Archive for June 2022

Quest (1980-1983)   11 comments

Despite this blog’s visit with mainframes in Britain being solely through the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge (Acheton, Quondam, Hamil, etc.) they were hardly the only game in town. Britain’s big commercial mainframe company (and competitor to IBM) was ICL, itself a merger of multiple other companies, including one that dates all the way back to 1902.

Keypunch from the British Tabulating Machine Company, estimated to be from around 1915. The tabulating machine — originally designed to count the 1890 US Census — was also behind the founding of IBM.

ICL as a company proper was founded in 1968, and while it focused on larger machines at first it did start branching into desktop systems by the late 70s; today’s game was originally written for the their mainframe System 10, with a version by Doug Urquhart and Keith Sheppard developed from 1980 to 1981. Later Jerry McCarthy joined the team before a “final” version was released in 1983. As Doug writes:

Quest is, as they say, functionally rich. We packed over two hundred places into our small part of Cyberspace and peopled them with dragons, elves, insurance salesmen and some of our colleagues. One particularly hated manager was placed, name anagrammatized to avoid legal action, in a rubber goods shop down a sleazy alley near the railway line. He’s still there, if you care to look.

For a long time, the book I just referenced (An ICL Anthology: Anecdotes and Recollections from the People of ICL) is the only evidence we’ve had of the game even existing, even though it claims versions for “System 10, System 25, DRS 20, CPM, DOS and now Windows.” The problem is none of those had ever surfaced!

The game is also utterly obscure enough to not show up on any of my main references (CASA Solution Archive, Interactive Fiction Archive, Mobygames). I had come across it in the past, somehow, but it was in my “wishful thinking” list until a Dave Howorth from the UK (and former ICL employee) pinged me asking if I had heard of this game. I had, and was ready to give the bad news it was buried who-knows-where, when I was surprised to find, snuck two years ago on if-archive:


Quest, a text adventure written between 1980 and 1983 at ICL by Doug Urquhart, Keith Sheppard and Jerry McCarthy. Originally written to run on the ICL System 10 mainframe and later ported to System 25, DRS 20, CPM, MS-DOS and Windows. This is a Visual Basic 3 port that requires a version of Windows capable of running 16-bit Windows programs.

You may wonder “why isn’t it on the Interactive Fiction Database then?” Yes, the IFDB indexes nearly everything on if-archive, but it isn’t automatic, and there’s still the occasional “stealth” upload, as this one was.

I was thus able to deliver good news instead, although the version of Windows needed turned out to be all the way back to Windows 98. Instead of going through making a virtual machine I used a version of DOSBOX pre-set for Windows 98.

All the text for every room description is centered and also delivered all as one paragraph. The last point has major gameplay ramifications; there’s been a standard since Adventure to always separate out items that can be manipulated by at least a line break, but here you just have to parse them as the regular text.

I’m not 100% clear if the original game was like this, but I suspect the mash-the-paragraph-together formatting would be odd to add in the Windowsification phase so is authentic. I’m going to convert the text into ASCII rather than forcing you to parse screenshots. The opening screen above reads:

You are in a small log cabin in the mountains. There is a door to the north and a trapdoor in the floor. Looking upwards into the cobwebbed gloom, you perceive an air-conditioning duct. Lying in one corner there is a short black rod with a gold star on one end. Hanging crookedly above the fireplace is a picture of Whistler’s mother, with the following inscription underneath: ‘If death strikes and all is lost – I shall put you straight’.

(Notice how there’s an item that you can pick up jammed in the middle of the paragraph.)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, aka Whistler’s Mother, from 1871. Her name was Anna.

I haven’t gotten deep enough in to give a full lay of the land, but I can say the general structure seems to have entirely distinct “adventures” based on which direction you travel. If you go down to the underground you find the land of the Arborens.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound has followed you. You are now in the land of the Arborons or tree folk. All around you in the dim light, unblinking pairs of pink eyes can be seen peeping at you through the tree roots. Arboron burrows lead off to the west and south. Lying in one comer there is a small box of .45 calibre ammunition.

I suspect this section may have been written first, given the instructions for the game state: “The object of the quest is to collect as much treasure as you can, and convey it back to the start, without suffering too much harm at the hands of the denizens of the caves.” There are plenty of non-caves to be found, though. If you go outside you can grab a parachute and jump your way into an open range with lots of directions you can go, including this strange machine room:

All your molecules are being disassembled. It is not a particularly pleasant process. You are standing on a dull metal floor, in the middle of a brightly lit room. All around you are banks of machinery whose thin film of dust betrays long disuse. The air is warm, with a hint of ozone, and a low humming noise is coming from the one console which is still functioning, The console comprises a row of eight numbered buttons and a large lever. The button labelled number 6 is illuminated. There is an airlock door to the north. A lambent pool of shimmering light is dancing on the floor, before the console.

If you go up you can find a steel tunnel…

Fighting against a current of air, toffee papers, and other less mentionable objects, you eventually stagger out high up in a mountain range. Looking down (a long, long, long way down) you can just see the log cabin wherein all this business started. To the west is an stainless steel tunnel mouth. In the far distance to the east, a barely discernible object is barely discernible.

