Mines of Saturn / Return to Earth (1982)   17 comments

From zx81stuff.

Mikro-Gen, formed in 1981 by Meek and Andy Laurie, is mostly known for the Wally Week series, including the action-adventure games Pyjamarama (1984) and Everyone’s A Wally (1985).

The first screen of Pyjamarama for C64. I do like this kind of game but it really falls in a different genre than the ones for my All the Adventures list. One thing I’ve idly been wondering is if any of the platformer-adventures popular on British computers in the 80s really count more as pure adventures; that is, the action elements are so minimal it really becomes about bringing the right items to the right places. The closest I can think of is the Mikro-Gen game The Witch’s Cauldron, which is a regular text adventure, but the pictures have the side-view from arcade platformers.

They also dabbled a bit with text adventures by republishing today’s two-part series by Saturnsoft aka Saturn Developments, which appears to be simply a one-person label of the author of the games, Chris Evans.

From Every Game Going.

Saturn Developments came out with two more games published directly by Mikro-Gen, Mad Martha 1 and 2, which we will get to eventually (both seem to be satirical absurd text adventures with mini-games jammed in?); in fact, Mad Martha ended up being oddly integral to the history of Mikro-Gen, but that’s a story for another day. We’re instead left with this humble offering, which started on ZX81.

From a German eBay auction. This graphic was too awesome not to share. One thing I always keep in mind with ZX81 games is the finicky keyboard, meaning an slower expected input rate; I’ve noticed with every emulator I’ve tried that I have to slow down my usual typing speed as if I’m dealing with a chiclet keyboard. Fine for playing text adventures, I’d hate to type source code with it.

I can tell you, now having suffered, do not play it on ZX81.

The opening screen. There’s something hidden here in a way I’ve never seen in any other adventure game; I’ll be getting to that.

There are two issues, one minor, one major:

The minor issue is that it tries to compensate for a lack of apostrophes on the ZX81 with using a comma instead (“DID,NT” and “WAS,NT” respectively). I can understand just leaving out apostrophes as a sort of machine shorthand, but comma substitutes are grammar murder. (The ZX Spectrum version actually adds more of these substitutes so I suggest running away screaming.)

Rather more seriously, it is literally impossible to win without changing the source code. I only found this out after a long amount of play; fortunately I did not resist hints for any longer, for I found out the issue I was trying to solve was literally impossible. To the south of the starting place there is a fragile bridge.

You’re supposed to be able to cross it at least once, but something broke in the code so it always breaks.

This doesn’t seem to be a single-character fix, either. I’m not sure what the issue is, but here’s the offending line.

2970 LET OK=((INT (RND*100)+1) <= N)

The fix is just to set the variable equal to zero as opposed to try something random. As I was having difficulty with ZX81 commands I just said forget it and hopped to the C64 port instead, which has the bonus of proper word wrap, lower case letters, the bridge working as intended (?) and also some random ASCII graphics as a bonus.

Enough setup: the premise of the first game (Mines of Saturn) has you piloting a ship that, due to a radiation storm, needs to make a crash landing near an abandoned mining base. You need to find dilithium crystals to fuel your ship.

The game really is quite small otherwise and straightforward, other than few extra instant-deaths other than that bridge one. What’s really interesting in the setup — and I can’t think of any other game from this era offhand that does this so consistently — is it strongly hints at what you missed if you die. For example, early on you can find a boat and try to USE BOAT to cross canal. The game kills you but says you needed oars.

The oars are on the other side of that bridge I mentioned, but it was an interesting response to see in that I didn’t waste any time trying other methods of crossing: I knew I was missing an oars object and just had to wait for it (well, normally I would, except the solution here was just switching to C64).

This general niceness (after switching over) led to a relatively short and easy experience, except for one spot near the end. You’ve just zapped some spiders with a ray gun (obtained by using boat + oars, and make sure you charge it up first)…

…and then you need to go up. Trying to do so kills you, and the game openly ponders about the ladder that was part of your original ship.


The thing is that the ship is not mentioned in the initial room of the game! You’re just supposed to assume it is there even though it is essentially invisible, and that there is a “ladder” object you can pick up.

