Colossal Adventure (1982)   13 comments

Well the name Level 9 was designed to indicate a level of quality, it was the highest level that you get with a one digit number.

— Pete Austin, in a 1988 interview

This is, for some of my European readers, the mothership.

Level 9 is one of Britain’s most famous companies for text adventures; the only company I’d say with comparable heft is Magnetic Scrolls, although their start is still a few years away.

Level 9 was started in 1981 by Pete, Mike, and Nick Austin and initially published software for the Nascom, a UK-produced kit computer of the same sort as the UK101 but a touch more powerful, coming with a keyboard and video interface and allowing memory capacity of up to 32K.

Electronics Today, June 1978.

Products, as advertised in November 1981, included Extension Basic, Q-DOS (“the ultimate filing system for G805 drives”), Missile Defence (“Destroy enemy ICBMs”) and Fantasy.

Fantasy was an adventure (“a competitive adventure set in a gothic mansion”), and you may be wondering why we’re not starting our Level 9 journey there. Sadly, Fantasy is currently lost to the digital wastes, and one of those with few enough copies sold it may never turn up (although there have been surprises before!)

Pete Austin later described it as “like Valhalla”, a 1983 ZX Spectrum game.

Screenshot from this video walkthrough.

Valhalla features characters that you can give orders to, and if the walkthrough above is any indication, they’d often not be cooperative about following through on the orders.

There were a lot of characters wandering around who changed according to your actions. What I did was to make it print out in proper English.

There’s even further description from this interview in the magazine Page 6:

It was a game with about 30 locations. It had people wandering about and essentially it was one of the few games where the other characters were exactly the same as the player and were all after the gold as well. What made it amusing was that they had quite interesting characters, each had a table of attributes, some of them were cowardly, some of them were strong — that kind of thing and we gave them names. There was one called Ronald Reagan and one called Maggie Thatcher and so on and there was Ghengis Khan, etc so you could wipe out your least favorite person!

The description makes it sound like a world with a lot of independent-moving actors and not much coherent plot, and the gothic mansion plus the addition of people like Reagan strongly suggests it is similar to a game collection featured here before, Atom Adventures, particularly the House module. Atom Adventures was published in the tail end of 1981, later than Fantasy, so I suspect it was a direct rip-off.

The important thing to note is the “independent actor” idea had a hold on some of the later Level 9 games (especially Knight Orc) and that even though The Hobbit — a 1982 game we have yet to get to — had similar ideas and was a colossus in terms of popularity, the through-line of building an adventure game mostly out of enhanced-AI actors had a strong hold on the British industry all the way to the beginning.

Level 9’s follow-up, and today’s selection, was essentially a port of Crowther/Woods Adventure, with an addition of “70 rooms” which I gather are mostly in the endgame.

We put the extra rooms in because we had told everybody that there would be 200 rooms and when we counted them up there were only 130, so we just had to put the others in!

The game quickly made it to Nascom, BBC Micro, and a bewilderingly large menagerie of other platforms, ported to nearly everything available in the British market at the time. It was originally available in 16K, and used an interpreter akin to Infocom’s Z-Code that the company called A-Code.

I found Colossal Adventure at Perkin-Elmer [a computer manufacturer Pete Austin worked for] running on one of their machines. I thought that we could do this, in 16K on a micro and in fact we did. The main thing that we got right at that stage was that we actually wrote a system, we didn’t write a game but we actually wrote a system which interpreted a database.

Division of labor (using the same interview) seems to have been

Pete: design

Mike: coding the Adventure

Nick: machine coding and porting between machines

The 16K requirement (and the fact the game was loading off tape rather than disk) meant text compression was required, with the A-Code system taking large letter fragments and making shorter replacement texts; turning every occurrence of “then” into “~”, say, although being smart about letter combo popularity.

All of Level 9’s early games (including Colossal Adventure) were expanded to have both 16K and 32K versions. I’m not sure on details about the 16K version (none currently exist, there’s a 16K Nascom port out there of Adventure but it is an entirely different port by Syrtis Software). For the 32K version the Austins are nearly showing off, making the text sometimes longer than the original. Here’s the original Hall of the Mountain King:

You are in the Hall of the Mountain King, with passages off in all directions.

