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Arctic Adventure (1981)   12 comments

With this game I close the book on something I’ve been working on for a long time: playing through all the games listed as source code in the Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures, as collected and published by Bob Liddil of the Programmer’s Guild. We’re not quite done with Liddil (he put out a later volume for C64, Castles and Kingdoms) but still, given I technically started the book with Adventureland in 2015, it’s the ending of a long trip.

From the aforementioned book.

I ended here — and saved this game for close to the end of my 1981 sequence — because the source code wasn’t anywhere on the Internet, so I knew I would need to type it. I got part of the way through, but one day I noticed a website

arctic81.com

show up on my arrival links for the blog. Clicking curiously, I found the original author (Harry McCracken) had revived his game and wrote about it in detail, and made a version playable at that very link!

So, no typing the entire chunk of BASIC source code after all. Not today, Satan. Also, rather vitally, the author discovered that the source code contained a bug that made the game entirely unplayable, and fixed some other bugs besides. He also added features — it seems mostly to be a slot machine he coded in 1979 — so if I was super-concerned about original authenticity I would go back to typing anyway, but in truth, if there was one bug that likely came from a printing error, other bugs might come from the same source, so as long as I note the major changes ahead of time (as I just did) I feel perfectly comfortable playing the 2021 remix.

Even if you’re not planning on playing the game, I do recommend reading the history rundown which includes nuggets like:

  • Harry McCracken was (and still is) friends with Charles Forsythe (of games like Tower of Fear) and first encountered Bob Liddil when he visited the TRS-80 Users’ Group of Eastern Massachusetts, which met at their school.
  • There’s a largely imaginary bio in the book that claims he was fifteen (he was actually seventeen) and that he took computer courses, played Dungeons and Dragons, and was a science fiction fan (none of which were true).
  • In addition to appearing in the book (which he knew about) he also showed up in the still-mysterious MICRO-FANTASY tapezine (I have never seen any actual copies) but without permission. He only learned about the tape quite recently.

This admittedly falls within Bob Liddil’s self-description as a “hustler and a huckster”.

(I’m incidentally about to describe a “full playthrough”, so if you’re genuinely interested in a 1981 game that has been revised in 2021, you should try playing it at the link above first.)

Moving on to the game itself, it has an odd sort of innovation in not being clear what the main objective is. I didn’t actually know the objective until I had won the game. That sounds “objectively bad” but there’s a sneaky bit of deception that I’ll get into which made the maneuver interesting. (Also: a little bit of shades of Mystery Fun House where I didn’t find the explanatory message until about halfway through.)

In the meantime, you start in an igloo with a coat and shovel. I quickly used the shovel outside the igloo to unearth a large chest containing a wetsuit and radio. (The radio gives random “general help” messages.) The wetsuit was sufficient for me to dive into the nearby (very cold) ocean, but I was stuck floating at the surface. It does the interesting TRS-80 trick of very briefly showing the room description of the place you try to get into before booting you back to the prior location, so some quick screenshotting can be used to get an idea what’s ahead.

Near the igloo is a cave leading down to a polar bear guarding a flare gun, and a locked gate leading farther down. Going in a different direction, there’s an ocean with an ice floe you can ride.

For a while this happened apparently at random, but I think it is simply based on weight being carried. I tried to keep my inventory at a minimum at all times — the map is pretty tiny so it wasn’t onerous to keep dropping things — and I ended up mostly safe after.

This leads to a village with a “small casino” which I gather is one of the new additions to the game, and has a slot machine mini-game the author wrote in 1979 that he pitched in. The casino gives $25 and you need to get up to $40, so playing the slot machine is required. I eventually realized the odds were tilted pretty seriously towards the player, but in my first game I nearly lost all my money. This is a variant on an issue I’ve written about before where if an essential event is triggered by randomness, some players will miss it by bad luck. Here, the luck is more of the accumulative sort, but it’s still roughly the same problem; I thought perhaps I needed to do some serious save-and-reload-game fiddling to get more money before I started having jackpots.

The village also has a “trading post”, “rustic shack”, and “kennel”. The kennel has a trainer with a dog, and is willing to give over the dog for sufficient chips from the casino (this is what the $40 is for, although the trainer doesn’t tell you how much money is needed so I needed to go back and forth until I met success).

Incidentally, the first time I got the dog — which was after a lot of slot machine pulls — I went back to ride the floe back to the starting area and died. Oops.

The shack only had a raging fire (which will be useful later) and the post, curiously, had a storekeeper who says “Drop your treasures here and I’ll give you supplies.” This is the “bit of deception” I was talking about; there are treasures with asterisks around them just like a Scott Adams game (*TREASURE*) and in every other game from the era I’ve played it means the treasures must be dropped in a particular collection area to gather points and win. Here, the concept ends up being similar (you need the treasures to win), but this is not a treasure hunt for its own sake — you’re only dropping the treasures in order get items from the storekeeper to solve more puzzles. The author was playing with the standard form here, but the standard form is so long out of memory I’m guessing it is not obvious for most modern players anything is being changed.

With only the dog in tow, I tried seeing if it would get me anywhere new. The only thing that was new was that the radio — which previously had random messages — gave a message about saying MUSH to go to base. Unfortunately, the dog was not a help at the bear (not like I could blame the pupper) and after enough random meandering I realized I could LOOK IGLOO at the starting place to find an ICE BRICK.

It took me longer than it might normally would to find the brick because the igloo is a place you can GO. The general principle for Scott Adams style adventure games has been that objects that are just “navigation places” don’t contain extra secrets, although it is logical an igloo would have something. What is not logical is that you can remove the brick to elsewhere, go back, and LOOK IGLOO again to have the brick teleport back.

Looking at the brick, the game noted it might be hiding something. I tried BREAK BRICK and THROW BRICK various permutations thereof before deciding the shack with a raging fire would be a help.

Still trying to be careful about inventory, since hopping back and forth between the igloo area and village area requires riding the ice floe.

I took the key back to the locked gate near the bear, and was able to go underwater to grab a *MEDALLION* treasure. There was also a “lost ship” (Charles Forsythe reference, I reckon) with an octopus and another treasure but I immediately floated up to the surface of the ocean when I tried to go in there (the TRS-80 only-show-the-screen-for-a-moment trick again).