Opening screen again for reference. What’s simultaneously interesting and unfair is that there really is no way to know about the ladder without first having the death, so the “official” ludic narrative essentially includes both the death and reviving and trying again, as opposed to the death being “smoothed out” of the real narrative.

After taking the hidden ladder to the right area, you can climb up to a crystal, use a hammer, and win the game.

If I had started with the C64 version this would have been a relatively smooth and inoffensive experience; short and feeling a bit like a type-in, but it’s honestly OK for a game to be short?

RETURN TO EARTH: “Having escaped from your previous dilemma, you reach Earth Station 1, but fail to make radio contact. You effect a safe if harrowing manual docking with the orbital station. On entry you find it deserted, and the control room destroyed. You must explore the station and find some way to alert Earth of your predicament, BEWARE, many of the rooms are identical, there is extensive damage, and signs of Alien intruders.”

For the follow-up game on the opposite side of the tape I went directly for the C64 version, not wanting to risk getting burned again.

Unfortunately, while the planet of the first game had a little atmosphere, this is set in a boring-halls style space station. At least Death Dreadnaught went all-in with gruesome descriptions, this really has very little going on:

There’s a sequence here where you get an axe, to break open a medical chest to get a serum, to cure a spider bite, to find a battery and some keys; additionally, you need some “nerve gas” to defeat another set of spiders.

Even the deaths are less creative.

The whole point is to get the keys and the battery to be able to open the cabinet at the start and activate a radio, which lets you call Earth for help and win the game. Except … the C64 version is broken and you can’t activate the radio!

No, TAKE RADIO and TAKE SET don’t work either.

I checked with a walkthrough and found that the game here does indeed seem to be broken, so rather than painfully go back to the ZX81 (not a long game, but I’ve already dealt with enough jank on this tape thank you very much) I just looked up the winning message in the source code.


Ok, there’s one fun death: there’s a pistol and if you try to use it there’s a hole broken in the station hull and you die from air escaping. (Really, it’s a little hilarious at least.) I think it safe to say my experience with the first games of Chris Evans was a crash and burn.

But the absurd thing is–

I said I was going to save the Mad Martha story, but let me tell it now. Indirectly, this game started the relationship between Chris Evans and Mikro-Gen, so it really is the first domino in a very important relationship: that between Mikro-Gen and Crash Magazine, one of the big Brit-mags of the 80s. Let me just quote Retro Gamer’s profile here:

One of the ways in which it tried to secure talent was by going to the many computer fairs that were dedicated to specific machines in the 1980s. In August 1983, Mikro-Gen appeared at the ZX Microfair in London’s Alexandra Palace and it had a stand very close to a small mail order company called Crash Micro Games Action. The two companies soon began to talk and the conversation ended with Mikro-Gen handing over a copy of Mad Martha and being delighted at being given a good review. Little did anyone know that six months later, Crash Micro Games Action would become Crash magazine and the two companies continued the relationship it had built up. This ultimately helped Mikro-Gen to become known to programmers and gamers, which helped as the bosses tried to secure a winning team.

In other words, if it weren’t for this janky two-game tape, we wouldn’t have Mad Martha, and without Mad Martha, Mikro-Gen wouldn’t have become big, and then we likely wouldn’t have later classics like Equinox.

17 responses to “Mines of Saturn / Return to Earth (1982)

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  1. The commonly archived Spectrum version is similarly bugged to the ZX81, irrc.

    I don’t think I ever managed to find out if the C64 versions were official ports, especially the Mines of Saturn port which is credited to DJJWM of Newman Software.

    There’s also an ICA (Italien Computer Adventures) versions of Mines of Saturn for the C64, called Saturn’s 10 Moons; attributed to Brando Denicora and dated 1988. Their other game in the archive, Thargon, is a version of Martech’s 1983 title The Quest of Merravid/Land of Thargon, so I’m guessing that both of those ICA releases are completely unofficial… The Italian software scene had very little regard for copyright.

    • Follows of other micros may be interested to know that the games were officially ported and released by Mikro-Gen for Oric (16K or 48K), VIC20 (with 8K or 16K) and TI99/4A. I’m guessing that those C64 versions may have been derived from the VIC20 releases.