Here’s the revised text:

You’re in the Hall of the Mountain Kings, a huge room decorated with majestic statues. The east wall is covered by trophies and the mounted heads of elves and monsters, with a carved granite throne standing beneath them. The hall is hung about with the tattered remains of rich tapestries and has large doorways on all sides.

Colossal Adventure was was eventually followed by Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure making a full trilogy for 1982 that was later packaged as Jewels of Darkness. I’m going to try the stand-alone text version some, but I’m going to do the majority of my playing on Jewels of Darkness, because it has some nice graphical versions. Behold, the power of Atari 8-bit:

Two differences to note right away with original Crowther/Woods:

1. The building with keys/lamp/bottle does not have the food, and you can enter the well in order to get some coins.

2. The outdoors portion has been modified quite a bit. I found a spire and a volcano. I’m unclear yet if any of the outdoor changes are important.

For my next post, I’ll play through all the “standard” adventure rooms and try to complete Adventure … again (at least this time with pictures!) For my last post, I’ll tackle the endgame, which is where the majority of the extra rooms lie and is supposedly like an entirely new game within the game.

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

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13 responses to “Colossal Adventure (1982)

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  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Fantasy basically THE lost text adventure? The holy grail of that? At least, I’m not aware of any other important adventure titles that are in the missing category, that aren’t also unfinished. Kind of funny to hear it described as like Valhalla, when that game, despite its apparent pedigree, is quite forgotten. I’m sure its not anywhere close to being a weird pre-King’s Quest graphic adventure though.

    • It’s definitely just a text game (Nascom-only!) The reference Pete made was to what’s happening in the text with characters moving around independently, and I guess that game was recent/famous enough to make the reference.

      He gives the exact number of rooms in Fantasy as 30. I never made an accurate map for House so I should check if that attribute lines up too. Based on the work process of the Austins the game would have been in machine code, but I could see the separate “world file” being ripped off and then a new interpreter being made for it.

      • No, Fantasy was written in BASIC. I have a collection of early Level 9/Fantasy-related adverting here…

        The final one referenced on that page, from Computing Today in January 1983, explicitly lists Fantasy as being in BASIC, rather than machine code.

        I hadn’t thought about the possibility of “House” being (shall we say) “directly inspired” by Fantasy. The sort of person who was into the NASCOM would probably have later bought an Atom. The fact that Fantasy was in BASIC does make a “port” more likely. I don’t think we know much about the background of those Acornsoft games.

      • oho, yes, BASIC does make “inspiration” more likely. I might prod a bit at Atom Adventures later to see if there’s anything interesting/suspicious embedded in there.

  2. I played through the trilogy at the start of the year because I was curious especially about this variation of Colossal Cave. Without spoilers, I will say that you’ll probably not have much trouble getting to the expansive endgame.

  3. There’s still hope that one day the Austins will delve into their archives and find and release Fantasy and the early 16K versions of the Level 9 text adventures. I know that they are working on making some A-code material available to the community, although it seems like this might be one of the later iterations of the system.

  4. Woohoo!!!

    Let’s go!

  5. It is funny that you wonder if spiral and the volcano are relevant, I think they are not, I think that they are only scenery. I really don’t remember well. anyway but they are very relevant to the to Spanish adventurers because the Spanish clone of colossal Cave is strongly based on the level 9 so we Spanish adventurers are very fond of it, and it is somewhat canon.

    • The volcano is foreshadowing the Magnificent View location later in the game.

      The spire is just scenery here, but it becomes important in another Level 9 game.

      • Actually replacing it, almost — the one in the original location is much less impressive. I should be posting a screenshot later today (I did get to the endgame part).

  6. Pingback: Colossal Adventure: Finale | Renga in Blue

  7. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious that “You’re at the bottom of a dry well which smells disgusting” isn’t something Crowther or Woods would have put in their Colossal Cave Adventure. They would have said something more like:

    “You’re at the bottom of a dry well. A foul aroma rises all around you.”

    • And that foul aroma would’ve been a clue that there’s a bear (or some other smelly beast) either wandering nearby or living in the well.

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