Archive for the ‘colossal-adventure’ Tag

Colossal Adventure (1982)   11 comments

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

— Pete Austin, in a 1988 interview

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

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

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

Electronics Today, June 1978.

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

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

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

Screenshot from this video walkthrough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete: design

Mike: coding the Adventure

Nick: machine coding and porting between machines

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

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

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

Here’s the revised text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colossal Adventure: Lenslok   11 comments

So I was chipperly plowing through all the usual parts of the game and taking screenshots (other than the aboveground being different and the inventory limit being reduced to four the game’s been straight Adventure) when I ran across a horrible discovery.

No, not the troll bridge (although it is interesting to see something illustrated you’ve only seen in text, kind of like watching a movie after reading a book five times and having it clash with what’s in your head). I mean this spot of nastiness which comes after:

Welcome to 1980s copy protection! This is Lenslok, one of the odder schemes developed by the inventor John Frost to check if you have a physical copy of a game. The game came with a physical piece of plastic which would flip around vertical slices of an image when looked through. So you would get a cryptic looking screen, hold the Lenslok up to it (custom for each game that used it), and the light beams would rearrange into a coherent-looking letter.

There is an app, LensKey, which allegedly will do the decipherment for you. I was having enormous trouble getting it to work.

That left me two options.

1.) decipher what the particular letter rearrangement is for this game’s Lenslok; this is apparently possible using the “OK” calibration screen (the top one) which can then be applied to the actual code that needs to be deciphered (the bottom one)

2.) hack at the memory, where the Lenslok code is apparently stored in plaintext in the same location as the letters OK; while the emulator I’m using (Atari800Win) has a monitor it is a bit cryptic to use

I decided to do one more try at LensKey before starting to crack open source code, and by some miracle managed to get through (the letters “UT”). It was at about the twentieth try. I have found real accounts of people doing alternate options 1 or 2 before.

The game also asks for copy protection with the RESTORE command but I’ve been using save states, so it wasn’t until now I ran into the surprise. Unfortunately, I’ve also found my lamp light fading (four inventory items only is tough, y’all, especially when you need a lamp and axe). Fortunately, the “coins” at the start do _not_ count as a treasure — I think what the game is really intending is that you have to go into the All-Different Maze (which normally can be skipped) since instead of wasting a treasure you just insert the coins.

From the Crappy Games Wiki which includes such gems as “all of the games had different Lenslok lenses, and some of them came with the wrong lenses.”

I’m guessing I’ll be done for-real with the standard adventure section next time, it is just this experience was traumatizing enough I needed to stop and share now.

Posted August 27, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Colossal Adventure: A Bizarre Chaos of Tortured Rock Which Seems To Have Been Crafted by the Devil Himself   5 comments

(This post won’t make much sense without my prior ones leading up to it. Also, I’m assuming some familiarity with original Crowther/Woods adventure, which you can read up on here if you’ve missed out.)

As I mentioned in my last post, the outdoors have been changed compared to the original. The tendency seemed to be to try to make the environment more interesting, or at least comparably interesting to the rest of the game. The only problem is there still nearly isn’t anything to do; at least with the original the nondescript forest was meant to funnel the player towards the locked grate with a minimum of fuss.

I should add that this kind of random death wasn’t a feature in the original.

To alleviate the problem slightly, the food that had been taken out of the building got moved to a picnic spot. As Pete Austin explained: “It was really because there was a lot of forest around, nothing actually to do with the game.” In other words, they spent their time sprucing up the environment, they wanted some point in the player exploring it.

The most curious scenery change is from the underground portion, not the outdoors: the “volcano” that’s past the troll bridge (and the Lenslok I was stuck on last time). Just as a reminder, here’s how the original room went:

You are on the edge of a breath-taking view. Far below you is an active volcano, from which great gouts of molten lava come surging out, cascading back down into the depths. The glowing rock fills the farthest reaches of the cavern with a blood-red glare, giving every- thing an eerie, macabre appearance. The air is filled with flickering sparks of ash and a heavy smell of brimstone. The walls are hot to the touch, and the thundering of the volcano drowns out all other sounds. Embedded in the jagged roof far overhead are myriad twisted formations composed of pure white alabaster, which scatter the murky light into sinister apparitions upon the walls. To one side is a deep gorge, filled with a bizarre chaos of tortured rock which seems to have been crafted by the devil himself. An immense river of fire crashes out from the depths of the volcano, burns its way through the gorge, and plummets into a bottomless pit far off to your left. To the right, an immense geyser of blistering steam erupts continuously from a barren island in the center of a sulfurous lake, which bubbles ominously. The far right wall is aflame with an incandescence of its own, which lends an additional infernal splendor to the already hellish scene. A dark, foreboding passage exits to the south.

