Monday, August 31, 2009

The LoadDown - 08/31/2009

Weekly instant gratification roundup... it's a pretty fine week this week!

WiiWare -- Two releases, and a big hooray from yours truly!  Tales of Monkey Island - Chapter 2: The Siege of Spinner Cay is available on the Wii, following the PC release on August 20th by only a couple of weeks.  I prefer to play these kinds of games on the TV -- they just seem more at home there.  Telltale's extension of the classic Lucasarts series continues in fine form by all accounts, and I may have to tear myself away from the Savage Island to spend a little time with Guybrush and friends.  There's also something called 3-2-1, Rattle Battle! -- apparently a collection of waggle-intensive minigames.  I think I can afford to skip that one.

Virtual Console -- The good news continues with the original Phantasy Star, for the Sega Master System. Colorful anime graphics and 3-D dungeon crawling (a feature oddly abandoned in the 16-bit Genesis sequel) make this an old-school RPG classic.

DSiWare -- Puzzle League Express, in downloadable form, sure to appeal to fans of the game.

XBLA -- Last week saw three releases:  Watchmen: The End is Nigh - Part II - more uncharacteristically brawlsome exploitation of Alan Moore's characters.  NBA 2K10 Draft Combine -- fantasy football, methinks.  And Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, which features old-school kick-'em-up gameplay and is of some historical note as one of the first console games to support those newfangled 3-D televisions.  I'm still holding out for some sort of glasses-free imaging solution -- 3-D has come a long way, but I still don't want to watch EVERYTHING that way.

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #10

The Great Scott Project was sailing along rather smoothly.

Note use of the past tense.

My heretofore-adequate Adventuring skills have been knocked down the stairs, dragged out the window and hung out for the vultures to pick at by the near-insurmountable challenges of Adventure #10: Savage Island (Part 1).

The catalog copy gave me fair warning, I suppose:
WARNING - FOR EXPERIENCED ADVENTURERS ONLY!!!! A small island in a remote ocean holds an awesome secret. Will you be the first to uncover it?

NOTE: This is the first of a larger multi-part adventure; it will be necessary to purchase additional packages to complete the entire Adventure.
Thanks to Mr. Adams' generosity, it is no longer necessary to purchase additional software packages to complete the entire adventure.  But it may be necessary to purchase additional packages of Ace bandages, smelling salts and Jolt cola to get through this one.

I did get through it, mind you.  And I figured out quite a bit about the game before I gave in and looked at the first hint.  And I did struggle mightily to figure more of it out myself before I looked up the second one.  And the third one.  And additional hints.  And a walkthrough.

I even managed to accomplish a few productive steps before the going got rough, and I doggedly retried a risky, difficult section for quite a while.  Then... sigh... I cheated.  There.  I said it.  I admit it.  I firmly believe that no jury of my peers would ever convict me.

Suffice it to say that Savage Island is a tough place to survive.  Very tough.

The player starts on an island beach with limited resources.  That's about all I can say without spoiling anything.  Still, I'm not going to strongly suggest you play this one yourself before reading past the spoiler bar.  Don't get me wrong, it is well worth playing.  But if you choose to take it on, I advise you to SAVE GAME frequently.  And make careful notes so you can retrace your steps efficiently once you start to figure things out.  This game demands near-perfect execution, and even if you're doing everything right, it will gladly roll the dice and kill you off without thinking twice about it.


Tales I Lived to Tell (Part 1, at least):

There are many, many ways to die in this game.  The deadliest ones are random in nature, with no protection or means of avoiding exposure to the risk -- until the related puzzles are solved, the player can die any time the bear is near or the hurricane winds are blowing.  The player can also die from shark attacks in the ocean, drowning, animal attacks while sleeping, falls, excess raft wear, and... dinosaur attacks?

While almost every object in the game has a purpose, there isn't always an object tailor-made for the situation at hand.  It's perfectly acceptable to dig with one's hands instead of a shovel.

I suffered achey bones for much of the early part of the game, but the condition didn't seem to be fatal or any kind of an obstacle -- I think it's just a warning of the coming hurricane, like grandpa's meteorological trick knee.

It's quite easy to lose a certain object, and/or one's life, in the volcanic lake.  One of the most vexing challenges is how to get out of the volcano with any of the items found in the area.  Especially the palm log, which has to be brought in to get everything ELSE out of the area.

I spent quite a bit of time mapping out the maze beyond the dark opening in the bear's cave, working in the pitch black by dropping items, moving, then seeing which item I could pick up in the room I was now in.  I hoped to find my way to a room with light, and I actually found my way to the end of the maze too early in the game.  There, I died by tripping and falling when I tried to take what later turns out to be a shortcut to the endgame area after the lights are on.  If my mapping had been successful, I would have short-circuited a good portion of the game.  Good design catch, Scott!

I thought it odd that the rum can be poured into the basin in the cave, while the water just soaks into the ground.  Until I realized (too late) that the rum has to be left behind, then recovered after the bottle satisfies a more immediately pressing need.

The bear puzzle is a challenge, and I ultimately resorted to the hint book to solve it.  At first I experimented with the rum and the bones, trying to find some way to drug him.  PET BEAR proved fatal.  Eventually I realized that the sickly bear was licking and attacking my sweaty self, and pawing at the ground and whining when I emptied a bottle of seawater in front of him, because of a salt deficiency.  But I couldn't figure out where to get him some salt without serious hints, and even then it took some patience to get the water to dry out in the appropriate location.