Still, I was able to trade the medallion for a harpoon gun. Great! That’d be useful against an octopus … except I can’t get to the octopus without floating up and away.

Really, all I had left puzzle-wise to solve was the polar bear, so I made various futile attempts to deal with it.

The response here reminded me of YOU UNFORTUNATELY ARE THE ONLY ONE THAT CAN BE KILLED from Mummy’s Curse, but without the existential dread.

Finally — and this was the last real difficulty I had with the game — I did LOOK on an item I had got from the very start: LOOK COAT. There were rations in the pocket. Argh!

(Veteran readers may know I’ve had this trouble in Trek Adventure and elsewhere. In my defense: why would you not notice they were there if you were wearing the coat?)

The rations were enough to make the bear happy, so I grabbed the flare gun it was guarding, went out to the igloo, and fired it into the air. A plane came by and dropped off some weighted boots. Kind of a random choice to be helpful, but actually what I needed!

Wearing the boots (and the diving suit, and the coat) let me take on the octopus, and the *ANCIENT RUM* which manages to still be ok despite being underwater.

One last trip to the trading post: for the ancient rum the storekeeper gave me a sled. I had to struggle a little with the parser here; you can GO SLED like a location, and then trying SAY MUSH notes that you have to hitch the dog. HITCH is not a verb I’ve encountered in an adventure before, but the instructions were explicit enough I was able to ride to victory.

I seriously thought until I saw this screen that the base was just a new location and I’d be riding the dog to more adventures.

This was honestly as good a send-off for Captain 80 as I could hope for: not too absurd to figure out, reasonable puzzles despite my inability to find pockets, and a slight twist in the overall structure just for one last iota of game-theory interest. It will not reverberate through the ages, but the whole point of All the Adventures is to try everything, both the grand gestures via epoch-making games and the little moments formed by a high school student’s game being published by random chance meeting only to be unburied 40 years later.

The overall map is nicely compact, which I also appreciate.

Posted September 6, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Mummy’s Curse: THE ONLY ONE THAT CAN BE KILLED   4 comments

I finished. As predicted, there wasn’t much farther to go until the end, although what I didn’t predict is how fascinating the ending was. As usual, you should read the previous entries on this game first before going on.

Part of an alternate cover of a version of Mummy’s Curse sold by Softsmith, from the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

So I was correct that the straw-and-dirt tunnel was necessary to pass for progress. I had made — or to be honest, the authors made — what I’d call a Scaling Error. This is where an object is described in world in such a way that you (the player) visualizes it in a different way than the author does, making solving the puzzle much harder. Alternately, it could be something slightly improbable is meant to happen based on the clearly-described size of objects (a refrigerator being toted in one’s pocket, for instance).

The way to get by an entire passage blocked up with dirt was to … POUR WATER from a normal-sized ewer. This loosens the dirt up enough to go through.

I mean, maybe? But it comes off more as the pitcher of water being turned into the generalized concept of water, and water is plenty to get dirt muddy, voila. It’s a little like wordplay puzzle, except the thing gets converted to a word which gets converted back to a thing of a slightly different type than the first thing but the same name.

Moving on! The ramp goes up to a “dome room” (nothing happens there) and you can go make a brief visit to the wicket Princess Fatima.

She does nothing and there seems to be no purpose to her being there, other than — kind of — to warn you about a bit shortly after where you can die by walking into a mirror.

Nearby is the trap door shown above, and the way through is to just try going DOWN at which point the game prompts you that you need a knife to pick the lock. ??? Okay, I have a knife:

The lock doesn’t stay picked, either. There’s no state to the trap door, PICK LOCK is just treated like a movement command. Also, the explicit giveaway to a puzzle (where someone could still get stuck if they didn’t think to just try going down as opposed to UNLOCK DOOR and other fruitless tasks) is vaguely curious. I’m wondering if this was a testing-situation where they decided to toss the comment in to make the puzzle “easy” but didn’t anticipate someone just not doing the action and seeing the hint.

This mirror is where going NORTH kills you, even though the game isn’t clear you are facing north. Nearby (heading south instead) there is a bottomless pit, followed by a three-headed serpent.

Strength (the HORUS amulet) is enough to jump over the pit, and snake (the APEP amulet) is enough to get by the snake. This leads to a room with a scepter, which turns out to be the last gizmo needed to reach the end — waving it or rubbing it causes you to float.

With scepter in hand I was out of things to do in the palace, so I went back to the empty room at the mummy’s tomb and tried using the scepter there.

I floated up to the object of my desires (see above) but was then confronted by THE MUMMY.

Trying to escape normally leads to messages like the mummy having his hands around your neck. I tried to DROP MASK and it said

IT IS YOUR FOREVER BEGONE WITH YOU

and poking and testing out more directions for a long time was … enough to win the game? You die, but the game asks if you want to keep playing, and if you say YES you end up with the winning screen:

Was this intentional? Or was this a weird glitch like in Mission: Asteroid where you save the Earth only to have it destroyed by an asteroid if you keep playing. I’m honestly not sure, because the other ending (I looked up hints, which mentions both) is to take the “BEGONE WITH YOU” as instructions and type BEGONE ADVENTURER. (There’s sort of a clue with the blue-robed person saying BEGONE AMAHD causing you to get blown out of the room, but AMAHD doesn’t work here, it has to be ADVENTURER.)

This results in the exact same ending! Is this also an ending where the adventurer dies? What does typing the command even mean, given we aren’t SAYing anything?

I’ll still take it in the Win column as Beating the Game Without Hints, hurray. I’ll leave behind the existential crisis presented and offer some regret that we have, once again, a situation where someone — or in this case two someones — have a burst of energy in developing their skill at creating adventures, but bail out right when they start getting good. Alas, the market in 1981 was not a sure thing despite (or perhaps “because of”) the ability to start from zero, and it chewed up developers.

Next up: a TRS-80 game I was halfway through typing when the developer popped up recently and produced a newly revised version.