The new variation is much more succinct.

In a way, the shortening is understandable — the text would fly off the text portion allocated to the screen, and the graphics, while pleasant in their own way, just don’t have a chance at describing “a bizarre chaos of tortured rock which seems to have been crafted by the devil himself”. The general effect of the length also wouldn’t strike as hard in context; in the original, it is a remarkable moment simply due to the relatively spare descriptions everywhere else in the game, but the mere presence of graphics undermines the minimalist feel.

There is one other serious change. I mentioned last time the lamp timer seemingly set to force a trip to the vending machine (and the presence of coins which work and don’t count as a treasure, so nothing is lost). However, the all-different maze itself is changed! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given my characterization of it as the worst maze ever. Pete Austin seems to have agreed, and made the whole thing much more compact.

I admit to being bowled over when I first realized I needed to re-map, but I was of the assumption that the pattern would follow the original monstrosity; the much smaller room count which still keeps the same gimmick of slightly different word order is much nicer to handle.

The all-alike maze, incidentally, is identical to the original. The pirate theft-rate does seem to be reduced a little and I had to wander quite a bit holding some diamonds for the pirate to show up (his chest hidden in the all-alike maze doesn’t show up until after the theft). Also, notice how the vending machine room contains a hint about the chest.

The chest was the last treasure in my sequence, and a message announced I was told to leave out the main entrance. Walking to the building and dropping the last treasure leads to a message from an elf:

Saying yes here reaches this version’s extended endgame, which I’ll write about next time.

One final comment — I mentioned this in passing last time but it is worth spending a little more time — the inventory limit dropped from seven in the original to four. This is an extreme change, since the lamp is absolutely required, and the axe is usually required (pirate frequency might be lower, but dwarves still pop up often). I had to in a couple circumstances just drop the axe and hope I wouldn’t have to worry about it, especially past the troll bridge where you need the lamp, the keys, and the sandwich, and while you get rid of the sandwich, you pick up rare spices, a chain, and the bear itself (which I don’t think counted as an inventory item in the original, but does here). Unfortunately I can’t tell what the experience would be like, but it strikes me as much more irritating to experiment; part of the interest in the original is that you typically would have a bottle of water already when first coming across the plant, so there would be the joy of applying it. While logistically juggling back to the bottle technically requires more insight, I just don’t think, given the open-ended exploration focus of the original, that the overall result is quite as effective.

Posted August 28, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Colossal Adventure: Finale   7 comments

(You should make sure you’ve read the three prior posts in this series before this one.)

I want to emphasize how big a game this was for Europe. For people without mainframe access (most people) there were many ports of Crowther/Woods Adventure to choose from, but Level 9’s in particular was everywhere. This is the Adventure a lot of Europeans remember, either in the original text only version or in the graphical Jewels of Darkness version which collects the first three of Level 9’s regular text adventure games (I’ve been playing the latter).

If you’re fond of those “family trees” which show games branching into other games, this is one of those nodes. When Aventuras AD made a port in 1989, eventually making themselves a big name in Spain, they referred to Level 9’s port. See below the picnic area which was invented by the Austins to fill in the outdoors:

From this Youtube playthrough, and thanks to Ruber Eaglenest and baltasarq for mentioning the game.

I was looking forward to the extended endgame, given the regular game proper fixed both the all-different maze and the dragon —


Ah yes, the dragon. I left that bit out last time. Here is the classic presentation:





I realize this delights some theorists; Aaron Reed has written about it positively and Jonathan Lessard waxes about how “the game breaks from convention, demanding that the reply be read literally and allowing the player to accomplish a task that would be impossible in the game’s diegesis.”

