Archive for April 2021

Hunt the Wumpus on the AskHistorians Podcast   Leave a comment

I was a guest on a podcast! You can hear me talk for an hour about Caves and Hunt the Wumpus from my Before Adventure series.

Link to podcast here


Unfortunately my attempt to give plugs at the end got mangled, so let me quickly mention:

Aaron Reed published his article on Wumpus a week before recording, and it had some new research I got to use, as part of his excellent 50 Years of Text Games series.

I also referred some to Alex Smith’s book They Create Worlds.

And while dated, I can still recommend Steven Levy’s Hackers as a good glimpse of the era.

Posted April 15, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tanker Train (1981)   7 comments


Tanker Train — another in the long series of Roger M. Wilcox — is a good contrast to Castlequest, since instead of a sprawling 100 rooms, it only has 14. It’s a very tight, cinematic, and linear experience where you’re tasked with stopping a saboteur and defusing a time bomb.

You start sitting in a cabin seat (holding an FBI badge and a pistol, so we’re only marginally off-duty, I guess), and we hear a scream as mentioned above and stand up to find a dead body.

Like all the Roger M. Wilcox games, this was originally on TRS-80. I had trouble getting that version working so early on I switched with his modern port.

This is admittedly one of the most puzzling parts of the game — we wouldn’t notice someone else in the room coming in? Wouldn’t the murderer at least notice us and be concerned?

And unfortunately, things don’t quite hit fast-paced from here, because I was terribly stuck for about 10 minutes. You can go back to the original seat you start at an open a window, but try to go through and your hands slip and you go flying out at presumably 400 miles per hour.

I made a verb list testing my standard words


and while this turned out to be useful later, I was still lacking the right word to get started: FRISK. (Just random inspiration I tried it, but I remember now it was used in a prior Wilcox game, so I have now added it to my standard verbs-to-test list so I don’t get stalled the same way again.)

The body had a credit card, a leaflet advertising a different Wilcox game even though they were still all private games (“GET ‘THE VIAL OF DOOM’ ADVENTURE FOR YOUR TRS-80!”) and a helpful note.

The card works to open the door, revealing a coal fireplace and a fire extinguisher which can be applied to it.


I suppose 400 miles per hour on coal-burning would be tricky. The burning leaves a pile of ashes, and DIG ASHES reveals a bent piece of metal, and here I was stuck again for a while longer until I just rammed through the entire list of verbs and found RUB ASHES was useful as well — it meant that I was taking the main characters hands and covering them with ash. (I guess that’s correct syntax, but not usually the way the word RUB is used, so it didn’t occur to me. An odd bit of gameplay where slight variants of action based on the same verb can cause confusion — RUB is usually used to activate magic rings and the like in adventure games of this period.)

Moving on, the ashes were enough to give me a solid grip climbing out the window, and I was able to walk on the train to another car and use the piece of metal to break into it. (OK, it really can’t be going full speed, I guess then.)

Then I was able to drop into a car with a security guard and show my FBI badge.


Moving on, there’s another security guard, but trying to show the badge this time doesn’t go so well.

Yep, that’s the saboteur. You’re supposed to shoot him instead. Then just behind him you can find a ladder leading to an open valve (TURN VALVE closes it) and the time bomb. My first thought was to pick it up and take it somewhere to throw safely.

Fortunately, past the bomb there just happens to be a secret lab where you can mix some nitroglycerin. Taking the nitroglycerin back to the bomb and pouring it (as long as you’ve closed the tanker)…

…and victory!

Really, that’s it. That’s the whole game. I said it was short. It still felt satisfying to finish without hints, even if the swiftness of the plot seemed to demand a slightly more expansive parser. It’s the eternal dilemma with action-based text adventures like Heroine’s Mantle — you want to fight a ninja, or whatnot, but spending five minutes to communicate just how you want to disarm the blowdart mangles the atmosphere. Fortunately, with this game the big stopping point was right at the start.

Posted April 14, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with

A Master at Castlequest   13 comments

(If you’ve arrived here from elsewhere, you should read the series in order, as this post discusses gathering the last treasures of the game.)

I’m ready to check out of this one. There’s some sort of endgame section, like Crowther/Woods Adventure, and just like various Adventure variants, I have only partial confidence that it even is triggerable. A scan of the source code indicates I have otherwise found all the treasures. So, let’s do my final delve–

I was, rather satisfyingly, correct about the long sequence with the boat — since you open a hole past the moat, you can take the boat that way all the way to a spot where you can cross over to a small island.

You are at the base of a magnificent underground waterfall. A cool mist rising off the surface of the water almost obscures a small island. A tunnel goes west and stone steps lead up.


