Big Bad Wolf / Moon Base Alpha / Computer Adventure (1982)   19 comments

Bruce Robinson, our 1982 author for today, started off a little earlier in 1980 working on games for the Ohio Scientific Computer, published by Aardvark. Remember them, the ones with a parser that only understands the first two letters of each word? (Fair if you don’t, especially if you haven’t read that far back; try my writeup on Deathship for a brief intro.) Yes, they’re back, kind of, even though none of Robinson’s games for Ohio Scientific were adventures…


The original tasteless working name was “DEAD BABIES”. A hotel fire is burning out of control as people mill around the roof. Your job is to catch them in a net and bounce them into a waiting ambulance.

…it is clear Mr. Robinson had some influence from the Aardvark adventure line, so we’ll need to refer back to those games shortly.

Bruce Robinson was the proprietor and for the most part sole writer for Victory Software, which kicked off with a line of software for Commodore computers: the VIC-20 and C64. Later, they also converted their titles for the ill-fated Coleco Adam.

Not long ago I wrote about two fairly small games on the Softside Magazette, essentially too small to be published standalone. Another workaround to this problem circa 1982 was to sell multiple games together as a sort of “pack”, as was done with “Adventure Pack I” which contains all of today’s games.

Via LaunchBox.

I’m listing the games separately because they were also repackaged; for example, Big Bad Wolf made its way into a collection sold by Commodore…

…and Victory Software itself did its own re-packaging, combining Moon Base Alpha and Computer Adventure with Jack and the Beanstalk and calling it Adventure Pack I, not to be confused with the other Adventure Pack I they released. (I’m not fully clear which came first. I’ll tackle Jack and the Beanstalk standalone on a different day.)

The games were clearly written first with VIC-20 in mind, a system we have yet to encounter here. Commodore was being managed by Jack Tramiel, forever going for the lower price, and the VIC-20 in particular had an astonishingly tiny 5 KB of memory (compare to a standard TRS-80 Scott Adams game at 16). Even the Aardvark games with 8 KB did not have to deal with such tiny spaces.

The games here were written in BASIC, which reduces the memory capacity even more to astronomically tight.

Consequentially, both the games themselves and the parser are quite minimal. The minimality to responses especially make the games near-unplayable, although Big Bad Wolf verges close to being a “good” game. They’re also quite necessarily tiny on room count, where Big Bad Wolf has a grand total of 5 rooms, Moon Base Alpha has 5, and Computer Adventure has 12. I’ll tackle them in reverse order.

Before I show my first screenshot, I should mention VIC-20 is known for its extra-wide text font (see the BASIC shot earlier) but for my play I used emulator tomfoolery in order to squish the aspect ratio into something normal-looking. These are hard enough to play without me adding illegible text to the mix. (I also think it might be possible on a 1982 period TV to use knobs to cause some horizontal squishing anyway, although I don’t have any hand to test this theory on.)

Computer Adventure’s premise is you need to go buy a computer, TV, and adventure game in order to play an adventure game.

Remember when you first started thinking about getting a computer? How you scraped up enough money to buy it, figured out how to hook it up, and then actually got a program running on it?

There are no compass directions; you GO LOCATION to go there, and even though the places supposedly have a connected geography, you can ignore the geography and GO to any location in the game at any time. Yes, this feels weirdly and accidentally modern. The C64 version “fixes” this feature so you can’t just do locations across the map. (Crowther/Woods Adventure let you go to locations by just typing their names, but only a limited set of them.)

The GO LOCATION “feature” is co-paired with a parser that, like Aardvark, only understands the first two letters of each word, will often just re-display a location rather than explaining why a command failed, and sticks to non-committal messages like NOT YET with no clear reason why something isn’t possible.

The SUGAR BOWL at the start contains money you can find by opening it. Then you can go shopping; as might be expected for a VIC-20 enthusiast, Atari ($800) Apple ($1200) and IBM ($2300) are all out of budget, but you have enough money for a VIC & recorder ($375). You don’t have enough money to buy a TV after the VIC. You can try to steal you one but that lands you in jail:

You have to CALL AMBULANCE after this in order to get your leg in a cast so you can move again. All this is entirely optional (!?).

