Space Traveller, Nuclear Submarine, India Palace (1980)   4 comments

Roger M. Wilcox was a teenaged adventure game developer in 1980, just like many others whose work we’ve looked at in our grand tour. Unlike the other developers we’ve seen, his games were originally only distributed to his family and friends. I played his first three games in one go; all three were 10-minutes-or-less endeavors and I figured the next three might be similar but all of them had extra curveballs which forced me to take more time in solving them.

Note that Mr. Wilcox’s website has the games; he has Windows ports for all of them and TRS-80 versions of most of them, but I was unable to get Space Traveller running in its TRS-80 incarnation. (The other two games I had no such issue with.)

I should also add while games #1, #2, and #3 were all survive-and-escape endeavors, the ones here all are Treasure Hunts where the player is tasked to gather any item marked with asterisks *LIKE THIS* and then type SCORE.

Space Traveller

Wilcox’s game #4 starts you on Planet X, which consists of just two rooms, one where you drop any treasures you find.

Earth isn’t much larger; when I first landed all I could find was an abandoned hat shop and a single hat.

I next flew to Planet Q which consisted entirely of a maze.

Mapping a maze like the one above with only one inventory item is a definite chore; the only way to differentiate rooms is to make a “second-level” connection, like realizing going north from a particular place goes back to the starting room and assume that only is true for one room. The only problem with this technique is the assumption can be wrong (and in fact, it is wrong for this particular maze). After exhaustive mapping and remapping I found nothing, and was truly stumped enough to poke into the source code. (To be fair, the TRS-80 code crashing on me made me suspect I hit a bug rather than a puzzle.)

I found I needed to SHAKE HAT:

INSIDE IT IS A SIX-FOOT SHOVEL!

The remainder of the game involved applying DIG in pretty much every room, and finding things all over the place. This included a DEAD BODY and an OPEN GRAVE and when putting the DEAD BODY in the GRAVE you apparently become the corpse’s buddy and get a PLATINUM SWORD.

Nuclear Submarine

This is the first of the Wilcox set that really seemed to reach past being a programming exercise, and while I finished without any source code dives, I was definitely stumped in a few places.

Unlike Nuclear Sub, there’s no deep attempt at a “realistic” sub environment here, but the game does make the player wear a scuba suit and pass through an airlock before going outside before arriving at a cave where most of the treasure is, so there’s a layer of atmosphere lacking in the previous Wilcox games.

Getting past this puzzle required throwing a trampoline to the bottom of the cliff.

Structurally, the game is also more interesting than #1-#4 in the re-use of objects. You use a speargun early to kill a shark (just SHOOT SHARK and that’s that) but shortly after you need to break a mirror, and the empty gun works as a pummelling device. Rather more oddly, a copper key used early to open a hatch in the sub also gets used to open a gate. There were a few times where I had dropped an item because I thought I was done with it but had to return to get it (there’s an inventory limit just like all the other games of this period — and I really do mean all of them, I can’t think of a single one that omitted having a limit, even just by accident, unless you count games which don’t have an inventory at all).

The gate I just mentioned is also rusty, and the typical solution is to apply some oil, but I had none. I went back and forth many times here before plowing through my Standard Verb List ™, which is a list of verbs I’ve seen many times and use whenever the going gets tough. I hit paydirt with SEARCH and ended up applying the verb to every room until I found a secret room with the predicted oil can.

There’s one extra wrinkle: just finding the treasures isn’t enough.

Maybe two wrinkles, given the treasures are mostly “fake” items.

The ship won’t start, so you need some fuel. Specifically, you need to grab a piece of plutonium (make sure you use tongs!) and take it back to the ship’s reactor.

Nuclear Submarine felt the most solid of the Wilcox adventures #1 to #6, and it’s better than some games from the time that were sold commercially.

India Palace

IN A SMALL TOWN IN INDIA, YOU HAVE HEARD ABOUT A NEARBY PALACE THAT IS DESERTED AND SUPPOSEDLY HAUNTED. IT HAS NOT BEEN CLEARED OF ITS TREASURES, HOWEVER. THAT JOB IS YOURS.

On the screenshot above, OPEN DOOR doesn’t work.

I DON’T KNOW HOW TO “OPEN” SOMETHING.

This threw me for an enormous loop; almost every game from the era has open as a verb, even if it doesn’t work. It felt analogous to having a north/south/east/west direction system where north and south weren’t recognized. Getting by felt less like solving a puzzle and more winning a struggle against the computer’s source code. Eventually, I used my Standard Verb Lists again and KNOCK won out.

CREEEEEEEEK!

During all this, I discovered an unusual property of the parser — the game remembers what object you last typed, so if you type a verb with no object, it continues with the same object. That is, if you try OPEN DOOR (with the failure noted above) you can then run through all the verbs in the game like HIT without bothering with the object.

CAN’T HIT A DOOR!

If you then use a verb intended to have no object, like just typing W for WEST, the game will generally still parse the action just fine.

This nearly sounds like a feature, except the property also triggers when typing an unrecognized word, and then the game will just keep complaining it doesn’t know what a “DOR” is until you fix it (leading to weird situations where you’re just trying to go west but the game keeps saying it doesn’t know what a DOR is).

Inside, there’s a wall with the magic word DAY-OH. Using it sent me to a small area with hiking boots and a flying carpet. I could use DAY-OH again to get back to where I started, but I was (again) massively stuck on a stone wall.

I eventually had to do a source code dive to realize DAY-OH worked in another (completely random and unprompted) location. I got a MINER’S PICK there which let me dig through the wall.

I don’t have a lot of interesting ideas to report here other than a TECHNOLOGICAL PHASER is one of the treasures, and it’s possible to re-use the pick later by tying it to a rope and making a tightrope over some acid. This game otherwise mostly went back to the simplicity of #4.

There’s a novel typo at the end this time, at least? Usually it’s misspelled as CONGRADULATIONS.

One Last General Observation

Notice from the ending screenshots that games #4 and #6 had an “overall point total”, like Adventure, Zork, and pretty much every other adventure game of the day. Game #5 instead simply listed how many treasures you had out of the full count of treasures. The latter seems like a superior method, since it means the player doesn’t have to guess how many treasures are left based on a percentage or other score, yet this is the only place in 1980 I recall seeing it. It’s like the author had a brief flicker of innovation (however minor) that was immediately snuffed out by his next game.

Roger Wilcox has two more games from 1980 (The Vial of Doom and The Poseidon Adventure); I will write about both of them as standalone posts.

Posted December 15, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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4 responses to “Space Traveller, Nuclear Submarine, India Palace (1980)

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  1. “TECHNOLOGICAL PHASER” sounds like the sort of thing you’d see (much later) in AGT games, where the engine presumed all objects were described by a two-word phrase consisting of an adjective and a noun. A lot of authors didn’t really understand what that meant, and ended up doing things like having a cheeseburger described in the room described in the room description as “You can see a food cheeseburger here.”

    • Huh, I’d seen that in AGT games before but never knew there was a system explanation, neat!

      It (sort of) made sense here in that everything else is magical-fantasy, so the intent may have been to announce “hey there’s technology being slipped in here” as opposed to just casually having a phaser next to a scimitar.

    • To be fair, I think there are some fast food joints one could get a non-food cheeseburger.

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