Archive for the ‘microworld’ Tag

Microworld (1981)   8 comments

Let’s start with the smooth dulcet tones of William Shatner.

This educational film (originally recorded 1976, revised 1980) about the still-fresh-and-mysterious world of microprocessors has, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with the game Microworld (1981, by Arti Haroutunian, published by Med Systems, same folks as Asylum) but sometimes I have to just share things.

Amidst my review period for games to add to my list, there’s been the occasional reject for non-adventure status, like Dungeon of Htam from 1980:

YOU DISTURBED A MONSTER IN THIS CHAMBER
AND HE SPEAKS

HALT I AM LUM

YOU MAY NOT PASS THRU UNTIL YOU ANSWER THIS MATH QUESTION

WHAT IS
4 x 1 = ?

Other than that, Nellan is Thirsty has been “an adventure for children” but not really an “educational game”.

With those caveats out the way (and the note I’m not done with 1981, although I’ve poked at most of what’s ahead) Microworld seems to be the first adventure game specifically designed as educational.

From 80 Micro, October 1981.

I do not have the “12 page booklet containing a glossary and explanations of the electronics inside the TRS-80”, so I’ll just have to wing it.

I’ve seen the line about “the object of this adventure is part of the mystery you are to solve” elsewhere, including in the game I just played, Timequest. It was truly odd in that one given treasure collection was the obvious goal; here, it might possibly be as well, since I’ve found one item already (a crystal radio) with asterisks around it.

The original version was for TRS-80 but I played the Atari port (by the same author) instead; I’ll compare with the TRS-80 version when I’m done. This is in reverse of what Will Moczarski did when writing about the game; I figure it’ll give a different perspective.

I’m not sure who the game is targeted at. A 1982 review claims it is for an “intelligent child” or an “adventure gaming beginner” but it is designed too annoyingly for either one.

The above exchange is somewhat typical for educational games, which randomly have to toss in trivia questions (What year was Texas admitted to the Union?)

(You have to DROP CALCULATOR to move on.)

I haven’t run across much in the way of puzzles; gameplay so far has mostly been wrestling with a gigantic map where almost none of the directions make sense.

In progress. I’ve marked rooms where I’ve checked every exit; did I mention the game only occasionally mentions which exits go from a particular room so testing all of them is required?

I have run across a great many puns and strange in-jokes, and that’s honestly been the thing keeping me going so far. Some samples:

There is, as you might expect, a maze. The maze has more than five rooms and you have an inventory limit of five items, so there’s some “move one of the items to somewhere else mid-mapping and hope you don’t get confused” aspect to the whole process; the sort of thing you’d give beginners only as a cruel joke.

Also, the only reward has been a “column address room” where nothing seems to happen.

The items have been truly odd: a spinnifax, a crystal radio, a “lonely” clock pulse, a glass cube that looks like a “red IC chip” when you’re holding it (??), a surfboard, a refrigerator (???), and a “dielectric coin” which says “Go PLUS on display error.”

Regarding the last item, that’s a hint for a particular puzzle.

This is the “display error” — the only way out is GO PLUS. This incidentally suggests to me the glass cube/red IC chip thing might not be a bug but a puzzle.

I suspect more META will happen before the game is through. I’m just happy this game is something other than a generic manor or fantasy cave.

Posted September 28, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Microworld: Landing on Their Valences   5 comments

An optioisolator, one of the locations you can visit in Microworld. They transmit information using light. From an eBay auction.

Before I explain what puzzles I’ve solved and have yet to solve, let me give the general layout of the map.

You start, having being turned into an electron, passing through “primary windings”, a “secondary transformer”, a “rectifier”, a “regulator”, before landing on the “ground plane”, possibly passing through a main memory maze on the way.

At the ground plane you can branch in multiple directions including a “casette audio processor”, a “data bus”, a “keyboard matrix”, and “video RAM”.

There’s also a snack bar and the MICROWORLD DISCO which I’ll bring up again later.

Video RAM leads you to a “CIO chip” connected to a “disk controller”, “disk select latch”, “printer controller”, and most oddly, an “RS-232 board”.

The RS-232 seemingly leads to the “outside” but also a bunch of error rooms where you can lose the game. A sampling:

As the last clip indicates, the same direction can do alternate things.

Described in a topological sense, the connections make sense, but as I was forming my map, it was a jumbled mass. I guess this is the “educational” part of the game (although I’m going to wait until my final post before I judge the educational qualities or lack thereof of Microworld).

I’m still not certain what the objective is. The opening room states “an interesting object is in one of the corners” and my original thought that this was just referring to the calculator is incorrect; you can GO CORNER.

You are in the west corner of the blue room in front of an ATARI. A disk drive and a voice input device are connected to it.
The disk drive is empty.

The oddly bugged glass cube I mentioned last time (and was unable to open) does contain a disk, so my best guess the final objective is to escape the computer with the diskette and then use it on the computer. (I did manage to escape once, kind of, out of the RS-232 board, although no disk was at hand.)

The other objective related element has to be the assorted “IC chips” through the game. I’ve found a grey chip, a green chip, a white chip, and a red chip (separate from the odd buggy message describing a red chip in inventory when holding the glass cube — I have gathered you’re not supposed to be able to pick up the cube at all). Look at any of the chips and you get the message “all you need is a socket”, which alas, is something I don’t have; I’m also not certain how many chips there are. I did find a blue chip (although haven’t been able to hang on to) and one of the funky out-of-place errors indicated a black chip. This strikes me as a gather-the-Foobles-to-open-a-final-door sort of setup, so even though I’m not clear on where they go, I’m getting the general feel of plot advancement upon finding each new chip.

The most important thing I did was on accident.

You are in the transformer core. A couple of electrons are wandering around aimlessly. They seem to be mumbling something, but you can’t hear a word.

In the room above (in the opening area) I tried to LISTEN just out of curiosity, and hit the parser’s limit of only understanding the first four letters of each word. LIST gives what seems to be the full list of verbs.

This command doesn’t work in the TRS-80 version of the game, but it helped me crack some puzzles open in both a positive-space (what verbs are there) and a negative-space (what verbs aren’t there) sense.

For a positive-space example, there’s a snack bar with a CONTACT-COLA machine. No change is at hand, but KICKing a vending machine worked on another Med Systems game, hence:

I also, while thinking of the highly unusual verb ARRANGE, suddenly realized a place I could use it.

In a negative-space sense, notice there’s no GIVE command. I was able to sip the contact-cola but that seemed unsatisfying; there was a characteroid with its tongue out, and I realized perhaps the game just means for me to DROP the cola.

This yields an ID card reading “PRINTER MAINTENANCE”, allowing you to sneak into a new area and get the red IC card.

The DROP-instead-of-GIVE also led me to realize the *crystal* radio would be helpful in a room I’ve already mentioned:

STUFF I’M STUCK ON

In a way, the whole map is fair game. The problem with having artful and/or goofy text in an adventure game is it is hard to tell what is a clue and what is just atmosphere.

However, I’ve gotten past some “electromagnetic waves” using a surfboard, only to find a coil I can’t do anything with.

I found the blue chip, but when moving around after the game says it becomes LOST. There is a nearby lost and found, but I haven’t found any recognized syntax, other than LOOK CLERK (“the clerk looks at you expectantly.”)

One part of the maze traps you in a “well”; I don’t know if this is a trap or a puzzle.

Finally, there’s the glass cube I’ve already mentioned with a diskette inside. If you try to smash it persistently enough the whole thing is destroyed (including the disk).

I easily could just be missing some room exits, so I defintely don’t want any hints.

Posted September 30, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Microworld: Finshed!   4 comments

Well, the game said I “solved the entire adventure”, but I’m not quite certain what I actually did. Spoiler warning as usual, and if you haven’t gotten to them yet, you should read my other posts about Microworld before this one.

Allow me first a side trip to a 1980 Med Systems game by William F. Denham, Jr.

In The Human Adventure, you fly a miniaturized ship inside a body attempting to destroy cancer cells. It’s a strategy game in form, rather than a puzzle-based adventure; you have to keep track of your energy and use a LASER and occasionally need to electrify the ship’s hull. I’ve recorded some gameplay below:

I’ll be referring back to this video in a moment.

In Microworld, the main obstacle I overcame was nearly identical to that of Timequest which I just wrote about. You can GO LOCATION as a direction.

I had done LOOK COMPUTER only to be told I saw nothing of interest, and there are many other places where an object can’t be interacted with or approached. This computer is where the colored IC chips go; there are 8 of them, and once you insert all of them, pushing the button causes something good to happen (as you’ll see later).

This also resolves the COIL problem I had last time.

Other than the yellow chip shown above, I was missing three more, and I had a massive headache in the endgame.

THE MISSING BLUE CHIP

I mentioned the blue chip which was described as “LOST” and clearly ended up at a lost and found.

While I could LOOK CLERK (who “looks at you expectantly”) I otherwise had no method of interaction. Elsewhere, there was a paper I never even bothered to mention was a possible inventory item, because it seemed like an offhand joke.

You can SHOW PAPER (not DROP or anything else) and it gets confused for some other form. A “check form” I guess? Which is, as far as I know, not how lost and found places work. If you lose your wallet in a store, why would you have a check slip? Wouldn’t that be for a coat-check counter or the like? Am I missing something here?

THE MISSING BLACK CHIP

I’m saving this one for my conclusion.

THE MISSING ORANGE CHIP

Guess-the-noun returns, always an unwelcome guest.

I assumed, after the frustration above, the NPC could not be referred to (and there are lots of places with characters where you can’t refer to them, so this was not unreasonable!) I was wrong: you can use the noun RECEPTIONIST.

Elsewhere there is a sign that says YOUR LOSS IN MY GAIN so the key word here is LOSS.

This leads to the last missing chip, which I returned to the computer.

The computer gave me a tuning fork; given the lack of other puzzles to work on, I knew exactly where it went; I used it to shatter the glass box. This gave me a diskette, which I swiftly took to the RS-232 port and to the outside.

THE ENDGAME

You may notice the voice-activated device connected to the computer. I had sufficient hunch to realize I needed to say something to win the game, and I also had sufficient hunch that the floating binary I found earlier would be important

10101011 0010111 01000111
11100111 1000011 11000111

but I was horribly stuck. The binary doesn’t translate to anything in ASCII.

One room has something of a hint.

Aha, EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code)! I assume this gets covered in the 12-page book; I, fortunately, knew about this as an outdated alternative to ASCII. So all I needed to do was pull up an EBCDIC table and…

…find nothing. It spells nothing. Argh!

The trick here is that you are seeing the binary digits backward. Flip all the digits, AND use EBCDIC, and the word SYNTAX pops out. (This makes it a second-order puzzle which I’ve ranted about before, but I don’t have the energy this time; I’m just glad to be done.)

So, the electrons are cheering for me, but what did I do exactly? Does the disk accomplish anything in particular? We voluntarily went in, and getting out came long before getting the disk, so this wasn’t an “escape”. The game doesn’t indicate what’s actually on the disk other than congratulations. I guess we’re supposed to use our imagination.

I’m going to take an unusual curve and evaluate Microworld as an educational game: how effective is it at teaching the topic it intends to teach?

Referring back to The Human Adventure (watch the video loop again if you need), notice it has

a.) details within the game itself that clarify what various parts of the body do

b.) a clear map so you can see their inter-relation

c.) gameplay which is directly relevant to the activity at hand, as the player is a foreign body fending off attacks from white blood cells

d.) although not in the video, there’s an “exploration mode” which removes the combat and just allows getting a feel for the layout of the body

Compare with Microworld:

a.) a lot of the detail is deferred to the 12-page booklet, and many of the rooms are filled with jokes

b.) the map is an utter mess even if you draw it out

c.) the majority of the gameplay only has incidental relation to the parts being referred to; even the EBCDIC puzzle doesn’t make a lot of sense in “reality” context

d.) there’s random spots that can trap and kill the player, and a maze that is easy to get lost in, so “free exploration” is discouraged

Mind you, I think Microworld is a better game; Human Adventure is playable but gets dull fairly quickly. However, as a forerunner of adventure-game-education I do feel obligated to point out the flaws in this respect. I’m honestly quite glad for the odd bits of humor, but they were hard to detangle from what was being learned.

c.) is an especially interesting aspect; I think where adventure games and education have the most potential to merge. Microworld nearly managed a perfect shot with one of its puzzles, the one I’ve been saving:

THE MISSING BLACK CHIP (for real this time)

One of the items is a “lonely clock pulse” where it’s possible to WAVE PULSE.

I knew that solving the puzzle was simply a matter of finding the right location. I did it by just random testing everywhere on the map, but it would be possible to solve the puzzle by knowing about microelectronics. Take a look at the upper portion of the map; I’ll spoil the puzzle after.

The flip-flop will reset on a clock pulse!

In an adventure-game sense this isn’t the strongest puzzle; I’d nominate surfing the electromagnetic waves for that, but that’s a pun built on the word “wave” which could actively confuse a student trying to understand at the real-electronics level. By contrast, the flip-flop puzzles requires an act that matches with what the piece of circuitry actually does; puzzle-solving and learning are conjoined rather than lateral.

While the author of Microworld, Arti Haroutunian, went on to a game career after (most recently working on the Disney Infinity games) this was his only adventure game. It also seems to be his only educational game, with the notable exception of doing engineering for The Miracle Piano.

The Miracle Piano (for both computers and consoles) hooked up a real piano and asked the user to play music. Getting through a song meant hitting enough notes correct to make it to the next level. When The Mexican Runner did Miracle Piano for NESMania (playing every US NES title on his Twitch stream) Miracle Piano took the longest, at 91 hours and 16 minutes. (Might and Magic was close behind at 87 hours.) While he knew music, he did not know how to play piano; there was no way to win other than to learn how to play piano.

Of course, Miracle Piano is barely a game, but this is the extreme-congruence form of learning via software. How close should the activity and the intended learning really be? Microworld, if it was seriously intended as educational (it may not have been) is a little too far off. We will eventually hit some more educational adventures, but not for a while, so I have time to think about where the optimal balance lies.

BONUS READING: For more detail on The Human Adventure, Will Moczarski included it in his Med Systems marathon. There are lots of strategy games from this era that have not been written about, but alas, the closest we currently have to a Strategy Addict is Kurisu over at This Map is Completed who is chronoblogging through Japanese tactical RPGs. Jimmy Maher also has some very substantial posts on landmarks in strategy games. Speaking of educational games, Maher also has an excellent post on the Dr. Brain series.

Posted October 2, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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