You are on a small island near a large waterfall. The sound of crashing surf can be clearly heard, although you cannot quite make out the form of the waterfall through the thick mist. A message traced out in the sand reads “GILLIGAN WAS HERE”. There are pieces of a wreck (the S.S. MINNOW?) scattered about.

There is a very large ruby here!

Rather less glamorously, my rope issue was resolved by finding an exit I had missed on my map. I used what I’ve termed the walkthrough method where I wrote a partial walkthrough just to be careful re-tracing my initial steps (and to feel like doing so wasn’t a waste of time, important psychological bit, that). My first thirteen steps (the game understands T for take):


In the process, in the underground section with a hunchback I found I simply had missed testing a particular exit. I also found, as a side effect, the hunchback is not doomed to die early: he simply acts as defense against the werewolf if it does a sudden attack no matter when it happens. I’ve noticed the rare occasion where the werewolf would cause instant death upon appearance, so this seems to be there simply to guard against that.

With the rope, I managed to go back to the room at the start of the game and retrieve a gold statue outside the starting window. Again, nothing too glamorous there, and even more unglamorously, I figured out my problem with the glacier: I needed to type IN as a direction and I could retrieve a crystal swan.

I still was fairly short on points and knew I was missing a section. Importantly, my use of the rope did *not* apply a grappling hook I had — I simply tied it to a bed. So I tied the to the grappling hook instead and went jaunting around looking for a place to use it.

I came across a cliff past the maze, and a final section:

You are at the edge of a sheer vertical drop overlooking an immense N/S cavern. Narrow paths head away to the east and west.

A rope is hooked to the top of the precipice.

There’s two places probably for atmosphere…

This is the disco room. Multicolored lasers pulsate wildly to the beat of badly mixed music. A stairway down is barely visible through the glare. A large passage exits south, and a smaller one leads west.


You have entered the land of the living dead, a large, desolate room. Although it is apparently uninhabited, you can hear the awful sounds of thousands of lost souls weeping and moaning. In the east corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers who were less fortunate than yourself. To the north is a foreboding passage. A path goes west.

… but the remainder of the map was there to serve up a cyclops, and a wizard. I was short on items, and tried my cuban cigar on the cyclops.

You are in a tall tunnel leading east and west. A small trail goes SE. An immense wooden door heads south.

There is a fairly large cyclops staring at you.


The cyclops turns to you and says:
“Hey buddy!. Got a light??”


The light is burning dimly.


The torch is burning noisily.


The cyclops chokes from the rancid tobacco, and crashes through the door in search of water.

There is a cyclops-shaped hole in the door.

This really strikes me as Zork-reference territory — I don’t think if it was ever cleared up with the authors if either one had seen Zork, but both the Land of the Dead and the cyclops in close proximity seem like direct references. As you’ll see in a moment, the Zork references get even more direct:

The broken door leads to a cyclops lair with a sword. Taking the sword further on, it starts to glow:

You are in a tremendous cavern divided by a white line through its center. The north side of the cavern is green and fresh, a startling change from the callous terrain of the cave. A sign at the border proclaims this to be the edge of the wizard’s realm. A rocky and forlorn trail leads east, and a plush green path wanders north.

Your sword is glowing dimly.


You are in an immense forest of tall trees. Melodic chanting can be heard in the distance. The trees seem to be guiding you along a N/S path.

Your sword is glowing very brightly.

Just a bit farther in:

This is the wizard’s throne room. Scattered about the room are various magical items. A long message in ancient runes is carved into the southern wall. It translates roughly as “Beware the power of the Wizard, for he is master of this place”. Two green paths go south and east, and a marble walk leads west.

A powerful wizard blocks your way with his staff.

The wizard just vaporizes you if you try to attack him. This is where my previous work in generating a verb list for the game paid off. I looked at any I might not have used, and the only one that came up was WAVE. So instead of swinging for the jugular, I tried WAVE SWORD:

The walls of the cavern tremble as you unleash the terrible power contained in the sword.

The wizard, sensing a stronger power than his own, flees in a blinding flash and a cloud of smoke.

Glorious! Past the wizard I found a cache of money, which represented the last missing treasure.

This is the safe deposit vault, an immense room with polished steel walls. A closed circuit T.V. camera hums quietly above you as it pans back and forth across the room. To the east is an open elevator. Engraved on the far wall is the message:

There is an ornate skeleton key here!

There is a bottle of vintage champagne here!

There is an ivory-handled sword here!

A gold statue is glistening in the light!

There is a silver cross nearby!