The right thing to do instead is to go into a friend’s house, take their broken TV, and find out you are unable to REPAIR it. You can go home and CALL REPAIR which will inform you of a secret repair area, then spend $50 there to have a working TV set. (There is absolutely no indication any of these phone calls should work.) For the game, you can get a magazine with AN AD FOR VICTORY SOFTWARE; you can ORDER GAME which will then show up in your mailbox.

With the three parts in place, you can fiddle with commands in a way I’m unclear the order on (PLUG works somewhere, as does ATTACH, and if you don’t have the right order the game just says NOT YET) before finally finding the commands LOAD PROGRAM and RUN PROGRAM.

Doing this gets you the award of …

…getting into a loop, and playing the very game you just played! Bruce Robinson clearly had energy and ideas, but tried to implement them in an environment that didn’t support even half of what he wanted. While I haven’t tried the Adam version, even the C64 version isn’t much more elaborate, and mainly is helpful in giving a full list of possible verbs rather than making the player guess.

For the next game, Moon Base Alpha (complete map above) you need to stop a comet from hitting the eponymous moon base.

You get constantly reminded of how close the comet is. The first step is to head to the SILO with a CHISEL, DETONATOR, MISSILE, and GANTRY. The game then runs into the Aardvark visualization issue; I normally think of missiles as rather large, but you can just pick this one up and put it in the gantry (!?). Then you need to PUT DETONATOR on the MISSILE, and the only catch now is you need to push the button in order to launch it. The computer in the main control room (see screenshot) has a button but it is out of battery. There’s fortunately a battery in the basement, but unfortunately…

…the game informs you the battery is impossible to get. In Computer Adventure (and the early Aardvark games) you’d have to sit and wonder what the issue is, but here the game spares the space to let you know about CORROSIVE ACID if you look at the battery. So you need to get some medical gloves.

The gloves, unfortunately, have an issue of their own, as illustrated above: they’re contaminated from some sort of prior contact, and you quickly get sick and die if you pick them up. The key is to first take the CHISEL from back where the missile is, bust open the LOCK in the control room with it, grab some FORCEPS hiding behind the door, use the FORCEPS to pick up the gloves, then put the gloves in the autoclave for sterilization before trying to put them on.

A $50,000 autoclave from Fisher Scientific.

Then with the gloves you can get the battery over to the computer (which apparently works well enough even with the acid) and charge it up to be able to launch the missile.

This was certainly an improvement over Computer Adventure; dropping room count to super-tiny levels gave enough space to give actual feedback on what was going on and the game never asked for jumps of faith like CALL REPAIR. The game is even good enough to let you know the gloves are SCUMMY before picking them up rather than just letting you die and figure out the hard way there might be something wrong (…I figured out the hard way, but I pick up items like a hyperkinetic rabbit).

Before visiting Big Bad Wolf, I want to make a big lateral leap to an Infocom game, their only experiment in real-time parser gameplay.

From Mobygames.

This game is in three parts and the opening one is one of my all-time favorite adventure game puzzles.

Just here, a few miles from the border, night is falling, and the lights of the small villages flicker into existence. You’re drifting off into sleep when there is a knock on your compartment door, and a man, clutching his left arm, staggers inside. Drops of blood on his sleeve leave no doubt as to the cause.

“Don’t be frightened,” he begins, “I’m all right.” Before you can speak, he begins his story. He is, it seems, an American agent who has just learned of a sinister plot to assassinate a top-ranking American diplomat tomorrow morning in Ostnitz, the town your train is fast approaching. He hands you a document, which he says must be passed to his contact at the train station there. You look through it, but it’s all in Frobnian, and you know barely a handful of words – that’s why you always carry your combination tourist guide and phrase book with you on your trips here.