    • Deeply weird choice to keep porting, but maybe the simplicity was appealing (the BASIC code is generally straightforward). There’s still about 30 BASIC games I would have chosen over this one, though.

  2. Followers of other micros may be interested to know that the games were officially ported and released by Mikro-Gen for Oric (16K or 48K), VIC20 (with 8K or 16K) and TI99/4A. I’m guessing that those C64 versions may have been derived from the VIC20 releases.

    • There was some thought put into screen width and the small bits of art, so I have suspicion it was independent. Not caring enough to compare source code, though.

  3. A note regarding Mad Martha… That was a 1982 release too… Saturnsoft put it out themselves, for Spectrum and ZX81, before it was taken on by Mikro-Gen.

    • I wasn’t able to find an independent version but I didn’t look terribly hard, I’ll investigate more when I get to the game. It is tossed pretty deep on my list though (like, sometime in 2023).

      • There’s a news article about the Saturnsoft releases in C&VG from December 1982 and Mad Martha (for both Spectrum and ZX81) is listed in Saturnsoft adverts in magazines such as Your Computer from October 1982 & Personal Computing Today from both October & November 1982.

        So it seems possible that the game was complete in 1982, even if Saturnsoft versions, and indeed the ZX81 version, haven’t survived to be archived.

        Researching the publication history of Mad Martha was, I’m pretty sure, more enjoyable and interesting that actually playing Mad Martha… but 1982 there are a lot of ZX Spectrum adventures that I could say that for. And I’m a ZX Spectrum guy. (To be fair, 1982 was still the birth year of the machine. Other, later games don’t have that excuse.)

      • Heh, I’m certainly not … rushing to play Mad Martha, for sure. But any mini-games in text adventures have so far been one-offs, so it’ll at least be interesting to write about a game where they’re more integrated.

        I’ll certainly be reading this thread back when I get around to it, so all of this is welcome.

      • Yeah, there were several attempts at shoe-horning arcade sections into adventure games over the years. Splitting the game into distinct and different parts, one adventure and one from another genre did seem to be more common. Something like Super Spy (Shaken But Not Stirred) from 1982 is probably an example of that… At least games which had a strategy section (such as a hacking simulation or other multiple-choice investigation) was a better fit alongside a text adventure. Twitch-heavy arcade game sequences weren’t!

        At one point, in 1983/4, there was even a whole range of games by Phoenix Software (UK) that had an arcade game on one side of the tape that you needed to beat to get the password to play the adventure game on the other side. Talk about not understanding the text adventure audience! I’ve seen copies of those games that were sold with a “panic packet” that players could open to get the password if they were really struggling to make any progress.

  4. In addition to using commas instead, does the game really say “DID,NT” rather than “DIDN,T”??

  5. I don’t understand the use of commas to “simulate” apostrophes… what about “did not” instead of “didn’t” or “didn,t”? Or are these abbreviations so common that it would mean the text to be as alien or too technical or something?

    • I’m really not sure what they were thinking — it’s like they were “fixing” the lack of apostrophes on the ZX81 keyboard by making it worse.

      The ZX Spectrum has DONT changed into DON,T on top of everything else. At least it’s in the right place, but it looks terribly wrong either way.

    • Strangely no mention of the odd choice in reviews at the time… but comments weren’t very positive about these two… they were regarded as being extremely slow, tedious and dated, even back then.

      • Some complaining about lack of graphics, though. I feel like there was some cultural thing going on I haven’t deciphered yet (I’ll probably come back to it after I’ve played more 1982 games). I get the vague impression that people on platforms of the BBC Micro strand were a little more accepting of all-text games for longer, whereas people on the ZX/C64 end of things were wanting graphics sooner.

      • The graphics vs no-graphics debate went on for the next decade. ;) It quite often depended on the review policy of a magazine… non-graphics games tended to fare better with the specialist adventure reviewers… If an adventure was getting reviewed in the “normal” section of a magazine then it was often judged harshly without graphics.

        Reviews from this time tend to be all over the place too… You’ll often come across a game getting slated simply because the reviewer thought that it was too easy and not likely to take a couple of months to solve!

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