I call rubbish. The “with your bare hands?” looks to be entirely rhetorical and the prompt is mashed with the UI in such a way that is unfair. I am backed up by an authority of none other than one of Crowther’s daughters (whom the game was originally written for). Quoting Dennis Jerz:

When asked what her father thought of Woods’s expansion, Laura (who became a middle-school science teacher) said, “I remember being extremely irritated by things like the pirate, and Dad saying not to blame him, it wasn’t his fault!” Sandy (who became a Sun Solaris administrator) has vivid memories of being “addicted” to playing the Crowther/Woods version when she was older; as a child, she remembers mostly being frustrated by her father’s version. When asked about her father’s reaction to Woods’s expansions, she recalled: “I got stuck with, ‘Kill dragon.’ ‘What with, your bare hands?’ You have to say, ‘yes.’ I remember my father saying, ‘That was Don Woods.’”

Here is how Level 9 does it:

This significantly changes my major beef with the puzzle. The Level 9 version changes the nature of the prompt to clearly be a yes or no question. There’s still a moment where you have to declare, yes, I am going to engage a dragon in fisticuffs, but there’s no underhanded UI that needs to be reckoned with.


— so as I was saying, the fixes were well-thought out, and despite the misstep of dropping the inventory limit, I thought the endgame would get the same treatment, and there was no way the endgame could get worse. Yet: I also had dread, knowing endgames of the past, and worried that the endgame would somehow get worse.

The elf doesn’t necessarily appear in the building — it’s just a timed event after you’ve escaped the cave. The “make sure to rescue ALL the elves” line is important.

Shockingly: they made it work. There’s one bit with a maze, I’m sad to report. (I’ll spoil it right now: when you get up the top of the ladder, just go east and down. That’s it.) Otherwise this really does make a much nicer denouement than the original, which to recap, dropped you in a pair of rooms, asked you to decipher that A BUNDLE OF BLACK RODS WITH RUSTY MARKS ON THEIR ENDS meant dynamite, and you could say BLAST (entirely unclued) to set them off, and for some reason the command worked even if you weren’t in the same room as the dynamite. (As I think I’ve observed somewhere in my far-too-many-words on Adventure, the puzzle likely came about because Crowther’s original oddly includes BLAST as a verb with BLASTING REQUIRES DYNAMITE as a response, giving the idea for the endgame without thinking about the fact BLAST is a pretty unusual verb.)

The opening is still roughly the same, although the game quite clearly identifies the dynamite, and if you bother to EXAMINE it, the game will mention the word BLAST on the side.

The only somewhat cruel thing is the four inventory item limit cropping up again. The lamp must be obviously carried, but of the keys, sandwiches, black rod, pillow, and small axe, which three must be carried? (There’s a little leeway because it turns out you only need two.)

As the mention of the water indicates, the plot continues: you’ve started a flood.

Now you need to outrace it, so there’s a bit of time pressure, especially for the next part which has the maze I previously mentioned.

A map in case you care, but again, just east and down works.

Once past the maze, I landed in a long corridor with some cells containing elves. Keeping the guidance of the initial elf in mind, I used UNLOCK to free them. There was also, sinisterly, a room with just locked-up skeletons, which I assumed at the time was just scenery.

Further along the corridor there was a gap of the exact same nature as where WAVE ROD makes a bridge in the original. I didn’t have the rod, but fortunately it was a quick journey to redo the section to have it in hand. (I appreciate the callback; not as much the inventory limit!)

This also fits in with Pete Austin’s concern about unnecessary parts of the game — you can skip the crystal bridge in classic Adventure, and you can here, but the re-occurrence means you need to have the puzzle figured out.

Past the crystal bridge is a large up-down staircase. Going to the bottom, you find a jade pentacle and an Elixir of Life.

The pentacle is pretty odd; after picking it up the lamp goes out, and I spent a while wondering if I perhaps missed some extra timed event. However, this isn’t the case: the lamp has essentially unlimited fuel at this phase of the game. After some painstaking experiment I realized

a.) the jade pentacle counts as a light source, and you can leave the lamp behind

b.) you can carry the lamp additionally, but the lamp must be turned OFF, otherwise it gives out darkness which cancels the jade pentacle

This wasn’t hard or upsetting and is the sort of magical experimentation I can stand behind; many times I’ve commented on the absurdity of magic systems in adventure games where you wave Bauble X in an entirely random location and there’s no “physics” to work out. Here, there’s a “physics” of sort to work out. Even if it is counter-intuitive and unusual, it seems at least appropriate magical and can be worked out without lawnmowering (that is, without having to test an item everywhere).