“You must deliver this. I do not know who the contact is – he was supposed to find me. I was to wear this white carnation.” He pulls out the rumpled flower and pins it onto your jacket. “He will bump into you and greet you with the words ‘Excuse me. I am sorry.’ to which you should reply ‘It is my fault.’ Then, hand him the document and earn our country’s thanks.”

The near-entirety of Part 1 of the game is figuring out how to make it to Ostnitz with the document. It is essentially one large puzzle, and while you are frantically looking for hiding places, compartments of the train start being checked one by one.

You watch as a man in a trench coat enters your car to the north. He opens the door to the first compartment, and begins to speak to the occupants, though you can’t make out a word.

This is a preparation puzzle. Rather than applying an object to overcome an obstacle, the obstacle is coming to you, and you need to have everything set up correctly in order to bring the document to safety.

Big Bad Wolf is the same sort of puzzle, but squished into the 3583 bytes of VIC-20 BASIC.

The wolf, akin to the comet, approaches a house wanting to gobble you up. (I’m unclear how you get move by move updates on the wolf’s distance, but it still works in context.) Again, the map is tiny, just five rooms.

You can also try to go in the WOODS but that kills you so I’m not counting it as a room.

You’ve got access to a gas stove, whiskey, and a candle in the kitchen; a chair in the den; an ax and shovel in the shed. The shovel can be used to dig up a lock in the yard, which can be used to lock the front door; this is one of the necessary steps to prevent the wolf from gobbling you.

The candle can be used to find a pot of oil in the cellar. Then you need to set up a trap in the DEN, which has a FIREPLACE. The ax can chop the CHAIR into kindling, and the kindling, candle, and hot oil go together into the fireplace.

With the door locked at the trap in place, the game then lets the wolf approach without any intervention on your part.

Finding it cannot huff and puff and blow the house down, it tries the front door, then climbs up to go down the fireplace instead.

I admit I was still genuinely puzzled on some visualizing — chopping up the chair in particular was non-obvious as it doesn’t have a description as wood — but the whole process felt oddly satisfying. I think Moon Base Alpha may have come last of the three (it is the only one that supports LOOK on most everything) but that game felt like a succession of individual puzzles, whereas this felt like one organic one, and I was impressed how much gameplay Bruce Robinson managed.

I think if he had been programming on a mainframe, he’d make a big, expansive Adventure clone just like everyone else, but a treasure hunt in 5 rooms really doesn’t make much sense, so it forced some innovation. It’s too bad the resulting parser is so dodgy, but at least I’m not dreading playing his other games (also for VIC-20) that will come later in my 1982 sequence.

That’s going to have to wait, because for the remainder of at least this week I’m going to try something very, very different, something that surely belongs in the annals of interactive fiction yet is much older than anything I’ve ever played.

Posted May 23, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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19 responses to “Big Bad Wolf / Moon Base Alpha / Computer Adventure (1982)

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  1. Hang on, the VIC-20 really has that little memory? But it has ports of at least some Scott Adams games on it. Is it supposed to work with a memory upgrade or does the cartridge the games came on increase that limitation?

    Regarding missiles sizes, I don’t know at what point a these things become missiles, as opposed to rockets or rocket-propelled grenades, but things like the [FGM-148] Javelin qualify and that’s supposed to be man-portable. On the low end of aircraft missiles, the Hellfire is about 100 lbs, which would be entirely reasonable for a person to carry around. Since the moon is what, 1/6th Earth’s gravity? I guess you could carry something around 600 lbs. Either way that seems less like the expected destroying of a comet and more altering the course of a comet.

    Morpheus Kitami
    • Scott Adams games require an expansion.

      >They require 16 kilobytes of memory at blocks 2 and 3, so you will need either a configurable 16k expansion, or a 24k expansion to play these.

    • I do like the purity of these bite-sized experiences for unexpanded Vic. Bruce mentions that he only had 3,500 byte to work with!