Posted September 4, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Mummy’s Curse: Lung, Strength, Snake   8 comments

Continuing from last time, the portion inside the pyramid turned out to be relatively straightforward. It’s starts off feeling like it’s going to be a maze in the “you need to drop objects” tradition, but I realized fairly quickly that something else was going on. I had already had a nagging feeling about the image on the back wall where the inscription was…

…so I tried matching it with what I had so far in my map, and found it worked as long as I turned the map upside-down. The small rectangles to the south and east are because going those directions “leaves the pyramid” but drops the player in a pit. (The one to the west is something else, which I’ll show off in a moment.)

What’s canny here is that the way the rooms repeat makes this a little non-obvious — there’s a “blue sky” room, for instance, that shows up at each of the three “entrances” (although remember two are just by death pits)…

…so that on my first foray (admittedly wandering randomly) I got befuddled by assuming there was only one blue-sky room, even though the map is pure N/S/E/W with only “extended connection length” fouling things up and no nonsensical connections; no loops or hidden turns. It is the first adventure game maze I’ve enjoyed in a while. (I think the key move here, in an author-conceptual sense, was to be unafraid to make things easy, and to add just enough of a wrinkle so to avoid the puzzle being simplistic.)

The maze has matches, a flashlight, gold coins, and a “full ewer” (which can serve as a water source and be refilled; there’s a “thirst timer” in this game just like Elephant Graveyard but it is much more generous on number of moves).

The flashlight lets you poke into a dark section the west side of the pyramid, entering from the outside. I expected another large area but instead got a clue.

This turned out to be a helpful clue; HORUS, APEP, AND SMA are the names of the amulets in the game. I had found SMA and tried to use it and it did seem to “activate” but I wasn’t sure what was going on. It turns out in all the cases the amulets simply provide a “persistent effect” that gets applied later and then used up. (Again, I think the authors were really shooting for easier here — a more typical situation from this time period would be to require use of the amulet immediately before an obstacle.) There still was something of a twist to the setup, as it is possible to use the resource in the wrong place. Back to the mountains and the Nile river, I had drowned when I tried to swim across…

…but if you’ve used SMA, you survive (although your possessions are swept away by the water). This originally led me to suspect this simply meant I needed to be unencumbered, but past the river there was another deadly section.

The Mummy’s Tomb (seen above) is just past, but stepping inside you find the air is thin and pass out and die. This is where the SMA effect is needed, so if you use it too early you die right after. So the solution is to find a different route across the Nile. I liked this resource-being-used-up puzzle insofar as a.) the punishment for using the resource came right after, so there wasn’t a long period of walking dead b.) the loss of possessions was another hint maybe something was wrong and c.) it was genuinely pleasurable to hit the solution, as it required insight across time as well as space. (Shades of Hadean Lands, here.) That is, rather than thinking in terms of I-have-object-X-where-does-it-go (which this game does have a lot of) I needed to think more in a story sense about the events that happened.

Speaking of where does object X go, the gold coins go to the merchant selling a shovel and knife I mentioned last time, and fair warning, stereotyping ahead.

There’s some more Fu Machu style dialogue after making a purchase but I’ll spare you that. I’m not sure what Fu Manchu is doing in Egypt.

Relatedly, with the second stereotypical character, Abdul the palace guard from last time, you just get by by using SAY HI.

I came up for this by testing HELP to see what the verb would do and the game told me SAY HI was useful. It also said MAKE was handy, which will be important later.

The only other things in the palace are an empty room with a table (“BROTHER THIS GUY DOESN’T HAVE MUCH OF A PALACE.”) and a passage sealed with dirt and straw I haven’t gotten by yet.

QUICK INTERLUDE ON THE STEREOTYPES

We’ve certainly hit a few before, most egregiously in Earthquake San Francisco 1906, but what I find fascinating is the (relatively) low level of hostility in their use. The SAY HOW from Ghost Town raised my hackles…

I can also see: Indian ghost

>LOOK GHOST
OK
I see
nothing special

>SAY HOW
How?
Geronimo says: “Its easy! Happy Landings!”

…but it was intended as a joke based on Westerns, as opposed to Westerns using the stereotype “straight” giving the damaging impression of indigenous people having simplistic language. Geronimo responds to the joke in English and it could almost be a scene from Little Big Man if the context was tweaked slightly. I still hold it is Not Good, but at least it was trying. It’s a little bit how certain 1990s authors would write “strong women” while not quite shaking off old ways. (Guess the Famous Author: “Slender and barely taller than Mat’s shoulder, at the moment the Wisdom seemed taller than any of them, and it did not matter that she was young and pretty.”)

Getting by the friendly palace guard by just saying hi seems to play on the hostile-Arabian-region stereotype most famously explicated in the original opening song of Disney’s Aladdin. (It had the line “Where they’ll cut off your ears if they don’t like your face”, which was removed in all home-release versions.) Trying to attack him (or anyone else) has the game explain

YOU UNFORTUNATELY ARE THE ONLY ONE THAT CAN BE KILLED

INTERLUDE OFF

Moving on with our bounty from the shop, the shovel can be taken to “something buried in the sand” in the desert to reveal stairs leading to a crypt.

Inside are a number of art pieces, and the HORUS (strength) amulet.

There’s also a “religious altar” next to an ax. You can take incense (laying in the open in the mountains) and light it to open a secret passage with the APEP (snake) amulet.

From here I was a bit stuck but thought back to the hint about needing to make things, and a locked gate in the mountains. I happened to have a stick (again out in the open in the mountains) and thought, well, if I got really lucky, maybe I could just make a key to fit. Lo and behold:

Behind the gate was a forest with some hemp. The hemp could be used to MAKE ROPE, the trees could be cut (with the ax) to get some logs, and the rope and logs combine to MAKE RAFT.

With the power of the raft I was able to go back to the Nile and get across without removing my lung power. Then I could get inside the mummy’s tomb, with SMA saving me:

I’m not sure what to do next. I suspect I need to enter stealthily, but I’m running low on items I haven’t used yet. My inventory is

FULL EWER, FLASHLIGHT, MATCHES, AX, KNIFE, SHOVEL, WOODEN KEY, RAFT

and rather nicely, the game hasn’t shown any kind of inventory limit so the list is everything still available. But I’ve used all of it! (The knife was needed to carve the key.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t re-use, but the only puzzle remaining is the dirt-and-straw filled passage in the palace, and the shovel is being no help there, so perhaps I’m missing a room exit? I also haven’t encountered an opportunity to use the strength or snake abilities.