The water’s still been chasing you the whole time. There’s a door leading in the staircase you need to close too, because otherwise you get swept away by a combination of water and lava. (The picture shows the result of having the tower sealed off successfully.)

The top of the tower has a Pinnacle but leads nowhere else. At this point I was fairly stuck so I spent a long time contemplating what to do with the Elixir, thinking perhaps I needed to make myself temporarily immortal and hurl myself off the tower. However, JUMP and related actions on the Pinnacle don’t work; kind of surprising, in a way, given how willing the game was to let us step off a ledge at the start.

I went back over the map and considered all the parts I hadn’t solved yet. This included not quite finishing the maze (which I went ahead and did, no dice) trying to see if there was some secret right at the start with the dwarves and all the items, and more or less futilely beating on walls.

I then thought back to the skeletons and realized that I needed to rescue “ALL the elves”.

The most satisfying puzzle of the endgame.

The path of going to the tower and back means you get the seal off the tower from the lava with only a few turns to go. I was stuck with the jade pendant, the weird darkness-emanating lamp, the keys, the rod, and either a sandwich, axe, or pillow (again, it turns out that item doesn’t matter, but I didn’t know it at the time). I finally got around to testing every exit in every room of the staircase and found a secret side exit to a spider area, which had an orb, scepter, and crown, as well as a spider in the middle.

There’s a spot where you can climb up the middle but the spider follows you if you try and the weight is too much. If you wander outside the web, though, the spider follows as well, “staring at the pentacle”. You can pitch the pentacle off the top of the tower and get rid of the spider at the same time.

You incidentally don’t need to have the lamp figured out until this moment, since the pentacle has been operating as an alternate light source. I originally had the lamp dumped in the basement and was stuck here because I didn’t have the light to go back down.

The rest of the game is smooth coasting. Without the spider following you can crawl up to a passage and eventually back to the main cave (which was satisfying! this wasn’t just sealed off from the main gameplay section, but secretly unified).

That last image is in the main cave; you surface in the reservoir, another of those “unused locations” that now is given a purpose (irresistibly to authors; it is one of the most modded parts of the game; even Don Woods himself added something there in his “version 2.0”).

Not sure where the missing 20 points went, don’t care.

So to summarize the narrative: you still blow up the dwarf area like normal, but this lets forward a flood of water you have to outrun, freeing elves along the way (and re-incarnating some) before finally climbing out to the main cave, and the exit one last time.

Regarding the graphics (this part technically only applies to Jewels of Darkness, not to the Colossal Adventure original): the overarching system really is well-coded. While the re-draw speed isn’t super fast for images, you can type as the game is drawing so you don’t have the “slow-trudge” effect of travelling from one end of the map to the other. The graphics aren’t quite the quality we’ve seen with Lucifer’s Realm but the Atari ones are attractive enough. If you haven’t noticed from my screenshots throughout, the authors do wrangle some trickery together, I assume to save space: many parts of images are reused.

Here is a pit from the All Alike maze:

Here is the same pit recolored in the water maze of the endgame:

Most people associate adventure games with bespoke locations (not considering the more out-there games like Asylum), so it was interesting to see a game lean in to the idea of re-use.

(Also, could someone explain the bizarre blue border that shows up in the Amiga version? Does the blue look darker on a real Amiga screen, or did people just accept everything being surrounded by blue?)

This was a solid start to a storied company, which is good, since we’ve got two more of their games fitting into 1982. I was most impressed not by the new large chunks of territory but by the minor fixes; it’s one thing to feel grumpy at the dragon puzzle and decide to rewrite it entirely (as was done in Bilingual Adventure, adding the sword Excalibur) but a thing much subtler to simply tweak the parser prompt. Another nudge was writing BLAST on the dynamite, which managed to keep the spirit of the original puzzle while make it genuinely solvable. It requires careful design sense to fix a problem with a slight nudge in the right direction rather than wholesale replacement.

Posted August 30, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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