Archive for February 2023

Ferret: Place of Final Rest   35 comments

Right away I discovered that software was not at the top of the food chain. My people didn’t work in headquarters with everyone else. Instead they were exiled a few miles down the road to an abandoned shopping center. They shared a building with the cable-cutting operation. The programmers created software while listening to the constant CHUNK, CLUNK, CLANK of the cable-cutting machines. I learned that the previous year there was talk of moving software all the way up to Maine. A crazy idea — luckily it fell through.

For you non-computer people you need to understand that separating the software people from the engineers who design the hardware was very wrong. Software is the heart of a computer. A computer is useless without the basic stuff that my people developed: the operating system, programming languages, data management software, communications, etc. But DG didn’t see it that way. Its roots were hardware. Software was a necessary evil, created by hippy-freaks.

Bill Foster, who joined Data General in 1976

It is done. As the playing of Ferret was a saga that lasted six months, you should read the prior posts in order before this one.

From the Computer Museum History Center.

I had left off last time on a space station, the Liberator, invaded by ooze; we needed to escape through a teleport, but we couldn’t get it working. There were three parts to the issue.

First was something the Ferret Authors hinted at directly via email, although not through the game:

The Liberator is a high security area so you need all protocols in place.

This was referring to an event long back in Phase 10 where we found a communicator, which notified us that we had “failed to register with The Department”.

The communicator emits three short beeps followed by: “Area Scan commenced. Scan Completed. One humanoid detected in vicinity. Continuing. Automatic Personnel Identification Procedure initiated. APIP completed. Continuing. Agent identified, Darkins, B. O. Message Retrieval Service activated. Standby…. Latched. Continuing.
This is your automated message service. You have one new message as follows: Darkins, you have failed to register with The Department for an excessive period. According to standard protocol you must text the first 8 characters of your Security Pass Number to 80085 immediately, whereupon you will be notified regarding your court hearing. Failure to comply will result in immediate termination. This message has been deleted automatically”.

I had tried, at the time, to type 80085, and a few random security pass numbers besides, but never got anywhere; I assumed it was essentially a goof. But apparently, this was the part of the hold-up for reaching the glorious finale.

One thing I did manage to wrangle out is the likely possibility the Security Pass Number we wanted was way off a pass back in Phase 1.

This is because the message specifically said “first 8 characters” which only makes sense if a.) there’s things other than just numbers and b.) there’s a natural cut-off at 8, which there is for the pass. In other words, we needed to send


to the number 80085.

Mustelid discovered we needed to dial the number 80085 followed by whatever ID number we needed all in the same string. However, the string


does not work; there’s a second trick that also must be applied. We already had needed to use a special “old cell phone text message” style to put in some codes, where pressing 2 once could get an A, pressing 2 twice could get a B, and press 2 thrice could get a C.

So 80085R4E339I0 is close, but the part after the 80085 must also be given in text message code. The letters were simple enough to change to numbers (R, for instance, becomes 777), but still,

type 800857774333394440

doesn’t work. The digits got converted but not the numbers! In the “text message mode” typing “4” once would be assumed to be the letter G, not the digit “4”. The way to make it through (and I realized this due to behavior on an old phone of mine) is to keep pressing: once you’ve cycled through the letters, you make it to numbers. That is, 4 is G, 44 is H, 444 is I, but 4444 gets the actual digit “4”.

-> type 8008577744443333333333999994440

The communicator emits a beep followed by a series of tones. After a short pause you hear a voice that says “Confirmed”.

Phew. All that work for a minor message that only affects things at the very end of the game.

With that out of the way, we needed to then set something or another in the navigation room, followed by using the teleport. The old “mica rectangle” that had been used to activate the controls at the lake were useful here; you can put it in a slot at navigation, then type ESCAPE FROM HOT ITV as the destination. (We learned this from doing anagrams of Blakes 7 epsiodes, and if you don’t remember how that goes, I’ll link to the post from last month.)

Navigation. West. Keyboard. Slot. Ooze.
Exits: —W ——– —
-> put mica in slot
You are starting to feel hot.
Faintly, off in the distance, you hear “Confirmed”.

Then, wearing a teleport bracelet from all the way in phase 9, you can re-use the mica rectangle at the teleport room.

Teleport. East. West. Up. Bench. Control Panel. Slot. Ooze.
Exits: –EW ——– U-
Score increment of 20 points.
You are starting to feel very hot.
You feel as though you have been through a slightly strange, out of body, experience.
Escape from hot ITV
You are in the escape pod for a high-gain constant acceleration max-thrust Interstellar Transport Vehicle. Affixed to the floor is a square object with an ornate hatch. On the hatch is engraved a logo. On top of the object is an illuminated red button marked “Initiate Launch Sequence”.
There is an embroidered sampler here
There is an elm trunk here
Score increment of 50 points.

There’s still an obstacle here: the button just goes “Click.” when you press it, no launch! The hatch is from the “Ferrigo Energy Utility Corporation.” which specifies to “Use approved fuels only.”

You might remember from back on the ground level there was a whole scene with a train crashing revealing some irradiated pellets. Through cunning trickery I was able to carry the pellets without dying of radiation sickness by putting them in a leather wallet, but an update to the version of Ferret from the authors put a stop to that technique, so either there was another way to carrying the pellets or they were a red herring.

They were a red herring.

The whole point of the train scene was to pick up the timber shards that result from the door of the warehouse crashing in. You have to take those shards up to the spaceship.