There is a very large ruby here!

Perched on the ground is a valuable jade figure!

A sapphire sparkles on the ground nearby!

There is lots of money here!

A delicate crystal swan lies off to one side!

Now, the reason I’m suspicious the ending might be broken is that the score acts oddly here; I checked at one point and had 275 points. I did a slight bit of object rearranging, and then afterwards, had 271 points even though the same treasures were in the vault. Some hidden timed element, perhaps? Either way, I got no messages indicating something signficant had happened, nor secret areas open up. I did find a real “ending text” scanning the source code but I’d rather only give it if I ever manage a true ending.

The game claims upon exit that I am a MASTER of Castlequest, which is honestly good enough for me.

ADD: Arthur figured out in the comments there’s a hidden time limit, and if you don’t get the treasures fast enough you don’t get the endgame. He made his own posts playing through the game here and here, if you want to see what the end is like. I also recommend his outstanding code comparison between Adventure and Castlequest (for example, Castlequest forces verb-noun order, while in Adventure word order doesn’t matter so you can GET LAMP or LAMP GET equally well).

Castlequest managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of 1979/1980 games; except for the maze with the bizarre changing names, the puzzles are essentially straightforward, and it was a longer game simply due to content as opposed to trying to get the player stuck on the same puzzle for hours. Most of the issues (ahem missing exits) I admit were essentially mine.

The framing around a nemesis to fight gave a slight bit more motivation than “just go find treasure”, and the castle structure also made the underground part seem less random (even when it started resorting to putting a jungle a few steps away from a glacier, and a disco room adjacent to the screams of the dead). It would be nice, still, to have a slightly more modernized port; there’s a save game feature, for instance, but it quits the game, and RESTORE only works at the very start of the game. The game also only understands ALL CAPS commands which turned out to be a source of 50% of the errors for me (especially when I kept switching back and forth to a map!) But in the end I am very, very, grateful both the authors (Michael Holtzman and Mark Kershenblatt) and Arthur O’Dwyer who helped rescue this game from oblivion.

As I stated on my first post about this game, The Pits (another lost 1980 game, this time on an online system called The Source) is also buried somewhere in the US Copyright Office. Anyone want to make a go at nabbing the treasure?

Posted April 12, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with

Castlequest: Underground   2 comments

I’ve reached a point I’m fairly sure is near the end, so I’m in my finish-or-bust phase.

After killing the vampire from last time, I went into an underground section.

I should mention, first, that while underground the werewolf attacks drop off, and you get attacked by gnomes instead.

There is an ugly little gnome in the room with you!

The gnomes are functionally identical to the dwarves in Adventure, including throwing the hatchet to kill them — shooting with the gun doesn’t work.


You killed a dirty little gnome.

There is a blood stained hatchet here.

You are in a perfectly square room carved out of solid rock. Stone steps lead up. An arched passage exits south. Above the arch is carved the message:



You are in a long sloping N/S passage. The darkness seems to thicken around you as you walk.


You are in a narrow room which extends out of sight to the east. Sloping paths exit north and south. It is getting warmer here.


This is the fire room. The stone walls are gutted from centuries of evil fires. It is very hot here. A low trail leads west and a smaller one leads NE. A sloping trail goes north.

A wall of fire bars the way to the NE.

If you have a bottle of water you can EXTINGUISH FIRE to get through. This lets you find an empty room with the word “POOF” — it’s a magic word that teleports you back to the second floor, although unlike Adventure it doesn’t work until you’ve found it — and a vault.

This is the safe deposit vault, an immense room with polished steel walls. A closed circuit T.V. camera hums quietly above you as it pans back and forth across the room. To the east is an open elevator. Engraved on the far wall is the message:


I’ve found a bit more in the way of treasure but not a lot: a jade figurine, a champagne bottle, and a sapphire. I still suspect whatever treasure hunt remains is not that extensive.

This is the honeymoon suite. The entire room is finished in red. In the center of the room lies a heart shaped bed. To one side is a heart shaped bath. A large mirror is mounted on the ceiling above the bed. The only exit is back the way you came.

There is a bottle of vintage champagne here!

The sapphire was past a maze. Veterans of Adventure might notice the room descriptions vary:

You’re in a short and winding maze of passages.


You’re in a maze of long and winding passages.


You’re in a long and winding maze of passages.

That is, by all appearances, this is another clone of the maze of rooms, all different. But! The room descriptions change.

Yes, trying to utilize the facts room descriptions change will get you hopelessly lost. I’m not sure if the logic is extensive or minor, but using the standard “drop objects to form a trail” method works instead just fine. I’ve never seen a room description fake-out quite like this before.

