Death Satellite (1982)   3 comments

To kick off 1982, I decided to go with literal-random-number-generator and came up with a game near the rear of the alphabetical list, Zodiac. However, I realized it was the second in a pair, so I decided to try the prior game first.

The notion of adventure-as-contest we’ve seen before with games like Alkemstone (1981) and Goblins (1981) but the concept really held on to the UK market, likely due to the popularity of Kit Williams book (and accompanying real-life-treasure-hunt) Masquerade.

It won’t be terribly long until we get to the most famous of the computer-based contests, Pimania, which involved a real-life “Golden Sundial” and is arguably not even really an adventure game, but for now let’s consider one that definitely is, A & F Software’s Death Satellite.

A & F is best remembered now as the publishers of Chuckie Egg, one of the many UK platformers; quoting Kieren Hawken, “Perhaps only Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are higher regarded.” Data Driven Gamer played it recently (he wasn’t a fan), and you can try the game online here.

I’m afraid I don’t know much about Chuckie Egg 2. The directors of A&F Software decided to do a follow-up to Chuckie Egg; however, they wanted it done to a very keen deadline, so I kept well clear of the whole thing. To my mind, if you want to create something, you first have to have an idea, then work out how long it’s going to take you to bring that idea to fruition. But they were businessmen, so they decided, “We are going to release CE2 in x weeks. Now let’s think of a game.” Bonkers! They went bust soon after it was released. I don’t even think I’ve ever played it.

That’s the author of Chuckie Egg, Nigel Alderton, in this interview. I’m not sure if the characterization is fair, but there’s not a lot of description out there otherwise of A&F’s inner workings. They were founded by Douglas Anderson and Michael Fitzgerald (as mentioned here) and in a different interview Nigel talks about how they had a shop selling computers and games with “two or three programmers” in the back.

The Chuckie Egg 2 quote did give me the pre-impression that Death Satellite was going to be a mere cash-in on the 1982 run of text adventures (this is when the British market really started to get revving) but despite some very sloppy technical aspects there was clearly some thought put into this. (Zodiac was cranked only only a few months later so the description of being a business cash-in may end up being more accurate; we’ll see.) To be fair, this seems to be in a “hardscrabble” phase for the company, evidenced by the only cover I’ve found for the tape:

From Every Game Going. Notice “Death Satellite” written in pencil in the corner, presumably by a user; otherwise the only indication of the contents are the weirdly-printed “Adventure I” along the side.

Acorn User in April 1982 incidentally claimed of the contest-adventures (both Death Satellite and Zodiac) that there were “hundreds” of submissions but only a “few” correct entries, which perhaps suggests how difficult these games are but also, historically, how many people finished this one in the early 80s. What I am unclear on is what, exactly, was sent in for the contest; I’ve got the text from the inside cover of the tape which only gives instructions (including the useful fact LOOK doesn’t work but DESCRIBE does instead), so maybe there was an extra insert? Gold, a contest-adventure from last year, asked for the maximum number of points possible, so I’m not sure what the equivalent would be here. The instructions also state that you can send a self-addressed envelope for help, which is also confusing given the contest, but I suppose the idea is the winner would need to be fast enough they wouldn’t have time to do back-and-forth lag waiting for a hint.

In this adventure game your “Time Capsule” has run out of fuel and made an emergency landing on a Satellite. To complete the adventure you must find fuel and escape.

I don’t think the game has any direct references to Dr. Who, but appearing on a space station in a time capsule rather than a spaceship (and where there is no time travel within the story) suggest cultural osmosis. There at least is a plant creature. Maybe the author was remembering the green bubble wrap from The Ark in Space.

There isn’t any resemblance otherwise, especially in the use of KILL as a verb multiple times.

As implied by the screenshot above, this is Yet Another Game Without Room Exits Listed. I really should make a comprehensive list. The times Crowther/Woods Adventure indulged in such behavior it was in fairly “general travel” rooms without restrictions to directions:

You are in a valley in the forest beside a stream tumbling along a rocky bed.

Mad Scientist from 1980 was good enough to include a compass rose with directions and had room descriptions like:

A black cat walks sedately across your path.

I certainly see the appeal in not having to fit “you can go north and south” or some variation into every piece of prose, and I still mark some of the room descriptions in Beyond Zork (which had an automap so didn’t often bother with mentioning exits) as the best of all time:

The horizon is lost in the glare of morning upon the Great Sea. You shield your eyes to sweep the shore below, where a village lies nestled beside a quiet cove.

A stunted oak tree shades the inland road.