…and a blue police box (this is a Brit-game, remember)…

You are now inside the police telephone box; much to your surprise, you discover that there is much more room inside than you would have expected by looking at the outside. In the centre is a control panel; a large button marked “press” is clearly visible thereon. There, standing wagging a cute little metal tail, with its cute little metal head to one side is a BASIC variable (ANSI standard only).

…and get teleported to a jungle land where you get chased by a dinosaur.

The great dinosaur, twice the size of an elephant and ten times as fierce looking has followed you. The passage opens out here, and in some strange strong light, the source of which is not obvious, the walls and ceiling shine with the brilliance of cut glass. They are not made of glass however, they are made of great clusters of sapphires and emeralds, many of them as large as walnuts, and each twinkling out that promise of untold riches that has driven men to war, crime or madness, since history began.

Even if all of the puzzles turn out to be the absurd unsolvable variety, I’ll at least have fun exploring the sheer chaos that seems to be the setting mash-up the game promises. And based on that last room description, at least one of the authors seemed to be all-in to making the writing look good, and being originally on a mainframe means they didn’t need to worry about word count!

Posted June 25, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Skull Cave (1982?)   15 comments

In the history of personal computers, the first significant home computer was the Altair 8800, which briefly made a cameo on this blog with the game Kadath. Quite soon after — designed originally as a terminal to use the Altair before it became its own project — was the Sol line, which appeared on the July 1976 cover of Popular Electronics and was sold in three ways: in kit form, without expansion slots (Sol-10) and with expansion slots (Sol-20). At the time it was called the first complete small computer; it is now sometimes called the first “modern computer” or first “all-in-one” computer.

It did reasonably well — 10,000 units — but in historical memory it is overshadowed by the Altair and Apple I, and shortly after it landed it got bowled over by the Trinity of 1977 (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET).

At the Smithsonian, from DigiBarn. The Apple I and Altair are on the table above, carefully labeled, while the SOL-20 is hiding underneath on the floor with no label at all. I’m not sure if the curator meant this as a metaphor.

The machine eventually was discontinued in 1979; the designer, Lee Felsenstein, ended up going on to design the first successful portable computer (the Osborne 1) but that’s a story for a different time.

Even when a computer is “discontinued” it still can have fans, and the SOL-20 has its diehards and events, like a 30th anniversary party. One such fan, Ray White, wrote what was more or less a private collection of games, including an RPG called Deathmaze. Skull Cave, his only text adventure (and what appears to be the SOL-20’s only text adventure) he estimates to be from 1982.

The setup has an Infidel vibe (“disease, hunger, monsters and desertion” taking their “toll” on your “hirelings”) but the better comparison is Dungeons and Dragons, especially because the final obstacle feels like a scene from one of the very famous early campaigns.

But also: there’s random enemies seeded around for combat. From the opening room above, you can head south (into the “mouth”) to do combat with a skeleton, or head up (through the “eyes”) to do combat with a goblin.

The author here ran into the same problem many adventure writers were running into: how to make the combat interesting? Adventure and Zork both used it a limited amount, so the encounter with (say) the Troll was colorful and not repetitive. Deadly Dungeon tried to give you arrows for a second method of attack, and Eamon added dynamic movement to the monsters, spells, RPG stats, and the possibility of emergent behavior.

Unfortunately, Skull Cave is just taking its cue from Adventure/Zork. Combat isn’t nearly as interesting as Eamon: the only thing possible to do is to ATTACK when entering a room with a monster and hope you win. You can’t even run away and choose to engage later.


Sometimes this sort of game has a “experience path” where if you’ve killed weaker enemies you’ll have an easier time against stronger ones. Unfortunately things are too random for me to be sure if this is true, and I found the best strategy is to attack as minimally as possible, because there’s always a chance of random death. You can spend some points for one reincarnation, but after a second death the game is over.

The game is in two sections. The first spans from the skull cave entrance to a locked gate, with a “Guardian of the Gate” enemy. Other than the initial skeleton-or-goblin fight the next one you have to do for certain is the guardian, and you just need to hope you get lucky and restart if you don’t (the game has no saved game capability, either).

I marked the start room at the top and the gate room at the bottom.

In the middle you can choose to fight a troglodyte and get a jeweled wristband, swipe a number of treasures (silver bars, emerald, painting), smash a statue to take its jeweled “eyes”, swipe a glass bottle and a chain, and battle a dragon (which drops gold if you defeat it).

There’s also a room with a magic word (“PLTMP”) which teleports you there and seems to work every time, being the only escape from combat (too bad I found it last when I was mapping!) There’s also a completely unmappable maze, and I’m not exaggerating “hard and annoying”, I do mean unmappable:

If the author meant to copy the “all different” maze, then separate rooms need separate messages. The item-dropping method doesn’t work; any items just disappear instantly. I think the author may have literally messed things up from their intent.

Going back to the locked gate, if you defeat the Guardian (again, I just made a beeline and crossed my fingers, no tactics whatsoever) then you still have the locked-ness of the gate to deal with. I had found SEARCH worked from my various tests but mostly it shows nothing. However, if you happen to use it at the skeleton room at the very start, you can find a skeleton key.

