Chinese Puzzle (1981)   2 comments

From Atarimania.

This is the last of the APX titles, and just like Sultan’s Palace, it is by Dennis Koble.

After Sprint 2, Dennis Koble worked on Dominoes, one of the family of Snake-like games. The first such game was the RCA game Mines in 1975, but it was only run as a location test. The first fully released arcade game with the concept was Gremlin’s Blockade, released November 1976. The first clone (Bigfoot Bonkers) was exactly a month later, and Atari’s clone came a month after that. The early arcade industry was thick with ripoffs.

Mr. Koble mentions in an interview that he felt his text adventure games were “inappropriate for the public” but APX needed titles so he let them have the games to “help them build their initial base of available software.”

My game and the Chinese Puzzle Adventure (published via APX), and possibly the other ones too, were based on an “Adventure” system someone wrote in order to create a modular text-based adventure system. Basically it allowed anyone to create a text set and a logical road map as it were to make their own adventure. We were all very familiar at that point with Zork and so a number of us used that system to create our own fun adventures. I don’t think any of us ever actually thought of using it for a commercial game or anything but we had fun creating them.

The Chinese puzzle game I designed was never actually intended to be “fun”, believe it or not. My goal when I created it was to create the most difficult text-based adventure game ever. It was never intended to be marketed, either.

The internals of this game are entirely an abstract puzzle with no pretense of plot whatsoever, which is oddly prescient, since that makes it the sort of thing that would be entered into IFComp* circa 1995 but definitely doesn’t have good comparisons circa 1981. (A more recent comparable set of games might be the Hard Puzzle Trilogy.)

You have been drugged by a Chinese madman to find yourself locked in a suite of rooms.

That’s it. The whole plot. There’s intended reference to Chinese puzzle boxes and the ultimate riddle of the game. It is “slightly dodgy” on the Asian-stereotype-meter but nothing in the content indicates the game has Issues; whoever did the ad copy for Atari, though, went all-in:

You’ll need patience, endurance, and an understanding of the clever Oriental mind to win your freedom.

Ugh. We can wave the Atari catalog away as non-canon and just consider the game itself, which is super-minimal in nearly every way.

Going south enough times loops back to the starting “3-Room”: same with going east and up. The only exception is down from the starting room, which opens up after fulfilling the conditions to win.

This is the entirety of the map, with most of the rooms just being a color.

This room is blue.

You start in a “3-Room”; going down is blocked and is the exit. To get to the exit you need to say three words in three particular places (this is not clear until you succeed).

Out in the open there’s a “crystal”

and a “Chinese ideogram”

but no other items to start, and there’s only one more to find.

There’s no indicator or reasoning behind what color room does what, you pretty much have to experiment everywhere, although the game at least gives you a smallish number of verbs to pick from upon typing HELP:


The general intent — if there really is one past this being a programming exercise that escaped into the wild, more or less — seems to be to treat the parser interface itself as a puzzle. You need to test out the items in various rooms and use error messages as clues. For example, DROP CRYSTAL it most rooms gets the message DROPPED followed by THERE IS NO EFFECT HERE. There isn’t a game-translated-into-real-life reason for the “no effect” feedback, but the intent is to clue in that the room the item is being dropped in is checked, and if dropped in the correct place, there will be an effect. Namely, at the “black room”:

Again, there doesn’t seem like something remarkable happening, but the knowledge that a special-coded message occurred means that something did happen, so the next thing to do is recheck the map for changes. Not far away, back in the white room, a box has appeared.

If you redo the process and drop the crystal in the black room again at any time, the box teleports back here.

Trying to READ BOX and TURNOVER BOX gets the message YOU HAVEN’T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, a clue that there’s some sort of game flag that needs to be set. In past APX games we’ve looked at this ambiguity was sometimes fuzzy as to what, exactly, the obstacle was (a locked door? a magnetic field?) but here it leans into the ambiguity as something intentional: you are never told what the flag is, you just have to keep experimenting in each room until you get something useful to happen. Incidentally, READ and TURNOVER in anywhere other than the White Room just gets THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE.

With box in hand, you can go back to the Yellow Room (for no particular reason) and drop the IDEOGRAM and READ it.

This is the first of the “code words” that needs to be said to win. Going to the Red Room and typing SAY CHINA gets


If you go back, pick up, and drop the IDEOGRAM (without reading it) you can head back to the White Room and now do TURNOVER BOX

After getting the Russia keyword, for some reason now the China one works! You can go back to the Red Room to use it:

Ah yes. One of the big 3.

This might be enough to figure out what the third mystery word is (it is in fact possible to bypass the “puzzle” that reveals it — you need to get the game in the state where you can OPEN BOX rather than TURNOVER BOX). I think I’ve made my general point about how nonsense the gameplay flow gets, so I’m just going to quote the complete walkthrough from Dale Dobson, who resorted to studying the source code.

1. DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (sets flag 4:1)
2. TURNOVER BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:2)
3. SAY CHINA in the Red Room (requires 4:2, sets 3:1 which is never required)
4. TAKE IDEOGRAM and DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room again (resets to 4:1)
5. OPEN BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:4)
6. READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (requires box in hand, sets 4:3)
7. SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room (requires 4:3, sets 4:6)
8. SAY U.S.A. in the Green Room (requires 4:6, sets 2:1)

After this gloriously sensible sequence, the exit below the starting room is unblocked and you can reach victory.

I’ll call this game “accidentally innovative”. If you asked someone in 1981 to sit down and write an adventure to be published, I don’t see any universe where anything in the ballpark of this game would emerge. It just happens this was more of the author playing around and it got published anyway. I’d be like if you went back in time, recorded Mozart banging variants of a C-major chord 10 times in a row as a joke, and published it, proving that Mozart invented minimalism 200 years early.

Or if you prefer something that actually happened, this painting of J.S. Bach has him holding an actual piece of music, Canon triplex a 6, BWV 1076, but by necessity of it fitting on a sliver of a painting it sounds like something Terry Riley would write in the 1960s.

(*) As of this writing, IFComp 21 has started. You can sort by “choice”, “parser”, and “other” this time if you fancy only a particular kind of game, and voting is open to anyone.

Posted October 8, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Chinese Puzzle (1981)

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  1. Definitely. A programming exercise or experiment, or even a joke that unexpectedly got released into the public.

    • The direct quotes from the author explicitly say “My goal when I created it was to create the most difficult text-based adventure game ever” and “It was never intended to be marketed”; I wouldn’t say “unexpected” since he sent it in, just it was APX hoovering up whatever they could.

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