Smurk (1981/1982)   3 comments

Planet of the Robots, which we just played, was Daniel Tobias’s text adventure entry into the “magazette” Softdisk from December 1981. Smurk is from the next month, January 1982, by the same author.

Softdisk catalog from the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

There’s not much more history to give here. The game simply says the goal is to collect treasures and slay the Smurk. I thought, due to the humor and unconventionality of the first game, there might be some parody element going on, like House of Thirty Gables

Perhaps one meant to invoke Smurfs, like this modded version of Castle Wolfenstein from 1983 where all the Nazis have been changed into Smurfs. Given all the Adventure variants we’ve seen, I disagree that it was the “first mod”, but it was still rather early.

…but no, this is very, very, standard. There were bits of annoyance just left out — specifically, the lamp you get at the start of the game doesn’t seem to have any kind of limit, you can wander in darkness without worrying about tripping over a pit or being eaten by a grue, and you don’t have an inventory limit — but for the most part it seemed like the author went through a checklist of what he expected a “standard” adventure to have and checked all the boxes.

You start in a tent with a lamp, and go out to find some woods. You can go in the woods in any direction although the only thing you can do is wander back to where you start (check) and go into a nearby cave instead (check).

Inside the cave there are a fair number of items just lying around, including rubies and diamonds. The diamonds are adjacent to a club, which is itself next to a spade. Neither the club nor spade are useful, it’s just a card joke, and DIG doesn’t even work as a verb.)

One room (the pantry above) is chock full of stuff, and four out of the five items are useful. The baking soda can mix with the vinegar in the bowl if you like, but is just an easter egg; the baking soda isn’t otherwise important.

THE STUFF IN THE BOWL FIZZES….
CO2 IS RELEASED, A CHEMICAL REMAINS IN THE BOWL.

There is (check, sigh) a maze that is essentially random connections, where filling it out is akin to making a spreadsheet as opposed to exploring a place.

To get more specific, the map is designed so that “random” movement will funnel players back at the start (I put a “dead bat” at that location) meaning random thrashing will likely get the player to the exit, but not to the destination, which is a “dead end” with an English-Sanskrit Dictionary at it. Looking backwards, you need to get from the “coins” room which only links back to the “silver” room. Looking forwards, there is a way to get to the “silver” room in two steps, but only one way: north, then north again. Any other choices will send the player flailing around in the middle area. At least the lack of inventory limit and plentitude of items led to a straightforward map-making experience.

Other than defeating the Smurk (which I’ll get to), the only other puzzle is a “ferocious” tiger. Fighting it leads to death, but back in the pantry, there’s something helpful:

Yet another animal puzzle solved by feeding it (check).

The Smurk is at least somewhat interesting. Just like the tiger, attacking is death:

Nearby, quite helpfully, there is a book that tells you how to kill Smurks. Convenient, that. (It’s in Sanskrit, but there’s that dictionary from the maze. It works automatically, so I had to go back later and confirm the dictionary was actually doing something.)

The ingredients are pretty straightforward to find; a ghoul shop nearby sells magic powders and will trade your dead bat for Magic Powder #20. The other ingredients just happen to be lying around.

The PUT ITEM IN BOWL syntax seems rather out of the blue for what is normally a two-word parser, but the instructions at the start of the game did explicitly mention it, at least.

Doing MIX then creates a POISONOUS MIXTURE. You can’t apply it to the Smurk directly, but the book does say you need to poison its water supply.

The room with the stream rather helpfully notes the stream flows towards a red glow, just like the Smurk room has a red glow, so pouring the bowl leads to victory.

Well, not total victory: you still need to collect up all the treasures, including the emeralds that were in the Smurk room. But everything is laying around, so it’s more like Pac-Man gobbling up power-pellets or Mario picking up coins than any kind of puzzle solving past this part of the game.

I really am curious the circumstances behind this game, given how unusual the last one was. Was Dan feeling like he had to “go traditional”? Did he get feedback indicating such? These days, a “traditional” adventure reverts back to something in the territory of Infocom, which still has lots of gold to be mined, but it is much harder to go all the way back to Crowther/Woods and make it something new.

It should also be remembered in early 1982 lots of people were still discovering computers for the first time, so while from our perspective we can see the grand march of 100+ adventure games, for those at the time they might have seen three or four, so doing an imitation — and at least one that’s technically competent — wasn’t so terrible after all.

Lisa, from Softdisk January 1982.

Let’s hit something more substantial next time! Maybe it’ll even involve a little bit of teamwork.

Posted March 11, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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3 responses to “Smurk (1981/1982)

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  1. To be fair, I think you’ve only had one other game based on a structure like “Treasure hunt where you spend most of the game gathering items and instructions to solve one big gatekeeping problem, then gather treasures in the endgame.” (Pirate Adventure from Scott Adams.) So this approach would’ve still been pretty unusual back then.

    • You can also grab almost all the treasures up front — the Smurk has the emeralds so that’s the only part that’s blocked by a puzzle.

      But yes, I suppose the structure is a little different.

  2. Yeah, you’ll certainly be wading through an endless stream of people drawing from the same Crowther/Woods well for many years to come… into the mid-1980s at least… as the audiences for each new microcomputer discover text adventures and make rudimentary games aping that initial structure.

    And many of these old Softdisk games ended up being ported to C64 for the sister publication Loadstar, in the sort of 1984/85 period, setting off and inspiring a whole new wave of authors… many of whom won’t have even played the original Adventure… games like this will have been their Colossal Caves.

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