The hint book gave me a huge shove in the right direction with one question: "HAVE NOT FOUND THE KNIFE?"  From the first clue (SWIM) I was able to find it and eventually get it to a useful location.

My first attempts to survive Hurricane Alexis (named after the first Mrs. Adams) involved the jungle vines, trying to anchor myself to the large stone head or the palm tree.  Not the right approach.  Again the hint book came to my rescue.

Despite the many possible deaths afforded the player, the game is generally non-violent - KILL BEAR yields an ad for another Adventure International product line:

If you like to kill monsters play "MACES & MAGIC"!

I managed to spoil a bit of my own fun by running out of light and reading the "Need some light?" hint too early.  I had found the small plastic block, so BLOCK ACTIVATED WILL HELP was meaningful, but of course the real solution wasn't as simple as ACTIVATE BLOCK.  However, I read the final hint, CARRY THE BLOCK THROUGH THE FORCE FIELD, way too early, giving away some later developments.

RIDE RAFT? Nope.  USE RAFT?  That's not it either.  PADDLE!

My confession:  Even the hint book and a walkthrough I found online were not quite enough to get me through this one.  During the hurricane, it's impossible to save, but a fairly lengthy sequence of steps has to be undertaken to survive it.  I replayed from the start of the storm for more than an hour, trying to get to the volcano, get back out with the empty bottle, fill it with saltwater, and finish the bear puzzle.  But I kept getting randomly killed by the hurricane, or getting oh-so-close only to be killed by the bear upon entry or re-entry to his cave.  I finally discovered a very handy cheat -- the ScottFree interpreter's menu option can save the game even when the game itself won't allow SAVE GAME!  I can't even conceive of solving this section in the old days, when it took minutes to save and load the game using tape on my old TRS-80.

It's hard to get everything done that needs doing before dark -- making the most of the time before the storm and during the storm is important, and avoiding wasted moves after the storm even more so.

Another hint book rescue -- I don't think I ever would have figured out how to USE COCONUT to get the hinged stalactite to move.  I'm still not sure I understand what I did there.  But the hint got me moving again.

There are a number of surreal elements in the game that point to interesting events in Part 2 -- the large stone head and an alien painting resemble the player character.  There are alien exhibits featuring a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Neanderthal.  And theres a pirate who, in a nod to #2, accepts rum in exchange for information, just before his bandanna falls off, revealing antennae.

When at last we have reached the end of Adventure #10, we get no closure to speak of -- our only reward is the password for accessing Part 2:

We just barely have time to prepare ourselves for the challenging sequel, Adventure #11: Savage Island (Part 2).  Gulp.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Weekend Intermission: Kid-Venture

Some things do indeed get lost to the sands of time, even a mere 30 years on. As a kid, I owned a copy of a unique Adventure International title -- Kid-Venture #1: Little Red Riding Hood, by James Talley, aimed at 4-10 year olds. The game does not appear to be available in any of the online archives, likely because of its proto-multimedia nature, so I'm going to have to go strictly on memory here.

The game came on cassette for the TRS-80 Model I, and there were (if memory serves) two sides to the tape. On one side was the game program, loaded in the conventional fashion; on the other, a book-and-record-style narration of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The game also came with two cardboard keyboard overlays, mapping keys to crude sketches of Grandma, the Wolf, an axe, a basket -- the standard elements of the story. The idea was that young children without touch typing skills could play by simply responding with single button presses -- selecting the right prop or character when prompted would allow the story to continue.

The audio narration was, I believe, recorded by the author himself, and used the standard TRS-80 tape drive, with the computer audio jack unplugged so the sound would come through the cassette player's own speaker. I recall that Mr. Talley spoke in a soft southern drawl, beginning: "Hello. My name is James. I will be your storyteller."

As the story progressed, the player would press the appropriate button and the story would continue. The cassette drive was under computer control, so the narration would pause until the player found the correct answer on the keyboard. There was no way to die or fail, and of course the story was completely linear -- tape was not a random access medium. The game operated in the TRS-80's 32-column mode, so the graphics were very blocky, using big fat 64x48 pixels that were roughly squarish, at least. I don't know whether the style was meant to appeal to children, or save memory, or both.

The Adventure International catalog circa 1981 promised a second Kid-Venture to come, but as far as I can determine it was never released, or no evidence of its existence has survived. It was listed as Kid-Venture #2: Match Maker/'Twas the Night Before Christmas, combining what I am guessing was a Concentration-style memory game with a bonus recounting of the famous holiday poem.

Little Red Riding Hood had disappeared from the AI catalog altogether by 1983, so I gather it was not a big seller. No surprise there -- it had absolutely no replay value, really, and the storytelling wasn't particularly compelling. And getting the thing up and running was probably beyond the skill level and attention span of its target audience, at that time -- adjust the volume, load the tape, flip the tape, rewind it, unplug the audio jack, start the game, insert the keyboard overlays, start the tape...

