Forbidden City: Rise (and Fall) of the Robots   4 comments

I managed to finish, so as usual previous posts are needed for context, and complete spoilers ahead.

Before I get into the gameplay, a bit of history. Forbidden City happens to be (via an unofficial translation) one of the only text adventures ever published in the USSR, and I’m not sure if the original author (Demas) even knows about it.

Aaron Reed recently wrote about P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A., a parody game published in Czech for the ZX Spectrum which includes a copy of Marx’s Kapital in a toilet and an inspiring newspaper editorial that is required to solve a puzzle (“YOU IMMEDIATELY ACQUIRED A TASTE FOR WORK, WHICH IS AN ESSENTIAL HONOR FOR ANY SOCIALIST CITIZEN TO DO.”) Jim Gerrie has translated the game into English so you can go play it yourself. For obvious reasons — the Velvet Revolution was still a year away — the game was distributed slowly and the author Miroslav Fídler intentionally mangled the source code to hide its authorship.

That’s not the case with Město Robotů (Robot City) from 1989, which had sponsorship from the Czech government, and is a direct translation of Forbidden City.

Image from Spectrum Computing. Despite the official nod for the game itself, the cover artist, Kája Saudek, was banned from mainstream media.

The game, programmed by Vít Libovický, was released as part of a contest by Zenitcentrum Beroun, a center for computing run by the state. There were ads on Czechoslovak Television and in the press. It went for sale “early” before it was meant to be playable — a password to unlock the game was given on air on September 21, 1989, but the password turned out to be easy to crack and the contest had to be cancelled, so winners were drawn by lottery instead.

“A science fiction computer game. Produced by Zenitcentrum to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Pionýr Organization of the Socialist Union of Youth.” Screenshots (and the information about the game) from an article in the book Gaming Globally.

As a side note, the contest inspired a second game a year later from students at the Electrotechnical University in Pilsen: …and what about that?! It is set in a time after the Soviet bloc fell. It involved the main character, a journalist, being tasked to write about Brazilian coffee and discovering a conspiracy in the process. Instead of being a parser game it used hypertext (inspired by, of all things, the help system of Turbo Pascal). I have not been able to find a copy of the game or screenshots.

A print advertisement. While the game itself has one friendly robot, as you’ll see, there’s overall much more violence than the picture indicates.

Back to the Forbidden City! And not the 1981 original, but the mid-80s Macintosh port, which — with the exception of a few textual messages — is very close to the TRS-80 version.

I had been stuck on an area that it turned out I had entirely mined out for resources already — my miss was assuming that the dark area that the monorail passed through needed to be skipped and returned to. One of my objects already was capable of being a light source.

TWIST was not on my standard verb list (it is now). I had already tried TURN and ROTATE, neither which work.

In my taxonomy of guess-the-verb

Struggling to Communicate (know to do something, but unable to convey it)
Receiving Bad Information (a verb which could be considered a synonym gives a misleading message)
Hidden (not realizing there was a verb that wasn’t guessed correctly)

this mostly fits under “Hidden”, but I will say (unlike back in Hezarin where I tried to YELL, found the verb lacking, and decided that wasn’t a solution) there was very little intention in my attempting “turn” on the rod. In truth, I visualize twist as a slightly different action (turning the two ends in opposite directions). I suppose the dangling question is: was there any way of me solving this without looking up the answer outright, which I did? A “focus on fiddling with the rod” hint might have done it — I might have even consciously though “what if I twist both ends” — but this still seems like a stumble in a gameplay sense without some extra in-game nudge. The description of the rod from The Staff “Slake” comes to mind, which explicitly says “Its bottom seems worn from tapping against the ground” as both an action and verb signal; maybe the rod could have a similar message about smudges or the like.

Moving on: I found a grotto with a control panel where a yellow button let me open a “dead end” that had tokens and a hostile robot I had to SHOOT with my laser.

Past this point there was a continuous stream of robots appearing. They could appear at any moment and there was no restriction as to how many times a robot would appear in a row, and while they only sometimes (randomly) kill the player, I had to essentially stop to SHOOT ROBOT every time one appeared. This was both intense and annoying. Certainly in a plot sense it made the whole thing more dynamic (and more like the game’s original cover) but there were moments were stopping to shoot was fatal and there’s a limit to laser shots (90) so what was originally slow exploration turned into a mad race (and given the puzzles end up being “decipher what these mystery buttons do” genre, there was an unfortunate clash).

