Explore (1979)   2 comments

Amawalk, New York, is just a bit north of Manhattan (an hour’s drive, according to Google) and comes close to the Connecticut border. It was also the home of Basics & Beyond, Inc, incorporation date May 23, 1979, whose only claim to technology fame (or rather, complete and utter obscurity) is three products for TRS-80: Microcosm I, Microcosm II, and Microcosm III.

From 80 Micro, January 1980.

All three were package sets where the gimmick was receiving 30 pieces of software (not just games) for the low, low price of $19.95 (later $24.95). The manuals (here for I, here for II) passive-aggressively take shots at their competitors of Creative Computing…

They are not retyped listings of very old programs that are labeled “creative” rather than historical.

…and Instant Software.

Neither are they “instant.”

Both of the aforementioned competitors had far, far, more many products.

Trash talking aside, as far as the games themselves go, South Pole from the Microcosm I collection sounds like it might be an adventure, but falls into the “narrative strategy” genre akin to Oregon Trail. It’s out of scope for this project, but potentially interesting for anyone who likes early text narrative in general.

Evaluating the health of my dogs in South Pole.

Microcosm II contains today’s subject, the generically titled Explore, internal copyright date given as 1979. (Ira Goldklang, who dumped the software off original cassette, also gives a date of 1979, so the date may additionally have been on the physical object itself.)

Being a 1979 game, we are not shockingly hunting treasures again, or as the instructions put it, “YOUR TASK IS TO EXPLORE AN IMMENSE CAVE. AS YOU EXPLORE YOU MAY FIND VALUABLES WHICH YOU SHOULD TAKE OUT OF THE CAVE WITH YOU!”

The instructions also are explicit that the game only uses one-word commands: directions, TAKE, INVENTORY, SCORE, END, and a “FEW MORE COMMANDS I KNOW, BUT YOU MUST DISCOVER THEM YOURSELF.”

This puts the game firmly in the odd period where while Dog Star Adventure had been published (the issue of Softside with Dog Star came out the same month Basics & Beyond was incorporated), but there wasn’t general technological knowledge amongst TRS-80 coders yet on how to write a parser, getting odd games like Dante’s Inferno which was almost purely based on navigation, or Mad Scientist, which technically had a parser but did hacks like checking if a string was long enough to have a noun but not bothering to see what that noun actually was.

In a way, I enjoy these more minimalist games — they are, after all, harkening over to the style of modern “walking simulator” where part of the point is just to look at things, only here it is by technical accident (and the need for stuffing all the games in the collection on one side of one tape) rather than intent.

On the other hand, this is essentially the weakest of the games of this sort I’ve seen so far, comparing with Chaffee’s Quest from 1978, Bernor’s Dante’s Inferno from 1979/1980, and Gold from 1982. I’ll try to unpack why, but the first reason is the map is even more random than usual.

Green marks the starting room.

For example, while you have at least some connectiveness from the starting canyon with the sound of faint chimes to the north, and heading that way leads to a music room…

YOU ARE IN THE MUSIC ROOM WITH A GRAND PIANO TO YOUR LEFT. BANDS OF FRIENDLY ELVES ARE PLAYING FLUTES.

…heading north again leads to a “fingerprint room”.

YOU ARE IN A ROOM COVERED WITH FINGERPRINTS. ALL OF THE FINGERPRINTS ARE ALIKE.

Conceptually, a room covered with fingerprints that all come from the same hand is kind of interesting, but it’s just a room hanging with no purpose, other than holding a silver bar to grab. It’s not sensible enough for even an “implied plot”.

YOU ARE IN THE FEATHER ROOM. THE ENTIRE ROOM IS COVERED WITH FEATHERS.

No connection to the feather room with anything sensible either. Yes, Crowther/Woods has a “soft room” which is kind of random, but even it has some cave-like connection with moss.

You are in the soft room. The walls are covered with heavy curtains, the floor with a thick pile carpet. Moss covers the ceiling.

There was clearly some imagination flowing, but most of it serves just as window dressing, neither building a coherent environment nor a plot.

This is one of the first rooms I encountered and I anticipated it leading to something satisfying, but no: it’s just here.

The second level has — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — a maze made unsatisfying by being too easy.

It doesn’t even make a good joke. I do appreciate the author’s impulse to avoid having asymmetrical connections (going east and then west will return the player back to where they started) but the obligatory maze should have just been dropped.

