Gold (1981)   12 comments

Via zx81stuff.

Hilderbay Ltd was founded in 1979 and claimed in a later ad that their first product was for vacuum tube computer. Their software held to a general theme:

  • Critical Path Analysis
  • Stock Control
  • Mortgage + Loan
  • Payroll
  • Simple Word Processor
  • Statutory Sick Pay
  • Kempston Centronics Interface S

Somehow, amidst all these utilities and business software, they produced a two-pack game cartridge for the ZX-81: Pick a Word and Gold. (No name is attached to any of them, although they did publish a short book attributed to Andrew Pennell.)


For example, if you can pick KEN, CRIME, and PEST, you win the game, since they all have the letter E. I admit I don’t know what the optimal strategy is, but the game claims on difficulty level 2 the best you can do is hold the computer to a draw.

Now, this is All the Adventures, not All the Computer Renditions of Tabletop Games (although here’s a link to play Pick a Word online), so what really interests us is the other game from the set, the wildly obscure Gold, which does happen to be listed on Mobygames, but under the category Compilation where nobody can find it. I came across it by browsing the website zx81stuff more or less at random.

The game is one of the surprisingly few from this era that ditches having a parser (see: Quest, Adventure in Murkle); even games which clearly stretch the machines they are designed for include the tried-and-true two word (or some multi word variant).

This is partially just cultural inertia — after all, strategy games of the time, from Oregon Trail to Taipan, were perfectly comfortable with menus. Even Japan started with a parser, even though the Japanese language doesn’t mesh with the two-word standard so well, and they started getting creative with menus when forced to by constraints. (Adventure in Murkle in particular also drops a parser due to be stuffed into a tiny 4K of space.) There’s design issues, too, but let’s get exploring now and save discussing them for after–

The map as I managed to get it. I can’t say it is the “complete map” for reasons I’ll get to.

As implied by the opening screenshot, your objective is to grab “a huge treasure”, and you are limited to direction commands, Get, Leave (drop stuff), and Open. As expected, a great deal of the gameplay consisted of just wandering around, and since the game doesn’t bother to specify exits, you have to test N/S/E/W/U/D on each and every room.

My first time through. I tried to get the strongbox if I couldn’t unlock it, thinking I could tote it around. Note that the way to specify an item is simply to list the first letter, so I was spoiled as to the existence of Sapphires when I was really trying to get a Strongbox. Somehow the game managed to make an almost-no-verb setup feel awkward. Also, the “man-eating spider is not here” message is going to become important.

The keys for the strongbox above are nearby, and inside the box are the sapphires, so there’s not much suspense in finding them. Most of the room descriptions are the standard “imagine what a random fantasy cave might look like” form…

…except for this part.

You get looped if you go into the laboratory back to the place you were in. “Pale, sightless creatures” is an interesting phrase; not common enough to be a cliché, but standard enough it shows up in that exact order in a number of books; ex: “Aidan had expected a dark, dreary place, one fraught with jagged edges, cold pools of water, and pale, sightless creatures.” When is a turn of phrase too stale, however colorful it may be?

Structurally, the game lets you meander in a fairly straightforward way to the northwest corner of the map and grab the “gold” of the title, just past an ice bridge (with a locked door I’ve never managed to open). Where things get interesting is when you try to get out.

The front exit has two routes, but they are both blocked off as shown above. (Quest did the exact same trick, where once you found the treasure you couldn’t go back the way you came.) A third exit through a trapdoor doesn’t allow you to fit the gold through either. Wandering back to see if I missed anything, I had a wraith steal my gold.

I’d love to talk more at length about how even with extremely limited actions available the game managed something of a plot structure, but things cut off right here — I haven’t gotten farther, and with the current extant copy, I don’t think I can. That’s because one exit — east at the “sheer wall” quoted earlier — is the only one I haven’t tried, but it crashes the game. It is faintly possible I missed an exit on my map, as has often happened before, but I did treat things quite systematically. The only hitch is the dead ends.

One way a number of these games saved on space is to have rooms in mazes have a simple “Dead End.” as the description. It allows tossing in a bunch of extra navigational headache for the player without much more work for the author. On my map I started marking the dead ends as “cut off” exits because it took too much space to keep adding the rooms:

Two rooms right at the entrance. The “Turning” has a dead end going west and a dead end going down.