I still suspect I’m nearing close to the end. The map ended up fairly large but the puzzles have generally gone briskly. There’s been a real sense of being an explorer (as opposed to crawling inch by inch trying to get to the next available part).

Posted September 3, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Mummy’s Curse (1981)   2 comments

Our journey with Highland Computer Services comes to an end. It was established in 1980 by Butch Greathouse and Garry Rheinhardt and was shuttered by the end of 1981. While Creature Venture did well by the standards of the day (an estimated 10,000 units) Mummy’s Curse only sold 1000-2000 and was their last game.

Now we get to the heart of the downfall of HCS. The people who answer the phone, package the orders, write the manuals, and program all day can’t be the same two people. We couldn’t create new products and do everything else so we just sort of starved ourselves out of business. All the money went right back into the business and we weren’t the greatest business people in the world.

The handwriting was on the wall (expenses greater than Income) so Garry and I went back to work at A.P.P.L.E.. [A computer club in Renton, Washington.] I was in charge of the Technical Hotline at A.P.P.L.E. for 3 years and talked to thousands of APPLE II enthusiasts from all over the world and answered their questions.

For the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

At least we can try to enjoy their last hurrah, where they transitioned from black and white to color.

The results are decidedly mixed. While I’m fine with some of the graphics, like the desert oasis start of the game…

“Fine” even though the trees look bizarre and the water has a strange blockiness. How does a pool of water look wrong?

…there are some pieces which I just find painful to look at.

There’s something … I wouldn’t call it “charming” exactly, but “more palatable” about the black and white equivalent from the prior games.

An encore performance by Count Snoottweeker, from The Tarturian.

You are tasked with finding the golden death mask of “King Rutattuttut”, and you start in an outdoor area in the desert near a village and a pyramid.

The game does the unfortunate schtick of prior Highland games of forcing you to test directions, but at least only N/S/E/W/U/D work this time. The geography is sanely and pleasingly laid out (see above) and I felt more like I was filling in a map of a real place as opposed to trying to catch up with the fever dream of a robot with graph paper.

In the village you get stopped entering a palace (see farther above), stopped buying a knife and shovel (nothing valuable at hand), and stopped visiting a “mysterious man” in a shroud.

In the mountains, there’s a part of the Nile you can drown yourself in, as well as a locked door (no key) and a stone shrine.

South of here is an AMULET (SMA) and the instructions are clear you can USE SMA to activate it. It glows briefly but I haven’t figured out what the effect is.

In the desert is a buried monument/pillar/ancient-looking-thing which I presume the shovel is for, and a temple with an inscription.

The “hint” from the inscription I assume is intended for the last section, by the pyramid, where there are indeed two pits you can fall into, but it’s so fast to just map things out I already had it figured out (and the entrance to the pyramid discovered) before seeing the inscription.

I’ve found mapping things out enjoyable so far, but I only scratched the surface of the inside of the pyramid, so I’ll get to that next time. I get the impression this may tilt easier than Creature Venture. Fingers crossed, because that one was a bear.

Posted August 29, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Jungle Adventure, Part I: The Elephant’s Graveyard (1981)   6 comments

I submitted my first adventure to Cload, a cassette based magazine for the TRS-80. They had previously bought some of my other games (non-adventure games), and they snapped up Frankenstein Adventure. Several months later, it appeared in one of their issues. My first adventure! Within a matter of days I started getting letters. Everyone loved it. I got letters from all over. I even got letters from other countries. Some were in foreign languages that I couldn’t read, but had to have interpreted. Some people would ask for help. Others would simply write expressing their appreciation for the thrilling experience. And although the volume of letters dwindled, I still received letters for many years after that, as copies of my program continued to be circulated.

— From an interview in Syntax, Issue #32

John R. Olsen’s previous work, Frankenstein Adventure, was one of the more solid BASIC-only games I’ve written about; it had an interesting plot hook (a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein fulfilling his legacy), mostly thematic puzzles, and a slight twist at the end with a satisfying puzzle to finish things off.

I’d say I was consequently looking forward to his next adventure, but I still was tentative given it is set in Africa and “based on the jungle settings of the Tarzan novels”.

Via Ira Goldklang. The Elephant’s Graveyard, aka Elephant Adventure, aka Elephant Graveyard Adventure, aka Jungle Adventure, Part I: The Elephant’s Graveyard is on side 2. They really weren’t picky about titles in this era.

The game includes a scene with a village of Central African Foragers, or “pygmies”. In the relevant Edgar Rice Burroughs book:

That is until one day when a Bantu Pygmy came into their territory hunting and killed Tarzan’s ape mother. Crazed with grief, Tarzan followed him back to his village and discovered that these natives were warlike pygmies who killed and ate apes! Sickened at the gory sight, Tarzan decided to rid the jungle of these wicked Bantu Pygmies.

This only mildly resembles what happens in The Elephant’s Graveyard, but I wanted to make the source material clear.

“Bwana” is a Swahili word that doesn’t have a great equivalent translation. I’d call it somewhere between “Mister” and “Sir” (here’s a recent use). It sometimes gets used to refer to animals. In the Tarzan series it ends up being a generic term used to refer to Europeans.

I wouldn’t really call this a Treasure Hunt in my plot categorization (that is, Crowther/Woods Adventure gather-the-loot style), in that there is only one treasure, ivory from an elephant graveyard. You start outside a trading post as seen above, the trough contains water, and inside there is a “revolver” and “bag”. Throughout the entire game there is a very fast “thirst timer” where you die after 9 moves without drinking water. Early on I kept having to send “scouting” runs to look over the map and try to get back to the trough in time to drink the water until finally realized I could PUT BAG / IN TROUGH to fill it with water. (FILL BAG just states “I don’t understand you” and other permutations don’t work, so I assumed the bag was one that wasn’t watertight.) Once the water-filled bag is obtained the thirst timer slows down considerably.