Past the maze, in addition to there being a sapphire, is a glacier marked with an “X”. I can melt the glacier with a helpful torch to form a hole, but I don’t have any other command I can use on the hole (I’ve tried entering it, looking in it, and so forth). If I try melting it again the glacier melts all the way and kills me.

For the same place I can go up and meet up at that room past the moat — where I needed to use a rowboat before.

You are on the far side of the moat. You can see a full view of the castle here in all its deadly splendor. A small town can be glimpsed far off in the distance. An old sign nailed to a tree reads:

There is a large opening in the ground.

However, the boat is on the wrong side to then go over the moat. I’m not sure what to do here, but I found the re-use of geography — on what seemed previously like a dead-end — to be fascinating. I think it’s possible what I need to do is open this area, walk all the way back around (maybe using the POOF teleport if I want to), then take the boat back across the moat so I can take it down? Remember, if I try to take the boat in the castle through the other way it doesn’t fit, but assuming I can get it to fit going down, there’s a candidate place for using it.

You are at the base of a magnificent underground waterfall. A cool mist rising off the surface of the water almost obscures a small island. A tunnel goes west and stone steps lead up.

You can’t swim, but maybe you can cross to the island with the boat.

The other bit of oddity is even though I have a grappling hook and a place to use it (the window at the very start of the game, you can melt the bars with the acid and clearly it is meant to then let you climb a rope) I still have yet to find a rope! I might be just missing an obvious exit with the rope in the open, or it might be a late-game item.

Either way, by next time I’m going to hang this one up for now or cruise to victory.

Posted April 9, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with

Castlequest: Dracula’s Brother   Leave a comment

I made it past a significant chunk; the game isn’t necessarily hard (which is a relief, considering other mainframe games we’ve seen) and my delay between posts has more to do with work/life distraction than the game itself.

(Also, I needed to finish AI: The Somnium Files. Long game, that. Three-quarters visual novel, rather unique adventure sections.)

Very close to after I hit “send” on my last post I realized at the boarded door that I couldn’t chop with a hatchet, I could still THROW HATCHET.

The door opens to a brick wall. —DEAD END—

A note on the wall reads “L 8 R 31 L 59”.

So, progress, but not much! I then made my usual gaffe of missing room exits, and on a room I even clipped an excerpt from last time. Since it’s been a week, here’s the room in question:

You are in the foyer. An umbrella near the door is dripping on the thick pile carpet. A black cape is draped neatly over the banister of a grand staircase leading up. A magnificentl archway leads north. Corridors lead south and southeast, a small hallway heads west, and a narrow stairway goes down.

The butler is sound asleep.

You can go down and you can go up. Novel, that. (To be fair, the ordering of exits is a little odd — they’re mentioned in the order up, north, south, southeast, west, down. Usually up and down get clumped together.)

This shows the second and third floor, although some puzzle solving is required to wander around the attic as “A huge vampire bat hangs from the doorframe and blocks your way.”.

The parts I could reach fairly easily yielded a quill pen and a skeleton key. The quill pen and paper from last time applied to the butler, which I need to explain —

I was stumped for a little while not for puzzle reasons, but for narrative reasons. I assumed the butler was an obstacle, insofar I was sneaking into a vampire’s castle, quite naturally the butler would stop me, and there would be some later puzzle that involved making sure the butler wouldn’t wake up.

I was wrong about this. The butler is helpful, something I was clued in on while experimenting with the gun:

You killed a deaf-mute butler (Not very sporting of you).

Oops! The right action here is WAKE BUTLER who then motions for some paper. Dropping the quill pen I just mentioned and the paper from last time, he writes on the note and shows it:

“Look behind the mirror.”

The skeleton key from the second floor will eventually take care of that locked door from last time. I say “eventually” because if you try to go back to the starting room with the key (which is near where the locked door is), you get dumped in a trap door:

You have fallen through a trap door and find…

You are in a dark stone E/W passage.

This isn’t a bad thing, as it leads to another new section, and another “what appears to be foe is in fact friend” area.

You are at the proverbial fork in the road. Paths lead east, northwest, and southwest.


This is the torture chamber. A matched set of thumb-screws hangs on the far wall. A large rack occupies the center of the room. A skeleton hangs from its thumbs above you, swaying gently. An arch leads NE.

A nasty hunchback eyes you from a corner of the room.


The hunchback gobbles down the food and smiles at you.




You’re at the fork.

A smiling hunchback is following you.

Unfortunately, the hunchback didn’t survive long.

You are in a low, dark chamber. A single mirror is set into the far wall. The exit goes south.

