The Golden Baton (1981)   6 comments

IFComp 2020 continues apace; I’ve played some interesting games, but I’m going to save any words for close to the end. (Although, look: this one is really good.)

In the meantime, the Project continues, and for this game, the Quest for Earliest Britventure.

Brian Howarth is famous for his “Mysterious Adventures” series of 11 games, starting with The Golden Baton. He originally coded the first several directly for TRS-80, but later converted all of them to the Scott Adams database format*. If you look them up today, those are the main versions that pop up, but I’ve been playing both the original TRS-80 version and the BBC Micro version** from a year later (after Howarth had switched to Scott Adams format), and I can say they are significantly different. I’ve had puzzles I could solve in one version and not the other, up to the point I started just having both versions loaded at the same time.

I’m happy to describe my gameplay so far, but first! — how does Mysterious Adventure No 1 stack up against our three-way tie, in terms of release day? Just as a reminder, we’ve had Planet of Death, The City of Alzan, and Atom Adventure all come out in July 1981, with the first two even being advertised in the same issue of the same magazine. As the picture above indicates, The Golden Baton was first advertised in May, meaning it almost certainly came earlier (by magazine lag time, March or April of 1981). You can see lots more advertising here as collected by Gareth Pitchford.

I would now normally throw confetti and declare this the winner for Earliest Britventure*** — I had, in fact, planned for a while to finish my Quest here — but Gareth found a wildly-obscure-but-fascinating 1980 game which blows all the rest out of the water (I’ll be getting to that one soon). Disclaimer: to a genuine extent, this sort of chronological jockeying is for fun. A few months, in the tangled thread of influences, is not significant enough to wring hands over, especially given the variety of presentations and platforms (the 1980 game we haven’t got to yet is for yet another computer platform). Also, as I discussed with Atlantean Odyssey the second or third to arrive at an idea can be much more influential than the first. That’s certainly the case here — Howarth’s work is still “famous” (as far as text adventures can be), the series starting with Planet of Death casts a shadow over the Spectrum computer world, and while the City of Alzan game itself didn’t influence much the source code was part of a family tree of borrowing and development. Atom Adventure is just a blip on history but it’s essentially a proto-version of the colossal Xanadu Adventure from 1982.

The intro of the BBC version is rather long, and reminded me of Tower of Fear, so I have done another dramatic reading. Enjoy. (If it doesn’t show in your browser, you can find it here.)

Dark clouds drift ominously across the rising moon, you cringe as the night silence is suddenly shattered by the fearsome howl of some fell creature deep within the forest.

Weary from travelling, unable to force yourself onward, you sink to the ground and lean back against the bole of a huge, gnarled old tree. As your aching limbs slowly relax, you silently curse the road that led you to this evil place.

The noble cause that initially motivated you to undertake this deadly mission seems to pale into insignificance against the perils that you have, up until now, survived.

Your mission is to recover the legendary Golden Baton, a priceless artifact that has been worshipped by your race for countless generations.

The Baton was stolen from the palace of King Ferrenuil, ruler of your homeland. Many learned counsellors strongly believe that the Golden Baton holds within it a kind of life-force that maintains an equilibrium between the forces of good and evil.

For many centuries, your homelands have suffered no wars, no droughts or famine.

King Ferrenuil fears for the future of his people as the influence of the Baton has been taken from his lands.

Ever since the Baton was stolen, brave warriors and hardy knights were sent far and wide through the world in search of this artifact… none ever returned.

So it was that you started out on your journey, travelling through strange, hostile lands until finally you reached this territory of Evil magic whose name is never spoken. An almost tangible feeling of malice pervades the atmosphere and weariness descends upon the traveller like a pall of death.

You draw your robe around yourself to ward off the icy chill of night and sink into a troubled sleep, mortally afraid of what the coming days may cast upon you…

Summary: There’s a Golden Baton. Find it.

