Planet of Death: Finished!   15 comments

Planet of Death was the first a very long line of games for Spectrum computers, and consequently provokes enough nostalgia that there’s both an Android remake and an iPhone remake.

Planet of Death was a technical miracle straining against its original hardware.

Planet of Death ambitiously included multiple solutions for at least two of its puzzles.

Alas, that still doesn’t stop Planet of Death being a very bad game, at least in its original incarnation.

Last time, I was stuck trying to get a mirror from a “green man”.

I AM IN A QUIET CAVERN
THERE ARE EXITS WEST,EAST AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A MIRROR
A SMALL GREEN MAN SLEEPING ON THE MIRROR

I had a failure of visualization here; I was thinking “short” in human terms but it really meant “small enough to just pick up”.

>GET MAN
UGH! HE IS ALL SLIMY

You can then set the man down and get the mirror.

The second issue I had was with a force field.

I AM IN A PASSAGE
THERE IS A FORCE FIELD TO THE SOUTH : BEWARE OF SECURITY
THERE ARE EXITS TO NORTH,EAST AND WEST
I CAN ALSO SEE : A LOUDSPEAKER WITH DANCE MUSIC COMING OUT

I needed a walkthrough. The right action is to be holding the laser gun, and then to…

>SMASH FIELD
IT HAS WEAKENED IT

..not, HIT, SHOOT, BREAK or any other logical alternatives work. Those three verbs are even understood by the game, just not here! Guess-the-verb can be slightly manageable if it’s a matter of “I clearly haven’t communicated my intentions yet, I’ll keep trying” but when the game appears to have understood an action but just ignored it, it makes puzzle-solving almost impossible.

We aren’t done yet!

>S
I CANT GO IN THAT DIRECTION
>GO FIELD
IT HAD NO EFFECT

The right way to get through is to DANCE while holding the MIRROR. If you don’t have the MIRROR you fall over, although this happens if the field has been smashed or not so it’s unclear what function the mirror is having.

>DANCE
I AM IN A LARGE HANGER
THERE IS A LOCKED DOOR TO THE WEST
THERE ARE ALSO EXITS EAST,NORTH AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A SMALL BUT POWERFULL SPACE SHIP
A SLEEPING SECURITY MAN

This is near the end of the game: the goal is to be able to launch the ship and leave. Unfortunately, entering the ship right away is a trap; the ship can’t launch yet (for unclear reasons) there is no way to leave once entering.

You first need to go west into a “lift control room” with “3 switches” and a sign that says:

5,4 NO DUSTY BIN RULES

Here is an excerpt of my attempt at operating the switches:

It turns out you can just PUSH 1, PUSH 2, and PUSH 3, although they need to be done in the order 3, 2, 1.

If you’re as puzzled as I was what the DUSTY BIN reference has to do with anything, it’s from the old British game show 3-2-1. Dusty Bin is the mascot for the show.

After hitting the switches a lift opens. You can get an engine from another room (where there’s an OUT OF ORDER sign, implying the engine doesn’t work, but I guess it does) and then take it into the ship, and finally launch…

…except make sure you don’t push the MAIN button because the spaceship blows up. The AUX button works:

Let’s go back to those two puzzles with alternate solutions. You might notice nowhere above did I mention the ice block from the maze I was puzzling over in my last post. That’s because it’s an entirely optional way of going down, although one I don’t see how anyone at all would ever find in either the original ZX-81 or Spectrum versions. Here is the relevant room:

I AM IN AN ICE CAVERN
THERE IS AN EXIT TO THE EAST
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A BLOCK OF ICE

Although mentioned nowhere in the text, there also to be an exit DOWN;

>DOWN
HOW?
>WITH ICE
I AM IN A QUIET CAVERN
THERE ARE EXITS WEST,EAST AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A MIRROR
A SMALL GREEN MAN SLEEPING ON THE MIRROR

(Note this only works if you’re holding the ice block — it can’t just be in the room, even though I think you’re supposed to be “riding” the ice.)