A smiling hunchback is following you.

There is a fearsome werewolf in the room with you!

The hunchback drives away the werewolf and dies in the struggle.

The werewolf is most definitely foe, and acts much like the dwarves in Crowther/Woods adventure do, showing up at random. The odd thing here is I have a gun and a silver bullet which work fine for taking the werewolf down (the body is dragged away by a “old gypsy woman”) and while the werewolf does keep re-appearing, the gun keeps still working. So I’m not sure if the sacrifice of the hunchback is really necessary here, and if I possibly did something wrong.

In the process of running around I came across a vial of acid (I haven’t used it yet) and some blood, which I used immediately after because I know where it went. Heading back to the attic with the vampire bat:


The bat gulps down the blood and flitters away.


You are in an old attic filled with old-fashioned clothes, a pile of newspapers and some antiques. An entrance to a cedar closet is to the east and there is a door to a crawlspace to the west.

The door to the west has a combination lock, which I already knew the combination of from the dead-end-hatchet room.






The lock is now open.


You are crawling along a low passage that leads east and west.

This eventually took me to an encounter with the long-awaited vampire:

You are in a huge anteroom to an even larger, mysterious chamber. A chilling wind seems to blow at you from all sides, and a deathlike, vapid black mist surrounds your feet. Hundreds of sinister looking bats cling to the ceiling and eye you with a spine-tingling anticipatory pleasure. Two dark, foreboding passages exit to the east and west, and a steep sloping corridor descends NW.


You are in the chamber of the master of the castle, Count Vladimir! Pictures depicting scenes of tranquil Transylvanian countrysides line the walls. A huge portrait of Vladimir’s brother, Count Dracula, hangs upon the near wall. In the center of the room is a large, ominous, mahogany coffin.

The coffin is closed.

I just wanted to experiment so I opened the coffin with no preparation … and instead of dying, found a sleeping vampire! I guess it would help if I had the wooden stake just lying around one of the rooms in the open, huh? I went to grab it, came back, and found the vampire awake. Fortunately, I was also toting around a silver cross, and my SHOW CROSS prophecy came true:

The Count sits up and prepares for breakfast-namely you!


The Count is frightened by the cross and cowers in the coffin.


The vampire clutches at the stake and dies, leaving only a pile of dust.

A note materializes on the wall which reads:

EMERGENCY EXIT–The mirror maze will lead you to the locked door. The exit lies within.

I’m not sure if that means if the cross is optional presuming you are wise enough to have the wooden stake the first time around? Does this puzzle have optional parts, maybe?

The mirror maze the note mentioned was one I had guessed was a “trick maze”.

This is the mirror maze. A myriad of mirrors reflect your image in a dazzling array of light. The reflections make it impossible to discren a direction.

Random wandering before just led me to some nearby rooms, nothing helpful. Random wandering *after* seeing the note led to that locked door that I was never able to get back to (due to the trap door).

You are in a dim corridor lit by gaslight. Doors exit to the east and west. A stairway leads down.






A cool wind blows up a stone stairway which descends down into a large stone room. A note written in blood reads “VERY CLEVER OF YOU TO MAKE IT THIS FAR”. The door leads east, back to the hall.

I’ve poked around a bit farther and it feels like the game changes to be more “standard adventure”. I’ve still only found two treasures (the silver cross, and a jade figurine past the locked door) so I don’t know how much game is left.

Assuming there are no more twists, the structure has been

1. start having already broken into the castle … or maybe we got kidnapped or something?

2. gather materials and get past obstacles to confront the vampire

3. kill the vampire

4. make it to the “escape” which holds an entirely new exploration section with treasures

It means killing the Big Foozle may only be the midway point, which is decidedly a bit odd in general, although Dracula Avontuur did something similar where finding a treasure came after the vampire-killing.

What’s also odd is that it is 100% certain both games are entirely independent of each other. Something about the “kill a vampire” notion unlocked an experience more structured than the typical games of this time. Perhaps it is that the horror genre leads more naturally to classic-adventure-gameplay than the fantasy genre does. (See also The Count and Secret of Flagstone Manor, although the latter has a ghost rather than a vampire.) If monsters are killed in horror, they require particular artifacts or rituals — essentially, some sort of puzzle solving is required by convention. Whereas in fantasy one is expected, D&D style, to be able to just swing a sword — see how killing the troll in Zork isn’t even a “puzzle” really. Hence the puzzles of adventure games fit more naturally into the horror mold (consequently doing a better job integrating gameplay and story) and fantasy games have to work a little harder.

Posted April 2, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with