-> open hatch
-> look in hatch
Peering inside you can see:
a fuel chamber
-> put shards in chamber
-> close hatch
-> push button
An ethereal voice intones “Starting automated launch sequence.”
There is a shallow rumbling followed by a gentle grinding.
The voice continues: “Initial checks complete. Status is: ‘continue’.”
The volume of rumbling increases as does an incidious vibration.
A siren blast makes you jump. An unpleasant odour pervades the escape pod. “Launch sequence interrupted. Invalid parameter setting. Attempting shutdown. Cannot complete shutdown as program ‘sludgepest’ will not terminate. Would you like to terminate ‘sludgepest’ manually? Error, user requires termination not interrogation. Semantic overload. Who wrote this code? It’s rubbish. Abort sequence. Fail over. Fall over. Start again. Rebooting.”
Suddenly there is a jarring thump as the escape pod cover is explosively ejected from the ship, rapidly followed by the escape pod. You start to feel light-headed (and light-bodied) as the escape pod is blasted into free space. You lose consciousness for an indeterminate period of time. As you drift back into the land of the living (if you can call this living) you are overwhelmed by feelings of inner knowledge, but also the need to, to, what is it, er, wait! As the Guru says, wait and enlightenment will follow. There is another sensation. You sense the need for a new beginning, to start over. You intuit that you will gain new knowledge by revisiting and reviewing your journey as in rereading an old diary can shine new light on past experiences and yield new insights. Anyway, enough of this woo, woo, the launch sequence appears to have failed but at least you escaped. But from what and to what?
Escape from hot ITV
You are floating through space in the escape pod from a high-gain constant acceleration max-thrust Interstellar Transport Vehicle. Affixed to the floor is a square object with an ornate hatch. On the hatch is engraved a logo.
On top of the object is an illuminated red button marked “Initiate Launch Sequence”.
There is an embroidered sampler here
There is an elm trunk here
-> examine sampler
-> examine trunk
The wooden trunk is heavy and about the size of an old-fashioned Dansette gramophone player. Engraved into one side of the trunk is the word AMGINE.

(The sampler’s message is Welsh, “Fear that knows no fear.” I take a Welsh sidetrack later, as you’ll see.)

Waiting long enough then results in The Final Challenge, and things were about to get very strange indeed:

The klaxon repeats its earlier trick, and so do you, followed by a disembodied voice intoning: “Red Alert! Red Alert! Routine surveillance has detected an automatic teleport rescue scan. The living contents of this vessel will be teleported to the nearest habitable planet or spacecraft. Locking on to scan. Prepare for automatic teleportation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 seconds.”
You feel disoriented (what a surprise), very tired and the need for sleep….
Quarantine Central
A featureless, senseless, disorienting, isolating chamber.
Score increment of 20 points.
The Guru incants:
111. Lastly, if the end is opaque, compare Phase 16 room manes with Blake’s 7.

This is a lot to take in:

a.) This is the final room, where we are supposed to do one thing to win.

b.) This one thing related to the “Guru incant” message. The game has entered “Guru” mode, and if you restart from the beginning, every time your game’s score increases you get one of the “Guru” messages. This means you have to play all the way through, all over again, from the beginning.

Resuscitation Chamber
This room contains a number of box-like machines. There is a door to the west. To the left of a display are three illuminated buttons, one red, one orange, one green. In the centre of the room, atop a metal plinth is a large chest. The lid of the chest is closed. Fixed to the side of the chest is a brass plaque.
Exits: –E- ——– —
There is a large box here
The Guru incants:
80. a science fiction book had saved Darkins from starvation in the tiny

Even worse….

-> hint

c.) As the hint from the final room indicates, we need to have all the points and have an optimized turn count.

Part c was a little tricky on both counts. I already had part of a walkthrough written, and it took about an hour or so to write one for the rest, and then another hour to optimize my gameplay. My walkthrough scrounged every item possible like a packrat, since it was unknown what items were needed to solve what. Now that we had finally solved things, we could start to ignore picking up certain items (like the picnic box I carted all the way from phase 8 to phase 17). You also don’t need to hit any “information” things whatsoever; there’s nothing where information changes on a piece of paper between playthroughs.

In addition to optimizing, we were missing 30 points. The authors gave over a list of their point values at each phase which led us to realize we weren’t done yet with the Reactor.

Control Centre
You are in a brightly lit, partially derelict control centre set in solid rock. Most of the apparatus has been destroyed, however some still appears viable. There are three buttons, coloured red, orange and green; two switches, coloured blue and yellow; two knobs, one green, the other red; one lever and two digital gauges, one orange, the other blue. There is a steel door to the east.

This was a phase which consisted mainly of manipulating a device which opened doors on a grid; the main goal was to find a rod which could then be used to unlock a door.

I’ll discuss the pink rooms in a moment.

There were some fun deaths involving wandering in the nuclear area too long or opening too many doors (causing a meltdown) but this was otherwise one of the easier Phases, and it didn’t seem like it held any secrets. However, along the edges of the reactor proper, there were a series of dark rooms. Back when I first passed through the phase I checked through every single dark room and found nothing. What I did not do is check if the dark rooms had anything unusual happen if you tried other exits.

-> w
Nuclear Core
You are in a very warm room.
Exits: N-EW ——– —
-> n
You are in the dark.
-> drop orange pin
-> d
You are in the dark.
-> get orange pin
-> drop orange pin
-> u
You are in the dark.
-> get orange pin
I can’t see anything like that around here.

To parse what just happened: if you go down in the dark room you loop back to the same room. If you go up you end up in a different room. (I had to boot up an old version of Ferret to test this — the current build doesn’t let you pick up dark things in rooms.) This meant I was onto something, but I needed to bring light to the dark room. The nuclear rod (the one we got to open a door) turned out to be the answer:

-> get rod
A terrible feeling of nausea radiates through your body.
-> n
Dark Tunnel
-> l
Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock, with a stairway leading up.
Exits: -S– ——– U-
-> u
Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock. There are stairways leading up
and down.
Exits: —- ——– UD
-> u
Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock. There is a stairway leading down.
Exits: N— ——– -D

It only glows if exposed to enough radiation, so for the first time around I had to actually hang it in Death Area for a little bit to make sure it got glowy enough. (More safely, you can just drop the rod, leave to the dark room which is safe, then come back and get the rod all charged up.)

Unfortunately, the above sequence leads to a dead end!