An example of the fast thirst timer. This is only two locations away from the start with the good water. The bad water here made me suspect (while I had discarded the bag as a water-holding possibility) there was a way to “purify” the water and the idea was to “leapfrog” from water site to water site. The red herring here had to be intentional.

Early on I dispatched with a crocodile (see above) and a boa constrictor with my revolver from the Trading Post, but got stuck on some cliffs I couldn’t pass (they were meant for later) and a village with skulls on poles outside.

We are in a Pygmy village. We see:

A large group of PYGMIES.

One of the skulls is the key for getting by.

They’re not being murderous, which is an improvement over Tarzan, at least.

This is followed by a wall with some stones (which I realized after some time I could BURN things with, more on that in a moment) and a scene in an “ancient temple” with a “witchdoctor”.

You can just grab the map and go; snakes appear after an extra turn, but they (and the sealed door) are both red herrings.

The map reveals a secret pass at the cliffs I mentioned by the trading post (typing FOLLOW MAP is the required command, which is one of those verbs I’d have a difficult time with for except I’ve seen FOLLOW used in Lost Dutchman’s Gold).

This leads to a small mountainous area with a charging lion (revolver required, for the third time), some vines, a river, and a waterfall. Behind the waterfall is a dark cave. The vines and some grass can combine to MAKE TORCH, but then comes a dilemma:

You can’t take a torch or anything that can be used to make a torch through the water without it being ruined. This involved a level of re-appropriating an item for a different use that was sneaky enough I had to stop playing a bit, and logical enough I was able to realize the solution while away from the computer.

The bag had been serving as a water container, but since it’s watertight enough to keep water in, it’s watertight enough to keep water out.

Having found the graveyard and grabbed the ivory, I thought it would be a quick matter to victory as all that was needed to take it back to the trading post, but the game had one last wrinkle.

Looking at the map, there are two ways back to the “Foot of Mountains”, which is just a room away from the “Trading Post”. However, both possible exits aren’t possible to go through while just holding the ivory as the ivory is too large: going up from the hidden valley is too steep, and you can’t swim across the river either.

I did know — from previous experimentation after knowing MAKE was a verb — that MAKE RAFT was parsed correctly (although it indicated I didn’t have the supplies). I figured I could get more vines, but I needed some sort of logs, and here was stuck enough to check hints (the only time I needed to).

Remember those skulls on poles where the sacred skull scared away the villagers when it touched the ground? You can get the poles.

This is not only problematic from the amorally-grab-the-sacred-items angle, but in a game design sense prior objects that could be manipulated always were written in ALL CAPS. The poles are the exception.

This is sufficient to MAKE RAFT, which you can then put the ivory on to get past the river and make it to the trading post and victory (or “victory” depending on your perspective).

I will say, relative to other BASIC TRS-80 games we’ve seen, this is skilled design. There was some thought put into the simulation aspects — of water, of fire, of environment — such that solving felt like a rich enough experience that I could experiment (this is despite a very small set of allowed verbs!) Very particular items are flammable, for instance, and you can die by setting a grass field on fire while you are standing in it.

Hence, I’m still anticipating reaching other works by John R. Olsen, although I’d rather get back to works not with inspiration in Tarzan novels. (Part II of this particular series, at least, won’t hit until 1982, which we are lurching ever closer to.)

Posted August 22, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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King of the Jungle (1981)   4 comments

I’ll be frank up front: this is not Roger M. Wilcox’s finest hour.

For some side nitpicking before the main event, “king of the jungle” doesn’t even make sense as a phrase since lions prefer savannahs (or at least dry forests). However, the photographer Bruno D’Amicis recently (2012) caught some photos in Ethiopia at the Kafa Biosphere Reserve of lions in a rainforest. Back in 1981 when Wilcox wrote this, there were no known actual lions in jungles.

This is his fifteenth adventure game, after The Staff “Slake” and Medieval Space Warrior, and this one really comes off as throwing out ideas and puzzles at random, even moreso than his prior games. That is, while In the Universe Beyond was triply weird, at least it was a weird with a good sense of humor where you can attach some plants to your spacesuit for oxygen and the CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is an item you can pick up.

As explained in the intro above, your goal is to hunt a lion. Nearby there is a dead native with a note explaining the lion “is actually a mutation of a lion due to nuclear testing” and is “his projected image in material form”.

Additionally, there’s a load of inventory items to scoop up, like a medicine kit, a bucket and cow (you can milk the cow and churn the milk to get buttermilk), a shield, a sparker, a rod of cancellation, and an ancient scroll.

>READ SCROLL
A silvery line extends from your finger, and ignites a fireball in midair.

If the last two made you go wait, what? they did for me as well, because fantasy elements get tossed in here; the scroll and the rod are from a “wizard’s hut” and there’s a “held portal” you can TOUCH while holding the rod to unlock it and reach a “pool of oil” and a “fine cloth”.

Other than finding a shovel and digging a rope I got stuck for a good long while on the map portion shown above. There’s also a river with dark liquid that I wasn’t able to interact with, a bamboo forest, and a hole with snakes where GO HOLE leads to death.

I finally realized I could BREAK TREE in the forest to get a piece of bamboo — which sounds ok in retrospect, but I had tried lots of verbs with that similar idea with no luck, and assumed I needed a tool of some kind — and then trying to TIE ROPE / TO POLE led to:

Sorry, it slips off.

I had to look up a walkthrough to realize that you can TIE ROPE / TO BAMBOO, just not to the POLE, even that it is described as a “bamboo pole” so obviously the real noun here is pole and aaaaargh.

With the rope-tied-to-pole in hand I was able to GO HOLE without dying (after fruitlessly attempting actions like dropping the bamboo and typing CLIMB ROPE) where I found snakes in a pit. Nothing I tried helped so I looked up help again, and found that the scroll I already mentioned (“A silvery line extends from your finger, and ignites a fireball in midair.”) is the key.

Yes, you need to AIM DOWN (POINT DOWN also works). Yet another new verb! Even moreso, this is a “preparation verb”, which sets up to “hold a pose” for action after. I admit I’m struggling to think of examples of this that were anything other than confusing; there just isn’t enough feedback to know the basic READ SCROLL message is being affected by player state, or that even would be a mechanic that would work.