In all seriousness: I’m trying — and somewhat failing — to see from the perspective of the writer. To my readers, is there anyone who likes this kind of lore dump? It would be better if there was some relation to the game, but I reckon a 90% chance everything above is fluff. When I’m amidst the actual-gameplay portion of an adventure, I’ll happily go along with odd textual constructions, but when having to treat a block of text as just text, it’s hard for me to remain unruffled with phrases like “this territory of Evil magic whose name is never spoken”.

Art from The Tate’s collection of minimalist work. (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unreported.)

On the left, Sol LeWitt’s Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off from 1972. On the right, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII from 1966.

Both are from the minimalist “school”, both in the same museum collection, and they were only made 6 years apart. Yet, there are significant differences in form; the LeWitt piece plays with shadow, while the Andre piece is nearly shadow-free. Andre’s cinder blocks are an arrangement of found materials, while LeWitt’s piece is a constructed sculpture. While both involve “geometric single or repeated forms”, even in that zone the single-offset-repeat of the cube feels much different than the many-block-repeat on the right.

The point here is while we tie the works together with the word “minimalist”, there are still shades of difference within that meaning; we could make sub-schools within sub-schools and still not fully encompass the potential areas of minimalist technique.

This is relevant for The Golden Baton; I’ve used “minimalist” quite a bit to describe this sort of game …

..but also this sort of game.

They’re the same game, by the same person, but the BBC Micro version (the second shot) is sort of an ultra-minimalism, describing locations by one or two words. The TRS-80 version includes a bit more, and the effect on playing is significant.

A few more comparisons just to make the point; I think I can get away with not labeling which is which:

I AM BY A HUGE OLD TREE WITH GNARLED BRANCHES.

I’m by a Tree

I AM IN A CLEARING IN THE FOREST, THERE IS AN OLD HUT HERE WITH THE WINDOWS BOARDED UP.

I’m in a clearing by a Cabin

I AM NOW INSIDE THE HUT, THE FLOORBOARDS ARE ROTTEN AND THERE IS A HOLE IN THE FLOOR.
THINGS I CAN SEE ARE:-
AN OLD BARREL – AN OIL SODDEN RAG –

I’m in a Cabin with hole in floor
Things I can see: Barrel – Oil Sodden Rag –

To reiterate, this did have genuine gameplay effect. In the first room you find a sword hidden in the leaves, and just south there are some brambles.

I AM IN A TANGLE OF BRIARS, I FEEL LIKE A PINCUSHION! THE BRIARS ARE SO THICK I CAN HARDLY SEE ANYTHING.

I’m in a tangle of PRICKLY briars

You can CHOP BRAMBLES which reveals a hidden rope. I found it this easier to realize in the super-minimalist version of the game.

The sword can then be used to kill a wolf…

The BBC version just says I’m by a Path and there’s no north direction specified; you need to GO PATH.

… and past the wolf to the north is a castle. You can swim in the moat.

I AM STOOD AT THE PORTCULLIS, I DONT THINK I CAN OPEN IT.

I’m at a Portcullis

I was stumped in the BBC version, but the slight extra text in the TRS-80 version (and the clarification I wasn’t still swimming) led me to try THROW ROPE.

THE ROPE HAS CAUGHT ON SOMETHING! I THINK ITS SECURE!

I should note this confusion wasn’t just mine; Dale Dobson at Gaming After 40 got stuck here (he played a Scott-Adams-format-with-graphics version), and complained at length about this puzzle being too hard to solve.

Past this inside the castle is a armored figured. In the TRS-80 edition of the game the figure stops you so you can go no farther.

In the BBC version, you can just walk on by. Past the figure I’ve found a lamp that lets me get in a dark cave at the cabin/hut I clipped earlier.

I haven’t been able to solve the armored figure puzzle, so I can’t yet get the lamp in the TRS-80 version! It still helps to know the progression — I know not to fuss with the dark hole assuming I’ll find something to get by the figure — but I’m going to stick with the TRS-80 as my “primary” game for now with the BBC game as a supplement.