I started testing exits on each dead end just in case they weren’t really dead ends (The Tarturian did this trick) but after about 10 or so with no luck I just started assuming every dead end was real. Then near the end of my mapping I came across this by accident:

Yes, going east from a dead end didn’t say that direction was impassible, but rather, took me to a new dead end. However, the result was just a multi-dead-end as opposed to a new secret area. It is still faintly possible one of the myriad dead ends holds something genuinely interesting, but because of the crash on the cliff exit, I don’t have high confidence the game is winnable as is.

Or if “winnable” is even the right way to think about it. Early issues of Your Computer advertised a contest:

If you can’t find it amidst the messy text, the ad is promising the one who sends “the highest score” by 31 July 1982 will win a “64K Memotech” (a memory expansion pack). I have been unable to locate any results, but it may mean the high score is a little fuzzier than the average for this time period. (How did they keep people from cheating, anyway? You get 1 point for each room visited so there’s not a lot of “impossible” scores as long as you pick something reasonable.)

Gold still exists as an interesting specimen of trying to make an adventure with limited flexibility of action. It’s also somewhat astounding how awkward it still is to control; the specify-objects-by-their-first-letter system is somehow worse when it fails than a parser. “I didn’t understand that” — fair, I was trying to take an spiderweb but it was just an item of decoration — “I don’t see any sapphires here” — what? The first seems like intransigence but not fatal, while the second is a straight error, and made me feel uncomfortable in my actions, like I wasn’t getting a real treasure, but a fake virtual one that sets a variable flag.

Posted June 10, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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12 responses to “Gold (1981)

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  1. I see the source code is available and in BASIC. This may be a Death Ship situation where review of the code will crack its secrets. Giving it a perusal shortly.

    • Hmm. This is proving impenetrable so far, although I can certainly confirm there are additional locations (and apparently a key to that locked door) not yet discovered. I don’t know if there’s any way to correct the source code listing, but I think the reason for the error is the line “9310 LOAD” which I think should instead read “9310 SCROLL.”

      • You can quit, type the line (just a normal BASIC thing) and then jump back in by typing GOTO 1. Seems to have fixed the issue.

        The way SCROLL vs LOAD gets stored I think is a single character, so it may just be a tape dump corruption.

      • Thanks! And with that I’ve now finished the game (although I still can’t say I fully understand its events).

  2. Well, the source code is proving dense (particularly its handling of player movement), but one thing I have discovered is (remainder rot13’d) gung gur “Infg Pnirea” ybpngvba ba lbhe znc frrzf gb or n Mbex VV Pnebhfry fvghngvba – V enaqbzyl ernpurq n ebbz abg ba lbhe znc juvyr gelvat na rkvg gurer (fcrpvsvpnyyl, tbvat HC), ohg vg qbrfa’g nyjnlf jbex. V nyfb erqvfpbirerq gur Tbyq nsgre gur jenvgu fgbyr vg.

    • Finished the game (I didn’t look at ROT13 until I was done).

      I’ll blog about it more at length, but the main thing is that the laboratory gets cleared out for some reason — I don’t know how I triggered it. That lets you reach a “rumbling in the bowels of the earth” room, followed by a “maze” which I didn’t bother to map, then a “dark place” where you can go down and land next to the exit and escape.

      • I *think* the trigger for all that may be finding the gold a second time after the wraith steals it. Or does that not match your experience?

  3. What’s the meaning of swudenpolox?

    • It’s a short listing of the possible commands mentioned in the intro; South, West, Up, Down, East, North, Points, Get, Leave, Open, Exit.

  4. (“Pick a Word” is Tic-Tac-Toe in disguise — if you arrange the words in a grid QUICK PUTS NUMB; LARK PAIN LAMB; KEN PEST CRIME, then the winning combinations are exactly the lines, columns and diagonals of the grid.)

  5. Dropping a comment here to keep lack of links found by eientei in the Gaming Alexandria discord. Mike Salem ran Hilderbay and wrote articles, it is unclear if he wrote the game.

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