      16K seems to have been workable for a decent text adventure on the Vic… Brian Howarth made some early 8K versions of some of his Mysterious Adventure series for the Vic-20, but ended up redoing them later for 16K as he wasn’t particularly happy with them. (I don’t think any of those 8K editions are currently archived, sadly… it’d be interesting to see how he cut them down to fit)

      • I always have enjoyed seeing how things were compressed, even if the actual experience hasn’t always been pleasant (Computer Adventure is pretty unplayable, but the other two somehow managed).

        I do remember Howarth saying he more or less had to mangle his games to fit. I could swear I’ve seen one of the VIC-20 versions buried in an archive somewhere. It’s not going to be too long until I do the next Howarth game (don’t want _too_ big a gap between Part 1 and Part 2 of Arrow) so when I do that I’ll take another dive.

      • the 8K versions are all here

        I just tested Arrow of Death Part 1 using 8K of memory only, and it works fine.

      • Cool. Yes, they’re the first three that were done. Four more were promised in some of the later adverts, but I’m not totally convinced that they were produced.

  2. Did he seriously misspell the game’s title as “Computer Adventrure” on the boot-up screen? Wow.

    • I thought of making a joke or commentary on the picture but nothing seemed appropriate. It’s not like some other typos we’ve seen that can be excused by a bad dump, either, I’m pretty sure it is an authentic typo.

  3. “I think if he had been programming on a mainframe, he’d make a big, expansive Adventure clone just like everyone else, but a treasure hunt in 5 rooms really doesn’t make much sense, so it forced some innovation.”

    I do absolutely agree, and man, that’s really fresh air in the field.

  4. I think the earliest I’ve seen the Victory Vic-20 advertised was in the July 1982 issue of 80-US where Computer Adventure, Moon Base Alpha and Big Bad Wolf are being sold both individually, at $5.95 or in a pack of three for $14.95.

    The AB Computers catalogue in the Internet Archive (which is helpfully postmarked July 1982) has two packs listed… Adventure Pack I (with Big Bad Wolf, Computer Adventure and Moon Base Alpha) and Adventure Pack II (with African Escape, Hospital Adventure, and Bomb Threat). No sign of Jack and the Beanstalk etc. at that point.

    They were selling the C64 versions of the adventures as early as December of that year (as they’re advertised in the premiere issue of Commander).

    Their OSI software advert in Micro 6502 (December 1982) have everything billed under the heading “Stankiewicz & Robinson, authors of MINOS, NIGHT RIDER. etc.” Dr Alan Stankiewicz is credited on the C64/Coleco version of Computer Adventure.

    • I wish he’d made clear on his writeup what the deal with the alternate Pack configurations are. I _think_ what happened is once Commodore licensed Big Bad Wolf he had to make the swap, but since it was a “replacement” he still kept the same overall title. This means the Adventure Pack 1 I played was the “first” version.

      • Yeah, the Big Bad Wolf/Computer Adventure/Moon Base Alpha is definitely the earliest version of the adventure pack, dating from the time when those games were also sold separately.

        I agree that it seems likely the Commodore deal is the reason the contents changed. Big Bad Wolf doesn’t even make an appearance *anywhere* in the June 1983 Victory Software catalogue (where Jack appears in both the Vic20 & C64 versions of Adventure Pack I).

      • Big Bad Wolf still appears listed on “pack 1” in magazine advertising (in places such as Compute’s Gazette) until at least October1983 (after that the advertising starts to focus on more recent releases).

  5. I can see how Computer Adventrure would not have been fun to play, but the ending is delightful.

    • Nearly all the games I’ve played, even the most throw-off ones, have had at least one good moment. (With Computer Adventure I’d say two good moments, the second being the fact you can GO LOCATION without worrying about them being connected. I realize this was likely accidental and the C64 version “fixed” this feature, but it really did feel good.)

  6. Pingback: Jack and the Beanstalk (1982) | Renga in Blue

  7. The aspect ratio of VIC pixels was about 1.5:1, so it doesn’t look quite as bad as the first screenshot would suggest.

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