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Grandell Island (1982)   3 comments

Microfex is another one of those mysterious early-80s computer companies that has fallen through the cracks, remembered for almost nothing. There is a Mobygames page, but as of this writing, it has only one game on it. Specifically, Ultimate Tank, so let’s start with that game.

The back side lists a different publisher.

Or is it different? The wizard iconography (which is repeated across publications) suggests Little Wizard is simply the manufacturing branch of Microfex.

This is emphasized by another ad which includes Ultimate Tank, and does not mention the name Microfex:

Commodore Power Play Issue 3, 1982.

This ad from Compute! Gazette, September 1983 includes both (it is tall on a page, so I placed two parts side by side):

You’ll notice from the ad some international distributors mentioned. One in particular turns out to be helpful: the Australian company OziSoft.

OziSoft started as a computer game distributor (see above) and eventually became Sega’s distributor to the whole Australasia region, being redubbed Sega OziSoft. As Sega’s distributor they are a well-documented company with some big history surrounding them, including directly setting off the entire Australian game classification system with Night Trap.

EUGENE PROVENZO: Well, it could be very exciting but what happens is that as the new systems come in, for example, the Sega CD-ROM systems, what happens is that the video game suddenly becomes increasingly interactive and videolike, filmlike, and so what happens is that we have something close to film rather than a traditional video game of space invaders or even the recent Nintendo games.

KERRY O’BRIEN: So that the violence becomes more real?

EUGENE PROVENZO: Much more real and you end up having the question of: is the video game now something close to film, video, or is it in point of fact a new type of interactive television?

However, we are dealing with the OziSoft of 1983, right when they were starting. Specifically, a small portion of the ad above and one of the companies it lists:

“MI” is just a code, but given it has Cosmic Crystals, Ultimate Tank, and other VIC-20 games listed on the other ads, it must be the same company (that is, Microfex / Little Wizard). The MI suggests it is using the Microfex name for the abbreviation.

Included on the list are Cribbage (MI 007) and Grandell Island (MI 008), both by Charles Sharp Jr., he of the Young Arthur game for VIC-20 we just saw. So while the version we have extant of Grandell Island has no publisher listed and is for C64 (and a 1982 date on the title screen), we can firmly say there was a VIC-20 Microfex version.

(That seemed like a lot of work for a minor detail, but remember this company which apparently distributed as far as Saudi Arabia has almost nothing out there about it!)

For the record, here’s what Cribbage plays like:

I strongly suspect Grandell Island came after Young Arthur’s Quest. Even though the C64 version I played had some tweaking (with a “commands” list added by someone named “Chuck”) it feels less broken.

It’s still pretty broken, though; it’s kind of like writing a text adventure where, while it does keep track of inventory, essentially every action is custom-created for a particular moment while nothing is consistent.

A good example is at the very start of the game. Knowing that Young Arthur used a lot of LEAVE and ENTER for directions, I did LEAVE BEDROOM instead of trying a direction. Good so far. This landed me in a foyer, but then when I tried to LEAVE FOYER things went awry:

Here, the command switches from LEAVE to ENTER DOOR. Of course, since there two doors, the game needs to have a custom prompt just for you to specify which one you mean, and this is the only place in the game this type of prompt appears.

The only purpose of that section was to show the main character waking up and going outside. It is kind of like one of the dodgy amateur movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate which has 5 minutes of car travel with nothing happening. That’s how long it took me to get outside.

Once outside, you can visit a lighthouse; you need to CLIMB STAIRS to go up but just use the direction DOWN to go down. There’s a tavern you can visit where the command QUESTION BARTENDER works (fortunately, there’s a command list, that’d be hard to find) followed by BRIBE. (Your inventory does not indicate you have money, but it works anyway.)

I’m pretty sure the above scene is technically unnecessary. All you really need to do for the first part of the game is raid the Commodore Grandell’s house, go upstairs, fail to break into a chest, go back down to find a maid cleaning, and BRIBE the maid with your invisible money.

This doesn’t quite unlock the chest right away; you have to go downstairs and unlock a drawer at a desk, and that desk has the right key to go unlock the chest. There’s a strong sense of narrative sequence yet a simultaneous issue with the sequence not being a terribly interesting one.

Now, the next step is to go by the docks and examine them where you will find a previously invisible shack and a sign you can read.

You can then rent a boat and hop in, trying to get to the promised Palm Island.

The map is slightly tricky; you have to imagine you’re starting the boat on the green portion of the first island, but not going all the way to the green portion of the second island (otherwise you crash). Even on a tiny mini-game the game is inconsistent about travel, argh!

I have circled the intended start and end square. So you have to start with 3-north, not 2-north, but end with 2-north, not 3-north.

The whole point of getting to the island is not to start digging for buried treasure, but to get a clue from a parrot where to dig.

So the next step is: travel back to the original island! There’s a room with a sundial which seems the obvious thing the riddle is referring to.

When the sun is at its peak is clearly referring to the “12 noon” position. Really the issue here is a parser one. You can’t DIG 12, and as far as I can figure out you can’t wait for the right time and DIG SHADOW. You have to DIG HOLE; the game then asks where, and you type 12.

This is an author who was clearly enthusiastic about adventure games; there’s a “script” of events that maybe seem reasonable on paper? The interaction design was just miserable to slog through; if the parser was easy to use (at least even relatively speaking) somewhat easy puzzles would be fine. However, most of my game was occupied by working out how to communicate, not what I wanted to do in the narrative universe.

I think this is a case the author might have benefited from one of the systems like The Quill that eventually came out, but this was just a little too early (and no such system surfaced on the VIC-20) so he had to resort to awkwardly-cobbled together BASIC code.

I do want to emphasize I am still grateful the game exists. I know for some of these “lesser” games it may seem like I am just spinning in place, but each new game gives me a little better idea what authors faced in this time period, and even though the wild inconsistency of the parser made for a poor experience, at least it was a unique one.

Speaking of uniqueness, the next game up on the docket is staggeringly unique, by one of the most infamous (and prolific) authors of this period. Should you be excited, or afraid? I would say: both.

Posted May 15, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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