Archive for January 2020

Planet of Death (1981)   25 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 fully-assembled 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.

The version I played was for the follow-up ZX81, but on both the ZX80 and ZX81 there was 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.


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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The Adventures up to 1980 in Review   6 comments

Here are all the plot types of adventure games that I’ve been able to play up to 1980. Note that the categorization is in some cases very approximate.

Really the idea for this chart was to get a rough idea of how much the “treasure hunt” style game persisted (that is, just copying the Crowther and Woods concept). You can think of it as an “evolution of creativity” curve, showing how long it took for authors to take the narrative aspect of the game in new directions. Up to 1978 treasure hunts dominated; by 1980 less than half of all adventure games had the format.

When I finished with the 1970s I wrote about some “curious firsts”.

– First use of relative direction: Mystery Mansion
– First use of landmark navigation with no compass: Empire of the Over-Mind
– First defined player character: Aldebaran III
– First use of choice-based interaction in a parser game: Stuga
– First dynamic compass interface: Spelunker
– First dynamic puzzle generation: Mines
– First free-text conversation in an adventure context: Local Call for Death
– First adventure game comedy: Mystery Fun House

As the calendar gets more crowded with games, it gets harder to definitively say any particular game was “first” at something, but there were still some in 1980 worth highlighting; I’ve also added some 1979 games I played since the last list.

– First adventure to use graphics in every room: Atlantean Odyssey by Teri Li
– First Tolkein adventure conversion: Ringen by Hansen, Pål-Kristian Engstad, and Per Arne Engstad
– First Lovecraft game of any type: Kadath by Gary Musgrave
– First graphic adventure with some action solely in the graphics: Mystery House by Roberta Williams
– First adventure written specifically for children: Nellan is Thirsty by Furman H. Smith
– First “stateless” CYOA game written for computer: Mount St. Helens by Victor Albino
– First 3D graphic adventure: Deathmaze 5000 by Frank Corr, Jr.
– First adventure game that involves traveling back through time: Odyssey #3, Journey Through Time by Joel Mick and James Taranto

Now, what I think quite a few people like to see with these things is “but which are the best”? And of course, that’s a wildly subjective question, but I am aware there are very few people that are going to play enough of these games to make a qualified opinion, so I’m going to first grumble a bit (grumble grumble) and then produce four lists:

1. Games everyone should play

Crowther and Woods Adventure, 350 points (1977)
Zork I by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels (1980)

Not long, I know; these are the ones I’d pitch as worthy to the general game-playing public; there’s still enough wonky things to deal with amidst this era I’d be hesitant to recommend anything else without knowing more about their interests.

2. For adventure enthusiasts

Assuming you’re more tolerant of the quirks of adventures, there’s a lot more to choose from. I restrained myself to 10 games.

Crowther and Woods Adventure, 350 points (1977)
Voodoo Castle by Alexis Adams (1979)
Local Call For Death by Robert Lafore (1979)
Kadath by Gary Musgrave (1979)
Empire of the Over-Mind by Gary Bedrosian (1979)
Zork I by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels (1980)
Wizard and the Princess by Ken and Roberta Williams (1980)
Gargoyle Castle by Kit Domenico (1980)
Deathmaze 5000 by Frank Corr, Jr. (1980)
Will ‘O the Wisp by Mark Capella (1980)

These aren’t the only 10 I could pick, but I did try for a group that was representatively interesting, not too painful to play, and included both type-ins and commercial software. (The roughest experience on there for modern players is probably Deathmaze 5000, but if you download a map beforehand and are willing to spoil the calculator puzzle that mitigates the worst of it.)

3. Things I personally enjoyed quite a bit that didn’t make the above list

I realize untranslated Dutch games or ones reliant on late-1970s in-jokes might be a bit of a push for the average adventurer. (If you do speak Dutch, go play Dracula Avontuur.)

Trek Adventure by Bob Retelle (1980)
Crystal Cave by Anonymous and Kevin O’Gorman (1980)
Dracula Avontuur by Ronald van Woensel (1980)
House of Thirty Gables by Bill Miller (1980)
Odyssey #3, Journey Through Time by Joel Mick and James Taranto (1980)

I should add I really did in some sense enjoy everything, even the bad games, even the ones like Quondam that actively tried to be evil. I almost always regret making a list like this as soon as I have it written. Games, don’t fret not being on the list, you’re just fine the way you are.

4. Some bonus games for historians

The Count by Scott Adams (1979)
The Prisoner by David Mullich (1980)

I had reason to be slightly grouchy while playing both of these, but I recognize they do some stellar things with narrative design.

Posted January 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction



I first must confess: I handled the lore entirely wrong. The start of the “Officer Manual” is meant to be read before playing, but then there is a transition to an “Officer’s Supplement” with “Books” meant to be read only when they are encountered in the game, rather like the paragraphs in a Gold Box game. It’s quite possible to play a long time without seeing the proper “book text” and the revelation of X was not really meant to come until the end. Having said that, I doubt many people really did read things in the “right order” — there’s only 8 “books” and when flipping through the manual so it’s hard to avoid seeing the pertinent information early. (The switch in the manual between “go ahead and read this” and “save this for the game” is also weakly signaled.)

It did mean my assumption that X’s motivation was to avoid being caught was a little off — his paranoia may have still be set off by the racketball incident, but Joe Justin probably didn’t know enough from standard officer training to be aware of X’s existence.