-> n
Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock. There is a stairway leading down.
Exits: -S– ——– -D
-> d
Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock. There is a dark stairway leading
Exits: —- ——– U-

However, there were other dark rooms, so I just needed to test … all of them! By tediously switching around doors using the machine (you can’t just open all of them because it causes the reactor to melt down).

This took a while; I found the right room second to last:

In my defense, it is a little harder to get to than some of the other rooms because you are at the limit in terms of number of doors you can safely open. Finally making it through:

Dark Tunnel
You are in a gloomy tunnel cut in sheer rock. There is a dark exit to the
south, and a brighter exit to the north.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> n
You are in a rock cutting. There is a dark tunnel to the south.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> n
You are in a rock cutting.
Exits: NS– ——– —

This gets absolutely nothing except for 30 more points. You can pass through to end up at the very start of the level and walk back round to the door that needs the rod to be unlocked. But remember, those 30 points also give a Guru message!

51. near death experiences appeared to mitigate against the annual review. The

I suppose now is the right time to explain the Guru messages. They don’t appear in order; for the first 87 they appear in alphabetical order as you’re playing through the game, but the numbers easily let you sort them into a story afterwards. After 87 they can be found directly in order (although some puzzles can be done in slightly different sequences, so even then there can be a little jumbling).

This is brilliant and awful at the same time. Brilliant in that the story of the game is recounted in a way that has us recount our steps, and awful in the requirement of forcing players to play the whole game over again. I’ll get back to this point, but first, let me give the entire Guru story. Feel free to skip down past the quote, though.

1. Bob Darkins couldn’t remember. That was the problem. A
2. vast void, no content, no context, no reference points. The fall from grace
3. that consisted of tumbling free from the resuscitation chamber was the
4. start of time as far as Bob was concerned. He had no option, he had to get
5. on with this life or perish. According to the plaque on the resuscitation
6. chamber the unknown virus might make perishing the odds-on favourite but he
7. didn’t even know if the plaque applied to him. He realised that his amnesia
8. was not absolute, as he could read, but the extent of his memory loss was
9. unquantifiable without further data. He wasn’t sure he even recognised his
10. own name.
11. Darkins had led an extraordinarily ordinary life. His only claim to fame
12. was that he had managed to contract an unidentifiable virus which had
13. completely baffled the medical authorities. At the time the process of
14. freezing bodies until a cure could be found for any untreatable ailment was
15. gaining momentum and the associated costs were tumbling, especially for the
16. rogue outfits that simply dumped the frozen bodies. Darkins invested a
17. small inheritance on his personal incarceration and hoped for the best.
18. Apart from hosting a malignant foreign body Darkins possessed a very vivid
19. imagination, far too vivid for his own good.
20. The complete lack of bodies was a mystery. Darkins had not seen a single
21. human, alive or dead in his travels. Apart from the occasional skeleton
22. there was very little evidence of life, current or previous, on the planet.
23. The escape from the house had been difficult. Vague recollections of bombs,
24. timers and ticking triggered partial memories of special operations, armed
25. forces, military intelligence and the overwhelming need to follow orders.
26. Maybe that explained the pass he found belonging to the Militech, was he a
27. member of a military research team? Was the house a research facility, HQ,
28. barracks, safe-house or what? Too many questions. The strange place with
29. the circular arrangement of rooms was a concern. It appeared to be
30. protected by a strange force that compromised the magnetic field of the
31. area and its surroundings. Could he have received special training that
32. allowed him to find the way through? Would he ever find somebody that could
33. answer his questions and fill in the blanks? Those mazes and tunnels added
34. to the feeling of being tested. Was he still in training or was this a real
35. mission on enemy territory, possibly a foreign research installation. That
36. would fit. But what is the objective? Would he know when he found it, or
37. would mere survival be the prize? The cathedral was a total anachronism.
38. Darkins could not remember religion be practised in his lifetime, or was
39. that just the amnesia. The monastery accentuated the mystery. Was he on a
40. different planet? The computer devices built into the pins indicated a
41. significant level of technology but nothing that exceeded his experience or
42. advances that could have been made while he was frozen.
43. Darkins was an average family man, some would even say militantly dull. A
44. mousey wife, 2 mousey children, a suburban dwelling with 3 bedrooms, 2
45. cars, 2 jobs in his life, 3 best mates, 2 glasses of wine a day, his whole
46. life was counted in 2’s and 3’s.
47. The revolving walls stirred memories of his training. Eliminate the
48. impossible, then work on the possible. If there’s no exit then make one, as
49. he had to do in the ravine. Thoughts of surveillance intruded. Was he being
50. watched, assessed even? Surely this isn’t a performance appraisal. No, the
51. near death experiences appeared to mitigate against the annual review. The
52. transporter curtain was a concern. What fragments of physics he could
53. recall made any form of matter transfer impossible, or brought death in an
54. instant. Assuming that event was some form of teleportation then that would
55. indicate this was a different planet, or worse, a different universe.
56. But the coloured rooms were more reminiscent of Ancient Egypt, maybe the
57. planet had a rich history of many lost civilisations like dear old Earth.
58. Was the shimmering curtain some form of trickery, an illusion possibly?
59. The Nuclear Core indicated an industrialised civilisation at least to the
60. Third Universal Technology Level, reinforced by the use of multiple forms
61. of transport such as trains, planes and helicopters. But then some areas
62. were definitely Universal Era Stage 12 Impressionist (a shop selling furs,
63. for example) virtually prehistoric by modern reckoning. Where was this
64. analysis coming from? Darkins must be experiencing flash memory post-trauma
65. refreshment syndrome causing isolated synaptic connections to join into
66. larger configurations.
67. Was it 42 or 43? The answer could determine if Darkins was in his home
68. Universe or a near parallel clone. The relationship of 43 (or 42) to the
69. Great Universal Model of How Everything Works and Why (GUMHEWY) is unclear,
70. even today. The number 17 appears to have more influence than any others in
71. the latest research.
72. Alien presence was quite apparent. The automaton and cyborg were
73. definitely unearthly, possibly indicating post-apocalypse invasion or, at
74. the least, visitation. The drongoid could have been some form of genetic
75. and radio-active mutation, it certainly belonged in the horror comics.
76. There were so many inconsistencies, teleportation mixed with shops from the
77. pre-harmonised era, archaic office blocks with sentient post-modern
78. architecture. It didn’t make sense.
79. The most remarkable episode had been in the escape pod. Only the memory of
80. a science fiction book had saved Darkins from starvation in the tiny
81. life-raft floating in space. He had recalled how an escape pod had
82. activated its survival beacon which had been traced by an automated
83. recovery drone, which, once it located life, automatically honed into range
84. and teleported the body to the nearest habitable planet. If only he could
85. remember the sequence of actions that was needed, maybe he had done what
86. was required inadvertently without realising the consequences. He did,
87. however, remember the piece of text that had led him to the solution:
89. Shell rocks Home would have illuminated
90. Rues cocoa tune Slip could have sniffed it
91. Coone club Imports would have got it last
92. Lip rim paw Hole could have smoked it out
93. Yes, let wimp Order would have been spiffed off
94. Cure hero Pilot could have sensed the plot
96. There was a common theme there somewhere. For the life of him he struggled
97. to find it. In the beginning there was a pod for resusitation, now there
98. is a pod for rescue, is that the link?
100. The thoughts of the Guru so enunciated are an intimate description of your
101. recent times which form an allegory for life: birth, the adventure of the
102. journey of life and place of final rest, safe, free from disease. To reach
103. your destiny you will need to expostulate according to the following code:
105. _4_55_91_17
106. 31____92_72
107. 93____84_51
108. ______48__6
110. Unfortunately, not all of the code survived the ravages of time….
111. Lastly, for those with OCD, compare Phase 16 room manes with Blake’s 7.