So chalk this one up as another unsuccessful experiment from the early days of home computer adventuring. But I do remember it well.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Personal Gaming Technology Timeline

I realize that a lot of my retro predilections are driven by nostalgia -- the machines I owned and enjoyed once upon a time tend to be the ones I treasure and still spend time with today.

So in the interest of full disclosure, I herewith map out my own personal timeline of the systems that were bought new and have dominated my gaming time over the years.  Systems in (parentheses) are systems I caught up with after they were past their prime, usually to get access to a handful of must-play games I knew only by reputation.

1979-1981 - TRS-80 Model I
1981-1987 - TRS-80 Color Computer, NES, (Mattel Intellivision)
1988-1991 - Atari ST, TurboGrafx-16, (Atari 2600/7800)
1992-1995 - Super NES, IBM PC, Atari Jaguar, Gameboy, (Sega Genesis)
1996-2000 - Sony Playstation
2000-2002 - Sega Dreamcast, (Nintendo 64)
2003-2006 - Sony Playstation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, GameBoy Advance
2007-Present - Wii, XBox 360, Nintendo DS

The market was certainly more fragmented in the early years than it is today -- and I have learned to be patient and do more research before placing my platform bets.  I remember the turning point -- I put a Dreamcast and several games and memory cards and accessories into my cart at Best Buy when the system was new, and then put everything back, regretfully, as I realized that maybe paying $50 for launch titles like Ready 2 Rumble and Hydro Thunder was not a wise decision.  I was glad I waited -- when I finally did buy one a few years later, there were lots of great games available in the $20 range, and the system was no less enjoyable for the wait.

There have been many other systems in my personal mix over time, acquired at rummage sales and flea markets for curiosity's sake, but most of them never gathered a substantial collection of software while in my custody, and eventually went to better homes when storage space became a problem.  Conversely, I've never owned a real Neo-Geo console, but I have played many of its games in the arcades and in emulated form on the Wii, and it's one of my favorite 90's systems.
I think the only significant U.S. gaming platforms I have never owned at all are the Commodore Amiga, the Sega Game Gear and the Apple IIe.  And I have at various times owned the semi-obscure Milton Bradley Microvision, GCE Vectrex, Emerson Arcadia 2001, Nintendo Virtual Boy, and Fairchild Channel F.

So that's where I've been, and where I tend to return to.  Every system has had its great games, and I'm grateful to have sampled so many over the years.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #9

Back in the States and way out West, the Great Scott Project steams ahead. We're up to Adventure #9: Ghost Town, about which our faithful guide, the 1981 Adventure International catalog, says:

Explore a deserted western mining town in search of 13 treasures. From rattlesnakes to runaway horses, this Adventure’s got them all! Just remember, Pardner, they don’t call them Ghost Towns for nothin’. (Also includes new bonus scoring system!)
This game is the last of what I thought of as the "canon" back in the day -- when I first encountered the Adventure series, there were 9 established titles sharing a page in the catalog, and the new #10 had its own separate space on the next page. But for purposes of this project, we'll go up to #12 -- and possibly beyond, although my original idea was to stick with the Scott Adams originals, considering the licensed games and Brian Howarth titles as separate series.

I found this one very difficult to play using ScottFree 1.03 for Windows -- there are a couple of puzzles that depend on a flicker of lighting, where the lit view passes too quickly to be visible, and the bonus scoring system doesn't appear to work accurately -- it always seems to read -1 or 0. There's also some different parser behavior that caused one puzzle to be more intransigent than intended. In the interest of being aware of any significant differences, I ended up playing the reliable old TRS-80 Model I version alongside the Windows version. I know there are newer ScottFree versions, but I don't like the non-windowed 2.01 -- I'll have to see if I can obtain 1.14 at some point, looks like I have to go through Debian.
Ghost Town is a tough nut to crack in any case -- I had to resort to the official hint book three times! One question made me realize I could go somewhere I thought was just window dressing, which was a huge help. I was on the right track with the other two, but the ScottFree parser was misleading me about the viability of one solution, and the hint book didn't tell me anything about the last one that I hadn't figure out already. I ran into the same dead end in both interpreters, and finally had to look up a walkthrough online to find the missing steps. More details on all of these challenges are in the SPOILERS section below.
******** SPOILERS, BY CRACKY! *********
True Tales of the Virtual West:
The map is very outdoorsy -- most buildings are just a single room. I found my way into the ravine -- there was too much detail given about the sagebrush for it NOT to be a puzzle -- but didn't realize I could get to the mountains across the ravine until I consulted the hint book.
How I managed to make it out West is a mystery -- apparently I'm the sensitive sort:

Afterwards I am carrying "Male cow manure." For a moment I thought the parser was recognizing bull**** as a synonym, but I think that was a ScottFree anomaly.
Finding a place to sleep at night is important -- the player character catches pneumonia very easily.
Making the gunpowder was fun -- finding the charcoal and sulfur wasn't difficult, but finding the potassium nitrate was more of a challenge.
Another fun response:
Sorry I can't
I'm not Alice!

The worn-out fiddle strings found in the saloon after the first night are a neat clue to the ghostly goings-on after hours. A really fun idea, this one.
A quintessential Adams object pun -- finding an *ORIENTAL GO BOARD* and a clue in the Jail paves the way to PASS GO and collect another treasure: two hundred dollars.