With the tokens in hand, I was able to take the monorail to the third stop, scarf up all the items, and then a fourth and final stop, which had a box with two buttons and a nuclear reactor with a red key.

The reactor makes you irradiated but there’s a nearby decontamination room with a button that cures you; the timing is very tight so you can’t make any stops on the way (that includes shooting a laser at a killer robot if they’re following).

Having raided the fourth station, I took my newfound red key, took it back to the dark station, and after INSERT RED and TURN RED on a control panel the lights for the underground stayed on (which is good, because the light source doesn’t have much juice). I incidentally did not get the TURN on my own and it is the only part of the game where this is required, even on other key locations.

With the power on I was able to use one of those beam-activated doors I had been encountering to enter an underground building.

The building featured a “teleportation station” between floors…

This uses the magnetic card I had been toting around. Also, if you take the green radiation stone in the lead container you get fried, so you have to leave it behind.

…an unmoving robot in a storage room, a robot assembly room, and a security outpost.

The “cartridge” from the robot assembly could be put into the unmoving robot to make a new robot buddy that would follow me around. In the security outpost I found a vent by LOOKing and was able to unscrew it with a screwdriver found on one of the other floors (if you stay too long or have a hostile robot chasing you, the robots at the security station notice and kill you). Through the vent I found a place where I could insert my green key I had been toting around for a while and use it to disable the robots continuously chasing me. Whew!

(This sounded short and smooth, but it took many attempts with lots of false attempts and deaths from the random hostile robots that kept appearing.)

I’m not going to detail every event that happens (and lever that gets pushed, and beam of light that turns out to be fatal rather than helpful, …) but I eventually found a place I could use the “overload” feature of my laser (since I didn’t need it to zap hostile robots anymore)…

…and a control room where Helpful Robot Buddy hit some buttons, although I wasn’t clear what they did…

…and I eventually wound up at a spaceship.

Just in case you forgot, we had crash landed before, so our goal is to get off the planet. It wasn’t clear until this moment.

There’s some very awkward confusion about what buttons to push where — the endgame really is all about deciphering the effect of buttons — and I eventually realized the “small box” that came from near the irradiated plant with two buttons worked here. To get the spaceship moving it needed power, which turned out to be in the form of the radiation-laden stone from the lead container I had to leave behind while teleporting around. (After consulting some more hints I realized there was a room I could leave it in and a lever I could pull to make sure it was accessible from a different floor. This turned out not to be hard, necessarily, but I was getting lost in a swarm of buttons by then.)

However, the green stone is still radioactive and will still kill you after exposure! This was a nice bit of parallelism in the previous puzzle where I thought, perhaps, there was some sort of decontamination process. However, it turns out your robot buddy is still around, and you can get it to take the stone out and put it in the power for you. You still can’t be standing around, but if you go back to the “launch control station” you can operate the robot there.

In principle I was ok with the late-game puzzles; in practice, I kept dying from things exploding or getting sucked into space or just getting confused from various other wrong-button-press actions.

Still, like with all the Demas games, there were lots of strong ideas, and the weird-alien-techno-planet atmosphere came off well. If I had to rank the games, this is the best one — if nothing else, holding to a consistent set of ideas in a way that felt like puzzle actions and plot were the same, as opposed to puzzles being a way to view more plot. I honestly wish he had kept writing — this was a small burst of creativity from when he was very young, and this will be the last game we see of his.

(Unless I expand the project past adventures to action education games. Not happening, though.)

Art by Craig Sadler, including all the nice Macintosh screens you’ve been seeing.

Posted August 12, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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4 responses to “Forbidden City: Rise (and Fall) of the Robots

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  1. The “action education games” link at the end of your post doesn’t lead anywhere!

    Also, what was the connection with the Czech games in the intro? Was one of them a remake of this game?

    • Robot City is Forbidden City. (Looks like I tweaked the text at one point to make it less clear, so I added a clause.) The screenshot is showing the robot being blown up with the cube at the start of the game.

      I am unclear how a random TRS-80 game ended up in Communist Czechoslovakia, but it happened.

      Fixed the link too, thanks.

  2. the 2nd mentioned czech game / …and what about that?! / :
    https://herniarcheolog.blogspot.com/2019/12/hra-386-to-snad-ne-1990.html

    i played when it came out, was a great experience ^^

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