However, when there’s no guide at all, the actual gameplay implication is to force the player to test every. single. exit. in every. single room. We’re not talking something simple and intuitive, either:

On the positive side (unlike Goblins, the worst offender of this type of gameplay) there’s no NE/NW/SE/SW to worry about, just compass directions. Once I finally had things worked out, the structure comes off as kind of interesting. There’s a central area including the Time Capsule, a Radioactive Waste area which will eventually kill the player (there’s radiation pills that can help, but there’s a better way to just sidestep the issue), a dark area with a spacesuit, an engineering area with two methods of entrance (one descending by rope, one by a one-way door that can be rigged to be two-way) and a “main control” area with a teleporter and an airlock.

This scene is entirely unnecessary for beating the game.

A lot of the battle in solving this game was just against the parser. For example, the starting torch (this is a Britgame so that’s “flashlight”) doesn’t allow USE TORCH, PUSH TORCH, ACTIVATE TORCH, LIGHT TORCH, or nearly anything else you might think of. It is only my past experience with wonky parsers which led me to try


which, well, grumble grumble. Also, this follows the same nebulous standard other games derived from the 1980 Ken Reed code with I CAN’T for anything that doesn’t work with no other feedback. (I’m not clear if the code is genuinely from that article — it wouldn’t surprise me, but it would need to be adapted for the Acorn Atom — or if it’s just following a standardization of method.)

Back to the game: having a lit torch allows getting a space suit which is sufficient protection against radiation. All that’s in the radiation area is a mutant rat and an empty can, so the entire narrative purpose of braving high radiation (there’s even an optional Geiger counter where you can hear the clicks) is to get a can you can fill stuff in. Would it kill these adventure game protagonists to bring at least one rope and one container on their travels? Maybe their own light source?

Oh, and the mutant rat stops you from taking the can. I had to look up how to get by. There’s an ambiguous “silver canister” elsewhere that says YOU CAN’T if you try to do anything useful, and if you try to THROW CANISTER it does the same, but if you try to KILL RAT while holding the canister the protagonist throws the canister.

This puzzle was far harder than it needed to be. Indirect object use (that is, where neither verb nor noun of the command directly target the essential item used) can work in some contexts, but because the parser is so nebulous otherwise it just served to send me off entirely the wrong track.

The can lets you scoop up some mysterious green liquid back in the dark area and kill the green bubble wrap plant creature. This opens up an “airlock” with a roll of tape.

I was mystified by the tape and had to look it up again — remember I mentioned there’s a one-way door that can be turned into a two-way door? Here it is:


The tape is sufficient to confuse the “eye” of the beam and have it keep the door open permanently. Now that I’m visualizing what’s going (just detecting if a beam gets interrupted) it’s a good puzzle! Just it could use a little more description in context.

The whole reason for the one-way door being fixed is to get into an area with a robot (that you can smash with a heavy weight, indirect action again) and scrounge some oil from a valve. Getting the oil requires that empty can the rat was guarding.

You could try going through this without fixing the door, but the oil will spill trying to climb up the other exit (the rope). Clever! This allows access to the area (and the robot puzzle) early, and reminded me of Burglar’s Adventure letting you break into a section without turning an alarm off first just to see what was coming up ahead.

A simplified meta-map. The dark area also has a door that uses a key to enter or it can be entered from above, but if you use the down/up entrance you can’t go back up while holding any items. The key for the locked door is out in the open so it’s not quite as strong a design finesse as the one-way door.

The oil lets you clear rust off a door, and some keys hidden in a desk let you get into a computer lab; putting in a disc next to the keys:

The code then serves to pop into a teleporter elsewhere over to a “fuel depot”. The fuel you can take back to the time capsule and win the game.

Decent setting, even given the minimalist descriptions, and interesting interconnectness. Pretty dodgy parser. It reminded me of the Aardvark games, in that way, which had clever enough structure to be called “inspired”; it didn’t quite have as bad a parser, but saying YOU CAN’T for absolutely every not-accepted action — even ones like THROW CANISTER which the player is clearly allowed to do — was a serious drag.

If the descriptions and parser problems were cleared up a bit this would be quite a playable game but also not terribly hard, which somewhat removes the point of having a contest that only a few out of several hundreds manage to do correctly.

This makes me somewhat afraid for the follow-up, Zodiac, the game the random number generator told me to play, which I will be attempting next. If nothing else, it helps that I now know the company’s style with indirect objects (that is, I should feel free to try KILL ENEMY while holding objects I think may be useful, rather than trying to apply the object directly).

(I do also still have some unfinished business in 1981 and prior years, and I will be getting to those — just I wanted to get 1982 going. It feels psychologically liberating.)

Posted December 28, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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3 responses to “Death Satellite (1982)

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  1. I’m still surpised of the patience you have. Congrats for another game beaten.

  2. One of their adverts did state that you’d get “Hours of Purgatory with these adventure games”… I guess that was a selling point? :)

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