007: Aqua Base (1982)   4 comments

Texas Instruments started development of their first computer at the same time the Trinity was out (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET) and — due to their prowess with scientific calculators — was projected to make a strong splash.

The TI-99/4 released in 1979 instead made a sort of dull thud, despite being the very first 16-bit home computer. It had a strange “calculator key” keyboard and only shipped around 20,000 units before being replaced by the TI-99/4A which did much better, debuting March 1981 at a price of $525 and having what resembled a real keyboard.

Business-wise, what Texas Instruments is most remembered for is then getting in a price war with Commodore and its VIC-20, which was disasterous given the VIC-20’s lower specs; eventually the price was dropped ludicrously below cost to make ($99) and TI hoped to make its money back in software. It didn’t work out and manufacture stopped in 1984, but not before shipping around 3 million units.

That 3 million is in fact fairly strong, so it is a bit unfair to think of the machine as a failure at least in 1982; from the perspective of an owner, it was just one of the many machines available. One of the fans of the system was apparently Scott Morgan, who throughout 1982 cranked out a grand total of six text adventure games before dropping from sight. (It is possible he even used the less-loved original /4 model, as the games were advertised as working for both systems and were written in BASIC.)

The games were all published by the Wisconsin-based American Software Design and Distribution Co. all in one chunk in 1983. An ad in a January 1983 issue of 99’er Magazine has no mention of the games, and they suddenly appear a month later as “new games”, listed as

Haunted House
Aqua Base
Stone Age
The Four Vedas
Fun House
Miner ’49 ER

I’m not sure what the order should be here. I started with 007: Aqua Base since CASA Solution Archive listed it as first. After finishing it the game implores you to try Haunted House, which might logically come after, except CASA lists it as game number 3.

I am fine considering Aqua Base to be game number 1 also in that it is marked as “beginner” difficulty and feels like an author’s first attempt.

As implied from the cover art I already posted, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop a Generic Evil Person from DESTROYING THE WORLD by sneaking into their underwater base. I don’t quite follow what the play of the villain is here, given they can’t really cash out from an apocalypse. (Moonraker’s villain wanted to kill everyone but had a replacement “ark” of humans.)

The table at the start has an ID card, a remote control also lurks nearby, and the only way to progress otherwise is to hop into a CAR. Handily enough, the car has a button that turns it into a submarine.

Using the submarine, you can find a “coral reef”. Typing PUSH REMOTE causes the reef to open to a secret passage, and the submarine can go inside. This leads to a request for ID, which you can follow through with assuming you checked the table at the start of the game.

This leads to a very series of corridors and more doors needing you to show id cards. One of them doesn’t work, but there’s fortunately (?) a dead janitor you can swipe an upgraded one from. The villain’s only minion is dead?

The DERADIOACTIVATOR supposedly has a red button but doing LOOK DERADIOACTIVATOR didn’t reveal it. I inferred its presence from a mention in the manual plus a check at the source code.

Past a few more camera doors (picking up a pocket mirror) along the way leads to the master villain’s lair, where they’re sleeping on the job.

You can swipe a top-level ID card from the Operator and also type LASER DOWN to move the laser (this was this biggest pain to figure out, but I’ll go back and talk about all the various annoyances of this game in a moment). Very close is the laser room, and as long as you’ve lowered the laser, you can BACKFIRE LASER / WITH MIRROR to cause it to malfunction (BACKFIRE is mentioned in the manual, otherwise I don’t see how anyone would get it).

It is only a few steps more to get to a hatch exit with a suit; make sure you press the red button on the DERADIOACTIVATOR here because otherwise the suit kills you from radiation. Donning the suit you can swim out the hatch to victory.

So, all those actions make the game sound like it ought to be beginner level, and it was certainly short and straightforward in action (…and really showcasing the world’s weakest supervillain) but the game was still a huge pain to get to completion because of the parser.

It was incredibly fiddly about everything. GO CAR works but ENTER CAR doesn’t; PUSH REMOTE activates it even though there’s no description that’s how the operation works, yet the de-radiation gizmo requires pushing a red button which I was never able to get the game to admit was there.

In Death Satellite and Zodiac I complained about the simplicity of error messages, and that there was no information other than I CAN’T when something didn’t work. This game is worse. It has actively deceptive messages. If you PUSH AWERASEF the game says

NOTHING HAPPENS.

It is, in other words, fake-parsing, so when you’re looking at mention in the manual about a red button, so you try PUSH RED BUTTON and see NOTHING HAPPENS, it is hard to be certain whether the command really didn’t make sense or that you are in fact holding an item with a red button.

The only part that had any difficulty in a puzzle sense was dealing with the laser. If you try to use the mirror on it before moving it, the message is that you can’t reach. I initially thought perhaps I needed to stand on something, so went back to a “ladder” and tried to take it. The game told me I couldn’t take it; I assume it was locked in place for moving down from a ledge, but it was still unclear from the description and I tried quite a bit of noodling there before thinking about ways to get the laser pointed differently.

For pointing the laser differently, I tried TYPE on the keyboard at the lair, but the game told me not to use the verb TYPE. So…. what then? I finally realized that “any command that isn’t a movement one can be assumed to be typed on the keyboard” so came up with LASER DOWN, making the whole endeavor only 5% solving and 95% communication struggle.

Not a fun game, but at least it is only the author’s first, and we’ve seen big improvements with other authors. The game wasn’t quite the palate cleanser I was hoping for, but nonetheless, I am plowing ahead to the first big monolith of 1982: the Apple II game Time Zone by Roberta Williams, her attempt at making a game that lasts forever, retailing for $99 at launch, which according to an inflation calculator would make it $288 dollars in 2021 money.

Posted January 9, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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4 responses to “007: Aqua Base (1982)

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  1. Good luck with Time Zone. Even though I have only heard bad things about it, I remain curious. I remember reading about it in Enter magazine when I was a kid and wished that I knew someone with an Apple II (we were all Commodore people).

  2. Interesting – not a game series that I’d come across before.

    Yeah, aside from 007, the list on CASA isn’t in a particular order. (The remaining games are listed alphabetical)

    The games appear in a jumbled order in the American Software catalogue that I’ve just looked at so I’m guessing that the publisher wasn’t that bothered. It’d be interesting to find out if the games themselves point to a particular recommended author’s order of play.

  3. Where did you find a functional version of this game? I looked for it a while back, and the only version I found was an MP3 version on AtariAge. I use the Classic99 Emulator.

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