This is _not_ a guaranteed search either! Again, I feel like the author might have had D&D in mind, but given SEARCH works almost nowhere, having it also possibly fail the one place it does work is just cruelty.

(The funky error line is because I made a typo and tried to hit BACKSPACE, which doesn’t work on this emulator. I assume SOL-20 had a backspace but I’m not sure how to trigger it.)

The key leads down to a slightly more interesting area.

Yes, slightly more interesting, just the usual Adventure puzzle where the bottle from the north side is useful to pour water on a plant to turn into a beanstalk. There’s also a scene with a “beautiful girl” which gives you a scroll with the spell NIGNOG which seems to be used for defeating one (1) enemy of your choice:

There’s a tiger attached to a pedestal where you can choose to walk away, but once you fight, you’re committed. Defeating the tiger reveals a gem. (I tried NIGNOG here and got no luck, but I think it was because I wasn’t technically fighting the enemy yet.)

With the gem in hand you can go back to revealing a sword stuck in a stone, and use the gem to free it. (MOUNT is a verb I got from the binary code of the game. Unfortunately it is in machine language so I can’t determine a lot of things otherwise.)

Then, with the sword, you can get to the scene which I mentioned reminded me quite directly of D&D.

Specifically, the infamous “Tomb of Horrors”, which originally debuted in the 1975 in tournament conditions, then got published in 1978 and has been used by GMs to gleefully torture players ever since. It has traps on traps on traps on traps, and a battle with a lich at the end assuming players even get that far (which is just a skull which floats and sucks out one soul per turn).

From a larger piece of art by Jason Thompson describing an actual play session.

I think there might be some more resources, but just NIGNOG (which stuns but doesn’t destroy) plus the sword were enough to destroy the skull. Just NIGNOG alone doesn’t cut it. I assume our player is the “monk” class since they’ve been going without a weapon most of the game taking down skeletons and so forth, but sometimes you need a little magic even when you’ve got fists of fury.

There’s a map up at CASA Solution Archive which includes a place with a “ring” I never got to visit — if you look at the plant room there’s hook where it seems a chain could go, but I could never find the right verb to make it work — and I also skipped entirely a spider guarding a room with a shield. These tools only came after the majority of combat in the game; Skull Cave really could have used spreading out some of the combat resources in a way that picking them up in the right order could have slowly leveled combat up so the player wouldn’t have to just roll the dice on the guardian or the tiger.

Oh, and I’ve failed to mention the thief. Ugh, yes, there’s a thief.

The thief grabs any treasures you’ve gotten — which seem to be purely for points — and stores them, I presume, in the maze. The problem is the mazes are broken! (In addition to the “all different” maze there’s an “all alike” maze which is equally broken.) So while the source code indicates a “lair” where presumably you can retrieve things…


…there is no plausible way to get there. Perhaps the author has the exact maze steps and if someone really was determined to hack at the binary code they could find out a way too, but as is, the treasure is all a sideshow to the main task of retrieving the pearl anyway.

For now, Skull Cave mainly serves as a warning as to how difficult it is to make combat fun in an adventure game without making any extra systems. The large number of adventures from this era where violence is actually a red herring seems to be linked to the same trouble: there need to be statistics, extra moves, a wealth of items, enemy AI, and so forth, none of which had an easy-to-copy model at the time–

From the printed Tomb of Horrors module.

–excepting Eamon, but if people wanted an Eamon game they just wrote it in that system. And incidentally, for those Eamon fans out there, yes, I might loop back sometime and do more than 2 adventures, even though they really lean much harder on the RPG than the adventure side. The backlog is just so, so long. And speaking of backlog, what I’ll be getting to next is a game which is very large, whose existence is recorded almost nowhere, and has only been available to the public quite recently.

Posted June 24, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Mad Monk (1982)   15 comments

From the Centre for Computing History.

Fans of my previous posts may remember a mysterious individual, Mr. A. Knight, who wrote Galactic Hitchhiker, a surprisingly decent riff on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while using the vanishingly small 8K available on the UK101 computer (shown above).

A. Knight was listed in 1980 as living at Simonside Walk, Ormesby, Middlesborough, Cleveland.

By the end of 1981 he mentioned another game, Mad Monk, that he had ready for sale; at least one person ordered it in March 1982 and never received it, and for a while it was thought perhaps the game was vaporware, until it appeared recently, recovered by baldwint from a stash of UK101 tapes on the Stardot forum. It seems to have taken until mid-1982 before it actually came out. Quoting from the August 1982 catalog:

A graphics Adventure program, all in machine code. We’re sorry about the delay in finishing this one but when you see it you will understand why it has taken so long. It is now receiving its finishing touches and, honest injun, it’ll be ready for mid August….yes, 1982. If you already have this one on order, please be patient just a little longer, as it really is worth waiting for. Again, apologies for the delay.

The catalog is incidentally for “Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd”; while Knight originally sold software as a personal venture with no company name at all, by 1982 he had branched into a selection from multiple authors with the aforementioned Merlin attached, and later switched names again to Knight Software.