(*) Mr. Howarth reverse-engineered the Scott Adams format on his own, and later helped make official ports of those games.

(**) I chose the BBC Micro in honor of the work of Anthony who recently ported the BASIC versions of Pirate Adventure and Adventureland with some fascinating write-ups. Also, for more IFComp reading, he picked apart and ported the C64 game that Nick Montfort entered.

(***) I’m incidentally excluding ports of Crowther/Woods Adventure from all this. I’m also not discussing Level 9’s Fantasy from 1981 because the game is currently lost, although it’s on my Top 3 of Games I’d Really Like To Try — it’s not only historically important from the angle of the company it came from (sort of the Infocom of the UK, although I’d split the title with Magnetic Scrolls) but in being the odd sub-genre of open-world-with-dynamic-characters as seen in other games like The Hobbit.

Posted October 7, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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6 responses to “The Golden Baton (1981)

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  1. Yeah, it’s hard to argue against Golden Baton being the most influential of that early batch of British adventures, for non-ZX Spectrum users… even if it didn’t come first. In my experience, most UK gamers tend to cite either one of Howarth’s games, one of the Artic games, or The Hobbit as their first experience of text adventures. The Mysterious Adventure series managed to ride the wave out of these very early home microcomputer days onto the almost endless stream of affordable British computers that followed.

    Brian Howarth was definitely our closest equivalent to Scott Adams, with Brian’s games being widely played due to their many ports, remakes & re-releases across a wide range of computers. It’s therefore fitting that Brian was responsible to bringing Scott’s games to British micros! Despite that, I don’t think he gets enough recognition for his achievements and his own games.

    If that BBC version of Golden Baton seems minimalistic, I can only imagine what the 8K Vic-20 port was like. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have been archived anywhere.

    Going back to early British adventures, there is also no trace of the two potential contenders on the Commodore PET… Supersoft’s Catacombs (March 1981) and Game Workshop’s Adventure (July 1980). Both disk-based, it seems incredibly unlikely that they’ll ever turn up, because of their rarity; although there is at least some hope that Catacombs could survive in one of its later, remastered C64/128, Plus 4, CPC/PCW or PC versions.

  2. To my readers, is there anyone who likes this kind of lore dump? It would be better if there was some relation to the game, but I reckon a 90% chance everything above is fluff.

    *shrug*? I guess the idea is to push you towards imagining something more detailed than the room descriptions themselves can provide. Doesn’t bother me much; Infocom games often have long opening flavor texts.

    So if this game is a fantasy – knights, elves, magic – why the stereotyped “Chinese restaurant” typeface? Is it “East Asia = MYSTERRRRIOUSSS!” regardless of any actual relation to the content?

    • Hard to tell what the motivation behind the font was, this many years later… It could’ve just been because it looked cool. The publisher John Harding had been stationed out in the “Far East” with the RAF and had intended to emigrate to Hong Kong, so that might have been an influence or the type of thing he thought would be appealing. Given the later Molimerx Mysterious Adventure adverts, I wouldn’t read too much into it. Arrow of Death, for example, is represented by a large arrow… with a coffin inside.

      • It does make it end up looking a little more like “golden chopstick” than golden baton. Mind you, the Digital Fantasia adverts/covers are worse… they’re 100% “golden dogbone”.

  3. I actually like this kind of “lore dump”, as you call it. It’s probably due to the primacy effect that it changes everything that comes afterward, even if it doesn’t tie in with it at all.

    That said, I’m happy to see you tackle the first Brian Howarth adventures as I genuinely like them (although I haven’t played all of them). They are truly minimalist but it’s well-written minimalism (which I honestly cannot say about Scott Adams).

    • It took about an hour to get a solid recording in, so I at least gave it my best effort.

      I’ve definitely been looking forward to the Howarth games! As Gareth mentioned, Howarth doesn’t get enough recognition.

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