Planet of Death (1981)   21 comments

For All the Adventures, we’ve seen British games with Acheton, Philosopher’s Quest, and Quondam, but they were all based on a single university mainframe. The general public never saw them until later (in the case of Acheton, much later).

Planet of Death is a strong candidate for “first British commercial text adventure” (we’ll reach some more possible games eventually, but there’s not many). Given the absolute flood of UK-authored text adventures that eventually hit the market, this is a significant milestone indeed [1].

One might reasonably wonder why it took so long for the first Britventure to come out, but note the first two UK-manufactured home computers came out in 1980 (the Acorn Atom and the Sinclair ZX80) and both had staggeringly low memory in the base models (2K for the Atom and 1K for the ZX80) [2]. Haunted House from 1978 for the TRS-80 managed to fit in 4K but that’s more or less the required amount to reasonably fit an adventure game.

Richard Turner and Chris Thornton founded Artic Computing in 1980; Richard had a choice between a disco party and a ZX80 for his 18th birthday, and he chose the computer (source). In 1981 the duo released the first of what was to be a series of eight adventures.

Via ZX81stuff. As the cover art implies, a 16K memory expansion was needed for it to work.

This was written for the folllow-up ZX81, but there was still the issue of no video card, and … allow me to just have Kevin Gifford take over.

Since the computer’s video signal was generated by the Z80 processor, whenever you overtaxed the system with too resource-intensive a program, you ran the risk of having the screen go all wonky and flickery. Programmers had the option of turning off video output entirely to let the CPU devote all its time to running code instead, which is what Artic Computing seems to have done for this adventure game. A lot. After every single keypress, in fact.

You can experience this yourself with this accurately rendered online version of the game. I had to avert my eyes to play it because I started to get nauseous. I contemplated putting a GIF animation of the effect but I want to be polite to my readers.

You’ve crashed on an alien planet, and your job is to escape.

The starting area has a mountain, a lake, and a maze. Of course there’s a maze.

The maze may not look so bad, but I omitted the fact that every exit not included on the map above sends you to the starting room. This is the all-or-nothing structure (as seen in, for instance, Adventure 500) which tries as hard as possible to keep a player from reaching the destination by random luck. On top of that, inside the maze, there’s an ice block, and if you don’t make it directly to the exit as fast as possible, the ice melts. (On top of being on top of that, I have no idea what to do with even the unmelted ice.)

I’m usually fairly zen about the inclusion of mazes in games, but somehow this one actively offended me. Even in slightly deranged maze configurations, there’s often a little bit of verisimilitude and structure; for example, the Zork I maze had a “lower level” and an “upper level” with a skeleton of a past adventurer at the midpoint. This means text adventure mazes are a combination of some bit of puzzle and some bit of world-building (if not outright narrative). However, the all-or-nothing structure is so blatantly anti-realist that the maze is clearly standing just as a puzzle, and since it’s a repeat of one from many, many other games, it’s not even an interesting puzzle.

…ok, enough grumbling about a five-room maze. Adjacent to the starting place there’s a rope; adjacent in another direction is a pit. You can GO DOWN followed by WITH ROPE in to get to a belowground area. I unfortunately got stuck soon after I arrived.

I AM IN A PRISON CELL
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A LOCKED DOOR
A BARRED WINDOW
TELL ME WHAT TO DO

Trying to do anything (including unlocking the door with the key!) just gets the response I CANT. I don’t know if this is meant to be a puzzle or a “trap” that is impossible to escape.

Other than that, I have to deal with

a.) a green man sleeping on a mirror; it’s possible to walk peacefully by, and it’s possible to SHOOT MAN (that breaks the mirror, which implies to me that it’s wrong)

b.) a force field with the message “BEWARE OF SECURITY”

c.) a computer with a keyboard where any command I attempt to type just gets “I CANT”

Other than the melting ice and rope I’ve managed to find BOOTS, a LASER GUN, a PIECE OF SHARP FLINT, SOME STONES, a KEY, and SLIMY GLOVES. The available verbs I’ve found are CUT, CLIMB, BREAK, OPEN, KILL, HIT, UNLOCK, JUMP, PUT, PUSH, TURN, SLEEP, WEAR, KICK, SHOOT, FIX, SAW, STAND, TYPE, CROSS, and USE. I’ve resorted to trying every verb on every item but still no luck.

I’m going to hold out and be patient a little longer, just for the historical status of this one, but I really do typically need a little variety in my parser responses to stay engaged with a game.

[1] Consider, for example, this list of over 500 games using the Quill system; while not all of them are commercial or UK-made, it gives an idea of the scale at which the games were being produced.

[2] Of course, the production (or lack thereof) of adventure games isn’t just technical, but also cultural. Sweden had the ABC 80 by 1978 which seems to be perfectly capable of running an adventure game, but as far as I can find no adventure games were written for it and the Swedish adventure market didn’t start going until later. the earliest Swedish home-computer game we know a date of is 1982. This is despite the fact the first non-English adventure game is in Swedish (but it was mainframe-only until 1986).

