Kabul Spy (1982)   6 comments

While the character art of Asylum II counts as graphics, it has been a while since we’ve had a game fully illustrated with pixels; the last that really counted was the Japanese version of Mystery House from back in October. So, more than six months?

It’s overdue: let’s luxuriate in the purple-tinged nostalgia of the Apple II, as we try to rescue a missing professor during the Afghani-Soviet War.

From Mobygames.

We’ve seen Sirius Software and the author Tim Wilson once before already, with The Blade of Blackpoole. This seems to be the earlier game, as it gets marked “1981” in lots of places (including the game itself), although according to the US Copyright Office it wasn’t published until February 1982, so this is likely a situation like Time Zone where the intended release date slipped a little.

While early Sirius games and particularly the programmer Nasir have received quite a bit of attention, the period after for the company hasn’t had nearly as much. A great deal of the top-selling Sirius games early on were Nasir’s (he was there right at the founding as the only programmer, but only got royalties, not equity); he left in August 1981 to form his own company (see: no equity), and Sirius kept trucking out games quite rapidly after based on outside submissions.

One or two of every ten games submitted to Sirius is given serious consideration. Sometimes a game meets Sirius’s standards 100 percent, like Tony and Benny Ngo’s arcade game Bandits. If a game is only 70 percent, however, the author works with product manager Ernie Brock. … Releasing three to four games a month for the Apple, Sirius is publishing at a torrid pace.

Softalk, July 1982

Tim Wilson was one of the outside submitters; Bob Blauschild, the other adventure game writer (on Escape from Rungistan and Critical Mass) will wait for another day.

Kabul Agent is set mostly in Afghanistan, which nearly always features in videogames as a warzone. This game is no exception, dropping the player in the thick of Afghanistan’s conflict with the USSR although I’m still hoping for some scenes not of the type found in Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat and Call of Duty: Black Ops II. (If nothing else, the Afghanis are the “good guys” in this one.)

That’s the back cover material, which is interesting in the moral ambiguity it lays onto the protagonist: “…you are not known for your charity … Let’s hope you are clever as you are ruthless.” I don’t know yet if this is setting up our protagonist for amoral behavior or if it is just the manual trying to be clever.

Despite the graphics (see above) sometimes seeming like they came out of On-Line Systems, the parser allegedly understands full sentences, so there’s a hidden technical jump from those games. What does seem to match quite well with Time Zone (published a month later) is the level of instant death. The sign warns you to not go east, but if you ignore it, you get sucked in a jet engine.

The fact any substantial message takes multiple screens of reading is the reason for the customized bigger text screen later seen in Blade of Blackpoole.

Whee! To reiterate what I’ve mentioned before as my position on this kind of thing: insta-death is a perfectly fine design choice, it just means the player is supposed to save amply. With a more flexible undo option (or something like the Lucasarts Indiana Jones adventures which automatically reverse time a bit if you botch something up) it can work in a modern design, it is just that 1982 (with slow computers and disk drives) was not the year to invent the autosave.

There’s not much to do other than go in the building, where there’s a ticket counter. Fortunately, you start the game with cash.

More specifically, you start the game with


which is quite a bit more than most games we’ve seen. At the counter we can buy a ticket for a bus as well as get a A BOOK OF MATCHES.

The bus leads to a train station, where you get two choices for tickets: the town of Quetta (in Pakistan) or the northeast border of Afghanistan. These lead to two entirely different experiences, and there isn’t an obvious way to hop from one location to another. Could this be an actual full-on plot branch?

For the Quetta trip, you land in a town where a boy asks for 100 rubles. Since you have them, you can easily hand them over and get a piece of paper which says “ENE”. Following these directions (east, north, east) leads to just more town, which indicates either the whole thing was a deception to get money, or there’s some added trick involved (and no, it isn’t east and then northeast).

I wandered a bit and also found “outskirts” but I haven’t made a detailed attempt to map the town yet.

Going the other directions leads to mountains and then desert and then forest. I found a “small log” but haven’t explored what I’m guessing is more map; this is a little bit of a maze as well.

You eventually get captured and tossed in a cell with an old man, and that’s where I decided it was a good time to pause for now.

The double plot branch thing is wildly unusual. Going by the intro text we’re looking for the guide in Quetta to help us get into Afghanistan, yet we can go straight there. Does following the appropriate order mean we don’t get captured? Do we just have two different ways of making it in?

And for those who experienced that game, is the character art better or worse than Time Zone?

Posted April 21, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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6 responses to “Kabul Spy (1982)

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  1. Kabul Spy. Woo boy! I thought it was one of the more intriguing games in my copy of “The Book of Adventure Games” when I was kid that I never played at the time. I finally got around to playing it through a couple years ago. I will very curious to see your reaction to some of the later portions.

  2. >> It’s overdue

    You can say that again! I was concerned you had dropped the Apple ][ like a hot potato.

    So happy to see you back to covering the platform that was the king of early adventure games (at least in the USA).

    • We did have Inferno, Breckenridge and Operation Sabotage, the last essentially bequeathing a previously unavailable Apple II game to the Internet.

      But I get it, that isn’t the same warm fuzzy glow without the graphics. What are your thoughts on the question at the end (better or worse than Sierra)?

      • Marginally better stick figures :) Really, for as big a player as they were, it’s remarkable that Sierra’s games were so amateurish, both in look and game design.

        I mean, the Apple ][ providers pretty crude materials to start with, but some devs really managed to pull out some extraordinary graphics. Some that come to mind are Lucifer’s Realm, Sherwood Forest, Gruds in Space and The Coveted Mirror.

      • Regarding your question about the graphics, I don’t remember if I mentioned this previously, but when you were doing Time zone I emailed Ken Williams and he took a look at your review. His response was, especially, “hey the graphics stand up pretty well!” at which point I realized I was dealing with a deluded narcissist :)

        Found his actual reply

        Thank you. I’ll show this to Roberta. She’ll get a kick out of it. The game actually doesn’t look too bad given that it is 40 years old.

        -Ken W

  3. Intriguing game. I feel like both destinations bring to the same general area but we will see ; maybe it has some real branching.

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