Remember, Ferret is divided into “phases” due to the technical requirements of the Data General Eclipse 16-bit that it started on. The phases were all given to different authors who worked essentially independently, so while there was clearly some coordination going on, there was also a random smattering of genres in the post-apocalyptic world, and the Guru section here gives a chance to try to gather all the threads together.

Thoughts of surveillance intruded. Was he being watched, assessed even? Surely this isn’t a performance appraisal. No, the near death experiences appeared to mitigate against the annual review.

The ultimate goal at the end is given as a sort of transcendence: “The thoughts of the Guru so enunciated are an intimate description of your recent times which form an allegory for life: birth, the adventure of the journey of life and place of final rest, safe, free from disease.”

I (and everyone playing along, although I gave a save file if someone wanted to skip ahead) finally made it to the last room with full points and a low enough turn count for the final victory to be at hand. And then … we were stumped. For quite a long time. I immediately suspected the numbers in the code referred to Guru lines, but I originally was thinking of whole words. It took a little while to come across the idea of just using the initial letters…


…and, then what? This gets, if reading top to bottom, left to right, SAY _I___ CLAISANC where Google Translate determined Claisac meant “weed” in Welsh.

I and others did a deep dive into Welsh; I tried looking for a five-letter word that would fit in the blank where the second letter was “I”. This got nowhere for a long time.

The Guru text mentioned “not all of the code survived the ravages of time” so I assumed that was referring to the blanks. In addition to the Welsh-diving I spent a long time trying to find a numerical pattern to recover them.

The wrong assumption was that the missing code was in the blanks. The blanks are intentional! The code is missing lines below.

As theorized by Sha1tan in the comments:


That is:

Quarantine Central
A featureless, senseless, disorienting, isolating chamber.
-> say i claim sanctuary
‘i claim sanctuary’
The disorienting feeling you are experiencing crystalises into a total sensation of discombobulation. You feel, sense, hear, you can’t tell which, an ethereal voice. Thoughts form in your mind and you realise you have reached a point of completion, an all-consuming peace pervades your soul. You have arrived. The end is nigh. Well done, the puzzle is complete, you can sleep peacefully again, no more to be troubled by the furious, ferocious, bare-fanged Ferret erupting from your frightening nightmares.
Phase 17 (Illumination)
Mode: Guru
You have scored 1670 (out of 1670) points in 2439 moves.
Rooms visited: 769. Rank achieved: Chief.

The End.

(As pointed out by the authors after, just typing i clai sanc into Google will immediately get that as a suggestion. I never thought to try it; that required realizing “i” was a complete column as opposed to a letter followed by three missing unknown letters.)

Let’s back way, way, up, to the philosophy of art.

Is there really any such thing as good or bad art?

At its most radical, we can say all aesthetic judgements are entirely arbitrary, and for the aliens of Zebulon V, maybe the work “Spewing Rubik’s Cubes” from Boston’s Museum of Bad Art is a masterpiece.

This sort of radicalism is particularly puzzling in the case of games: it is quite possible to have a game that nobody can play, perhaps due to a crash, or an almost literally impossible puzzle. It seems like on technical grounds alone, there has to be some kind of judgment.

And yet–

I’ve discussed before The Tower of Druaga. It’s a Japanese arcade game that is near-impossible to win on one’s own, because many of the 60 floors require doing arbitrary actions, like not touching a chest until after killing monsters in an arbitrary order. The video below gives an entire walkthrough with explanations.

Yet, people have beaten the game, and still beat the game. It was intended for arcades, as a collaborative effort. Sheets and notebooks were placed at the arcades and as people discovered new things, they got added to the sheets, so the next players could get a little farther, and discover something new. It was game as community effort.

Actual Druaga arcade sheet. From @waisar on Twitter. The historian Alexander Smith thinks that the secrets and warp pipes of Super Mario Bros. were directly inspired from Druaga.

So with that preface, this all means some of the moves in Ferret might be a bit more reasonable under the aegis of community: no, you don’t have to actually make a walkthrough, because there are multiple other players, all who can help provide what they already have. (One of our actual players, K, never used save files, but instead did a running walkthrough; this was made easy through some tools the games provides.) Some outrageously difficult puzzles are less outrageous when multiple people are passing the same steps.