Unlike his previous game, it is fully in the roguelike-adventure mode, like The 6 Keys of Tangrin, Lugi, Mines, and a few others games we’ve seen. Nearly all room placements and exits are randomly generated, and all objects and foes are also placed at random.

The adventure starts with you in the entrance hall of the Mad Monk’s Monastery and your missions is to find and rescue one Lord Magnil the Magnificient, who is being held ranson by the Mad Monk and his acolytes.

Not a princess! Good job, Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd.

You always start in an Entrance Hall, as shown above, and just to the south of Entrance Hall there is an entrance to a maze, which switches the game to 3D mode (!).

The text adventure part of the game contains a “magic map” and a “compass”. Having the compass will have the game always display what direction you’re facing; having the map will let you press M to get an automap.

While it isn’t clear from the instructions or the game itself, the 3D maze is the exit should only be entered once Lord Magnil is rescued; if you successfully pass through when he hasn’t been rescued, the game asks WHERE’S MAGNIL THE MAGNIFICENT? and ends.

The 3D maze is generated in such a way the right-hand rule works, so it honestly isn’t too distressing to have it in the game (even if the compass and/or map turn out to be elusive); if it was in the middle of the game it would be much worse to go through the effort, as the text adventure portion is quite deadly.

The way enemies work is they start “agitated” when you enter a particular room, and the longer you stay there the more likely they are to get angry and start hitting; other than CEREBUS as shown above you have to deal with THE SANDMAN, POTTY PRINCE YUSUPOV, CRAZY COUNT PAVLOVICH, IGOR THE INSANE, GREENY THE ERRANT INVADER, and the MAD MONK himself. The anger level seems to be a fixed increase, so you strategically only have 5 turns or so with an enemy to either eliminate it or skedaddle. Enemies can block exits so sometimes they have to be killed, although it is possible for them to also show at dead ends (meaning in such cases they can be ignored).

Some of them you can just stab with a dagger, assuming you have one (that’s a big assumption).

Others I have no idea what to do with and I just die. Greeny is only killable with a “zapper” as the instructions indicate, but he’s hard to hit.

The instructions hint that there’s some sort of mini-game to train your zapper ability: there’s an ARCADE GAME and a COIN and assuming you have them together (see animation below) you can put in the coin to get a Greeny Zapping session in with special controls. You need to (at least) entirely beat a wave in order to get enough accuracy, a feat I have (as of this writing) yet to manage.

The room description engine isn’t dense but it works out; most rooms are just “Monastery”, and sometimes with an environmental effect that is either permanent (“THE WALLS ARE COVERED WITH MOSS HERE.”) or temporary (“SOMETHING SLITHERS AWAY IN THE SHADOWS.”). Some rooms have special names like “Alcove” or “Pantry”; in a few cases the special rooms have fixed items. The Bathroom, if it appears, will always have a rubber duck. The bell tower, if it appears, will always have a rope you can pull.

Notice I said “if it appears”; I’m unclear about this for certain, but I think the map generator is busted. Sometimes it works, but sometimes you get one generated like so:

It is faintly possible I’m missing some trick but in this case the only thing available to reach was an arcade machine (and no coin, so I couldn’t test out the minigame). A much better generated map is something like this one:

There’s a bottom floor and a top floor; the top floor is constrained within a 5 by 5 section, and I think that’s in general the game’s default. That would imply the bottom floor also does the same, and it may have done so correctly, but my mapping was cut short by CEREBERUS THE SALTY DOG, and if an enemy is presenting as an obstacle, you can’t just sneak by.

I was able to get a DAGGER and stab both IGOR and the SANDMAN, but the parser just gets confused you even think about stabbing the dog. There’s a message (that has appeared only on a few iterations) about the dog being an “old softie” so I tried things like dropping a bear and a rubber duckie and some sausage in the room, but no dice. The verb list is heavily constrained, so I might be typing the wrong words.

This leaves out BLOW, which works because of a whistle which summons a police officer. The police officer is no help against the dog either.

I’ve done quite a fair number of tries, but it look the game’s logic force-makes Cereberus into a necessary-to-win obstacle, so I have to get by to succeed.

The only other aspect I’ve figured out (partially?) is the mad monk. The monk plays by its own rules and can “teleport in” to a room you’ve previously been in, as opposed to staying in place. Unfortunately, the monk stays put after, so if he’s blocking you (likely) you might be entirely stuck. The only way by I’ve found is to right the bell tower; for some reason this summons the monk away and you no longer have to worry about him at that location.

Despite the frustrations I was rooting for the game to work — or at least get me enough luck somehow I could ignore the dog — but after a significant number of lives wasted trying to find any verb that might be helpful (with the occasional “impossible” map) I’ll need to throw in the towel for now. If anyone is keen and giving it a whirl themselves, head over to here for a copy and instructions.