The *GOLDEN DERRINGER* is a non-violent sort of weapon -- it shoots water, but is still sufficient to frighten the Rattlesnake away.
An in-joke reward for playing this game after Pyramid of Doom -- there's a normal-sized Purple Worm in this game that can be easily killed for bonus score. The game's response is apropos:
That felt good!
A couple of "magic words" are employed that aren't mentioned in the game, but should come readily to anyone familiar with old Westerns. SAY GIDDYUP to ride the horse; SAY HOW to get help from Geronimo's ghost in returning to town. I struggled quite a bit with this puzzle. I got the horse shoed, and got him to take me to the Indian Village, but then he bucked me off and left me there. Thinking I was putting too much weight on his back, I rode without inventory -- no difference. I tried to use the compass somehow to find the magnetic horseshoe, now attached to the horse -- no luck there. I tried dropping the bell on the horse so I could hear him from a distance. Nope. So I started looking for a solution in the local area, using the *SACRED TOM TOM* treasure. I had the right idea, but this is where ScottFree tripped me up a bit -- I tried to PLAY DRUM/PLAY TOM, and got I can't do that yet. I tried HIT DRUM -- I don't understand your command. I consulted the hint book -- I was doing the right thing, or trying to. Finally, I realized that HIT TOM works after trying it on the TRS-80, where I got clearer guidance -- the interpreter explicitly told me it didn't recognize "DRUM". Whew!

I was stuck trying to get the safe open as well. I had made the gunpowder, and put it in a keg to keep it from burning up with a Whoosh! But I wasn't having any luck igniting it safely -- I couldn't make a fuse out of tape and manure, or wire it to the telegraph key with the worn-out fiddle strings. I couldn't use the candle and let it burn down to the gunpowder, or leave the lit candle in the telegraph office and roll the keg through the door. So I was stuck. Again I resorted to the hint book, and learned that the mountains across the ravine are not just scenery, but are in fact accessible. It took me two hints to get the right idea -- clue 1 was CROSS RAVINE, clue 2 IT IS NOT WIDE. Aha! After a quick JUMP RAVINE, I found a line shack with *PELTS* hidden in the floor, and another Telegraph key. Aha again! Maybe I could use the telegraph key here to set off the gunpowder there. Hold my ears, tap the key and... nothing?
Back to the hint book, which didn't help me -- it just confirmed this was exactly the right thing to do. Was it a ScottFree issue? Nope, the TRS-80 acted the same way. The gunpowder was in the keg, in the telegraph office where the safe was. I was doing exactly what the hint book indicated. What was I missing? I finally broke down and found a walkthrough online. It was, in the end, a visualization problem -- I was picturing the "Large safe" as a built-in wall safe, not a free-standing safe. I hadn't tried to MOVE SAFE -- when I did, it exposed 2 loose wires. CONNECT WIRES, go back to the shack, TAP KEY -- boom!
I found the smoking safe where the telegraph office used to be, and grabbed the final treasure. SCORE!

Next up... yowza. I've been nervous about this one -- it's Adventure #10: Savage Island (Part I) - for experienced adventurers only! But we've come this far -- and we certainly have some experience now. There's nowhere to go now but into its puzzley jaws.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #8

The Great Scott Project ventures into enduring text-ploration territory with Adventure #8: Pyramid of Doom, by Scott Adams and Alvin Files.

Many companies have published adventure games with an Egyptian theme -- Radio Shack's 1979 Pyramid 2000 (a modified subset of Colossal Cave), Infocom's Infidel, Datasoft's Sands of Egypt, and Sierra's The Dagger of Amon Ra are among the better-known. Like most of these games, Pyramid of Doom is not exactly a sanctioned archaeological expedition -- per the catalog:

An Egyptian Treasure Hunt leads you into the dark recesses of a recently uncovered Pyramid. Will you recover all the treasures or more likely will you join its denizens for that long eternal sleep?…
The game features numerous traps and a few random deaths, and the map is quite extensive for a cassette-based title, with no mazes to pad it out. I had never played this one before, but I didn't find it to be too difficult to solve -- at least, the hint book did not come into play. Most of the puzzles make some sort of sense, although there's one solution I happened on by sheer dumb luck (more on that later). There are 13 treasures to find, and while the player's flashlight never seems to go out, plenty of terrors explicit and subtle keep the danger level high.

I intended to play this one online, using one of the many Z-machine ports of the game hosted on "free gaming" websites hither and yon. But I soon discovered that the "save game" functionality didn't seem to work -- at least in my particular Windows/Java context, it failed consistently. And this game does have some random hazards and hidden traps -- it's very difficult to get through the game without ever dying. So I played here until I died, then switched to ScottFree when it was time to get serious -- for the record, here's a screenshot of the online version's opening:

I can't recommend this format for anything more than a quick sample -- if that suits you, check it out before continuing here. Otherwise, give it a serious go elsewhere if you wish, before letting me spoil anything.

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

Armchair Egyptology:

I like the opening approach -- there's no trackless waste of desert, no map/compass puzzles, no obstinate camels to delay the Adventure proper. We're already near the pyramid and can focus on getting in. The opening left me a little flat at first, until I figured out how to turn off the giant stone trap.