Well, some. We still needed hints quite a few times. I am still hesitant to judge “good or bad”, just “different gameplay experience”. I do think there are points the game went too far; I won’t recount the sins of the Mastermind puzzle again, and the mathematical puzzle involving pipe flow was almost unbelievably cheeky, even with the “mass mind” approach.

I showed this to some people who weren’t playing; they assumed there was some sort of joke or trick. There isn’t. The authors sent me a full mathematical solution.

Still, the whole point of stretching boundaries is to have a different and unique experience, and Ferret provided that. It did essentially topple Quondam as the world’s most difficult adventure, although in a lateral way that makes them hard to compare. Quondam had every single step fraught with peril, in a manner of horror vacui; by contrast, Ferret has many large open spaces, and is completely unafraid to toss out red herrings.

Ah, the red herrings. I’m still not sure what to think about them. I think the ones that landed best had some “resolution” despite being red herrings, like the code from the sewer that deciphered an entire fake floor code much later. I can think of a couple other cases where I’d be hesitant to take the herrings away, because they gave certain puzzles an edge (like the 2s and 3s lines from Guru, which felt out of place and were tempting as puzzle fodder but entirely irrelevant to the solution). Some herrings really did seem like loose parts and wasted time. I still haven’t come up with a way to articulate which is which, but that’s because no adventure I’ve played before has ever had so comprehensive a catalog.

I’m sure there’s more to be said about so dense a game, and maybe the players — who numbered among the many — can give their thoughts in the comments. (Even if you only provided a single comment way back months ago, you were part of the game-space, so don’t be shy!) For now, I really am tired, after six months of this epic that took 40 years to write, and I think I’ll be taking that place of final rest now.

Posted February 27, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

Tagged with

James Brand Adventure (1982)   8 comments

We’re essentially at a turning point for the Softside Adventure of the Month series: they numbered up to 20, and we’re at number 10.

From Softside, March 1982.

They were, to recap, a monthly series for Atari, Apple II, and TRS-80 connected with Softside magazine; mysteriously, only the Atari versions survive on many of the games. (Well, not that mysteriously on Apple II, since distributions seems mainly to have been on tape. Not a single disk has surfaced from the series on any platform that I know of, and Apple II tape preservation is terrible. I don’t think it is from modern norms either, I think it is due to it being in the top price category, allowing for disks, so people moved on from tapes much faster than with other platforms.)

Peter Kirsch is the one most associated with the series and seems to be the one who arranged the ports for when submissions came in. He also wrote three of the games so far, Arabian Adventure, Jack the Ripper, and Around the World in Eighty Days. His general operating procedure has been to focus his games around “cinematic scenes”, as opposed to open structures. This is genuinely not a common thing for this time; Crowther/Woods Adventure set the standard (gather 15 treasures, wander anywhere) and adventure games so far have generally followed this idea. Even the generally linear games like Arrow of Death haven’t generally been centered around reactive scenes, where there is a crisis (being attacked by enemy X) that is averted, immediately throwing the player into another crisis.

James Bond stories are very much series-of-cinematic-scenes fodder; 007 must defy death in some situation, and after doing so must face another situation, followed by another, etc. Every once in a while he stops to drink or gamble or seduce. So I wasn’t surprised at all when James Brand Adventure came up next on my queue that this was another Peter Kirsch jam.

As the ad I put earlier explains:

The President’s life is in danger. As James Brand, you must save his life and destroy the evil Dr. Death. Your life is constantly on the line; each move you make could be your last.

You start in a minimalist “headquarters”, without a chance to talk to Q or M.

You do have a Q-like gizmo, although it is a little hard to figure out at first.

Specifically, the parser stubbornly refuses to allow you to refer to the “SMALL SUITCASE” in inventory. It can only be referred to as a CASE. Once you do so you can open it to find a car key, but also LOOK at it to find that there are red and yellow buttons. The red button blows a smokescreen, and the yellow button shoots a knife.

Entering the car and starting it leads immediately to a danger and the scene shown: it is being remotely out of your control. I’m pretty sure this happened in a real one of the movies and Bond did something cool like hit an ejection seat button. In this game, you just turn the key to shut off the ignition.

Immediately after you end on a road where you attacked by a jousting motorcyclist wearing a suit of armor, and no, I’m not making this up.

You have about five moves to react; the best action, fortunately not hard to suss out, is to activate the smokescreen. This causes the attacker to fall off his or her bike so you can steal it.

The next part of the game lands you in a small urban environment with two scenes, buth with people trying to kill you. One involves a house with a bomb.

This isn’t too terrible a scene; all you need to do is walk out rather than read the note in order to survive, and the effect when the explosion happens (the second screen, where the text animates by inverting) is clever. Unfortunately, the whole point for going through that scene is to go back in after the explosion and find a quarter.

The author has caught the high-stakes right-action-to-survive feel of Bond, but it still does Adventure Game things, and it is about to get worse. To get to the next part of the plot, you find on another street you get slipped a node from “Madame XXX” which asks you to meet her at the Kit Kat Klub. If you go to do so:

Going back to your inventory, you’ve been toting around two cyanide pills. You can PUT PILL before sitting down to try to sneak it into Madame’s wine, but she notices and swaps the drinks.

After a large amount of parser struggle I hit upon SWITCH GLASSES. This switch-back is sufficiently stealthy somehow to work, despite Madame noticing the initial sleight-of-hand, and the poison kills her.

However, there seems to be no point to the scene: you get no information or items, not even a quarter. The scene is necessary because, nearby, there’s a HOT DOG STAND that doesn’t open until the Madame scene happens, and you need a hot dog.

I’m leaving in some of my struggle to purchase a 25 cent dog.

Before moving on: yes, as stated, “the reason to go through a scene to kill someone is to buy a hot dog” sounds absolutely absurd, but clearly what the author had in mind is a scripted series of events. Yes, as coded, one thing follows another, but my guess is that’s because whatever movie was going through Kirsch’s head ran in that sequence and he never even thought of it as cause and effect.