Neat concept, generally, but the game just didn’t work out. Hanging over it all was the lack of a saved game feature, which made experimenting very frustrating; I had the situation like Lugi where I wanted to test a theory about an object combined with a particular enemy, but I had to wait multiple restarts until the next situation rolled around only to find out my idea didn’t work. Having fatal puzzles combined with making it hard to test theories drains all the energy out of an adventure game.

We’re technically not done with the UK101 yet; the Merlin catalog I quoted earlier also has two games by David Harrison, Dragon’s Lair and Lost in Space, both cited as adventure games. It’s hard to know if they’re “really” adventures (as opposed to action games with a light skin) but tapes for neither have surfaced, so we’re left for now wondering unless another tape cache turns up.

Posted June 16, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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The Queen of Phobos: The Fabled Mask of Kuh-Thu-Lu   9 comments

Paul Berker has done an interview for the podcast ANTIC where he discussed Phoenix Software and Queen of Phobos.

He mentioned that the packaging for the game had “High-res graphic adventure” on the box…

…which was enough for On-Line Systems (of their Hi-Res Adventure line) to sue in California court. Unfortunately Phoenix was a small company out of Illinois so they just simply destroyed any remaining stock they had left, and Berker estimates he only made “about $2000” from the game.

His collaborator Bill Crawford passed away in 1984 so there’s no similar interview for him; Paul Berker said he might have otherwise made more games based on Crawford’s ideas. Paul went back to writing software for businesses, which had much more reliable paychecks.

I have finished the game, and it was excellent enough that before going on, I want toss down a link:

Click here to play The Queen of Phobos online

Complete spoilers follow, and you’ll need to have read prior posts for this one to make sense.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

As implied by my calling the game “excellent enough”, yes, the randomness ended up working out. This was partly due to the rogue’s gallery being less aggressive than they could be, but in a ludic sense they still gave the desired effect.

I had left off last time understanding part of the sequence I wanted:

a.) Get the nuclear weapon and the cable, and use the cable to dispose of the weapon. This is probably optional if you’re fast enough doing everything else! There’s lots of optional elements going on.

b.) Get the shovel and the map from the planet surface. Neither of these have randomized positions so no hunting is required. Again, technically optional, but the maze is randomized. I have some times just moved randomly and found the center with no effort, and sometimes go terribly lost, but I figured for my goal I needed the map.

c.) Somehow get the key from the claw machine; I hadn’t solved this yet.

d.) Use the key to open the locker in the captain’s room, which surely has a helpful item.

e.) Make it over to where the lasers are and throw the map to set the lasers off and have them shoot each other.

f.) Defeat the zombie by ???

g.) Get the mask by ???

h.) ???

i.) Profit!

With a bit more playing around with the claw machine — and a helpful warning not to hit the machine if you LOOK at it — I tried KICK MACHINE after playing, and the token came out again. (I tried this once already, but before playing, hah! I was thinking maybe I could just get the key to fall out on its own.)

By using the token a second time, I was able to get the key. Unlocking the locker gave me a … salt cube?

Not expecting much, I loaded up on some extra items (like a vibroaxe and a surgical chain-saw) with the hope that something I carried would take care of the zombie. The zombie comes out on its own so there’s no opportunity to use a command like ATTACK ZOMBIE, which should have been a clue that this would happen:

Ah yes, the well known aversion of zombies to salt. Actually, there’s a hint to this in a COOKBOOK lurking in the kitchen. You have to TURN PAGE to flip through the cookbook (something I was clued in on because it gets used in a prior Phoenix game). Page 4 states:


Moving past the zombie is the room with the mask! The mask is wired for electricity, unfortunately. Going back and exploring, I found that I could use a wrench to turn the mysterious spigot in the machine room I was having trouble with, which started dispensing electrolytes to ruin electronics. I also found a crock pot that I could use to take the liquid with me. (Note: both items are randomly distributed; I don’t know how keen the thieves are on stealing them, but I believe the wrench got moved around at least once.)

With the trap disabled, I was able to grab the mask, then die shortly after of a mysterious illness. You need to WEAR MASK to be filled with vitality and escape. Then all that’s needed is to head down to a shuttle and leave.

Note that the thieves become much more dangerous on your way out and will try to kill you. It is possible to run away but given any leeway they will do a surprise attack. On my winning run I had:

a.) found an electric crossbow which killed Dr. Hunter — the person with the sunglasses

b.) failed to find beer; however, the lizard-man and the beetle both by coincidence ended up in the same room, so I threw a gas grenade and took down both of them at the same time

c.) completely ignored the tree-person, as I couldn’t find anything to kill them; one rogue turns out to be not so bad to evade

Incidentally, after wearing the mask and going back to the central room, I found the beer and some footprints going northeast. I’m not sure what the meaning of this was. One might suspect the rogue was nearby and dropped the beer, or maybe the footprints were supposed to show you the way back? I just wandered randomly and kept going south until I found the exit.

But really, the game worked. The fact that the rogues could be killed in at least two ways or ignored was fantastic; it gave a risk-reward feel and opened the possibility to a “pacifist run” where you avoid killing any of them. (If any of them follow you into the shuttle, you don’t have time to push the launch button before they shoot you.)