This is the same room you reach if you just go down a pit using a rope, which is not exactly a difficult puzzle. So even though the ice block represents an alternate solution, the method of solution it is used for is so obscure it might as well be a red herring instead.

Additionally, I mentioned occasionally being tossed into a prison.

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

There are two ways to escape. You can LOOK UP (!?) which let you see the bars are loose, and then you can KICK BARS (by some miracle I came up with this verb on my own). Or if you have a gold coin from doing GO LAKE earlier (something I missed in my playthrough) you can USE COIN and that bribes … an invisible guard, I guess?

This is interesting in a theory-of-game-craft sense. Red herrings can be painful (especially when there’s a puzzle like a maze attached to reach them) so what do you do when you have alternate solutions that rely on different objects? — can alternate solutions only use objects that are easy to reach, or is it possible to make them in a way it doesn’t feel like part of the game is wasted? At the Gaming After 40 writeup, Dale Dobson finished the game without knowing what the ice and gold coin did at all, and had the exact same frustrations a real red herring would provide.

I once tried (and failed) to design a small adventure game where each puzzle had 3 or 4 solutions, but it never occurred to me until now that adding solutions, while making a particular puzzle easier, might make a game holistically more difficult. Objects intended as possible solves to early puzzles might never be applied, but the player wouldn’t know that and might fruitlessly try to use those same objects in later puzzles.

The authors clearly had a sense of what makes an adventure game interesting; alternate solutions are still pretty rare in our chronological sequence, and they at least attempted to stage “scenes” rather than arbitrary obstacles. However, as early trailblazers, it would have been hard to know how to write scenes that come across to the player in a logical way.

Take the central puzzle with the security barrier — it’s reasonable, on its own, to shoot the barrier with a gun; it’s reasonable, on its own, that dance music might prompt the music DANCE; it’s reasonable, on its own, that a MIRROR might mess with a security system somehow, but when all the parts are jammed together without logic or explanation (and the absurd verb SMASH) it makes for a dreadful puzzle. I don’t think it would have been so obviously dreadful on paper, at its inception; being aware of the effect would require realizing what the implementation would be like (and how hard the verbs would be to find).

We’re not leaving Artic Software just yet, because their next game was also released in 1981. The author is different this time; someone famous enough that there’s a good chance you’ll recognize some of his more recent work.

Posted January 9, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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15 responses to “Planet of Death: Finished!

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  1. My dim memory of playing this game way back in 1981 is that instead of Smash Field you can just type Field with no recognised verb and get the same result. I never did understand what was supposed to be happening there! Nice to finally know I was smashing it.

    • Now I’m wondering if that’s works elsewhere (you just type the noun and the right thing happens). USE COIN definitely took some doing to find, it would have been useful to just type COIN.

  2. I never played this one, but I did briefly borrow a Spectrum (being a Commodore man myself) and play Espionage Island, which was #4 in the same series. I remember it being really, really terrible — so much so that when I started hawking my own games around publishers, the covering letter said things like “Unlike many games, this does not constantly respond I CANT”. It really put me into a fury.

  3. I played this game in a ZX Spectrum. I was disappointed that the port was merely adding color to the presentation screen, the remaining of the game as the same. Black, all caps, and difficult as hell.

  4. It was definitely more commonly referred to as Adventure A back in the day, before the subtitles were given more prominence. As you allude to in your introduction, its place as an early entry in UK adventure game history has meant that the game has been made available in many different forms over the years…

    The unadventurous ZX Spectrum edition was disappointing, as was the quickly ported Amstrad CPC version.