Back to the hot dog. So now I bought one; what was the purpose? Well, to feed a clam that was under a lake, which gives up a key that can be used to launch a speedboat.

It is my understanding this sort of thing happened all the time in the Reagan era.

The speedboat lets you get DEATH ISLAND. There’s a bit with a blade-boomerang aimed at your head…

…and then, for some reason, at the tree in the same room you can get on it and find a silencer for your gun.

The silencer is necessary to kill a guard up ahead without alerting other guards. Then you can sneak into Dr. Death’s palace only to fall immediately into a trap.

Looking at the backglass reveals a tilt light; the right command here is TILT MACHINE which causes the “ball to go out of play”. Then you can wander around the pinball machine, climb into a hole, foil some gas coming out of a vent using the trick-knife from your briefcase…

…and eventually end up in the lair of Dr. Death, who challenges you to pool.

There’s no way to get an actual pool scene here; PLAY POOL or the like doesn’t work. If you look at the table it mentions the 8 ball looks different; it is really an explosive and you can pick it up and throw it, killing the guards. Then Dr. Death takes a hostage:

Oh, you thought events so far have been goofy? Get ready for the best/worst puzzle in the game.

That bit about being sleepy: that’s supposed to be a cue to YAWN. (No, I didn’t figure this out on my own; I used Dale Dobson’s walkthrough at Gaming After 40. He didn’t figure it out either, he just checked the source code.)

After this glorious scene you can make your escape by grabbing some tacks, and as guards with swords are chasing you, drop the tacks.

But we’re not done yet! The whole issue, remember, is the assassination of the President of the United States. We can escape the island now, getting by a hungry crocodile via using a stick we found back in the palace…

…and find ourselves at, by wild coincidence, a golf course that the President happens to be playing at. There’s a nearby sewer you can dive into and find that at the hole of the course, there is a bomb wired up.

Fortunately, there’s an exposed red wire, and if you go back to the CLUBHOUSE on the golf course you can grab a “razor”. Then razor can be used to CUT WIRE and save the day.

Yes, this was bad in all sorts of ways. I was genuinely looking forward to James Brand given that Kirsch’s prior game Around the World in Eighty Days was one of the strongest of the whole Adventure of the Month series. James Brand was one of the weakest.

While Eighty Days still had a sensibility of a fast-driving plot driven by scenes, it still spends enough time to create geography at each location that it leans into the adventure format just enough to work. James Brand treats its locations with minimalist detachment and really just focuses on immediate danger-scenes. Brand also has aspirations for interesting character actions like swapping poisoned glasses that aren’t supported very well by the parser, whereas Eighty Days mostly stayed within the author’s technical chops.

In other words, it was an experiment in a different genre that just didn’t work given what a parser in BASIC is capable of.

I’ve got one more one-shot upcoming — a very curious one with a completely different setting than anything else we’ve seen — and then we’re going to make it to a substantial landmark, something that might even be, dare I say it, an actual good game. (After the sequence of Jungle Island -> Inferno -> James Brand, I can only hope.)

Oh, and I might as well give a light Ferret update. If you haven’t been following along, we are past all the spaceship part and onto the very very last puzzle, which hinges on deciphering a 16-number code. I have a feasible decipherment which might indicate we just need to SAY something to win, but the thing to say is in … Welsh? Check the thread if you want to know more. Please: if you have any thoughts, add them, because my brain is utterly melted.

Posted February 25, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Inferno: The Unreadable Library of Cthulhu   7 comments

To recap from our last visit to what appears to be the only game from the Software Emporium of Tulsa, Oklahoma:

We were tossed into The Inferno, a place where a legendary warrior had been spirited to years before, with the goal to escape. The basic problem was quite a lot of death, some of it random, like Yog-Sogoth’s Chamber where the titular creature may or may not be in, and I found the chances of dying to be more than 50%.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I combed quite a few times over the map with no luck other than:

a.) looking at a shelf twice; the first time got me some rusty armor, but the second got me a sundial (with markings from 1 to 12)

b.) blowing a horn that I had found at an idol, opening a new passageway.

Blowing the horn at the wrong place summons a moose:

I was stuck enough I was suspecting some sort of technical error in the game itself; while I’ve gotten a little farther I haven’t ruled that out. To investigate further I decided to dive more into the actual bytes of the disk, but my usual tool (CiderPress) fails to recognize any kind of regular disk formatting. Using a different tool (Apple II Disk Browser) revealed sectors that were frankly all over the place.

I originally thought I saw the telltale signs of BASIC code, but without a good way to extract the code I couldn’t read it; now I’ve tangled with enough sectors of the data I’m not so sure. Things aren’t necessarily stored in sequence; I found the verb list of the game, but in two parts stored non-adjacently, as if the disk has some sort of baroque copy-protect system.

Incidentally, the verb list is (excluding the usual words):


It looked like nearly all the game text was still stored as plaintext so I could painstakingly read everything, but I really do prefer to solve my adventure games the normal way (by thinking and experimenting in the game itself), rather than via reverse engineering.

So I took one more gallant whack at the game and tried, yet again, tackling the collapsing bridge. This was a bridge right to the east of the starting point that I could never get across; the review I referenced last time seemed to hint at something random…

…I had already tried roughly 20 times to cross without luck before finally concluding I needed to do something puzzle related. But as I was fully stumped, I decided to go for it another 10 times. On try number 30:

A miracle! Nothing happened! But why? I was carrying the “hooves” and “horn” from the idol but otherwise hadn’t done much to modify the parameters. I had switched the game system from Apple IIe to II+, but had died on II+ mode nearly has many times as on IIe. I still don’t know what’s going on here: maybe the programmers genuinely and legitimately wanted to put a game section that you only had a 3% chance of entering without dying?