There weren’t that many obstacles in the end, but that turned out to be a feature; I don’t know if the game’s central idea would have worked well for a more prolonged stay.

This suggests strongly that one of the main principles of a good roguelike-adventure is to allow alternate solutions or even skipping puzzles when randomness is involved. Also — noting that the nuclear device and cable were always in the same place — if something involves critical timing, don’t toss it in the random generator mix.

The game doesn’t quite go all the way to the fantasy of the infinitely repayable adventure, as the fundamental frame is always the same, but it does lend at least more than is typical. The wisdom it holds is good to keep in mind as the next game on my list is fully adventure-roguelike, and was completely lost to the world until quite recently.

Posted June 13, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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The Queen of Phobos: They Must Not Drink Beer Where He Comes From   Leave a comment

Softline, May, 1982.

I think I’m converging on a solution. The game can’t be too huge just on the basis of it only taking one disk side and some of the space occupied by animations. I already showed some of the zombie, here’s a selection of frames from when you jump off into space (and die):

Again, just a selection: it looks startlingly like a cutscene jumped into the game, 1990s-style. I think it’s easy to see the resemblance to, say, The Tartarian and discard the graphics as crude, but there’s some genuine craft and art design put into them.

They’re not museum-frameable, but there’s a ragged 50s-movie vibe to them. Sure, the creators were probably forced into it due to technical circumstance, but they made the most of it.

The frisbee-shaped ship has a game schema like this:

The corridor is the central travel area. To the “south” of each junction of the corridor are the main rooms (navigation, bridge, armory, etc.) To the “north” is a maze of state mazes leading to the center of the ship (and the aforementioned zombie). So unless I’m fundamentally misunderstanding something, the majority of the action plays out on the corridor. I’ve mapped it as a line, but note the two ends wrap around.

Green represents a section where you can teleport down to the planet the Phobos is orbiting. The corridor lets you go north into the “maze”-ish section but that’s where the circular aspect becomes hard to map. Fortunately mapping the maze seems to be unnecessary to winning.

Despite the ad materials mention of “randomly placed” weapons, some of the items seem to be consistent. For example, you’ll always find a SURGICAL-CHAINSAW in the surgery area. It’s possible for the thieves to filch items, but they also will sometimes drop them again; for example, Thomas S. Hunter picked up a bazooka from the planet (he hitched a ride with me through a teleporter) and dropped it off again randomly in the ship’s corridor. That’s a pity, because the bazooka doesn’t work and will blow up whoever tries to use it. Maybe I need to get him to swipe it and then provoke him so he tries to use it.

Thomas S. Hunter posing with Yuggoth.

As implied by the screenshot above, you can have two thieves in a room at once, although I’ve never seen three, which is kind of a pity, because the one item that seems to work on all the thieves — but only works once — is the gas grenade. (You need to be wearing a gasmask, but otherwise you can just throw it.) This means that it may be that all four thieves have a custom defeating-method but the grenade will work in a pinch if you can’t find a certain item or just happen to be stumped.

One of the items that defeats a thief is a case of beer. Normally it isn’t helpful…


…but the Beetle can’t resist the beer, which was apparently too much to handle.

I’m also not 100% sure you actually need to defeat all or even any of the thieves. While they sometimes follow you around they don’t attack (yet) unless you make a move first. There is some secondary havoc they must have caused behind the scenes, because there’s a thermonuclear device in an armory that is set to explode and needs disposing of. You can get a cable from near the engine of the ship, then find a gaping hole with some ship damage; attach the cable to yourself, walk out near to the hole, and toss the device.

If you don’t attach the cable before throwing the nuke, Newton kicks in and you fly into space and die.

In the department of other puzzles: there’s also a machine with a metal claw; you can put in a token, and the claw moves over and picks up a deck of cards. I suspect I need the key right next to it in the machine, but I don’t know how to fix things yet.

This is animated. It doesn’t seem to be a mini-game, but rather the cards get picked up automatically.

I’ve otherwise not got much left to fiddle with. A “spout” in a machine room needs a handle to turn; I’ve found a shovel which dug up a grave on the planet…

…which has a map that leads from the captain’s quarters to the center of the ship, which is why I indicated earlier figuring out the maze was unnecessary.

Each thief is a puzzle of sorts, and it’s fun just to see what kind of combinations can happen on a fresh game, so I’m not bored of things yet. As long as things resolve fairly soon this won’t have outworn its welcome.

I can’t guarantee yet that the random aspect is solid, but the alternate method of thief-killing and the fact they are willing to drop their loot both suggest it shouldn’t be possible to get into an unsolvable situation. I did want to mention one more novelty of this game, which happens if the disk thinks you’ve copied it (that is, this is an anti-piracy measure). As observed by 4am, Apple II preservationist extraordinaire:

The melting is just what happens if the nuclear bomb goes off, so whatever time limit the bomb has (200 moves?) gets set to 1.

Posted June 12, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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The Queen of Phobos (1982)   11 comments

This one’s got a terrific high concept.

Think about the Thief in Zork I. Imagine instead of one Thief there are four of them, moving about an ancient spaceship just like you are, all of different alien races with different personalities and methods of being defeated, as everyone vies to be the first to lay their hands on a powerful ancient artifact: the legendary mask of the long-extinct Martian race, Kuh-Thu-Lu.