Another vintage example of getting evocative mileage out of minimal text -- a pole stuck in the sand turns out be a shovel once it's in inventory. I didn't notice that immediately, and it was a pleasant discovery even after the fact.

A theme-appropriate touch -- the treasure room is easily found, but one has to read the hieroglyphics to learn that it IS in fact the treasure room.

I never quite understood the function of the Small Nomad. Shooting him made him disappear in a puff of yellow smoke, but I never felt like that was a good thing, so I restored my game and allowed him to hang around through the whole adventure. He did warn me away from the Purple Worm, so I thought perhaps he was on my side, but he was also ready to jump me and steal my treasures on rare occasions. I think I was supposed to dispatch him, but he didn't make a nuisance of himself.

The game has lots of creepy props and monsters -- a chopping block, a mummy, starving rats, a decapitated skeleton -- and lots of useful tools -- rope, pistol, saw, iron glove. There are lots of options for solving puzzles, and several objects have multiple purposes, which I like -- it always seems more "realistic" to me and motivates careful inventory management.

There's one puzzle I probably would have had to go to the hint book for, had I not solved it by sheer dumb luck. I happened to be carrying the skull and dropped it in the room with the decapitated skeleton, while considering possibilities for some sort of beheading trap. Magically, the skull attached itself to the skeleton and pulled down a ladder. Who knew?

I never did figure out whether there was a way to kill the Purple Worm, but after trying out several ideas, leaving its portal closed in the first place proved the best option. I didn't have to conquer it to finish the game, at least.

Most traps are hidden with no forewarning -- frequent use of SAVE GAME is advisable. For example, you need to look in the rubbish once to find a treasure, but looking through it twice contracts an instantly fatal case of dengue fever.

The jerky can be used to feed the Giant Oyster or the Starving Rats. It's better to use it to feed the Oyster and obtain the *BLACK PEARL*. After that point it's possible to use the nearby Archway, and avoid the ignominious and grammatically awkward "Rats attacks! I'm dead!" scenario.

A large table can be taken, making a strange sound when it is. I tried a number of things before applying the saw to it, yielding a treasure.

That iron glove is pretty handy -- it can be used to break brick doorways and protect oneself from needle traps.

Another very subtle clue that I at first thought was a bug -- the *RUBY* found inside a lump of coal doesn't get counted as a treasure when it's dropped for SCORE. I found its real purpose later on while dealing with the Iron Statue; I guess the asterisks just make it look shiny!

The mirror room puzzle is neat -- it forces turning off the flashlight. Taking a few risks and moving in the dark yields an additional treasure.  Again, SAVE GAME comes in handy.

Favorite interpreter response I hadn't seen before: "You be weird. Cut that out."

The map is fairly open, and aside from some traversal challenges the treasures need not be found in any particular order. Thirteen treasures seems like an awful lot to find at the start of the game, when everything seems barren and dead. But they are hidden here and there, emerging as the map unfolds.
Here's the victory screen from ScottFree:

This one wasn't too difficult to get through -- three hours, I think, though I can see Savage Island looming in the distance now and am pretty sure I won't be keeping this pace up after I get there.
Before we arrive on its challenging shores, we'll saddle up and tackle the last of the drawn-cover-art era: Adventure #9: Ghost Town.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #7

Back on earth, the Great Scott Project continues apace. We find ourselves in a mysterious amusement park for Adventure #7: Mystery Fun House.

The catalog copy:

Can you find your way completely through the strangest Fun House in existence, or will you always be kicked out when the park closes?…

There was a tourist attraction by the same name in the Orlando, Florida area, not far from Adventure International headquarters. The real-life Mystery Fun House is now defunct, but it operated from 1976 to 2001 and would have been fairly new when the game was released. From what I can discover, Scott Adams' game does not appear to be based directly on the attraction -- the magic mirror and rotating barrel rooms could have been based on its namesake, but these are very standard fun house elements.

I played this one on realeasterbunny's Adventure PDA -- I don't have a Windows Mobile device, so I used the PC version. It's very cool, with some nice efficiency features -- even on the PC where a full-sized keyboard is available, it's handy to have the clickable hyperlinks on directions and inventory items. The text window is too small for some games, forcing frequent manual scrolling to read lengthier game responses, but this wasn't a problem for Adventure #7. I also discovered that an inventory limit not enforced by the ScottFree version I'm using is properly handled by this interpreter, so it may provide a more authentic experience.

Another cool feature of the Adventure PDA is that the front end features the original box artwork and copy -- some of the entries use the later cover paintings, but for Mystery Fun House we get the original Peppy artwork:

This is a mission-style Adventure, with a specific objective and no treasures to find. The player is equipped with a watch, and turns count down from 599 to midnight, when presumably the game ends in defeat (being kicked out of the park, presumably). I didn't actually run into the time limit -- death was a bigger risk than time.
I didn't find this to be an easy game at all, although it's not as tricky as The Count. I had to hit the hint book once when I got stuck near the end of the game. Solving this one is mostly a matter of learning one's way around the game, experimenting with objects, and doing things in the right order. The solutions are intertwined, and there are definitely puzzles that should not be attempted (or solved) too early. I had to draw a map for this one -- it's a fun house, after all, and connections aren't always logical. But it's internally consistent -- signs make sense, and rules are enforced. There's also an interesting unlicensed plot development that the promo copy doesn't hint at, though the cover art certainly does.
Once again, I suggest that you read no further until you at least consider playing the game yourself before listening to me ramble on. An interactive art form only truly exists when a player is involved; everything else is just commentary.
*********** SPOIILER ZONE *************
The in-game ads appear to have ceased with this release -- at least I didn't find any promo for #8 within the game. By this time, Adventure International was running full-color magazine ads, so perhaps these had outlived their kitschy usefulness. It's also unlikely that many players really tackled the whole series in order, so perhaps the "next game" wasn't necessarily what any given person would actually be buying next.
Adams' sense of humor resurfaces when the player is led to believe he/she has discovered a 5 dollar bill early in the game. Turns out it's somebody's five dollar GROCERY bill. Har de har har. :)
The fun house has a bouncer -- I got myself thrown out for vandalism, lack of ticket, and improper footwear.
Understood and understated:
OK - Wheeee
Unlike some of the earlier Adventures, this title enforces use of the spectacles with the magic mirror to discover something new -- a priori knowledge of the door embedded in it does not allow opening it up. The player actually has to fetch and wear the spectacles to discover the door, no shortcuts allowed.
The game has a lot of red-herring locked doors -- only one of them can be opened with the game's available key. It creates a sense of mystery, but does make the ending seem rather abrupt when one is still anticipating opening all those doors!
For some implemetation reason, the POP explosion timing seems to play out at the proper speed in both ScottFree and Adventure PDA -- the pause is at least noticeable, I didn't see the same issue I saw in The Count.
The player's chewing gum proves incredibly versatile -- courtesy of "Q" via an unlicensed James Bond reference. It's consistent with real world gum -- it sticks, and it blows. Up. I had a bit of old-school difficulty getting the fuse and gum together to blow the grate. The gum has to be stuck on the fuse, then stuck on the grate; there's no way to stick the fuse in the gum, or to attach the gum to the fuse after it's already been stuck to the grate.
I never did understand why sometimes in one room I feel a gentle blast of air, but occasionally I receive a hard blast of air that actually "rips my body apart". That's some pneumatic force!
I also never understood why one hears space opera music after pulling the yellow knob.
There's a neat puzzle involving a sign that has to be moved -- the first time I've seen a Scott Adams puzzle dependent on someone ELSE's reaction to a posted sign. We're used to this kind of thing in modern, dialogue-driven comedy adventures, but I was completely on the wrong track with this one. Once again, the official hint book gently nudged me in the right direction.

Once that puzzle was solved, the ending arrived in short order. Despite the box copy, there's actually no need to find a way through the fun house -- getting past the rolling barrel room near the exit is not actually the goal. The true objective is revealed when the player finally gets around to dealing with that annoying loose heel and finds a note from a certain M. And when the player gets to the right room, the villain's secret plans are just there for the taking:

Ta-dahhhh! That was Fun, and mysterious, and, er, housey, as promised. Our next installment takes us to Egypt for Adventure #8: Pyramid of Doom!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #6

The Great Scott Project blasts into outer space, as we take on Adventure #6: Strange Odyssey! The vintage AI catalog lays out our objectives:

Marooned at the edge of the galaxy, you’ve stumbled on the ruins of an ancient alien civilization complete with fabulous treasures and unearthly technologies. Can you collect the treasures and return or will you end up marooned forever?…
We're back in the treasure-hunting biz, if we can survive long enough to lug our booty home.

I opted to play #6 on the Commodore 64, emulated by Per Hakan Sundell's CCS64. I used to have terrible C-64 envy back in my TRS-80 days -- when it came to arcade-style games, the system's capable sprite hardware and amazing SID sound chip were the best available. So I was surprised and a little bit dismayed to discover that the C-64 Adventure interpreter has so many differences from its peers, and some serious shortcomings.

The C-64 interpreter uses text color coding to distinguish room descriptions, user prompts/commands, and game responses. But the text simply scrolls; it doesn't maintain Adams' most unique innovation, the persistent "room" window at the top of the screen. Instead, it plays like most text adventures, displaying the room description only upon entry (and even that's spotty), requiring frequent LOOK commands to keep track of what's going on. The interpreter also seems to require 4 characters of each verb and noun instead of 3 as on most other platforms, so all my old habits (like using INV instead of I or TAKE INVENTORY) had to be rethought -- I finally started using I instead of repeatedly mistyping INVE.

Enough griping -- the game is entirely playable on the Commodore 64, despite the inconveniences, so let's get to work. The initial setup is deftly established by examining the control console display -- this find-out-yourself theme persists as the game progresses, with other gauges and settings to check, and the design feels very organic:

I didn't find this one to be as tough as #5 -- every object has a sensible use, there are no external events to keep up with/wait for, and there isn't a lot of inventory juggling required. I was able to finish it in a few hours without any hint book references -- I did play it back in the day, but must have only played it once as I didn't really remember the solutions to any of the puzzles.
Adventure #6 is all about discovery and figuring out how an alien universe operates without much hand-holding at all, which makes it a must-play in my book. If you haven't played it yourself, you really ought to do yourself the favor of trying it out before continuing.

