting” took a little parsing.

      • You should play Castle Adventure by Kevin Bales at some point. It’s from 1984, and it has words like “cooridor” and “rubys”. If you fail to escape the castle, you’re informed, “You’re have failed to escape!”

      • I played a lot of Castle Adventure back in the late 80s when I was plowing through random 5.25 floppies, I forget if I ever managed to finish it though! I think I kept getting drowned somewhere.

  4. Conglaturation on you’ve full of success mission! You’ll wonning!

    Seriously, is that the entire ending?

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