The same construction happens shortly after with a snake that shoots laser beams and your shield (which you need to have POLISHed first using the cloth, and that’s the only verb that will work).

Also note how in the first instance the point/aim mechanic indicates a direction while in this case in indicates what object is being pointed.

There’s then a small area with a lion statue holding a piece of a cheese (??) and you can use the rod of cancellation to get the cheese (???? cryptic but I got it anyway).

Then there’s a force field that kills you unless you’ve drank the water from the strange river (which turns out to have been lead?) However, to drink it and not die, you need to have drink anti-toxin first from the medicine kit. But if you drink the anti-toxin:

You got heartburn! You’re dead from an ulcer.

The way to resolve that, of course, is to drink the buttermilk first, which is sufficient to survive drinking the anti-toxin, which is sufficient to survive drinking the lead, which will then let you go in the force field.

Look, I don’t know anymore. The lion is behind the force field, who is easy to defeat because of course it likes cheese.

This wasn’t tough to solve since I was out of items and the stone lion had the cheese, but it doesn’t make the experience any less surreal.

Again, teenaged author, not even attempting to publish these, just a series of private games which lets us peek in on what people were writing for fun, etc. so I’m not going to linger. But as a small piece of analysis, he tried out a new mechanic (POINTing as affecting a command after) without much prompting, mashed sci-fi and fantasy together in way that led to incoherence rather than a plausible setting (Medieval Space Warrior at least had a structural transition) and even when the puzzles were easy they were along of the lines “oh, I guess that worked” as opposed to being pleasing moments of logic or plot.

Posted August 16, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden City: Rise (and Fall) of the Robots   4 comments

I managed to finish, so as usual previous posts are needed for context, and complete spoilers ahead.

Before I get into the gameplay, a bit of history. Forbidden City happens to be (via an unofficial translation) one of the only text adventures ever published in the USSR, and I’m not sure if the original author (Demas) even knows about it.

Aaron Reed recently wrote about P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A., a parody game published in Czech for the ZX Spectrum which includes a copy of Marx’s Kapital in a toilet and an inspiring newspaper editorial that is required to solve a puzzle (“YOU IMMEDIATELY ACQUIRED A TASTE FOR WORK, WHICH IS AN ESSENTIAL HONOR FOR ANY SOCIALIST CITIZEN TO DO.”) Jim Gerrie has translated the game into English so you can go play it yourself. For obvious reasons — the Velvet Revolution was still a year away — the game was distributed slowly and the author Miroslav Fídler intentionally mangled the source code to hide its authorship.

That’s not the case with Město Robotů (Robot City) from 1989, which had sponsorship from the Czech government, and is a direct translation of Forbidden City.

Image from Spectrum Computing. Despite the official nod for the game itself, the cover artist, Kája Saudek, was banned from mainstream media.

The game, programmed by Vít Libovický, was released as part of a contest by Zenitcentrum Beroun, a center for computing run by the state. There were ads on Czechoslovak Television and in the press. It went for sale “early” before it was meant to be playable — a password to unlock the game was given on air on September 21, 1989, but the password turned out to be easy to crack and the contest had to be cancelled, so winners were drawn by lottery instead.

“A science fiction computer game. Produced by Zenitcentrum to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Pionýr Organization of the Socialist Union of Youth.” Screenshots (and the information about the game) from an article in the book Gaming Globally.

As a side note, the contest inspired a second game a year later from students at the Electrotechnical University in Pilsen: …and what about that?! It is set in a time after the Soviet bloc fell. It involved the main character, a journalist, being tasked to write about Brazilian coffee and discovering a conspiracy in the process. Instead of being a parser game it used hypertext (inspired by, of all things, the help system of Turbo Pascal). I have not been able to find a copy of the game or screenshots.

A print advertisement. While the game itself has one friendly robot, as you’ll see, there’s overall much more violence than the picture indicates.

Back to the Forbidden City! And not the 1981 original, but the mid-80s Macintosh port, which — with the exception of a few textual messages — is very close to the TRS-80 version.

I had been stuck on an area that it turned out I had entirely mined out for resources already — my miss was assuming that the dark area that the monorail passed through needed to be skipped and returned to. One of my objects already was capable of being a light source.

TWIST was not on my standard verb list (it is now). I had already tried TURN and ROTATE, neither which work.

In my taxonomy of guess-the-verb

Struggling to Communicate (know to do something, but unable to convey it)
Receiving Bad Information (a verb which could be considered a synonym gives a misleading message)
Hidden (not realizing there was a verb that wasn’t guessed correctly)

this mostly fits under “Hidden”, but I will say (unlike back in Hezarin where I tried to YELL, found the verb lacking, and decided that wasn’t a solution) there was very little intention in my attempting “turn” on the rod. In truth, I visualize twist as a slightly different action (turning the two ends in opposite directions). I suppose the dangling question is: was there any way of me solving this without looking up the answer outright, which I did? A “focus on fiddling with the rod” hint might have done it — I might have even consciously though “what if I twist both ends” — but this still seems like a stumble in a gameplay sense without some extra in-game nudge. The description of the rod from The Staff “Slake” comes to mind, which explicitly says “Its bottom seems worn from tapping against the ground” as both an action and verb signal; maybe the rod could have a similar message about smudges or the like.

Moving on: I found a grotto with a control panel where a yellow button let me open a “dead end” that had tokens and a hostile robot I had to SHOOT with my laser.

Past this point there was a continuous stream of robots appearing. They could appear at any moment and there was no restriction as to how many times a robot would appear in a row, and while they only sometimes (randomly) kill the player, I had to essentially stop to SHOOT ROBOT every time one appeared. This was both intense and annoying. Certainly in a plot sense it made the whole thing more dynamic (and more like the game’s original cover) but there were moments were stopping to shoot was fatal and there’s a limit to laser shots (90) so what was originally slow exploration turned into a mad race (and given the puzzles end up being “decipher what these mystery buttons do” genre, there was an unfortunate clash).