Posted January 6, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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21 responses to “Planet of Death (1981)

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  1. Wow… I’ve played the Spectrum version of this, but I’ve never gone back as far as the ZX80 one… The ZX81 was my first computer.

    Yikes… I guess, looking down at the keyboard to type and press enter before looking back up is probably the best way to cope with the visual issues! I think I’m getting motion sickness from a text adventure!

    This game is remembered fondly by many 8-bit adventurers; probably more for the later Spectrum (and other) versions. The cover image is also pretty distinctive… later going on to be used multiple times for other games and books…

    • (I mean, the later cover image too rather than the original Artic one. Although that does have some charm.

    • Do you remember how far you got?

      • I think I finished all the Artic games… well, at least the first few letters in the original Adventure series. It’s been a long time since I played them. It’s only games like Charles Cecil’s Ship of Doom that I’ve gone back to in recent times, because of the Broken Sword connection and also because of the controversy regarding that particular title.

  2. Good heavens. i started out clicking the key images with the mouse which honestly is probably better than typing at full speed.

    I did something, I forget what, to the stalactites that told me that they were too far away. (I think.) Which makes me think that maybe you’re supposed to use the block to reach the stalactites? Don’t know if putting a puddle of water anywhere is helpful. Maybe the ravine?

    What is not helpful is not getting a message that tells you that the block melted.

  3. It is possible to escape the prison cell. Looking at the code in UnPLAD, I think there are two ways.

    Was there a ZX80 version? The screenshot is definitely using the ZX81 font.

    • checking Wikipedia (which is weirdly accurate on this) it looks like Sword of Peace had a ZX80 version but this was ZX81 only.

      I tweaked my text which was pretty ambiguous on this point, thanks.

    • Having spoiled myself a lot, it seems as though there are a lot of alternate solutions and optional content, which is fairly stunning for a game of this size.

      • The game got a fairly straightforward port to C64, but also a much more verbose expanded version, which was produced with the Quill/Adventure Writer by A.W.J. Adam. It was published in the U.S. by Real Software as The Last Planet, part of the Nick Hardy Adventures “series”.

  4. Reprogrammed this in BASIC from some breakdown of the ZX81 source on the Net. Here’s a video of a complete walkthrough of my version: https://youtu.be/hlQTlEoR5ko
    No flickering…

  5. There were a couple of adventure games for the ABC 80, though I don’t think any were released commercially. I played two of them, both written by a guy named Erik Åström. The first was called “Uppsjö” (the name of a fictional town) and was released in 1983. The second was called “Jakten på den försvunna Z80:n” (The hunt for the lost Z80) and was released in 1984.

    I don’t know where to find them these days. I was able to download them from http://www.abc.se some time ago but that particular part of their web site no longer seems to be available. (I don’t know if it was ever supposed to be available for non-members.) Maybe they can tell you more if you contact them?

    Unfortunately I haven’t found any simple way to emulate the ABC 80 under Linux. The first game should be reasonably simple to recreate, since it was saved as plain text. The second was saved as ABC 80 byte code, so it’s not human readable. (Both were written in BASIC, it was just that you could save programs in either of these formats.)

    I do remember being absolutely fascinated by both games at the time, though they were fairly primitive. Probably even by the standards of that time. They were also pretty short, which was fortunate because you couldn’t save. The most unusual feature was probably that in Uppsjö you lost points for every minute – in real time – you took to finish the game. The in-game reason was that while you were looking for valuables, there was a taxi waiting for you.

    Torbjörn Andersson
  6. I just recently read an article on the nitty gritty about how the display on the ZX80 works. Every time I learn about how 8-bit computers work, it’s like peering into the mouth of madness, but this one especially. For years I’d heard the whole “It has no graphics card so the CPU spends most of its time updating the display” thing, but that’s a rare statement which is misleading not because it is inaccurate, but because of just how literally true it is. I’d been imagining something like the Atari 2600, where you do graphics by counting out the cycles until the electron gun is where you want your sprite to appear and then shouting “Now!” at the TV interface. But no, it’s even more literal than that. It’s not “You’re doing graphics logic in software in the CPU”. It’s literally “You draw the screen by trying to execute the video memory as a program”. The CPU doesn’t actually draw the graphics at all; rather, you hijack the CPU’s “Okay, now give me the next instruction from ram”. When the CPU asks for the next instruction to run, the memory ponies up a byte of video ram, and a bit of hardware diverts it so that instead of going to the CPU, it’s sent through a lookup table to the digital-to-analog converter that produces the video signal. The CPU is “spending its time updating the display” in the sense that it’s effectively stealing *time* from the CPU to generate a video signal.

    I’m simultaneously awestruck by the ingenuity and feel a sort of stain on my programmer’s soul from just having read this page of the 8-bit necronomicon.

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