The G.F.S. Sorceress can visit five planets: Altair IV, Tau Ceti III, Sol III, Epsilon Eridani V, and Rigel X. Sol III is Earth and needs to go last (the game is over if you go, and you’ve either won or lost depending on what you found). They can be visited in any order, which is good in a freedom-of-choice way, and bad in a for-the-most-part-you-can’t-solve-out-of order way. I made things even worse for myself by starting with the correct planet (Rigel X, depicted above) and missing a key item, a translator. Without the translator there’s a lot of text like this:


That’s not a cryptogram. (Using a cryptogram solver on the first sentence yields such gems as BOROUGH KNOTS KILN YMIR SKY MAW.)

Getting past the translation issue is necessary to solve most of the puzzles in the game, so I had a long period of being stuck wandering the planets until I re-re-visited Rigel X and found a GOLD BOX right in the open that indicated it was a translator.

In the same area, I found a SILVER BOX and a ROBOT as well as a book that was a Robot Mark IX User’s Manual.

Immediately below the robot instruction manual in the physical game’s manual was “Book 8” which shows up nowhere in the game, but it was hard to avoid seeing warnings like IF YOU ARE ARMED, SHOOT ANY ROBOT ON SIGHT.

The robot is controlled just like the player, only with prefacing all commands with ROBOT. In doing so the player actually “becomes” the robot in the duration, and the display screen is taken over by the robot’s view.

Driving the robot around was my favorite part of the game; it reminded me of Suspended.

The next planet on my quest was the desert planet was Epsilon Eridani V.

This is where you get swallowed by a sand worm as I hinted in my last post.

After a while I did get used to the idea of a single command possibly taking days, months, or years of in-game time.

You then get dropped in a cavern with a sand crab. If you have the translator the crab says that YOU SPEAK THE SACRED LANGUAGE ONLY KNOWN TO THE CHOSEN and lets you through, whereupon you find a room with crystals, sleeping gas (your spacesuit protects you), and most importantly, a GOLD NUGGET which is useful later.

You can incidentally blast the crab with your pistol. This makes you stuck and is Yet Another Infamous Adventure Game Softlock, but thematically, I kind of like the idea of having a player who tries to use violence for everything receiving some sort of consequence.

Past the desert planet comes the jungle: Tau Ceti III.

There’s an archway with the message WELCOME, GREAT GODS FROM THE SKY. WE, THE FAITHFUL, WAIT FOR YOUR RETURN. (This is the same as the not-cryptogram above, so if anyone wants to take a crack at what the real encryption is, you’re welcome to try.) Just past the archway is a tablet that reads HONOR WITH THE WATER OF LIFE THE GOD WHO GIVES THE TOKEN OF LIFE – BOOK OF THE SKY GODS, CHAPTER 9, VERSE 21. Just past the tablet is a lizard; if you take a golden ankh that has been on the Sorceress not doing anything, you get sprayed.

This “slippery” spray helps get you past an ARACHNID later and steal a WEB that’ll you’ll need for the next stop: the temperate planet of Altair IV.

I found an old, abandoned castle after making it through a hidden path in a forest, but was stymied by a concrete wall which clearly was hiding something. I still had my xenon pistol but blasting with the pistol indicated I was just blowing off small chunks and didn’t have enough firepower.

Here is where I needed my robot buddy to make the ultimate sacrifice.








Past the wall was a secret archive with a killer robot (this is where the WEB came in handy) and two books: one with the details about X, and another with legal code information that indicates someone who is ejected into space for mutiny is allowed a retrial if they can make it back to Earth. (It must be one of those abstruse specific-case laws from the old times, like one that gives fines if ducks are wearing sweaters or you eat jam on a Tuesday.)

However, if you just try to cart the books out, you get zapped by a force field! The trick here is to put in two replacement books for the two you are taking. When I hit this I had left the other two books from the game behind on the ice planet. (There’s a pretty right inventory limit, three items plus the spacesuit, and the translator takes up one of the slots already.) This meant to get by a puzzle, I had to fly to a different planet and back which involved the passage of six years of time.

After that moment of narrative whiplash, I took my evidence back to Earth for one final slumber-trip.

This was a little more ambitious in terms of narrative than Empire of the Over-Mind but it consequently fell down on a few spots; rather than a wide-open design that allowed multiple solutions, it ended up fairly linear. Rather than a cast of characters to help, there was only in essence one (I’m not even counting Selena, who just had the brief cameos at the start and end). There were awkward plot holes and too many improbable situations. (I wouldn’t say they were any more improbable than a typical 1980-era adventure, but this game tried to hold a bit more of a load with its story and thus the issue became much starker.)

Still, there was at least something “natural” in all the puzzle-actions; G.F.S. Sorceress did manage to unite actions and plot such that each propelled the other. Unfortunately, other than the Deluxe version of Empire of the Over-Mind, this is where Gary Bedrosian broke off his adventure-designing career; all three of the games definitely showed original thinking and had aspects (like the time compression and expansion) that would be fresh even for a new game.

And that’s it for 1980! 1981 brings us a fresh set of 100-or-so games, including …

  • Michael Berlyn’s first two games
  • Yet another long and difficult Phoenix game
  • The first extensive conversion of a book into a text adventure
  • Zork II
  • More 3-D adventure shenanigans with Med Systems
  • What is allegedly one of the most evil Apple II games ever made

… and some more surprises besides. Thanks for reading this far!

Posted January 2, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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