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

There aren't really any other characters in this game -- there are some plants and animals, but the absence of other intelligent life forms makes the environment seem very desolate and alien indeed. Signs and readouts, evidence of other intelligences existing elsewhere in space-time, become the closest thing we have to human contact. It's very atmospheric, and the spacesuit's constantly-dropping air gauge lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings that's more personal and dramatic than the external countdowns of #3 and #5.
Mr. Adams' regular commercial message is back, on an "alien sign" that nevertheless proves readable; perhaps we are the aliens, actually. For the first time we learn that there's a little ancillary merchandise on offer:

Get Adventure 7 "MYSTERY FUN HOUSE" from your favorite Dealer! Have you gotten your Adventure T-SHIRT yet?
(Does anyone still have one of those t-shirts?)

What I really enjoyed about this game was figuring out how the unfamiliar machines work. The hexagonal room that serves as a portal to other worlds has infinite settings, but only 6 of them go anywhere interesting, as hinted by the room's shape. Everything makes sense, but it takes some experimentation to put aside our human biases and adapt to the alien world. There are constant reminders that we are visitors here -- PUSH PLASTIC applies too much force, TOUCH PLASTIC works. We also have to learn the nesting habits of the Rigilian Dia-Ice Hound, discover the maximum air capacity of our space suit, experiment with our phaser settings, and take a crash course in Jovian mining safety.

The geography of the small planetoid is covered by just a handful of rooms, and it doesn't take long to discover the quickest route from the player's Scoutship to the Cave where most of the action takes place. It is possible to finish the game on the space suit's initial air supply, with judicious gauge monitoring and WEAR/UNWEAR actions applied at the proper moments. There is an alien machine that will refill the suit's oxygen, but it's advisable to save game before starting to figure out how it works.
There's not really much of a plot to Strange Odyssey otherwise -- this is basically Adventureland in space: wander around, discover the puzzles, come up with solutions given the available objects, confiscate the *TREASURES*. The design is very honest and there aren't any red herrings, but I liked its innovative flouting of one convention: it pays to examine the treasures in this game, as some of them have practical uses.
The end-game is deeply unnerving, as we have to destroy the portal mechanism in order to power our ship home, closing off our oxygen depot and access to all the worlds we've visited. Only after we reach the mother ship and find the traditional SCORE room in the storage hold do we learn whether we've actually discovered all of the treasures -- fortunately, it appears we have:

And so our Strange Odyssey is over, with five treasures recovered and stored at incredible taxpayer expense, and no Greeks bearing gifts, star children, or K. C. Munchkins to speak of. It's a solid work of relatively straight science fantasy, and I really enjoyed the trip. Our next expedition promises to be amusing -- it's Adventure #7: Mystery Fun House!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #5

We're one week into The Great Scott Project, and we're already up to Adventure #5: The Count. And we're not talking about Count Cristo this time -- from the vintage Adventure International catalog:

You wake up in a large brass bed in a castle somewhere in Transylvania. Who are you, what are you doing here, and why did the postman deliver a bottle of blood? You’ll love this adventure, in fact, you might say it’s Love at First Byte…

This is the only Adventure I've encountered in the journey so far that doesn't quite work in a modern interpreter -- one puzzle depends on a brief light illuminating the room just long enough to read the description and spot a significant object, and the display flickers by WAY too quickly in ScottFree 1.02 on a modern PC. So we'll be playing this one in its S.A.G.A. edition for the Atari 800 computer, via Richard Lawrence's Atari800Win emulator.

The attractive title screen features an unusually genial vampire who bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Adams:

The Atari edition has a painful game saving and loading process -- it requires creation of a separate formatted save disk (image) that has to be (virtually) swapped in and out of the (emulated) disk drive each time. But in general, the S.A.G.A. experience on the Atari 800 is better than on the ZX Spectrum we used for Mission Impossible -- the graphics are larger onscreen and much more accommodating, courteously disappearing to reveal the text whenever the player starts typing. There's also a graphic display of the player's inventory, though it's pretty hard to figure out what some items are from the pictures, and a funny "It's Too Dark To See!" graphic. I'm not positive about this, but I get the impression the Atari version's graphics aren't drawn procedurally with vectors and fills -- they don't take advantage of the Atari hardware's broader color palette, and appear to be bitmaps converted from the Apple II originals, complete with red/blue color artifacting.

I was able to keep the S.A.G.A. graphics turned on for this Adventure, and I discovered that the room displays never quite map to my own mental model of the setting. I tend to think of NORTH as my forward-facing direction, side-stepping EAST and WEST so I can keep my internal orientation clear. I was reminded by this playthrough that text adventures exist primarily in the mind of the player -- we really do fill in the missing details for ourselves, with distinct and consistent ideas about where things are in each room. The in-game images are much more concrete, presenting an artist's vision that's usually very different from my mental picture. I don't think it's an improvement, though I understand the market conditions that made graphics an attractive addition to the series.
There's some evidence that this title signified the end of Scott's first planned wave of Adventure titles. For one thing, it actually does NOT feature an ad for Adventure #6 -- but it does refer to the previous game (Voodoo Castle can be seen from the bedroom window), and there's this in-game note from Mr. Adams where, it seems, an ad would usually turn up:
Dear Adventurer:
I wanted to take this time (1 move!) to thank ALL of you out there in
Adventureland for the fantastically warm reception Adventure has received!
Happy Adventuring,
Scott Adams
(Chief Adventurer)

The Count is more difficult than the earlier games, and the plot is more complex, spanning three days of game time. It's quite a challenge to keep everything safeguarded and available at the climax, and there's a night-day mechanic that presents some great puzzles. Lots of inventory juggling, careful planning and frequent saving are required to achieve success.