The other side of the bridge is, strangely enough, not so deadly, and mostly contains interesting items: a basket you can latch, a rock, soot, some firewood, a workbench with a mold for a sword, a basin with some water, some books in the Library of Cthulhu I can’t read, and a cabinet with bottles.

Not sure if the parser is being broken or if this is a “research puzzle” where you need to specify a particular book.

At least one of them outright kills you. I’m not sure what the use of the bottles is but I’d like to take one with me to fill with water; however, they get smashed when you drink them, and the game doesn’t want me to just empty one out.

Despite one successful pass over the bridge, it is still possible to get killed by the bridge going the other way. Also, the orc still randomly whomps me.

I’ve certainly played games (both old and new) that locked some content behind RNG in such a way that it is possible to get unlucky repeatedly (see: Adventure 500) but I’ve never had such an egregious abuse happen before. I’m still suspecting maybe there’s a setting off in the emulator causing bizarro randomization settings.

I might pull through with a win on this using save states, but please don’t be shocked if I just move on to the next game.

Posted February 13, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Jungle Island / Mystery Island (1979)   13 comments

Every once in a while rather than playing a game I try to dig up a lost or unknown game. Recently I decided to take a shot and the wildly obscure 1979 adventure game Jungle Island, as published by Aladdin Automation, Inc (“a division of Aladdin Computer Corp”).

I first found out about Jungle Island scouring through old issues of Creative Computing; it is mentioned in an ad in the November 1979 edition, and I also found the same ad in an October 1979 issue of Byte. The game has an entry in MobyGames, presumably by someone (who goes by “vedder”) reading the same ad.

The game list is not that impressive: Math-Ter-Mind, Lunar Lander, Craps, Mastermind, Tic-Tac-Toe, Jungle Island, Stix, Super Pro Football. Nearly all of them had public domain versions already (here’s a 1976 port of Mastermind done by David G. Struble, printed in Creative Computing!) but that didn’t stop the folk(s) at Aladdin from writing hyperbolic prose for the ad copy.

Aladdin’s Stix™ can be played with 2 to 5 piles of sticks and between 1 and 19 sticks in each pile. The object: to be the one to pick up the last stick. Sounds simple? Yes, but you’re playing against the computer. Take heart, though, because you can control the degree of difficulty in this update of the ancient game of Nim. Stix™. Another first release from the Aladdin Old Favorites™ Series.

Nim had so many computer variants by this point. The 1939 New York’s World Fair even had an electro-mechanical version which you can argue (with some semantic hand-waving) was the first video game.

(Picture from Popular Science Monthly, 1940.)

Jungle Island was described in the ad thusly so, hoping the game would be the first in a series:

Now, I managed to find the game mentioned in Vanlove’s 1981 Apple II/III directory …

… which was sufficient to know it was a tape game. I also suspected, based on finding a 1980 directory, and the exact address and suite of the company, that they were out of the location by that year.

Unfortunately, Apple II tape preservation is not in a good state. The folks most interested in Apple II tapes are Antoine Vignau and Olivier Zardini at Brutal Deluxe Software, and they do have an Aladdin section. These are the two games they have:

8K version. By James J. Justin.

8K version. By Mike McDonald.

(I’ve inquired if they have pictures or other information from the cassettes themselves, but haven’t heard word back yet.)

These companies tended to have one person (the founder) write all their software, so seeing two names was a bit of a surprise. I had no luck hunting for James J. Justin, but a Mike McDonald does show up in a couple places from that era as an author for articles in Practical Computing. But Practical Computing is a British magazine; what would Mike McDonald be doing contributing Apple II software to an obscure California company? (While Apple II products made it to Japan, it was not really a thing in the UK.)

Fortunately, being a company from California, there’s an easy way to check: California has an extremely good index of all businesses.

Initial Filing Date 08/28/1978
Status Forfeited - FTB
Standing - SOS Good
Standing - FTB Not Good
Standing - Agent Not Good
Standing - VCFCF Good
Inactive Date 06/01/1981
Entity Type Stock Corporation - Out of State - Stock
Principal Address N/A
Mailing Address 1300 MARKET ST

So not a California mailing address but Delaware! And also defunct quite quickly, as suspected. The initial filing does present the possibility Jungle Island came in 1978 (which would be super significant, in the same company as Adventureland). But also oddly, the 1980 North American Register of Business puts an entirely different business at 1300 Market St:

I normally would say I’ve hit a dead end otherwise, but there was one other angle possible: were these products only for Apple II? If the McDonald of Tic-Tac-Toe who was ripped off from I’m sure was well-paid is the one from the UK, then the game really needed to originate on a different platform. More curiously, the Math-Ter-Mind part of the ad mentions a song feature that is only present in the Apple II version of the game, suggesting other platforms.

And can you believe … I’m pretty sure I found it? Voila, the TRS-80:

1. The name, while elongated in this version (and a “MYSTERY ISLAND” on top), still matches (no other TRS-80 game that mentions Jungle does).

2. The game is less than 8K, that is, it fits on an 8K tape just like the other Aladdin games we have physical copies; the book also specifies 8K.

3. There’s a lack of Aladdin branding, but nearly the entirety of the catalog seems likely to be repurposed work anyway.

4. It fits the description given in the book of having three routes to go on starting the game followed by “which will you choose???” also suggests a sort of “choose your own adventure” feel as opposed to a discrete adventure-space, which also matches the gameplay. (There are technically only two starting directions, east and west, but it looks like from the opening screen there ought to be three.)

5. While the ad copy doesn’t mention hunting for treasure, the ultimate goal of the game is escape (you escape by helicopter). You can in fact completely skip the gold, it doesn’t matter at all.

So while the South American setting does not quite match the ad picture which suggests an African setting, I’m fairly confident this is the same game. (Also, this game has leopards, which are only an African thing, so clearly zero research was done anyway.)

Regarding the “choose your own adventure” feel, typing E gets you eaten by a shark. You can’t type W to go back.