Our previous visits with Phoenix Software were both in 1981 with Paul Berker, who wrote Birth of the Phoenix and Adventure in Time for the Apple II. Both were text-only games; Paul returns here with The Queen of Phobos as a programmer, with graphics and design by William R. Crawford. This is Mr. Crawford’s only credited game.

From Mobygames.

I did say “graphics”, although other than the title screen…

…they’re entirely in black and white. I am hence going to turn on the “black and white TV” mode; I know the weird purple sheen that comes from the unique way Apple graphics worked may give some nostalgia, but I honestly think the black and white Apple II games usually look better in actual black and white.

A zoomed-in look at the four thieves from the cover.

The starliner Scalus III — recently appeared after more than a thousand years lost — is rumored to be the famed long-lost ship “Queen of Phobos” with a passenger roster including the Pharaoh Rahnk III of Mars. The ship had the pharoah’s mask, supposedly not just a symbol of power but a real source of power. The loss of the pharoah and the mask brough Mars into a civil war and the Martians themselves into eventual extinction.

While Earth was give right of salvage of the vessel, four thieves have boarded. Your job is to board the vessel on behalf of Earth and get to the mask before the thieves do.

I have yet to assess how much randomness the game has, but I’m serious when I say the AI seems to be like the Thief in Zork — it can go anywhere at any time. For example, upon disembarking on the Queen of Phobos, I went “north” and then “west” (apparently directions are a bit fuzzy as “north” is always towards the center of the vessel) and found an axe in a corridor. On a different playthrough I found the axe filched and one of the four thieves showed up. I ran away because I had no items.

On yet another playthrough I found no item but some beer along the next corridor. The items seems to be randomly scattered at the start but since the thieves are grabbing things, probably it is the best to not be feeling like I need to “race” for a particular item.

The thieves do seem to play hardcore, as evidenced by what happened when I went back to visit the ship I landed with. (This seems to always happen no matter the circumstances, and it means you can’t leave the same way you came in. I’m reminded of the Thief in Zork closing the trapdoor behind you.)

The map is circular, with a long corridor “outer ring” and a web of “staterooms” on the next ring.

Despite the apparent chaos, there’s definite specific puzzles going on. For example, while toting along the case of beer, I found two lasers, and with no other resources, threw one of the beers out.

Immediately afterwards I found a zombie which mauled me in dramatic animated fashion. I guess that explains why The Queen of Phobos went missing.

This one’s going to be fun to play around in. Is it going to be fun to beat, though? It depends how frustrating the randomness gets (and if there’s alternate methods for defeating particular thieves if they swipe an item that you need). So far, though, this feels less like the author felt a need to create an Adventure Game and more “here’s a story where you’re part of it”.

Posted June 9, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Cain’s Jawbone: Where He Who Drinks Is Deathless   6 comments

This is where I’m leaving the book for the moment; it’s hard with this sort of puzzle to ascertain if you’re sure you’ve made progress but — I feel like I’ve progressed to the point where I can explain the overall logic of the puzzle, even if I’m still very confused on the plot.

If this is where you’ve landed you should read my prior posts about the book first. And of course, this is about as extreme as spoilers can be. While I have to severely disappoint anyone who arrives typing “cain’s jawbone solution” into their favorite search engine, this does establish quite a bit of scaffolding; however, I still have to disclaim that some of this may still be wrong.

From AbeBooks.

The basic gameplay logic is to notice connections about a character that let you organize pages together. They might be personal tendencies to use particular items, or they might be relationships (especially to Henry the dog). As Peter observed with my last post, the narrator lights a “Nestor” (cigarette brand) on both pages 6 and 54, so we can assert (at least temporarily) that those two must be connected. The page 54 mention is explicit, the page 6 one is not:

…venerable whose winter Achilles thought to take from the lips of Cressida. Why not? I set fire to one end of him, gloatingly, and my nerves benefited.

On some pages, the author talks about their own name. I am still unclear if any of these overlap with first name-last name or if they are all different.

Page 15: Alexander, the only noteworthy Pope of my native land, was demonstrably affected. And my namesake wrote a letter, in which he said that Sarah’s left eye was injured, and there appeared a black spot on her breast.

Seems to indicating the author’s name is Pope, although it could be Clement repeated who is simply associating himself with Popes (see page 24).

Page 18: He would be, even to start with, for a course of soup, and then another of dishes, as my namesake said, and another of birds.

Based on the textual reference, seems to be Paul (of Paul’s letters in the Bible).

Page 24: I had always thought that to carry the name of fourteen popes and two anti-popes meant nothing to me either way.

I’ve gone through this one before, based on the pope count (and the fact the name occurs on another page) likely it is Clement.

Page 43: Alexander’s my name. They ca’d me Ecky when I was a boy.

Almost certainly a fake-out; the whole quote is from Robert Louis Stevenson. (It isn’t the only RLS quote, suggesting this particular narrator likes RLS and any other quotes are also from the same person.)