    The similarly barebones C64 game was eventually followed by a far more verbose version made with the Quill by A.W.J. Adam. It was that, expanded version that was later reworked into The Last Planet starring Nick Hardy… One of these days I will get around to playing through that Quilled C64 version to see how it compares. Amusingly, “Nick Hardy” was apparently the hero of three such remakes of Artic’s games… The Temple Curse (Inca Curse), The Last Planet (Planet of Death) and The Island of Spies (Espionage Island)… He appears, from the box art for the Nick Hardy Adventures compilation, to be an Indiana Jones-like figure… making his spy-based and alien planet escapades impressively unlikely. https://mocagh.org/loadpage.php?getgame=nickhardy

    Lots of unofficial ports of Planet of Death exist for other systems (e.g. CP/M) and there are many translations to other languages too… including Russian and Spanish, the latter of which seems to also be a Nick Hardy-like text-heavy version created with Gilsoft’s PAW. There’s even a ZX80 version in Italian!

    From the amount of remakes and re-releases, it’s obviously a game that many remember fondly, or feel was important to them… but not one I would go rushing back to play myself.

  5. I’m guessing from the exclamation mark in “UGH! HE IS ALL SLIMY” that you were playing the Spectrum port, which has a crucial change (?bug) in this puzzle. In the original ZX81 version, picking up the man without taking appropriate precautions kills you ten turns later, but in the Spectrum version the relevant flag is cleared rather than set and so you can pick him up with impunity.

  6. Hi, I’m the developer who made the Android version of Planet of Death, thanks for the mention. I tried to simplify it somewhat by removing some of the more obscure verbs in the game and replacing most of them with USE or USE WITH.
    I have fond memories of playing this when I was about 5yrs old, although there were a lot of frustrating “features”in it. I remember my parents played it too.
    I’ve been working with the guy who owns the copyright to this and all other Artic titles.
    I’ve also done Inca Curse (finished this week) and also Ship of Doom, which I finished a few months ago, I know they were done in the wrong order but I preferred to do SoD before IC. Neither of these have been released yet as there are a few complications about getting it out and it’s down to the copyright holder as to how and when they are released.
    I agree that a lot of Artic games are cheaper copies of bigger name games but it was good back then that you could get an alternate to the big money games.

    • Drop a note when the other games are out, I’d love to see them.

      I finished Inca Curse but my work-in-progress post probably won’t be up until Monday.

      • Not a problem, I believe it will be a few months, at least, before they are released. They have the same look and feel of Adventure A, I designed that in a way that I could re-use the core “engine”. I’ve added the scoring and a few extra bits to Inca Curse and I’ve added the annoying little alien and the countdown in Ship of Doom.
        I’ve added an alternate ending to Ship of Doom based on something earlier in the game.
        I’ve also added a choice of UI in Inca Curse so you can play on ZX Spectrum or C64, I may continue this into the next games in the series.

    • You might want to consider promoting the Android version(s) in the UK 8-bit text adventure community a little… I’m very active there and hadn’t heard about it… I presume it’s this game -> https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.PurpleViking.AdventureA ? It doesn’t mentioned the fact that it’s officially authorised, which may put off some people from downloading it.

      • Yes that’s me, along with the itch.io link Jason added in his article.

        When I wrote Planet of Death it wasn’t official, I actually did it as a birthday present for my mom, however the guy who owns the copyright got in touch with me and we are now working to rewrite some of the older games, he has all Artic games along with a few other intellectual properties. He let me keep this version up there, however I’ve got a backup now of about 8 games waiting to be released, amongst these are Inca Curse and Ship of Doom.
        The newer games will be released on a different Google Play account, I will let you know when they are released and how to find them, they also won’t be free like Planet of Death either as I need to eat 😅.

        Unfortunately marketing and promotion aren’t my forte, so if you could point me towards the 8 bit text adventure community that would be great, either via this forum or my email link in the play store link you posted.
        Cheers,
        Lee

  7. Pingback: Inca Curse (1981) | Renga in Blue

  8. “This is the same room you reach if you just go down a pit using a rope, which is not exactly a difficult puzzle.”

    Especially because there’s a cave drawing showing a man climbing down a pit using a rope.

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