With the tokens in hand, I was able to take the monorail to the third stop, scarf up all the items, and then a fourth and final stop, which had a box with two buttons and a nuclear reactor with a red key.

The reactor makes you irradiated but there’s a nearby decontamination room with a button that cures you; the timing is very tight so you can’t make any stops on the way (that includes shooting a laser at a killer robot if they’re following).

Having raided the fourth station, I took my newfound red key, took it back to the dark station, and after INSERT RED and TURN RED on a control panel the lights for the underground stayed on (which is good, because the light source doesn’t have much juice). I incidentally did not get the TURN on my own and it is the only part of the game where this is required, even on other key locations.

With the power on I was able to use one of those beam-activated doors I had been encountering to enter an underground building.

The building featured a “teleportation station” between floors…

This uses the magnetic card I had been toting around. Also, if you take the green radiation stone in the lead container you get fried, so you have to leave it behind.

…an unmoving robot in a storage room, a robot assembly room, and a security outpost.

The “cartridge” from the robot assembly could be put into the unmoving robot to make a new robot buddy that would follow me around. In the security outpost I found a vent by LOOKing and was able to unscrew it with a screwdriver found on one of the other floors (if you stay too long or have a hostile robot chasing you, the robots at the security station notice and kill you). Through the vent I found a place where I could insert my green key I had been toting around for a while and use it to disable the robots continuously chasing me. Whew!

(This sounded short and smooth, but it took many attempts with lots of false attempts and deaths from the random hostile robots that kept appearing.)

I’m not going to detail every event that happens (and lever that gets pushed, and beam of light that turns out to be fatal rather than helpful, …) but I eventually found a place I could use the “overload” feature of my laser (since I didn’t need it to zap hostile robots anymore)…

…and a control room where Helpful Robot Buddy hit some buttons, although I wasn’t clear what they did…

…and I eventually wound up at a spaceship.

Just in case you forgot, we had crash landed before, so our goal is to get off the planet. It wasn’t clear until this moment.

There’s some very awkward confusion about what buttons to push where — the endgame really is all about deciphering the effect of buttons — and I eventually realized the “small box” that came from near the irradiated plant with two buttons worked here. To get the spaceship moving it needed power, which turned out to be in the form of the radiation-laden stone from the lead container I had to leave behind while teleporting around. (After consulting some more hints I realized there was a room I could leave it in and a lever I could pull to make sure it was accessible from a different floor. This turned out not to be hard, necessarily, but I was getting lost in a swarm of buttons by then.)

However, the green stone is still radioactive and will still kill you after exposure! This was a nice bit of parallelism in the previous puzzle where I thought, perhaps, there was some sort of decontamination process. However, it turns out your robot buddy is still around, and you can get it to take the stone out and put it in the power for you. You still can’t be standing around, but if you go back to the “launch control station” you can operate the robot there.

In principle I was ok with the late-game puzzles; in practice, I kept dying from things exploding or getting sucked into space or just getting confused from various other wrong-button-press actions.

Still, like with all the Demas games, there were lots of strong ideas, and the weird-alien-techno-planet atmosphere came off well. If I had to rank the games, this is the best one — if nothing else, holding to a consistent set of ideas in a way that felt like puzzle actions and plot were the same, as opposed to puzzles being a way to view more plot. I honestly wish he had kept writing — this was a small burst of creativity from when he was very young, and this will be the last game we see of his.

(Unless I expand the project past adventures to action education games. Not happening, though.)

Art by Craig Sadler, including all the nice Macintosh screens you’ve been seeing.

Posted August 12, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden City: Stuck   5 comments

Disk for the Macintosh port of Forbidden City, via Mobygames.

Yes, it’s yet another “I didn’t make much progress, but I’m going to try writing anyway” post (a tradition going back to Zork, Philosopher’s Quest and Gargoyle’s Castle). There’s both a walkthrough and hints, but I’ve been resistant because:

a.) I finally got the Futuria file extracted so I can play on a regular Mac emulator (I learned about exciting details like the difference between Apple’s Macintosh File System and Hierarchical File System, experienced the world’s most unhelpful error messages, and finally resolved my issues when I switched to PCE which happened to have the right utilities built in). The amount of effort I put in to get the game to play normally makes me hesitant to just speed through.

…okay, maybe that’s it. A variation on the sunk cost fallacy. The graphics are appealing and the parser doesn’t seem nightmarish (although given the previous game made some awful parser choices, I shouldn’t rely on surface appearances). I suppose I shouldn’t have to excuse patience, which is a … virtue? … but it means a slower blogging schedule.

As usual, I made a full verb list:

Nothing too remarkable to observe but I need to remember USE is in play as sort of a dread wild card (when the game throws in the towel in trying to figure out how to parse an action, USE is the go-to). I also need to keep SMELL in mind, and what’s INVOKE doing there? I think I’ve had that on a grand total of one previous game, the kind of verb like SCRAPE I only leave on the list due to stubbornness. It could be some different verb, but the parser is taking the first four letters, so it has to start INVO. (>INVOICE DRUNK PERSON FOR THE DAMAGES MADE TO THE BAR)

I am stuck with a monorail I can’t move because a voice asks for a coin; I’ve used one to pass through two stops (the second one was underground and dark) but the monorail won’t move any farther without another.

I suppose a reason b.) for being resistant to hints is that the map I’m stuck on is so small. It is possible I missed something earlier, but even including the dark area at the second monorail stop (where I already tried stumbling around, grabbing items off the ground I couldn’t see, etc.) I’m thoroughly scoured everything before this point.

My items available are

Beaker (full of oil): I already used to lubricate a lever in the monorail so it would move, but the beaker can be emptied and filled with another fluid (assuming one comes up).

Green key: Nothing locked yet.

Canister (made of lead) containing a glowing green stone: Radioactive! You die after holding the unshielded stone for enough turns but there isn’t a need I’ve found so far to ditch the container. It is possible the stone is intended as a light source (for the underground area) but I haven’t been able to move the monorail back to it.

Strange Device: Normally glows green, but as noted in the screenshot above, it glows red when radiation is near.

Chemicals: They explode when you MIX them. I haven’t been able to get any other result.

Plastic Rod: “Deadly fumes fill the air” when you BREAK it.