Page 58: Considering it was my name month, I wasn’t having too much luck. Henry, though a bit on the spectacular side—to fly the viscera of his third, of the old family lawyer, at his small flagstaff, a little argued the exhibitionist—was sane enough.

Is this person May?

Page 61: I had always been proud of my namesake, the Great Lexicographer, as we, not unnaturally, called him in the family. But I wondered if part of my life would not rather horribly reverse his. After all he had been born at Colney Hatch.

Based on the birthplace, this has to be John Walker, who wrote a Rhyming Dictionary. (The reverse also hints at the author dying at Colney Hatch?) Is the person just John, just Walker, or both?

Page 73: All the artist in me flared up. After all, my given name was world-famous as the inherited one of a bold, subtle and delightful painter. I was, perhaps, unreasonably proud of that ; took a sort of proprietary interest in “The Mumpers.” Why not? It would have been absurd to concern myself with Hamlet’s one, a thing of dreams only, or to have let my spirit flutter around Runymede.

Another name I’m unclear on; any guesses? This may require more connected context to make sense.

Page 85: I had, it occurred to me, been something of an automaton. But wasn’t I thrusting my head, when bent on such a business in this street, into the twin mouths of two lions, of Mycroft’s brother and of the pale but multitudinous Blake? Often as a schoolboy they had guyed my name to a whiskified objectionable one.

Includes a quote from Giffen’s Debt which suggests the name Giffen.

Page 91: In my youth I had been worried that I bore the same name as Newbolt’s admiral and Shakespeare’s sergeant, and it had irked me when, in my student days, I had been known as the Smiler with the Knife.

I’ve been through this one; the current best guess is De’Ath as a surname.

Page 93: Naturally I looked up. And I tell you I found it awe-inspiring enough to actually see my own name through the window, printed there in great letters for the gaze of all and sundry. With a blush I concentrated again on Henry, and asked myself if his recent activities did or did not constitute the darbs.

I’m not sure what name this is; I would assume some church in the narrative is identifiable enough that it is also possible to identify stained-glass with a name.

The general logic thus seems to be to use these clues shown to establish exactly who the narrators are, connect pages in sets by personal tendencies (and possibly events, but the plot is too confusing to make much headway), and once the pages are in the right sets, it likely will be much more plausible to sort things in order. There might be some finesses to make things easier, like each narrator appears in a “block”, but it’s not certain at this point. I’ve seen a few “murder wall” pictures that attempt to smooth everything out into one line but it really seems like the best bet is to sort by blocks, and not try to connecting everything chronological in one fell swoop.

I still feel satisfied I have some grasp of going on but … I’d still like to finish? I’m still going to keep thwacking at intervals, and if significant progress is made I’ll give an update. In the meantime I do have adventure games to keep writing about, including two (two!) games that were previously lost, one for home computers, one for mainframes.

Oh, and many thanks to everyone who contributed to the Google doc. It’s almost readable sometimes now!

Far, far from here the Adriatic breaks in a warm bay among the green Illyrian hills. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Read Mark Twain and inwardly digest. But I had to keep my wits about me. He pottered about with me and succeeded at last in making friends with Henry. Already he felt that I was leading him to the fountain Ponce de Leon sought, where he who drinks is deathless. And he was not so far wrong.

Does this suggest the killing of De’Ath?

Posted June 8, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Gamebook, Interactive Fiction, Poetry, Puzzles

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50 Years of Text Games book on Kickstarter (and some other news)   8 comments

I feel like there’s a lot of overlap in readership, but not complete overlap, so for anyone who hasn’t heard I’d like to put forth that Aaron Reed just launched a Kickstarter for the book form of his 50 Years of Text Games series.

Kickstarter Link Here

As the Kickstarter page warns, all images are mock-ups.

The original series was free (this is the edited book form) so if nothing else, read his article about St. Bride’s School and the game Silverwolf.

In slightly less positive news (but still interesting) the early-computer-game collector community has recently been rocked by a counterfeit scandal, up to and including trying to print discolored labels on a dot-matrix printer. Particularly pertinent for this blog is a saga involving The Chambers of Xenobia, a game I wrote about when working through 1981. I was tempted, when the collector @A2_Canada wrote about finding an original copy, to tuck the news in as an addendum to the original post.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a counterfeit copy, as discovered when the Apple II disk was booted up by the preservationist 4am and found to be a “cracked” copy from the Internet rather than an original.

Lots more detail on the saga at this webpage, Finding Deceit in the Chambers of Xenobia.

One nice incidental detail is Steven Sacks himself talking about the two games. He was originally thrilled an original copy was found as he didn’t own one himself.

Those 2 were the only games I wrote. I was about 14, had been messing around with the Apple II I had begged my parents for and decided I could write a game like the ones I was buying. I wrote Chambers of Xenobia and sent a copy of the game to about 5 publishers. Avant-Garde responded and offered me a deal and I took it. I think Chambers sold only a couple hundred copies, but Race for Midnight I think sold more than 2000. The royalties meant I had plenty of spending money through high school after I paid my parents back for the Apple II.

Posted June 7, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction