Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Adventure of the Week: The Dark Crystal (1982)

I met the gentleman behind Muppet website ToughPigs.com last weekend at International Toy Fair, and was reminded of an adventure I've always meant to play -- The Dark Crystal, published by Sierra On-Line in 1982 as the sixth and final entry in its Hi-Res Adventure series of illustrated text adventures.  Based on the Jim Henson movie, with visual design work by Brian Froud and a cast of sophisticated puppets, Roberta Williams' game was one of Sierra's larger adventures, occupying two double-sided floppy disks.  I remember reading magazine articles about it back when the movie was released, and it's been on my to-play list for decades now.  It's also something of a bridge to the King's Quest series that followed, presented in third-person perspective with our hero, Jen the Gelfling, seen onscreen, unlike the first-person perspective of the earlier Sierra adventures.  I'm playing the Apple II edition here, using the AppleWin emulator; The Dark Crystal was also released for the Atari 400/800 computers.

In license-based games, especially those based on an existing novel or movie, the plot is often constrained to conform to the existing narrative, and The Dark Crystal runs into some issues in that area.  The circa-1980 Sierra game engine was also showing its age by 1982 -- the vector-and-fill illustrations don't capture the characters or world of the film with much fidelity, and dropped objects are often drawn in strange places.  There are no indications of which directions we can move in, so we have to just try things to see how the navigation works, and I was surprised to find out that only INV works to take inventory, I and TAKE INVENTORY do not.

As always, interested adventurers are encouraged to heal The Dark Crystal firsthand before reading my playthrough notes below -- though I will note that the game is not meant to be difficult, but I had to reference a walkthrough several times to get myself unstuck.  If you've seen the film, you know the story already, but as far as the gameplay goes, be warned that there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

As the adventure begins, we see our character, Jen, onscreen, and are informed that JEN IS IN A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN VALLEY.  This is the Valley of the Stones, according to the Gelfling Mystics, and we can't tale any action before one approaches to tell Jen that he has been sent for by the dying Ursu, "WISEST OF OUR RACE."
We're urged to go quickly, but since we don't really know which way to go I'll take time to explore a little.  To the east is a rocky mountainside, where we can get LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS but safely return the way we came.  North of the starting point, we tumble into a forested wilderness area from which we can't return; we find a sling in the woods to the northeast.

As I pick up the sling, JEN SHUDDERS, and HE SENSES THAT HE IS TOO LATE, AND URSU HAS DIED.  Whoops!  Well, I'll continue exploring here before I restart, if only for the sake of mapping.  Continuing north, I encounter the dreaded disk-change boundary of the pre-hard drive days, moving on to disk 2, side "A" thanks to the game's simple but copious illustrations.

We are now in the Village of the Pod People -- but not that kind, these are GENTLE PEASANTS WHOSE LIVES ARE DEVOTED MAINLY TO FOOD, LAUGHTER AND SONG (proto-Fraggles, perhaps.)  There's a one-location silent forest to the east, and to the west is another forest, where a creature hides behind a rock; LOOK CREATURE suggests that it APPEARS TO BE VERY, VERY HUNGRY.

This creature does not attack or interfere with Jen's movement northward, where we find another wooded area with a great river visible to the east.  We can head west along what seems to be the northern edge of the map, through an arid scrub area and a desert bordered by a chasm TOO WIDE FOR A GELFLING TO JUMP ACROSS.  (The map layout here presages some of Sierra's King's Quest games, with north-south bands of similar terrain laid out in a rectangular grid.)

In this area, west of the Pod People village, Jen finds the Hill of the Landstriders; TWO LONG-LEGGED BEASTS ARE GRAZING HERE.  If we try to RIDE LANDSTRIDER, however, they won't let him approach.

I head back south (across the disk change boundary) to explore the forest near the mountainside some more.  There's a pond with frog-like creatures, and a dead-end area with deafening wild noises (I try to COVER EARS but JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO COVER, though the illustration clearly shows him doing so.)  Returning to the pond, I try to TALK CREATURE, but THIS IS "THE DARK CRYSTAL"... NOT "DR. DOOLITTLE."

We also find the ruins of a Gelfling village, with two flat stones positioned in front of a large wall.  We can't CLIMB WALL, but if we GO ROCKS, the wall rumbles and some hieroglyphics emerge.  The pictured items include a two-pronged flute, a crystal shard, a female gelfling, and a castle, as well as a drawing of a triangle inscribed in a circle.  A clue about our destiny, methinks!

The river near the twisted trees is flowing too swiftly to enter.  I continue mapping, and in the area where I found the sling earlier, Jen sees a crystal bat hovering overhead, with an eye made from artificial crystal; I try to GET BAT but it flits out of reach before disappearing.  Near the pond, Jen encounters a Garthim, ONE OF THE MENACING, BEETLE_LIKE WARRIORS WHO SERVE THE SKEKSIS.  It attacks Jen, taking him prisoner, and the world of the Gelflings -- and the game -- is lost!

Starting over, it makes sense to try to track down Ursu's whereabouts before we go off exploring.  I head west and north through the valley of stones, discovering a shadowy path, but I tumble down the mountainside again, so I'm back to mapping for a bit.  Confirming that there's not (at present at least) a way back to the Valley of the Stones once we've crossed this border, I have to restart again.  (Reboot, actually -- I try to QUIT, but, to his credit, JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO QUIT.)

This time, I attempt to FOLLOW MYSTIC after his visit, but all the parser can do is ask WHICH WAY DID HE GO? in return.  A cave to the west winds north into a candle-lit cavern, where Ursu lies dying.  (The peculiar amnesia adventure game characters always suffer concerning the world they inhabit really feels out of place here, as Jen really should have known how to get here instead of letting me drag him all over the woods!)

There's a bowl of liquid on the floor, but if we try to GET LIQUID, IT WOULD BE SACRILEGE FOR JEN TO TAKE THAT WHICH BELONGS HERELOOK LIQUID reveals the image of a crystal shard, probably that Dark Crystal all the cool kids are talking about.  TALK URSU yields a full screen and a half of text -- unusual for a Sierra Hi-Res adventure -- detailing the end-of-the-world scenario we experienced earlier.  The time of the Last Conjunction of the Three Suns is at hand, and the Skeksis have control of a great Crystal that is missing a shard; restoring the shard will restore the Crystal's integrity and the future of the Gelflings.  Jen has been chosen to heal the crystal by replacing the shard at the next great Conjunction, and we are advised to seek out Aughra, KEEPER OF SECRETS AND WATCHER OF THE HEAVENS.  Ursu also leaves us with this riddle: "WHAT DO THE SUN BROTHERS QUARREL ABOUT?"  We must present the answer to Aughra, Ursu tells us, before he dies and his body vanishes from the sleepframe (because this is an alien fantasy world, where most words mean the same thing as in English except for stuff like, you know, beds.)

So now we have an official quest.  I don't see any interesting paths in the mountains, so we'll tumble down the hill again and see what we can accomplish in the forest.  I pick up the sling again, and try experimentally to SHOOT BAT -- it's not around, but maybe I need to take out its eye to prevent the Garthim soldiers from harassing Jen.

So it's time to wander around and see if we can solve any puzzles.  I TALK PEOPLE in the Pod village, and learn that they have a nearly unpronounceable name used amongst themselves, translating to "MASTER GARDENERS WHO LIVE IN BULGING PLANTS."  We can't GO HOUSE, as Jen has not been invited to visit anyone.  I can't JUMP LANDSTRIDER at their grazing grounds.  What else might we try?  While I am wandering, the bat shows up, and I realize I can't just SHOOT BAT as I thought; the Garthim warrior does indeed show up shortly, though I manage to run away before it grabs Jen.

Exploring some more, I learn that Jen can CLIMB TREE in the silent forest; he sees nothing special there before clambering back down, but we should try to do the same elsewhere.  I find nothing new in the process, however; I try to GIVE SLING to the creature hiding behind the rock, but JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO GIVE.  I guess our heroes aren't always nice people.  CLIMB ROCK produces the same non-result as climbing the trees, so that response may be generic.

And where could Aughra be?  I seem to have mapped everything out.  I try to GET LIZARD in the brushland, to feed the hungry rock creature, but they are too fast.  I try to GET ROCK to collect ammunition for the sling, but there aren't any handy.  I think I may have to restart and look around in the mountains, but I pass the brook while considering my options.  LOOK BROOK reveals some pebbles, and GET PEBBLES allows us to take several along.  I also discover that the intended syntax is SHOOT PEBBLE -- AT WHAT? -- AT [object], though we can't shoot the rock creature or the lizards in the brushland so I'll have to wait for the bat to arrive again.

I try to SMELL SCENT in the area with an enticing scent of undefined origin, but the parser doesn't understand, and I try to LISTEN BROOK just in case its babbling has meaning.  Surprisingly, it says, "E-E-EN, N-N-NEN" -- with a stutter, so maybe it just wants us to go E, N, N, E, N?  Ahhh!  As we go east, a new path has been revealed out of the forest!  We can only go E-E-E-N-N, reaching an impassable swampland.  We can see the other side of the swamp far to the north, but IT WOULD BE SUICIDAL FOR JEN TO ATTEMPT A CROSSING.

Hmmmmm.  We can try to shoot AT CREATURES near the pond, but the frog-like creatures are only startled by Jen's missed sling shots.  I try to GET PAD, but THE WATER LILIES HAVE VERY THICK STEMSCUT PAD is recognized, but we have nothing to cut with.  Maybe a sharp rock?

Restoring an earlier save, I notice that there's some EXTREMELY SHARP SHALE east of the Valley of Stones, and Jen can GET SHALE, allowing him to CUT PAD.  I try to DROP PAD and GO PAD in the swamp, to no avail, and it doesn't serve as a raft in the river either.  Drat!

I finally resort to a walkthrough to learn that we must USE PAD -- in the swamp -- to reach the northern side.  I run into another crystal bat, but my attempt AT BAT isn't quick enough, and the bat flies away, so we'll probably have to flee a Garthim beetle in a few turns.

Jen can trudge north into murky, slimy swampland, and east, where he becomes trapped by vines.  I try to CUT VINE with the shale, but JEN CAN SEVER NO VINE BEFORE ITS TIME.  Har har -- 80s joke!  I try to SWING and WRIGGLE, with no success, but then a friend arrives to help -- it's a single eyeball, held up by a withered hand, and if we've seen the movie we know this is Aughra.  She wants to know the answer to the riddle Ursu posed earlier.  Uh-oh.  What do the Sun Brothers argue about?

I try BEDTIME and LUNCH, and TIME, thinking that three suns are likely to cause disagreement about these things, but the parser will have none of it. I try MOON -- hilariously, JEN CAN'T.  THE VINES ARE BINDING HIM TOO TIGHTLY.  But MOON seems to be a recognized word, at least, and I suspect it's not meant to be used as a verb.  MOON AUGHRA?  No.  MOON SETMOON DAUGHTERS proves to be the successful answer; I'm not sure if I was supposed to find a clue to the answer earlier or not, but the riddle makes sense on its face.

Aughra now releases Jen from the vines.  JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO THANK -- what an ungrateful waste of foam rubber! -- but Aughra takes him to her observatory anyway.  She says, "WHAT YOU WANT?"; CRYSTAL isn't recognized, but SHARD is.  She puts four shards on the table -- blue, green, violet, and orange, and once we choose one, we can't change our minds!  This seems like a fine time to save the game.

I'll chance the violet crystal being the right one -- it seems to most closely match the darkness I would expect to see.  Exiting the observatory, Jen encounters a horde of Garthim, attacking the observatory!!!  I try to run N back inside, but that doesn't work -- Jen is trapped and the game is over.  For some reason, we can GO WINDOW -- ah, I see, we never actually got outside -- and Jen escapes, though Aughra is captured and the observatory burned.  Definitely a little darker than Mr. Henson's Muppet films!

We can only travel south from the eerie bog where Jen has landed, which brings us back to the murky swampland west of the vine trap.  Heading west from this point, Jen becomes mired in a deep bog, sinking into the muck, as another Gelfling watches without apparent concern (thanks to the limitations of 8-bit graphics, which aren't helped by the implacable Gelfling puppet faces.)  We can cry for HELP, and he is rescued by Kira -- the indistinct blob of 8-bit graphics near her feet proves to be her fuzzy pet Fizzgig.  Apparently Jen and Kira have both been led to believe they are the only living Gelflings, so this is probably quite a shock for both of them.

Jen and Kira now stand at the edge of a river, with a giant beetle shell available.  We can't GET SHELL, or ROLL SHELL, but we can MOVE SHELL -- or try to, the parser suggests that we need Kira's help.  ASK KIRA reveals that the Gelflings can communicate telephatically by "Dreamfasting," but does nothing to move the shell.  TURN SHELL works better than MOVE, for some reason, and we find a small pouch underneath it. 

The pouch is full of -- ahem -- smoke seeds.  But there's no time to find out if the light weed is less addictive than the dark crystal.  We need to GO SHELL and float downstream, returning to the Pod Village.

We learn that Kira has been living here since early childhood -- odd that none of the locals thought to tell her about Jen's earlier visit, given the rarity of Gelflings, but they were perhaps too busy singing, eating, and smoking -- and another crystal bat shows up, once again flying away before Jen can actually shoot a pebble at it, and we have to flee some Garthim again.  The Garthim are strong but slow-witted, and I'm beginning to think that we can't actually do anything about their attacks -- they never seem to pursue Jen, and they're always gone if we return to the area.

With Kira along, the rock creature changes -- the rock now displays a spiral pattern, though we still can't seem to do much here.  I try to JUMP LANDSTRIDERS again, with no luck, and have to reference the walkthrough again to learn that I should be trying to JUMP ON instead.  Jen, Kira and Fizzgig hop aboard, and aboard these long-legged creatures we are able to jump the wide chasm to the west!

Riding further west through the parching desert, we eventually see THE TURRETS OF A DECAYED CASTLE to the south.  Heading in that direction, we are attacked by Garthim and thrown from our landstriders as the big beetles attack them and kill one of them.  I try to CLIMB down into the chasm, but we are captured and taken to the crystal chamber, and evil triumphs!

Well, dang.  Can we JUMP into the chasm and see what happens?  Yes -- and we're now on disk 2, side B.  And... wait, what?  Kira has wings???  Good for her, but Jen is still a-plummeting.  His call for HELP is not answered, but he can GET KIRA to cling to her skirts and glide down with her.

Now we're at the bottom of a ravine, where an evil face is carved into the rock.  Its teeth form a gate barring access to a closed door, and above it is the circle/triangle symbol we saw earlier.  I try to DIG, and discover that Jen can in fact do so with the shale, suggesting I may have missed something earlier in our travels as we find nothing here.

I'm stuck again, and learn from external sources that we can SEND FIZZGIG behind the bars.  This command asks where Jen wants to send him, and THROUGH BARS sends him through the gate.  He comes bounding back shortly with a key in his mouth that we couldn't see back there earlier.  How convenient!  We can now UNLOCK GATE, and when we OPEN GATE the door behind it also opens.

We can now GO GATE to enter a foul-smelling sewer, with tunnels to the east, west and south, and a door with an image of a serpent chasing its tail.  We can OPEN DOOR to leave the sewers, but this just takes us back outside into the ravine.  The sewer appears to be a maze, but it's geographically consistent with no weird loops or one-way passages, and the game's use of shorter descriptions after the first visit makes it easy to tell if we've been to a specific location before.  Again, each of these sewer areas has a unique illustration, accounting for the amount of disk swapping required.

The most interesting location is off to the west, where we hear strange sounds coming from the south.  Heading that way, we run into trouble as the skeezy Skeksis Chamberlain kidnaps Kira and Fizzgig, setting of a boulder trap as he exits and trapping Jen in the passage.

We can only go south now, where we enter a room full of sleeping Garthim who immediately wake up and advance on Jen.  I try to run to the south, but am captured; retrying, I DUCK but Jen doesn't know how to do that either.  On the next try, I more generally RUN instead, which works better as the Garthim claws smash a big hole in the wall while trying to connect with our hero.

GO HOLE doesn't get us out of danger completely, though, as Jen finds himself perched on a precarious ledge above a lake of fire, with no girlfriend wings to help this time.  But we can see the Dark Crystal itself floating up above!  CLIMB SHAFT actually works, to my surprise, and we find Aughra tied up in the Chamber of Life.  We can RESCUE AUGHRA, and if we TALK AUGHRA she urges us to hurry and find our friend, as the Great Conjunction is imminent.  She isn't kidding - I head east into a hallway and pause to take INVentory, and before I can even do that I am caught by a band of Skeksis coming from the north, so the game once again ends unhappily.

On the next go, I head east, south, and east from the Chamber of Life and am once again caught.  East, South, West proves more helpful, as the Skeksis (is the plural Skekses?) head to the east at the southern end of the hall, leaving Jen undetected in a closet.

Now we can freely travel north, to visit the Throne Room, where we can GET SCEPTER and SIT THRONE to allow Jen a brief daydream that he is Emperor of the Skeksis.  But there's no time for that -- we'll head east now, to the rotting floor of a deserted tower.  We can't seem to do anything here, so we'll go back to the southern end of the hall.

The Skeksis are gathered in the room where we got caught earlier, but they haven't noticed Jen yet, and a curtain runs along the wall, covering it.  We can GO CURTAIN to eavesdrop, learning about a secret panel in the tower before Jen slips out, still unnoticed by the arguing bird creatures.

FIND PANEL doesn't work -- JEN WILL HAVE TO DO THAT HIMSELF.  But FEEL WALL succeeds -- a small panel is discovered, with a small latch.  OPEN LATCH doesn't work -- it's too small for even Jen's fingers to work.  Hmmmm.  I try to USE SCEPTER, with no luck, but LOOK SCEPTER reveals that it has a small hook, and USE HOOK is much more effective.

Jen can now access the bottom of a narrow stairway to the east, and we can go Up to the top, where we hear strange noises from the east.  This leads us to the Crystal Chamber, where the Skeksis are gathered, prepared to recharge their powers and continue their reign as the Great Conjunction occurs with the Crystal still darkened.  Jen is on the balcony above the crystal.

We can now GO CRYSTAL, leaping onto it from our balcony perch.  Unfortunately, Jen drops the crystal shard in the process, and it lands on the brink of the shaft below the Crystal, near Kira and Fizzgig.  The planet's three suns are touching, visible through an open ceiling portal, so the moment is at hand.  Kira grabs the shard and is preparing to throw it to Jen, when the Skeksis Ritual-Master threatens her with a drawn dagger.

We are given the option of saving Kira -- and I'll save the game here so I can see what happens if we try later on -- but I think we need to fix the crystal first.  Answering NO to the question allows Jen to regain the shard, and now we can FIX CRYSTAL -- and... oh no!  I chose wrong at Aughra's observatory, and the violet shard does not fit!  OVERCOME WITH DISPAIR [sic], JEN SLIPS OFF THE CRYSTAL and is captured.  Yet another unhappy ending.

Okay -- it's walkthrough time again, as I don't want to trudge all the way here again with a 25% chance -- well, 33% now -- of ultimate success.  How was I supposed to know which shard to take?  It turns out that I was supposed to DIG near Ursu's cavern way back at the beginning, then PLAY FLUTE to discover the true shard, as seen in the movie.  (I kind of assumed Jen always had his flute with him, but I guess that's not the case here, so he has to go find somebody else's germ-ridden flute buried in the dirt.)  So it's back to square one, almost, but it shouldn't take too long to retrace our steps once we're better prepared.

I find the flute by digging on the shadowy path, and use it at Aughra's.  PLAY FLUTE yields the game's one and only sound effect, as two notes play and the blue shard glows and resonates.  The rest of the game is very linear, almost identical to my earlier attempt, though I do learn that my wanderings around the stone face gate were important -- Fizzgig comes back empty mouthed where we land, we have to travel west before he can find the key (it's hard to tell, because the locations appear identical.)  I am shortly back at the climax.

I might as well see what happens if opt to save Kira instead of fixing the crystal -- and of course, Jen just gets captured after he jumps down to protect her.  If we make the "difficult" choice and FIX CRYSTAL instead, the crystal is restored as the blue shard is inserted, the Garthim warriors are destroyed, the castle walls are restored to crystalline purity, the reign of the Skeksis ends, and... we discover that Kira has been stabbed and is dying.  We can KISS KIRA, however, to magically rekindle her life!  Jen and Kira are all set to save the Gelfling species, we surmise, if they can somehow conquer a critical lack of genetic diversity and the fact that, according to the parser, JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO F... um, anyway, HARMONY, AFTER A THOUSAND YEARS OF DARKNESS, HAS BEEN RESTORED and victory is ours!

The Dark Crystal is an old-fashioned design with its share of dead ends, and the story has the usual difficulties with adapted material -- if we've seen the film, we know some things we perhaps should not, and if we haven't, we have to guess mightily to come up with some key actions in the game.  We're given a lot more freedom in the early, exploratory stages of the adventure than we are toward the plot-heavy end, which makes the climax rather less exciting than it ought to be, as the player can really only take one series of correct actions to reach a successful conclusion.  The game was reportedly put together in a little more than a month, which may account for some of its limitations.  But I'm glad I finally got around to playing it, and I still have a couple of Sierra's Hi-Res Adventures to tackle so maybe I'll make those a priority this year.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

(This post intentionally left blank)

No Adventure of this Week... I have been swamped with other projects and out of town, and hope to resume my normal posting schedule next week.

But I'll take a moment to briefly celebrate the recent resurgence in point-and-click adventure gaming... not only have we received an update of Tim Schaefer's brilliant Grim Fandango, and a more substantial remake of Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, but Square-Enix is trying its hand at Telltale Games' episodic approach to storytelling with the interesting Life Is Strange.  Dave Gilbert has completed his Blackwell series, and the second act of Schaefer's Broken Age is also due soon.  It will be a while before I write about any of these -- if I'm going to tackle anything less than five years old, it will be Scott Adams' The Inheritance -- but it's a fine time to be an adventure gamer!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Dante's Inferno (1980)

CASA Solution Archive founder JGunness inquired recently about this game; I hadn't heard of it before, so it presented a fine opportunity to explore some new old territory.  Dante's Inferno is a fairly early microcomputer text adventure, written in BASIC for the TRS-80 Model I and published in the January 1980 (Vol II, No 4) issue of SoftSide Magazine.  It was not part of the magazine's monthly adventure game series; it's credited only to "Adventures In Software" in the code, but the printed magazine article credits the game to Gerard Bernor.  I'm playing using the TRS32 TRS-80 emulator.

Cast as a greedy person who sold our soul to the devil in exchange for wealth, we must now try to escape our fate by entering Hell, finding our contract with Satan, and escaping with it.

This is another interesting case of originality-by-necessity, in the days before adventure game design and programming became more standardized.  There's no verb/noun parser in Dante's Inferno -- instead, single-character commands are used to navigate, and even that's surprising, as the available commands turn out to be Back, Forward, Left, Right, Up and Down.  This is a rare variation on the compass-based standard, although the engine doesn't actually take the player's orientation into account; for practical purposes, B/F/R/L correspond to N/S/E/W, and we're always facing forward for the room descriptions.  There's no list of "obvious exits," though some rooms describe the navigation options, so we have to bang into walls and wander into dead ends a lot to figure out where we can actually go.

As always, interested adventurers are encouraged to travel through Dante's Inferno before reading the rest of this post.  The game is cleanly coded and not difficult, but map-making is an absolute must, as the game's primary challenge is navigational in nature.  I will note that the game's simple interface is case-sensitive, so if your commands are being ignored, try turning Caps Lock on or off.  Feel free to save yourself the old-school headaches if you like, and proceed straight into the...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin on the banks of the River Styx.  There's quite a bit of descriptive, large-character prose in this game.  The stage is set as we stand before the Gates of Hell, reading the "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" warning invented by Dante and a tradition for centuries since.

I'll opt to be contrary and move Back first, which takes us into Purgatory.  We can't go back any further or in any other directions here, though the game's response to my floundering is amusing: IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE HAVING TROUBLE GOING TO HELL.  Even going Forward doesn't always get us out of Purgatory; we have to keep trying until we eventually make it through to the bank of the River Styx again.

Any movement L or R from this location just takes us back into Purgatory, so our only real option is to head Forward into Hell itself.  Well, Hell's Portal, anyway -- there is a small opening on the left and dim visibility forward and right.

I'll head forward into Satan's Room -- IT'S LUCKY FOR YOU THAT HE'S NOT HERE NOW.  We can travel to the left here, to a tunnel traveling forward/back; going back takes us through a narrow tunnel and back to Hell's Portal.  There's also a dead end off to the left of the tunnel.

Traveling right of Hell's Portal leads to another dead end.  So the only avenue we haven't yet explored is the tunnel to the left of Satan's Room, which leads to the Mud Pit.  To its left is a little grotto where LOST SOULS SHOVEL COAL AND SULFUR INTO STEAMING PITS, making me wish there were postcards for sale.

Traveling further left takes us into another narrow twisting tunnel, and careful exploration discovers a twisting narrow tunnel, a very narrow twisting tunnel, and a pair of Dead Ends, one of which is clearly not really a dead end but still doesn't lead anywhere interesting.

It looks like I've mapped Hell pretty well in the cardinal directions, encountering little opposition and no sign of our contract with the Man Downstairs, so we'll have to look at up and down moves.  We can go D into the bubbling mud pit, with lava audible on the left.  No other directions prove fruitful to explore, so we'll check out the Large Grotto on the left.  THE FLOOR IS COVERED WITH WHAT LOOKS LIKE HUMAN BONES -- I'm not sure what else might look like human bones, but we'll allow the author a little atmospheric vagueness.

Left of the grotto is another twisting tunnel leading to a dead end.  Forward takes us to a room under a heating shaft, with a dim red glow above.  Right of the shaft is the FOURTH LEVEL OF THE DAMMNED [sic], where the tormented souls have BURNING LOADS HUNG FROM THEIR ARMS AND LEGS.

We might be getting closer now -- going forward from this room leads into ANOTHER RECORD KEEPING SECTION, which implies there's an original Record Keeping Section somewhere, though this room is a dead end so it's not nearby.  So we'll go Up the heating shaft to a room at its top.  Forward here takes us into the Cave of Lost Souls -- where, unfortunately, YOU HAVE ALSO LOST YOUR SENSE OF DIRECTION.  So we may be in for a maze or at least some confusion.

Panicking slightly, I wander around this maze too quickly to map effectively, and eventually find a location where we can slide back down, one-way, to the Large Grotto.  Trying to map more carefully on a second try, I find few other options -- Back from the top of the shaft, we HEAR THE GARGOYLES COMING and are forced forward again.

So back into the Cave of Lost Souls we go.  Up from the entry point is Hell's Central Heating System, and to the right we find the Fifth Level of His Satanic Majesty's Domain.  Lucifer's out of the office at the moment, but there's a small opening in the floor here -- it leads all the way back to Hell's Portal and may be a handy escape route.

But we still have to find the contract, so back to mapping we go.  North Forward of Central Heating we discover the Cave of Gargoyles, the Pit of The Mortal Sinners, and a point where the tunnel floor drops away, too wide to jump.  Left of this point is the slide down to the Large Grotto that I stumbled upon earlier.

Left of the Pit of Mortal Sinners is the room of the TWICE DAMMED [sic I presume], from which we can reach the Section of the Cursed, FILLED WITH POISONOUS FUMES.  Traveling to the left of this section warps us back into the Very Narrow Twisting Tunnel near the start, providing another potential escape route, though of course we can't come back that way.  This map is convoluted and confusing!

There's also an Evil Smelling Pit forward of the Section of the Cursed, and if we go D into it we slide down the Sulfur Supply Tube to Hell's Portal.  So there are at least three ways out of here, suggesting we may need to work fast at the end of the game.

I'm not finding much else of interest and I think I've mapped most of the game's world, so there must be some critical locations I haven't found yet.  I try going Up and Down from some dead ends, finding nothing new beyond a few additional dead ends.  But at last I find a Rocky Ledge above the Fourth Level room, and to its right is the Record Keeping Section!  And yes, we've finally found THE HIDING PLACE OF SATAN'S CONTRACTS, and are prompted, WANT TO TAKE IT WITH YOU NOW?  I'll answer Y -- OK, LETS GET OUT OF HERE!  Agreed!

According to my map, the most direct escape route will be to go through the hole in Lucifer's throne room to return to Hell's Portal... but when I get there, I discover that I can't squeeze through it while carrying the box of contracts.  Nor can I get through the narrow, twisting tunnel, for the same reason.  I wish we could just find our own contract and drop the box, but there's apparently no time for that -- we have to take the whole box, freeing who knows how many damned souls along with our own.  I almost feel bad for Satan, but if he's just going to toss all of his business-critical legal documents in a box with no backups, I guess I can't be held responsible.



I get one of those shocks deliverable only by early computer games!  As I move toward another possible exit in the complete silence that has prevailed up to this point, the TRS-80 speaker bursts to life with horrendous, screechy white noise, and I jump out of my seat as FROM THE DARK LEAP THE INCUBI OF MEPHISTOPHELES!  And... and the noise!  This noise, this horrible noise, it never seems to stop!  I would have had to reboot the whole machine back in the day; fortunately, in the emulation age, returning to an earlier save state silences this torture.  The TRS-80 was not really designed for sound, so this was doubly shocking.


Checking the code later, curious about how this was achieved, I discover that this scare may not have been intentional.  It appears to be a tokenization error in the BASIC listing published in SoftSide -- instead of PRINTing some intended text, it CSAVEs!  So, with a virtual speaker hooked up to the virtual line out for general gaming purposes, I was actually just hearing the sound that would have been generated to save the BASIC program to audio cassette tape.  This error means that I never saw the remaining text, and suffered a fate the author likely never intended.

Anyway, back to finding our way to a viable escape route.  I've only got one left to try, and yes, sliding down the sulfur supply tube from the Evil Pit room north of the Cursed room works  We're conveniently dropped off at Hell's Portal and can quickly back out of Hell... to victory!

The game can be finished much more quickly than I did here -- there's no way to die, so aside from some time-saving restores my 334 move "score" includes a lot of exploration and dead-end mapping.  All we really have to do is find the contract and then exit, so with a good map in hand it could probably be finished in around 30 moves.

Dante's Inferno is an interesting early adventure game.  Mr. Bernor's engine is unsophisticated but still provides a lot of exploration, colorful prose and a degree of challenge, without a single traditional adventure game inventory or action puzzle. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Deathworld (1983)

After a disappointing issue #45 of SoftSide Magazine, which omitted the customary monthly text adventure due to disk space constraints (or so we are led to believe), issue #46 returned to form with what I count as #28 in the series, Deathworld  (it's referred to as Death World Adventure in the magazine's menu, I'm going with the in-game naming here.)  This 1983 effort is yet another Peter Kirsch adventure, but he changes his style a little bit here, working in mixed-case text, adding more descriptive plotting, and referencing some objects in the room descriptions instead of as obvious "visible items."  This game also includes a save and restore feature, which would be very handy if I didn't have save states available; I'm playing the TRS-80 version here, using the TRS32 emulator.

The setup takes advantage of the disk medium to include a prologue that would have been a waste of memory otherwise.  Deathworld is set in then-future 1992, where we have been in space for two months.  Our colleagues Brent, Reeves and Jackson disappeared during a mission to Alpha Beta II, and we've been sent to discover what may have happened to them.  Upon landing, our ship's power system is damaged, of course, so in addition to solving the mystery we will have to figure out how to get ourselves back home.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to visit Deathworld before continuing below.  It's not a terribly difficult game, though mapping is a must and the climax is a bit complicated.  I ran into a few parser frustrations myself, where I had the right idea but couldn't figure out how to express it.  But it's an atmospheric and well-written game with a startling finale, and you may wish to spend some time with it firsthand before reading the comprehensive...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

As the game begins, we find ourselves planetside aboard our spaceship, with a damaged power crystal fastened in place with four screws, and a red, unresponsive push button, presumably for launching.  I (for inventory, naturally) establishes that we have a blaster in hand, and we are not currently suffering from injury, hunger, or thirst, novel metrics measured on a scale from 0 to 100 percent.

We can only travel South, to exit the ship and reach a plateau allowing east-west travel.  It seems the atmosphere here is breathable, at least so far.  To the east is a dead end section of plateau; to the west, we climb a steep, rocky hill.

Trying to go D the hill proves dangerous -- we trip over a jagged rock, slamming into another rock on the way down.  But the fall isn't fatal, though it does inflict 11% damage and a bleeding forehead.  At the bottom of the hill, we see a slime-covered space ship, half decomposed with someone apparently sitting inside it.

Against my better judgment, I decide to GO SHIP and see what's going on inside before exploring more of the map.  There's a skeletal body here, with an armband indicating these are the remains of Jackson.  There's also a flight recorder here, and what appears to be an intact power crystal held in place with four screws.  If only we had a screwdriver!  We can't PLAY RECORDER directly, but LOOK RECORDER reveals a button, and PUSH BUTTON allows us to hear Jackson's last words -- Brent and Reeves have already been taken by "something out there."  Bonus atmosphere points to Mr. Kirsch for the 1950s EC Comics-esque "NO! NO! KEEP AWAY! YAAAHHHHH....." as Jackson meets his demise.  Negative futurism points for the flight recorder's use of tape.

Southwest of the ship is a dirt-strewn path leading to a mountain cave, but it's too dark to see inside, so we'll have to come back when we have a light source.  Northwest of the ship is another path with exits west, northwest, and northeast.

I stop to check health, and learn that our health is worsening -- I'm at a 30% injury level, so we'd better try to stop the bleeding.  We're getting into a maze of paths here, with lots of diagonal directions, though the map seems fair and consistent for the most part.  I find a power shed off to the west, with a large 10,000 volt transformer and almost a mile of wire on a spool.  We can GET WIRE to carry the bare end of the wire -- perhaps we will be using this to electrocute the creature that killed the others, but I'll leave it here until I come up with a place to take it.

East of the power shed is a beach, which we can see from many other locations nearby.  A broken fence post and a tall tree here provide some possibilities.  I try to CLIMB TREE, but only slide back down.  There are a number of these broken fence posts along the beach, and multiple locations to navigate and map out.  While I'm trying to get my bearings, though, I bleed to death and have to start over.

I decide to try remapping the confusing area, now that I know more about how the world is laid out, and I discover a dispensary west of the power shed.  Inside I find some iodine and a bandage -- it takes me a few false starts to figure out that we can PUT IODINE, though that doesn't do much good, as it's just smeared on our arm.  BANDAGE WOUND doesn't work, nor does WEAR BANDAGE, but PUT BANDAGE does the trick (and miraculously heals our injuries, all the way back to 0%!)

It seems we're in a more populated section of the map over here -- roughly west from the dispensary we find a tool shed.  But it's locked, and SHOOT LOCK only returns Not now.  South of the tool shed is a steel shack, with a timer lock; we're told only that the door will open at an unknown predetermined time.  Hmmmm.

There's another dark cave in the northern section of the path network.  I try to SHAKE the unclimbable TREE on the beach, and it yields some STRANGE FRUIT.  Northeast of the beach, we find a mountain, and spy a LITTLE ALIEN CREATURE carrying a red rod and moving east, somehow disappearing from sight. There's another dark cave entrance up here as well.

I finally get the the complicated map worked out (I think) and am strolling along the beach when a slimy tentacle reaches out of the water and tightens its grip around my waist.  SHOOT TENTACLE only gets my blaster slapped out of my hand by another tentacle, and I don't have time to try anything else before I am dragged into the water and drowned. 

Now I can start over and be a little more efficient with the opening of the story. I play Jackson's flight recorder and bandage my head.  Now what about these locked sheds?  Can we zap the lock with the wire from the power shed?  Nope, the wire won't quite reach that far.  Can we zap the tentacles with the wire?  I leave it on the beach and turn the power on, but nothing obvious happens (though if I GET WIRE now, I am electrocuted as expected.  Just checking.)

We can't GO LAKE, because we can't swim, apparently.  Are we supposed to make an electrified, tentacle-proof fence around the lake using the broken fence posts, maybe?  I try to BUILD FENCE, MAKE FENCE, ATTACH WIRE, STRING WIRE, CONNECT WIRE, and PUT WIRE, with no luck, so I turn the power back off.

What about hunger and thirst?  DRINK WATER proves fatal -- the lake is poisoned.  EAT FRUIT is similarly fatal.  So we don't have any way to sustain ourselves yet, and we may just have to work fast once we figure out everything we need to do.

The mountain where we saw the little alien is too steep to climb.  Can we KILL ALIEN when we first see him?  No, he disappears before we can act.  Are any of the caves lit naturally?  Not that I can see.

Aha!  TIE POST allows us to tie the wire to the fence posts on the beach; two-word parsers always make these kinds of puzzles difficult to approach (TIE WIRE also works.)  I am able to circle the lake, tying the wire at each point, and the game confirms we have made a complete circuit of wire.  I'll turn the power on, just in case those tentacles show up again.

I check the steel shack, and it's open now -- apparently the timer has expired!  I can now get a RED ROD from inside, and maybe climb the mountain like the alien appeared to do?  Nope, the mountains are still too steep.  But I can go E where I could not before, walking right through the mountain into a cave where we find a luminous rock.  Progress at last!

With this light source in hand, we can visit the three cave locations.  The one in the northeast corner contains the DEFORMED, SLIME-SMEARED BODY OF REEVES, and I try to SEARCH BODY and LOOK BODY to no visible effect.  A passage connects this location to the cave in the northwest.  The southwest cave contains Brent's rotting body, similarly impervious to inspection, so we have confirmed the demise of everyone we were sent here to rescue.  Mission accomplished, I guess?

The southeastern cave contains... a captive little alien!  He mutters, in that strange alien dialect peculiar to adventure games, "KOVZHV UIVV NV. HSZPV Z YOFV ILW GL LKVM NB XSZRMH."  This conveniently translates to English by reversing the letters (A = Z, B = Y, etc.), to read:  "PLEASE FREE ME. SHAKE A BLUE ROD TO OPEN MY CHAINS."

Now if only we had a blue rod!  I am feeling stuck now, so I check the code and discover that I have been trying to LOOK BODY, which the parser sort of recognizes but doesn't specifically address, and should have been trying to, for example, LOOK REEVES instead.  Doing this, I find a small key on the body, and can access the tool shed to acquire... a screwdriver.  Good!

What about Brent's body?  He has a blue rod!  Even better.  We can now SHAKE ROD -- Shake red or shake blue rod? -- okay, SHAKE BLUE to free the little alien.  It tells us its name is Nikki and starts following us around, intending to help out.

It's too late to help me very much, though, as I'm just about dead of hunger, but Nikki points to the fruit and says, "YZW!" -- "BAD!"   Which was already pretty obvious.  When I DROP FRUIT, it rolls away, never to be seen again.  Hmmmm.  Time to restart and work back to this point as quickly as possible before we starve to death.

This time, when we're walking along the beach, Nikki points to the water and says (in translation), "POISONED," and as the tentacle attacks again, Nikki's "OH OH" is similarly lacking in news value.  But we're right by the tall tree, so I take a chance, GRAB TREE and the tentacles give up on dragging me into the lake and let go.  Apparently the electrified fence isn't stopping the monster,and Nikki continues stating the obvious with a heartfelt, "WHEW!"

But this is new -- when I SHAKE TREE again, the fruit this time provokes a cry of "YUMMY!" from Nikki.  So we can safely EAT FRUIT, though it only knocks our hunger down by about 50%.

Do we need to do anything else, or can we just grab the power crystal from Jackson's decaying ship and get out of here?  As I try to head back to the ship by way of the beach, we hear something slithering, but manage to return to the hillside without being attacked.

Inside Jackson's ship, our tag-along alien says, "POOR BABY" and I begin to wonder if it's even worth the translation effort.  We just have to GET CRYSTAL to use the screwdriver and remove it.  But as we leave the ship, a tentacle appears from seemingly nowhere, and drags us off to a cave to meet its owner.  So it seems we'll need to deal with this creature somehow before we'll be able to leave.

Purely by chance on the next try, I miss the beach I was trying to get to and end up by the northwest cave.  A monster emerges, with eight tentacles, and its face is almost nothing but teeth.  Nikki says, "THE BOGEY MAN!", suggesting that the alien language is not only a highly unlikely perfect inverse of Earth's North American English, but that cultural archetypes transcend time, space and biology.

I know the wire won't reach this far, but maybe we can lure the monster into range of the electrified wire.  I try heading towards the lake, but it wraps its tentacles around us and we're dead.  SHOOT MONSTER is more productive, though not in the way I intended -- it buys us a little time, though.  The monster grabs our blaster and a wild shot injures our arm, instantly infecting it.  While the monster is inspecting the weapon, Nikki suggests, "MAYBE HE EAT IT."

I try to lure the beast toward the lake, and as soon as we head in that direction, it moves toward the lake and gets zapped by our electrical trap.  "OOH! BAD BOY GO UP IN SMOKE!", Nikki helpfully adds.

Our badly infected arm is why we need the iodine, I surmise, and I PUT IODINE to clear up that health issue.  "FIX YOUR SHIP GO HOME."  Yes, Nikki, that's what I intend to do.  I am quite relieved when our alien companion finally says "BYE BYE" and scampers away, never to be seen again if we're lucky.

Anyway, now we can GET CRYSTAL from the late Jackson's ship, toss out the damaged one from our own ship, PUT CRYSTAL to install the good one, and PUSH BUTTON to launch.  And just when we thought it was safe to go back into space, our host pulls a twist ending on us:

The tentacles are going to take over the world!

So... this is not exactly a victory, then, as our best efforts seem destined to infect our home world with an intelligent and violently predatory alien species.  This is a nice twist, a refreshing change from the clean, convenient, treasure-laden victory scenarios that end most adventure games.  Deathworld is another solid entry from the prolific Peter Kirsch, and I think it's safe to say it's one of my favorite SoftSide adventures, as we draw near the end of this long-running series.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Mad House Adventure (1983)

We're diving into the SoftSide Magazine archives again this week, to tackle Mad House Adventure, published with issue 44 of the magazine in 1983.  This one was written by the prolific Peter Kirsch -- he identifies it as #24 in the code, but by my count it's the 27th entry published, due to a few inserted entries from other adventure game authors.  I'm playing the TRS-80 Model I/III version, using the TRS32 emulator.

As we might surmise from the title, this is a fairly common plotline for early text adventures -- we've been cast as a person IN A MENTAL ASYLUM, UNJUSTLY SENTENCED FOR A CRIME YOU DID NOT COMMIT.  We're informed that there a few guards and other inmates wandering around, and of course our goal is to escape.

As much of the fun of adventure gaming is in exploration and discovery, I always recommend that readers interested in so doing go forth and experience these games before reading my playthrough notes.  Mad House Adventure is fairly well constructed, though it's easy to get stuck (as I did early on) by the nature of the puzzles -- the game is driven by a long sequence of item trades, so if an exchange doesn't suggest itself the action tends to grind to a halt.  As usual here, there are going to be comprehensive...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin in our room, with a bunk and an exit to the south.  Kirsch's parser dictionary is usually limited, and Mad House Adventure is no exception.  We can't EXAMINE BUNK, MOVE BUNK, LIFT BUNK, or SEARCH BUNK, and LOOK BUNK reveals nothing of interest, so we'll head south into an east-west Insane Ward hallway.

There's a door here, and I'll GO DOOR to verify it returns to our room, after which I think to try GOing BUNK -- which does work, though there's apparently nothing new to do while we're LYING ON YOUR BUNK IN YOUR ROOM.  Although... yes, we can SLEEP here, and A NIGHT PASSES.  So time may be an element in this adventure.

I probably didn't want to waste that night, but I'll go with it for now and head east along the hallway outside our room.  I arrive shortly at a hall with exits in all four directions; for now, I'll continue east through the Looney Ward, where a sign advertises the services of DENNIS THE DENTIST.

Continuing east, the Looney Ward also introduces us to TRICKY DICKY, who says, "I'M LOOKING FOR AN HONEST MAN," before I run into the eastern end of this part of the map.  So I'll go back and visit Dennis, who says, "ME PULL YOUR TEETH, NO?"  No thank you, sir -- I'll just return south to the hallway.

I'll try going north from the hall intersection, finding another 4-way intersection and meeting WANDERING WANDA, who presents a fairly typical adventure game scenario: "GIVE ME A FIDDLE AND I'LL GIVE YOU A BOOK."

Heading east from here takes us to the COMPLETELY LOONEY WARD, where JED THE VET advertises his services -- though, inside his office, he is creepily silent.  The east end of the C.L.W. features a locked door, and we don't have any keys or tools yet.

Continuing north from the hall back to the west, the hallway turns east into the Administration Wing.  We can visit an office here, with a desk -- and LOOK DESK reveals a typewriter, a note, and a flip calendar.  We can GET NOTE and READ NOTE to learn that laundry pickup happens on Wednesday, which might be a hint about an available means of escape.  LOOK CALENDAR reveals it's Friday, so we have some time (though I may regret wasting Thursday so early in the story.)  There's nothing in the typewriter, but it may come in handy later.

Continuing through the administration wing, we find a vending machine -- it accepts $1.00 in coins for a pack of cigarettes, and we conveniently find a silver dollar to the east.  I'm going to hang onto the coin for now, though, in case we find a better use for it.

Whoops -- as I head back west, I encounter ROBBER ROBERT, who steals one of our possessions if we don't have a cigarette to offer him, the bum.  Fortunately, he only took the note about laundry day, and maybe this is a good use of the silver dollar.  I INSERT DOLLAR and GET CIGARETTES after they are ejected onto the floor by the vending machine.

I'm curious about how big this place is, so I head all the way south through one new intersection to reach a stairway heading down at the south end.  We can't use D or DOWN to use the stairs, we have to GO STAIRS.  Downstairs we encounter BART THE GUARD, who appears to be guarding a locked door; he doesn't prevent us from going east to a hall with a large, locked, unbreakable glass door controlling access to a garden.

Back on the main floor, I explore the last eastward wing -- the TOTALLY INSANE WARD.  We can visit STARVIN' MARVIN, who says, "GIMME FOOD."  I also encounter LUCKY CHUCKY, who will let us pass by if we win a coin flip.  Unfortunately, I no longer have a coin to flip, so I can't reach the east end of this ward.  Hmmmm.

Exploring west of the main hall, we find a stairwell leading up to another instance of BART THE GUARD.  (I also discover the parser will only recognize GO STAIRS, not GO STAIR or GO STAIRWELL.)  There's another locked door here, as well as a fire extinguisher Bart won't let us take unless there's actually a fire in progress (at which time relying on the inmates to put it out seems a poor strategy, but I don't make the rules here.)

Returning to the hallway outside our room, we head west past THE GREAT NUTSO, WORLD'S GREATEST MAGICIAN, who says "I'VE NOTHING TO DO A TRICK WITH."  Poor guy.  There's nothing else down this hall, but I do run into Robber Roberts again, who steals the cigarettes but drops a small key while he escapes.

Will the key work to open the locked door in the Completely Insane Ward?  Yes!  This appears to be Robert's treasure trove; it contains a fake beard and the note he stole earlier.  Good, we should be able to retrieve anything he steals now.  And I'll take the fake beard too.

We'll travel west now into the FAMOUS PEOPLE WARD, where we hear AWFUL MUSIC and can GO DOOR to find an inmate who believes he is NERO, playing a fiddle.  I try to GET FIDDLE, as we know Wanda wants it, but of course HE WON'T GIVE IT TO YOU.  His next door neighbor is Napoleon, who is eating a hamburger.  (There's a nearly-cool thing here -- outside Napoleon's room, we hear a voice saying, "SO WHAT IF I'M SHORT..." with no apparent source, and it would have been intriguing if LOOK DOWN had revealed someone the player character didn't happen to see at first glance, but that's not what's happening here.)

Shakespeare also resides here, complaining of writer's cramp, as well as George Washington ("MEN, I'M GETTING TIRED. I'VE GOT TO SIT DOWN.")  And it now appears that we've mapped out all the accessible parts of the map, so it's time to try to solve some of these puzzles, most of which appear to be trade-an-item-with-someone situations.

I can GIVE BEARD to Jed the Vet, but he just thanks us for the gift and the item disappears with no other effect -- apparently these characters will accept anything we offer, which had to be aggravating to anyone trying to play this game back in the day.  Fortunately, we're in emulation mode here, so I'll restore an earlier save state and try something else.  The small key won't work on the locked doors near Bart the Guard.  I try to SHAKE MACHINE or GET DOLLAR so we can play coin-flip with Lucky Chucky, but that doesn't get me anywhere. 

Well, let me start over and learn just what's beyond Chucky.  I get the silver dollar, FLIP COIN and win the coin toss so I can pass by him after he vanishes.  I can also retrieve the dollar so we haven't given anything up yet, and shortly I manage to buy the cigarettes and then get Roberts' key so we don't have to worry about him much.  Past Chucky's location, we find a stairwell going up to a storage compartment, where we find a top hat.

This suggests an idea, so off we go to Nutso's room -- we GIVE HAT, and he pulls out a HUNGRY BUNNY RABBIT, which he gives to us.  I try to GIVE RABBIT to Jed the Vet, but he insists it be fed before he'll take him.  I try to DROP RABBIT in the hallway near the garden, hoping he can find his way into it somehow, but IT RUNS AWAY, NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN, so I'll have to restore again and find some way in.

Can I do anything with the fake beard?  It provokes no special reaction from Shakespeare for stage makeup purposes or silly Bard/Beard punning; I try wearing it and removing it in front of Tricky Dicky, but that doesn't seem to demonstrate honesty in his eyes.   

Shakespeare did say he was suffering from writer's cramp, but we haven't seen any liniment or wrist rests around.  Maybe the typewriter would help?  Yes, he accepts it, and offers to write us a poem if we come back TOMORROW, AND ONLY TOMORROW.  So we'll have to watch the timing here.  I go back to our room to SLEEP, and now we can receive and read Shakespeare's poem -- it's not even in iambic pentameter, but this impostor suggests he can give us a key we'll need to escape, if we bring him some luck.  GIVE RABBIT (four rabbit's feet could be lucky) doesn't work here either -- it just runs away again.

I try wearing the beard to see George Washington, but he doesn't mistake me for Abraham Lincoln or anything.  What does he want?  What does Napoleon want?  I find myself getting stuck here -- it seems I have nothing anyone would want.  So I dig into the BASIC code, and learn that George wants the silver dollar, so I have again given it away too soon.  Starting over, I get past Chucky, then give the silver dollar to George, who gives us his wooden teeth.  And then... he chucks the silver dollar back into the hallway after we leave?  I don't get the joke or historical connection here if there is one, but at least that risk-free move means I can again buy the cigarettes and get Robert's key when I run into him.

Does Dennis the Dentist want George Washington's wooden teeth?  Yes!  And in exchange he gives us... a magazine centerfold?  LOOK CENTERFOLD reveals that IT'S A PICTURE OF MISS APRIL - JOSEPHINE!  So maybe Napoleon wants this?  Yes -- he gives us his hamburger in exchange, which we can then give to Starvin' Marvin to obtain... the Gettysburg Address?

Ah!  If we WEAR the fake BEARD and GIVE ADDRESS to Tricky Dicky, he accepts us as Honest Abe... no, wait, he doesn't, he just accepts the address and it vanishes.  Hmmmmm.  Drat.  I think I need the top hat we gave to Nutso back a ways.  I restore and retrace to this point, and yes, now Mr. Dicky gives us some Roman Candles!  The possible permutations are shrinking, which always helps in this case.

Let's try giving those to Nero, then... yep, he gives us his fiddle.  And as we head out... we smell smoke!!!  We'd better grab the fire extinguisher, then head back to Nero's room, where simply showing up with the extinguisher allows us to put out the fire.

What can we do with these new items?  THROW EXTINGUISHER fails to break the garden door.  But PLAY FIDDLE creates enough high frequency noise to shatter the door!  Now we can give the top hat to Nutso and feed the rabbit, methinks.  FEED RABBIT doesn't work, and maybe the luck Shakespeare wants isn't the rabbit's foot anyway -- there's clover growing here, and if we GET CLOVER we end up with a four-leaf specimen.  And when we DROP RABBIT here, he runs into the clover, feasts, and falls asleep.

Let's take the sleepy rabbit to Jed -- it wakes up immediately when we pick it up, but stays with us for the trip.  Jed is happy to have a pet, and hands us... a dirty shirt in exchange.  Wonderful.  Well, let's see if Shakespeare wants the four-leaf clover for luck... he does, and he gives us a large key.

While looking around for Wandering Wanda, I realize I've missed a door west of Nutso's room.  Here, an inmate named SILLY WILLY demands a book to read.  We have a real reason to find Wandering Wanda now!  She gives us a book in exchange for the fiddle as promised, and now we obtain a flashlight from Silly Willy.

The flashlight would be useful if we had somewhere dark to go, so let's check out the remaining locked doors.  The large key won't open the door by the fire extinguisher, but it works downstairs near the garden.  Bart the Guard makes no attempt to prevent us from entering the room, either, which makes me wonder whether he's just here for window dressing.  (A follow-up check of the code reveals that if we don't have the dirty shirt, he won't let us into the laundry.)

I try to TURN ON FLASHLIGHT and TURN ON LIGHT and USE FLASHLIGHT, with no success, but ON FLASHLIGHT works.  And now we can see that we're in the Laundry Room, where a suspiciously VERY TALL BAG OF LAUNDRY stands.  We can GO BAG to hide under the laundry, though we may be here a while as it's only Friday, and IT'S TOO UNCOMFORTABLE TO SLEEP HERE.

So I'll go back to bed and sleep until Wednesday.  As soon as I reach the laundry room, we hear someone unlocking the door, so we have to quickly GO BAG.  We're then placed in a truck that leaves the facility, but I make the mistake of trying to emerge Up out of the bag before we stop moving, and the guards recapture me.

There's no WAIT verb to pass the time, but we can repeatedly LOOK until we hear the sounds of a city outside.  This time, I wait until the laundry is unloaded -- we're told the guards aren't looking, but I still get captured again.  One more try -- I wait longer, and am discovered hiding in the bag.

Maybe we need a better disguise -- the guards have been spotting me as an "ASYLUM ESCAPEE" every time.  Fortunately, when I back up a few steps to a save en-route, and LOOK LAUNDRY from inside the bag, YOU SEE A GUARD'S UNIFORM.  We can GET UNIFORM and WEAR UNIFORM within the bag.

With the uniform on, THE GUARDS PAY NO PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO YOU instead of raising the alarm, and we are free to GO DOOR to freedom!  Victory is ours!

Peter Kirsch managed to cram a lot of puzzles and challenges into 16K here, and the design's unusual reuse of objects tripped me up exactly as I imagine it was intended to.  I enjoyed playing Mad House Adventure and I hope we see at least another game or two by Mr. Kirsch before we reach the end of the SoftSide Magazine series, just a few more games down the road.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Anyone able to help solve a few mysteries?

One of the reasons I started this blog was to document the history of gaming, and adventure games have come to be my primary focus.  While I tend to focus on detailed discussions of specific works, I'm always interested in the people and history behind them, and I'm grateful for all those who have taken time to comment here, sharing stories and setting the record straight.

I've recently been talking with Sean Murphy, the gentleman behind www.figmentfly.com, an invaluable resource for documentation and information about several text adventures published by Radio Shack for the TRS-80 Model I/III and Color Computers back in the day.  We're trying to resolve a few mysteries about those games, and I'm throwing a post out here in case any of my readers might have some new information.  Feel free to chime in with ideas in the comments, or if you'd prefer a more private forum please send me an email.

Most puzzling is the authorship of the Spectral Associates/Radio Shack Color Computer adventure, Madness and the Minotaur -- it's a maddeningly difficult adventure due to some randomized elements, which is why I've yet to cover it here.  But the game's authorship is also a conundrum -- it's consistently credited only to Spectral Associates.  My best guess, though only a guess, is that it might have been written by John Gabbard, who wrote the earlier Spectral Associates adventure Keys of the Wizard, or his frequent collaborator David Figge.  Does anyone have any clues about who might have written this game?

We're also trying to track down contact information for Robert Arnstein, author of most of the Tandy-published adventures -- Haunted House, Pyramid 2000, Raaka-Tu, Bedlam, and Xenos.  (Clearly I need to update my index page to group his games together!)  We have reason to believe he's in his late 50's and living in the Dallas, Texas area, but the confirmed trail ends around 2000.  Anyone know Mr. Arnstein?  (Please try to reply privately on this one -- I do vet all comments before publishing them, though, so if you contact me that way I'll still be able to get the information to Mr. Murphy without publishing it here.)

Finally, Roger M. Wilcox asked a very good question I was unable to answer.  Many articles and websites mention publication of Scott Adams' source code for Adventureland in BYTE magazine circa 1980 -- almost certainly an influence on the many text adventures published in the early 1980s.  But in trying to find that actual article, all I've been able to come up with is his BASIC engine code and data files for Pirate Adventure, published in BYTE in December 1980.  I suspect this information has just gotten confused and propagated, and that the December 1980 article is the only one that was actually published and everyone's just assumed that the featured game was Adams' first effort, Adventureland.  I've had the same "fact" in my head based on secondhand sources, but in trying to locate the primary source I'm coming up empty.  Is anyone able to confirm such a BYTE article published earlier, perhaps in 1979 or 1980?  Scott?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Mad Scientist (Apple II, 1983)

This week, a reader asked me to help track down an obscure Apple II adventure game.  I haven't found it yet, but my quest led me to this one: Mad Scientist, written by Thomas Hanlin III for the TRS-80 in 1980 and translated to Applesoft BASIC by Ann-Carol and Fred Pence in 1983.  It was published by SoftSide magazine, but was not part of their regular monthly adventure game series.  I'm playing the Apple ][ version here, using the AppleWin emulator.

The plot is fairly conventional early-adventuring stuff -- we have to rescue the Mad Scientist's beautiful daughter from his haunted mansion, and are advised to look for a weapon to help deal with the resident monsters.  We're advised that we won't be able to reach her until we visit a particular room, and we have to finish within about 225 turns.

The interface is nicely handled, with a compass rose showing the obvious directions, and the map is large for a 16K text adventure, with more than 50 rooms.  But it's also clear that in pre-Web 1980 the best practices for writing adventure games (largely established by Scott Adams' seminal BYTE article) had not been widely adopted.  The parser and design have significant limitations -- there's no real inventory system, and no substantial puzzles beyond discovering secret passageways.  I DON'T KNOW HOW! is an all-too-frequent response, as the parser only recognizes a few verbs in specific situations, and we can try to GET nonexistent items, receiving a YOU CAN'T GET THE [nonsense]! response.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to visit the Mad Scientist before reading my playthrough notes below.  I'll be detailing my experience and giving away everything I learned about the game, so there are sure to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin at the gate of the house, and can only travel South, passing through the gate which then shuts itself behind us as the hum of the electrified fence kicks in.  We find ourselves on a long cobbled driveway, and can travel west across the front lawn to an herb garden, or east to a cemetery and mauseoleum.

We can't do much in the locations we've visited so far -- READ TOMBSTONE, GET HERBS, and OPEN MAUSOLEUM all fail to produce any interesting responses or results -- so we'll continue south down the driveway to the entrance.  OPEN DOOR gains us access to the Mad Scientist's haunted mansion.

East of the entryway is a long stairway, and traveling U takes us to a landing, where we can travel U again to the top of the staircase.  There's a bronze ring embedded in the floor, but before we mess with that we'll travel west to visit the Sun Room.  There are a lot of rooms in the mansion, but most are empty aside from some descriptive details for atmosphere (and some don't even go that far.)

South of the sun room is a computer room, with a fabulous 48K Apple ][+ with 2 disk drives, joysticks, a graphics tablet, a light pen, and a modem, just to make the player green with early-1980s techno-envy.  I try to continue south, but a ghost pops up and after I attempt to walk away, THE GHOST GOT YOU! TOO BAD.  And the game is over, so we'll restart and retrace our steps.

Exploring south of the top of the staircase, we find the foot of another stairway which leads upward again.  South of the head of the stairway is... well, another fatal ghost encounter, as it turns out.

Do the ghosts appear consistently at these points?  Not quite -- they seem to be timed, with the first one appearing on the 18th move.  So we'll probably have to find a weapon before we can explore very much.

If we PULL RING at the top of the staircase, a trap door opens up and we plunge down a chute to a room with no obvious exits.  There's a painting on the wall; we can't GET PAINTING, but the response implies that we can MOVE PAINTING to reveal a secret passageway.  We can also FLIP a SWITCH here to turn off the electric fence, or at least that's what I assume the FENCE ON / FENCE OFF messages are meant to convey.  This seems like something we want to do so we can make our escape later on, so I'll leave the fence off.

The secret passage leads down a dark hall to a westward hall, where a black cat crosses our path, and then we run into the ghost again.  Time to restart and look for a weapon elsewhere.

Heading west of the entryway this time, we find a parlor with overstuffed chairs scattered about, and further west is a living room with a fireplace adorned by a human skull.  We can't MOVE SKULL or GO FIREPLACE, so we'll continue south to a room with a Persian carpet on the floor and a tapestry on the west wall.

GET TAPESTRY fails but suggests THERE IS SOMETHING INTERESTING HEREMOVE TAPESTRY and PULL TAPESTRY don't achieve anything, nor can we READ it.  We can, however, MOVE CARPET to find a secret passageway downward.  It seems that GET and MOVE are treated as room-specific, not object-specific, so the noun doesn't always matter and can prompt some misleading responses.

The passage takes us into a (HITHERTO-SECRET) PASSAGEWAY leading north into a dark room, and here I run into a ghost again.  Back to exploring some more, hoping to find a weapon.

This time, I travel east of the persian rug room to find a large laboratory -- and a laser gun sitting on the table!  It seems like we should GET GUN, which we can do.  And as I head further into the lab, passing a large hi-fi system, the expected ghost pops out -- and this time we can SHOOT GHOST, causing him to disappear in a cloud of steam.  Unfortunately, this laser gun doesn't have infinite ammo -- YOU HAVE 4 SHOTS LEFT!, so this won't work forever.

I don't get to celebrate our triumph over the ghost for very long, as when I continue my eastward exploration, the Mad Scientist himself appears, zaps us and carries us off.  We awake to find ourselves lying on a table, surrounded by COLD GREEN FLAMES.  I try to GET UP and GET OFF to no avail, and SIT UP is not recognized, so this seems like a good time to restart and avoid the east end of the lab for now.

South of the lab's hi-fi system is a troublesome room with a floor covered with slippery goo.  We can travel west without any big problems, as it turns out, but a skeleton pops out and must be zapped.  We find ourselves in a room with a map in the middle, but READ MAP reveals it to be a road map of Transylvania; not very helpful here.

South of the persian rug room is a suspiciously bare room with a bookcase at the south end.  I can't PUSH BOOKCASE or GET BOOK or READ BOOK or PULL BOOK, but we can climb Up to the top of the bookcase, then go U again to an upstairs (attic?) area with a hole in the southwest corner (which we just came through) and exits to the north, east and south.

East is a "Game Room" equipped with torture implements.  To the north, we can hear snoring noises from the east, but we can't go that way.  To the south, we hear ticking noises from the east, and can reach an unsettling room FULL OF CLOCKS AND WATCHES OF ALL KINDS - ALL RUNNING BACKWARDS.  East again leads to ANOTHER SUPPLY ROOM, with blank diskettes, tools, a wolf hide, and PICKLED PEOPLE PIECES in jars.  Most of these locations are superfluous -- they're fun to explore but have no real impact on this adventure's very basic plot.

East of the supply room is a swampy-smelling area, and we can continue north to see a pool of brackish water with what appears to be a crocodile peering up at us.  Are we in Neverland all of a sudden?  South of the swampy room we see muddy tracks leading north, presumably belonging to the creature who doesn't otherwise participate in the action at hand.

This map is larger than I was anticipating -- west of the muddy tracks is the foot of a spiral staircase, but we'll continue west for now.  We pass a hole surrounded by large boards to reach a mirror room, reconnecting to the north with the location where we hear ticking sounds.

So where should we go?  Heading down the formerly-boarded hole, we find ourselves in a room with a fireplace and a painting whose bloodshot eyes appear to follow us.  Traveling west takes us through a long dark hallway that returns us to the bookcase room, with no way to return directly.  Finding my way back here, I discover that the eastern direction takes us back toward the fence control room, though we can't actually get there from here, due to another one-way connection.

We're starting to fill in some of the gaps in the map now, so we'll continue by heading up the spiral staircase.  At the top, we can go east out onto a creaking balcony overlooking the graveyard.  A belfry to the north sports a carpet of bats clinging to the ceiling, and I realize we haven't been bothered by any ghosts or skeletons for a while so maybe there were a finite number of them to deal with.  North again brings us back to the head of the short stairway we reached early on, closing another loop in the map.

West of the belfry is The Bat Room, according to a placard on the wall.  It adjoins some kind of dark ceremonial room to the north, with an odor of incense, weird figures painted on the wall and a pentagram engraved on the floor.  Even more intriguing is the Moon Room to the west, where a flashing sign reads "BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER NEARBY!"  I'm not sure who is responsible for the signage here, as it seems this would only encourage the Mad Scientist's enemies to try to rescue her.

We proceed west, glimpsing a giggling disembodied head before it fades out of sight.  North is a room where we can see the mansion's yard visible far below, and to the south we see a goat skull nailed over the doorway we just walked through.  Heading east, we close another loop, passing by a people-hair rug (!) before we reach the top of the spiral staircase again. 

Now we'll return to the supply room and travel north to the other SUPPLY ROOM (which we were apparently supposed to visit before we found our way to Another Supply Room.)  Traveling north from this supply room leads back to the computer room again.

It seems we have most of the mansion mapped out now, so I'll go back to the persian rug room and check out the lower passageway to fill that section in.  The dark room leads to another dark room, and yet another, where we stumble over an object; we can't GET OBJECT, so we'll probably need a light source.  We can continue east and north to reach the end of the unlit passageway, and travel up to emerge in the graveyard outside the mansion via another one-way passage.

Now I think I have explored all the obvious pathways, so let's see if traveling around so much has made the beautiful daughter room accessible as hinted in the opening instructions.  Nope, nothing seems different in the Moon Room, which seems the most likely point of access based on the big sign there.

What about the dark area? Can we obtain a light source?  Does the Sun Room somehow relate to the Moon Room?  What about the snoring we hear in the upper level?  Can we do anything with the crocodile?  The bats in the belfry?  The clocks?  The mirrors?  The Hi-Fi?  I try a lot of things, most of which produce the default I DON'T KNOW HOW! message and no visible results.  There don't seem to be a lot of puzzles in the traditional sense here, or many things we can really do, and I think my map is complete for all the exits and passageways I've been able to find so far.

So I finally dig into the BASIC code, and discover that most of the game text is encrypted!  Well played!  But it's a simple alphabet-reversal cipher -- A = Z, B = Y, etc., and I manage to figure out that most of the rooms just have static descriptions, so we can't really do much to interact with much of the game world.  More significantly, I learn that we can MOVE TABLE to escape after the mad scientist carts us off, and it looks like we need to visit this location in order to open up a passage north of the Moon Room.  This does indeed work -- we allow ourselves to be kidnapped, move the table to escape, and now from the Moon Room we can access a staircase that leads down to the daughter's bedroom, where we can simply GET DAUGHTER to take her along.  We can guess she's eager to get out of here, given the bats nesting in her bathroom.

We can travel back to the Sun Room by going east, one way, from the bedroom.  And now... hmmmm.  The mansion's front door has been locked since we arrived.  Is the unseen object in the dark passage a key, perhaps?  GET KEY doesn't work there, and it doesn't seem like it would be large enough to stumble over in the dark anyway.  But this doesn't matter, as it turns out -- we can just proceed through the dark passage to reach the graveyard, emerging outside of the mansion, and since we turned off the fence earlier, we can simply walk N to escape to victory!

Mad Scientist is a fairly primitive adventure game -- because it doesn't have a true inventory system and the parser is so simple, there aren't a lot of options or puzzles available.  We just have to meander about and see what can happen, and most of the entertaining details in the room descriptions are just there for atmosphere.  But I enjoyed working my way through it; it was fun to walk around in the author's imagination, and sometimes that's the best part of classic adventuring.