Plastic Card: “Seems to be magnetic.” I’ve tried using it to rescue the coin used earlier to move the monorail to be able to move it again, no luck with any verbs.

Laser Pistol: “There’s a small knob on it and 90 charges.” The knob sets it to overload and explode (you have enough time to drop and run away). You can shoot one of the robots at the construction site but then they all attack and kill you.

I’m still suspicious of the magnetic card, even though I’ve technically run through the entire verb list I’ve made. However, I’m also thinking there might be only one coin; the one I found is described as a “Small Token” as opposed to using some sort of color and COIN works as a synonym; for other items where there are multiples, the parser asks you explicitly to refer to the item by color (that includes, for example, the green key, even though there are no other keys nearby).

If the coin is irretrievable, that leaves either hacking the monorail with some other method, or even just moving on (perhaps at the construction site with the robots). I sincerely doubt the monorail is meant to be ignored now, though, as the “dark area” includes a two-room map; but maybe there’s a loop back to that area?

Going in a “wrong direction” leads to the player character falling and breaking their neck.

I’ve already shown a screenshot of what happens when you try to shoot a robot; if you try to blow them up by setting the laser pistol to explode nothing happens (you can’t throw the pistol at them like with the cube). They’re said to be building a nuclear reactor so possibly the stone will help “make friends” with them — although my efforts towards this so far have been for naught. Still, my intuition tells me the stone is just intended as a light source (meaning the timing of getting sick and dying leads to a timer for how long you can stay in the dark area).

I’m happy to take suggestions if you haven’t played before, but please no outright hints from anyone who has checked the solution (for now).

Posted August 6, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden City (1981)   3 comments

Here is the finale to William Demas’s very busy 1981 (see: Timequest, The Golden Voyage, Forbidden Planet), just squeaking in at the end.

From the January 1982 edition of 80 Micro. I’m considering the magazine lag time to be one month, and copyright on the game itself lists 1981.

Just like its predecessor, this one talks in its TRS-80 original incarnation, and the talking is absolutely terrible.

(If the audio player doesn’t show above, click here to listen. The sounds are “Welcome to Forbidden City”, “Password Please”, and “OK”. I cut off there, because the gameplay is followed by “OK” about 10 more times.)

Additionally, it also had a conversion to Macintosh several years later, under the name Futuria. I’ve having some emulation troubles with both the TRS-80 and Mac versions (can’t save my game in the former, can only play an online emulated version of the latter because Diskcopy on my virtual Mac doesn’t want to recognize the file) so I’m muddling my way through with both versions the best I can.

The action continues directly from the previous game, as (after crash landing on a planet) we arrive at a mysterious city. I assume the object is to find some sort of space vehicle and escape (although who knows, maybe we can become God of the Robots and settle down).

After some minor opening shenanigans involving a codeword to open the front door (“The Password is: 3 15 19 13 9 3”) and a long tunnel, you arrive in a city where the doors will kill you.

The map is pretty tight here; there’s just a few buildings, one guarded by a robot, and a monorail. The robot is unfortunately of the same type of enemy NPC in the previous game that attacks when a random roll hits, which means it can attack and kill you on sight (since you need to get by the robot once before taking it down, this means you can have “unwinnable” randomness).

Just past the robot is a cube with a red button that explodes on a timer.

I was stumped for a bit on the electrocuting doors until I tried “FEEL BEAM” with the beam of light just outside — this caused the door to open.

The steps are FEEL BEAM, ENTER DOOR. Don’t try to enter the door without using the beam first or you’ll die. This seems unnecessarily hazardous, but there might be some later backstory that explains why the doors are trying to kill you.

I managed to collect a BEAKER, CHEMICALS (that explode if you try to mix them)…

…a PLASTIC ROD (that lets out deadly gas if you break it), a STRANGE DEVICE (“It’s glowing / light / green”), a COIN, and some OIL from the exploded robot (into the beaker). I was able to use the coin in the monorail and the oil on a lever inside to get it to move. It eventually slowed down and stopped in a tunnel that was entirely dark.

I tried valiantly to get a light to come on, but failed; however, I missed the fact that the lever could be moved another time to get the monorail to another destination, this time outside of the tunnel.

Nearby the new monorail stop are a green key, a magnetic card, and a laser pistol just lying around, and some robots that appear to be building a nuclear reactor…

…but since the monorail asks for a coin to move it again, I’m stuck here. I do have some strong suspicions about what to try next but this felt like a good place to stop. I will say, despite the frustrating amounts of death (I’ve forgotten to open doors and subsequently died three times now) the design has been relatively smooth (I especially liked the obviousness of “just move the monorail past the dark place” which still took me a few beats to get), and the map is constrained enough I haven’t feel the despair of sprawl I sometimes do on these games.

Posted August 1, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alkemstone: New Resources   2 comments

Short update today, but any superfans (or just regular fans) of Alkemstone may enjoy

the new Google Sheet, linked here, with every image and theories placed next to them.

It’s everyone-can-edit so feel free to annotate to your heart’s content. I’ll go back sometime next week and squeeze in some of the older observations.

Casey Muratori (who made the interactive map last year) also has made a Github archive for Alkemstone.

I don’t want get too deeply into clue theories at the moment from the previous thread (there’s quite a few), but Christopher Drum’s observation that the Einstein statue has a star map is surely worth mentioning, and that it shows the stars at April 22, 1979 at noon — when the statue was dedicated. There are enough astrology references it feels relevant.

In fact, if you want to make a giant leap in the dark that is almost certainly wrong:

– start from April 22 (it is “just past winter” yet within Easter-range as hinted at other clues)

– go to the Washington Monument (which Andrew McCarthy observed is roughly a tenth of a mile high matching the DENVER/10 clue and acts like a sundial)

– wait for some particular time for the peak of the shadow to hit a particular spot

– search at the spot!

But what time? Noon won’t exactly work. The most obvious time reference is “TIME IS RELATIVE BUT SEVEN HOURS SHOULD BE ENOUGH” — seven hours starting from what time?

The search continues! (Also, I will be playing other games, and giving updates at intervals rather than just writing about Alkemstone.)

Posted July 31, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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