The connectivity is pretty random, as I’ll illustrate with two more screens:

For some reason, one of the branches asks you to figure out a “word” made up by direction letters.

The game wants SNEW.

Eventually, YOU SEE A HELICOPTER LAND IN THE JUNGLE AHEAD. I tried typing ENTER HELICOPTER and the game crashed. Checking the source code, you need to type anything other than a direction (more on this in a moment) followed by GET IN or CLIMB IN.

This one’s coded extremely sloppy. It is sloppy enough I might be tempted to believe it was a 1978 product, maybe it did beat Adventureland? I’ll only bestow it that if I can find some more concrete evidence, so I’m leaving it in 1979 for now.

271 INPUT N$
272 IF N$”JUMP”GOTO 170
273 CLS
275 CLS

In this scene, the game asks you to make some input; if you type JUMP, the game kills you, otherwise it moves you to 170:


Here, the game accepts, N, S, E, W, and CLIMB VINE. The directions all lead to the same place, “YOU HEAR THE CHANTING OF 100 WARRIORS.” CLIMB VINE leads you to

401 INPUT V$
410 IF V$”RUN” GOTO 220
430 INPUT T$
440 IF T$”N”,”S”,”E”,”W” GOTO 310
460 INPUT Q$
470 IF Q$”HELP” GOTO 280

Here, you are prompted for a string; if you type anything other than RUN, the game says


If you do type RUN, you are told you are running as fast as you can and must make another input. If you do a normal direction now, you go to “THE WARRIORS CHASE YOU THROUGH THE JUNGLE!!!!” If you instead type anything else, anything else at all, even nothing to do with running, the game warns you about running through the jungle (!?). Typing HELP right then will send you to the scene with finding the helicopter, otherwise, you end up in the mantrap of leopards.

Even Edward Packer at his wackiest never had logic like this.

If you really want to try a chance at the bespoke coding frenzy, the game is playable online here. I did not show you the scene with getting the gold, so there’s still something left to discover.

Despite the game being exactly as dodgy as I expected, I think it is fascinating how many companies felt obliged in this 1979-1980 era to try publishing one adventure. Clearly whoever was coding this was out of their depth but they still plowed ahead with the promise of using the computer to enter another world for a while, or at least attempting to cash in on the prospect.

Posted February 10, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Inferno (1981)   16 comments

Let’s loop back just slightly to a game I missed from 1981. It is rather obscure; it wasn’t listed on any of my regular sources until after I had already locked my 1981 list into place. (An eternity ago, 2019.) This is perhaps understandable, as The Software Emporium hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma and this is their only game.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I don’t have author names or biographical information otherwise. The manual thanks Rainbow Computing, Inc. (an Apple II publisher out of California), Crowther and Woods (there’s a fair chance the authors only saw Adventure before writing this) and “our wives for their help and patience”. There’s also a phone number but I haven’t been brave enough to test out if a 42-year old phone number still works.

This is animated, with the little dragon walking by.

After the graphical intro, there’s a long scroll full of lore. If you want to watch it in real-time, I’ve embedded a video below.

In times of old, there was a “divergence” between swordsmasters and wizards, such that those who used one method of power could not use the other.

The greatest wizard at the School of Magic in the East, Cossa, became interested in the dark arts. A great warrior came to prominence at the same time, and due to the wizard’s cruel deeds, the two ended up in a showdown; the warrior came to the wizard’s palace, slaying foul creatures as he went.

The warrior and wizard went to blows, the warrior using an elven sword passed down from his ancestors that could defend against spells. The warrior approached for a final blow, but the wizard cast a last-minute spell while dying, opening the ground beneath the warrior and sending him into the Inferno.

You are not playing the warrior, but someone else who has been tossed into the Inferno.

Maybe he’ll be corrupted into a Dark Knight for a final boss battle.

The game, after various bits of instructions, tells you that YOU HAVE BEEN GRANTED 500 LIFE POINTS FOR THIS TRIP TO THE INFERNO.

The life points serve as the “lamp timer” for the game; they continuously go down as you walk around the environs. (This is, at least, somewhat fair in a verisimilitude sense, even if old-school game design.) Your life points can decrease by getting hurt for other reasons; most obnoxiously, there’s an orc that wanders about and serves and sort of the game’s dwarf/pirate. If the orc wanders in you have a chance to fight or run. I have yet to win a fight, but based on the screen messages (and a comment in this review) I know it is possible to win, but with your life points still having sustained damage.

Death results in another animation:

Other rooms can be deadly as well. For example, one room is Yog-Sothoth’s Chamber; there is a random chance the creature in question will be in.

While the game has a line that describes explicit exits, the game has quite a few “secret exits”, so you have to test all eight cardinal directions plus up and down in every single room. This is not fun combined with the random chance of orc-death. Red connections in the map below are secret:

Points of interest include:

– A bridge that collapses and kills you.

– A mirror that kills you if you break it.

– A “hexagonal cell” with a basilisk that kills you.

– A “ballroom” that asks you to join the dance. The dance, strangely, does not kill you, but says YOU FEEL VERY STRANGE! and reduces your precious life points by a whopping 150.

– Astaroth, who doesn’t kill you, just blocks your way.

– A creature being cooked in a vat that wants us to put the fire out.

I don’t have much to work with; there’s an IDOL that falls to pieces when I look at it, leaving DUST, HOOVES, and a HORN; there’s some rusty ARMOR on a shelf that I have been unable to de-rustify. That is everything.

So far the game has felt slightly gamebook-like, where each room has a special “encounter” to deal with, and the authors avoided the mega-expansive feel of their much-admired Adventure. Based on the review I mentioned earlier, the game also lacks in mazes, and only includes one “trick maze” not meant to be mapped. I hence expect further developments to be interesting, even if completely and totally unfair.

(Also, since the game is hard to search for, here’s a link to a playable version online. I’d recommend downloading it and trying on an emulator with speed cranked to high, but not to highest; if you crank it too far the death messages zip by too fast to read.)

Posted February 2, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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