The Time Machine (1981)   5 comments

As a Newspaper reporter you are sent to investigate the eccentric professor who lives in the old house on the Moors. What is his secret and why is his house now deserted?
— From the cover of the BBC Micro version of The Time Machine

Brian Howarth’s second Mysterious Adventure was again originally written for TRS-80 and converted later to the Scott Adams database format; I’m going to just go with the TRS-80 version this time rather than trying to play two versions at once.

For a bit of color, here’s the title screen from the Acorn Electron version, via Everygamegoing.

I was genuinely excited to get to this game, because

a.) despite “time travel” being roughly as standard as “fantasy”, there’s more flexibility for the adventure author to get creative

b.) the plot presented itself as integrated rather than slapped on

c.) based on prior my time travel adventures, the genre forces a self-contained geography

Let’s discuss the last point a little more–

Past a certain level of experience, writers tend to go too long more than too short. While forcing minimalism is not always a guaranteed route to quality, and there are some top-notch writers who are also long-winded, brevity can temper some of the rougher excesses (I gave an example of this back when I posted about Chou’s Alien Adventure).

While we don’t often think of creating imaginary map geography as “writing”, it can be its own form of artistic creation. Crowther/Woods Adventure was based around a real cave, and had a solidity to it despite some truly random parts; authors who tried to mimic this later didn’t necessarily fare better. For example, both Goblins (the 1981 version) and Intergalactic (from the Atom Adventures collection) turned out particularly dire. Both examples share a need for contiguous terrain, and interlinking designed for sheer pain.

The time travel games we’ve seen, by their nature, force small sections; authors discovered you sometimes don’t need more than a handful of rooms to indicate an era. It becomes much harder to make a sprawling cavalcade of bad decisions. (1982’s Time Zone might bust through this by its sheer size, but that was on six floppy disks.)

As the intro text indicated, you start out not as a mad scientist, but as a journalist looking for one.

Rough opening: the above is a tiny maze, where you have no objects and more or less have to drift at random. If you step wrong, you end up in quicksand.

I was seriously stumped upon first hitting this point. Late the same night I tried one more shot at the section on my cell phone, and hit upon (after my second turn) the command GRAB BUSH:

Whew! That was a close shave..Better watch my step!

Rather than hammering on the unfairness of the guess-the-verb here, I want to point out it is fascinating that I broke through the puzzle by tackling it in an entirely different environment. One of the standard pieces of advice for adventure gamers is to play with a group, but here I managed the same effect by having my brain “reset” as if I was enlisting a member of my Clone Army.

Proceeding onward, I found a house with gloves and a bellpull.

I was able to punch through a nearby window while wearing the gloves.

This is what happens if you aren’t wearing the gloves.

Inside I found: a key hidden behind a picture, a pistol, a flashlight, a ham sandwich, and a room with a mysterious machine.

The cassette player had a tape. Playing it led to this message, given “slowed down” in real time:

I’m unclear on the sequence of events that led to being able to send a cassette player through time but not Dr. Potter himself. I can envision a few scenarios (sample: the tape is a “failsafe” Dr. Potter had set up prior to his trip to allow recording from the future), so I wouldn’t call this a true plot hole.

But hey: rather than just a treasure hunt for glass control prisms, we have a lost person, a mysterious enemy, and the fate of the world at stake (in a way that feels more concrete than just fantasy-bad-guy-is-bad). Good plot thread!

Oddly, the “forward” and “back” seem to rotate through options, rather than being “future” and “past”. I don’t think I’ve seen the future yet. I’ve made it to a scene with the Sphinx:

…a swamp with dinosaurs…

Well, one so far at least.

…and a ripoff from the book (and movie) 2001.

I’m still exploring to learn more, so this is a good stopping point. Based on the opening map (see below), I’d say the “forced brevity” idea is holding out.

Posted October 15, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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5 responses to “The Time Machine (1981)

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  1. For 1981 that’s a pretty fancy splash screen (or is the Electron version later?).

  2. This was the first adventure game I ever played – and it took me over a week to get off the moors, as I didn’t understand the way the game worked.
    Unfortunately, with the BBC emulator I’m using there seems to be a problem with the random function, as about 75% of the time when you press one of the buttons you just end up back in the cellar, and I’m sure that didn’t happen in the original BBC version. I did complete it, though, and my memory of it proved to be fairly good.

    • Interesting! I’m not sure who I’d inform about the BBC emulator issue (and if that also applies to BeebEm or one of the others) but I’m sure someone would want to know. Anthony (who hangs out here) might know?

      The moors are quite a rough start; I just dumb-lucked into it, really.

  3. I suspect the problem is not so much with the emulator itself as the way in which Howarth got a random (or at least unpredictable) number – I suspect he may have used the clock to do this, which is much easier than accessing RND() from assembler (it’s what I did in an adventure I wrote for the BBC back in the day).

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