YOU ARE IN THE GREEN ROOM. THE ONLY THING THAT ISN’T GREEN IN THIS ROOM IS YOU.

The room contains an emerald. Truly inspired.

The third floor is a little more interesting.

The “Match Room” has a giant which tosses you into a random room of the map. (Including the Maze, which I guess would be a little interesting for someone who hadn’t mapped it yet, but not by much.) There’s a “Needle Room” that warns you about touching the needles…

…and if you go UP, the game indeed kills you. (More on dying by going in a direction in a moment.) There’s a small themed “Halloween” area which comes off as a real coherent area; source code follows:

599 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE GOBLIN ROOM. POSTERS ON THE WALLS ARE DECORATED WITH GOBLINS.”
600 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE WITCH ROOM. TO YOUR RIGHT IS A ROW OF BROOMSTICKS ARRANGED VERY NEATLY.”
605 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE GHOST ROOM. SHADOWS SEEM TO APPEAR IN FRONT OF YOU. THIS MIGHT ME A TRICK.”
607 DATA “YOU ARE IN THE MONSTER ROOM. FRANKENSTEIN IS TIED UP TRYING TO GET FREE. YOU’D BETTER LEAVE BEFORE HE GRABS YOU.”

Finally, there’s a dragon with the game’s one and only puzzle.

Keep in mind, up to here, the only thing that’s worked has been directions, and one magic word (IAAPW) which only serves to teleport the player to the room the magic word is in.

If you type LIFT while in the dragon room:

YOU LIFT THE DRAGON AND FIND A DIAMOND.
TO SAVE TIME, I WILL PICK IT UP AND PLACE IT IN YOUR BANK.

This could have been an amusing and coherent puzzle with a different set-up (and match the dragon you can fistfight in original Adventure) but a sudden appearance of a single verb makes more of a random bit of frustrating rather than any real kind of solving experience.

The other major curveball the game has is the occasional death room. With the needles it works well (and was amusing) and with a waterfall that kills you if you go SOUTH it at least talks about sharp rocks:

THE STREAM TUMBLES OFF A WATERFALL THIRTY FEET HIGH. SHARP ROCKS ARE ON THE BOTTOM.

Deaths in quicksand and via a “Nork” are a little more unanticipated.

There’s also one minor curveball, and it is one I’ve never seen in an adventure before. I had collected nearly all the treasures and typed SCORE to check where I was at, and the game told me -24. (Yes, that’s negative twenty-four.) I was utterly baffled until I tried going in a random direction, whereupon the game told me “YOU BUMPED INTO A WALL. TRY ANOTHER DIRECTION.” My score was now -25. Every wall bump counts as minus one to the score, and the game doesn’t tell you where the exits are, so the only way to find out where the exits are is to keep bumping into walls and losing points!

Once everything is mapped it isn’t too hard to gather all treasures and head to the exit (see above) but despite all the complaints, that still doesn’t quite nail why this felt like an inferior experience. I think the issue here is: all three of those games I’ve compared with (Quest, Gold, Dante’s Inferno) had a sort of plot twist where you lost an item and had to find it, or had a route blocked off and had to take an alternate route. This meant there was, however slight in each game, some semblance of plot. Explore doesn’t try anything of that sort (even given possible threads like the mysterious black figure) so is only a half-step above the bare-bones experience of the 1973 game Caves.

This was an independent author whose only other adventure experience was likely Crowther/Woods (the author definitely had exposure to that, because the oddly-described CLEAN CLIMABLE PIT is in), so it was interesting to play in a historical-artifact sense, but this mostly served as an anti-example to good game design. South Pole from Microcosm I is honestly more interesting, but that’ll have to be a project for someone else’s blog.

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

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2 responses to “Explore (1979)

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  1. Minus one point for bumping into walls… And exits are not shown. This almost made me laugh, it is almost a good joke. :-P

    • I’ve been scratching my head at the logic here. No other game I’ve played has such a mechanic. (I’ve played RPGs where you can get hurt bumping into a wall, but they’re wandering a maze in 3D view where everything is visible.)

      I’m guessing the author was trying to work out a way to make score “meaningful” as more than a metric of collecting treasures — there is something slightly stale about typical adventure collect-a-thon scores in comparison to even, say, high scores in Space Invaders — but this particular experiment didn’t work.

      In context of my discovery, it _was_ in the end just kind of amusing, since it didn’t really lose me much time given how short the game is, so it was sort of like my collecting a meta-treasure of a new weird mechanic to add to my list of oddities.

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