I had to resort to the hint book at one point, but it's no fault of the design -- I expect the solution would have come to me if I had been more patient and considered certain telling details. As much as I try not to rely on hints, they are always very much appreciated when I finally break down and look up a clue -- and Adams' approach to gently ramping up the nudging works well for me. I'll know the going is really getting rough if I start resorting to walkthroughs.

As always, I encourage you to stop here and play the game on your own before proceeding. I'm happy to share MY impressions of each game, obviously, and I thank you very much for reading, but the joy of Adventuring is really in the experience itself. I hope my observations are illuminating and entertaining, but secondhand reports are no substitute for actually "living" each game as a player.

******* HERE THERE BE SPOILERS! **********

How I Spent My Transylvania Vacation:

A novel concept -- there's a "room" at the end of a sheet dangling from the ledge above, with a fold that's capable of holding objects so inventory items can be managed in this unusual location. I always like it when an Adventure pushes the engine to do something beyond (what I presume were) its original design goals.

I resorted to the hint book to figure out how to keep myself from getting robbed of critical items -- the dusty room with a lockable door should have been an obvious "safe room", but I mistakenly focused on garlic and attempting to get through the night without sleeping.

I also missed a better solution to another puzzle that would have saved me some headaches. I managed to complete a riskier playthrough by making frequent saves before attempting to climb down the sheet tied to the flagpole outside the bedroom window, allowing me to retry after my frequent random deaths. Looking at the hint book afterwards, I was reminded of the better way I lucked into doing it the first time I ever played -- it's a lot safer to tie the sheet to the BED and carry the loose end out the window. Either my brain was working better in 1980, or I hadn't noticed the ledge outside the window and assumed I needed a safe way to climb down from the bedroom directly.

Another memorable Scott Adams cheesy gag moment:
There's something there, maybe I should go there?

Ah that's much better!

The dumbwaiter is a great, atmospheric mechanism, with associated RAISE and LOWER verbs that move it from room to room. The only problem is that, unlike a real dumbwaiter, it's operated from the inside, and due to this implementation can become completely inaccessible if the player falls asleep while it's on the upper or lower level, forcing a restore/restart.

The WAIT verb comes in handy for the time-based events -- once I had learned my way around the map, I found myself solving the available puzzles efficiently, and then waiting a few turns for the mail to arrive each day so I could continue.

I like the way the player character's objective is established in The Count -- it seems obvious, of course, but there's an angry crowd gathered outside the castle gate. If we're completely confused and decide to just leave the castle, the ensuing events make it quite clear who we are and why we're here. It's a small thing, but it feels very organic and sure beats reading a note.

I suspect this is a remnant of an earlier design, or a "freebie" behavior provided by the engine -- it's possible to drop the mirror and break it, or drop it on the pillow and keep it intact, but there's no critical reason to do either (though I did spend some time experimenting with it in the solar oven, thinking the lens/mirror combination might lead me to a means of dispatching Dracula.) The mirror is just there so the player can check on his/her health, but it's handled appropriately in the game world.

The Adams sense of humor persists even at the most macabre moments. Light up a cigarette and smoke it to find Dracula's resting place. How? "There's a "COUGHIN" in the room"! The solution depends on a pun, but it's a fair puzzle, as there's a NO SMOKING sign on the wall of the crypt.

When the player takes a no-doz tablet, the response is, "I'm real PEPPY now!" I wonder whether this was a reference to the artist who provided the pen-and-watercolor cover art for the early releases, before Adventure International could afford someone with an airbrush. Was the artist formerly known as 'Peppy' staying up late to meet deadlines, with chemical assistance? Was Adventure International in its heyday similar to Andy Warhol's Factory? Was that magic wizard dust strewn around cartoon Scott's feet in the catalog, or something more potent? Someone needs to write a book-length history of AI so we can solve all of these mysteries.

I did run into one fatal bug -- if the player can't actually take the full-length portrait of Dracula because inventory is already full, the portrait still disappears from the room, and doesn't appear in the inventory. Unfortunately, the dark passage that's supposed to be discovered behind it does not appear, either -- the DOORLESS room remains so, and it's time to restart.

As in other Adventures, it's possible to move around with an unlit torch if you know the map perfectly. This is handy for climbing up and down the sheet after dark, something I found myself doing on Day 2 to restock my cigarettes before sleeping.

Reaching the end of the game takes some doing, and the player's hard work is rewarded with a Hammer Horror-worthy ending. At last, we confront the sleeping Count Dracula in his private quarters:

And when the death blow is delivered, he transforms, with some evocative text:

And I'm pleased to see that the S.A.G.A. artwork is pretty darn evocative too!

Dust to dust, as they say. 10! 9! 8!... He's officially down for...

Wait for it...

Actually, don't. I'll leave the puns to the master.

Next up -- we're leaving the castles of Transylvania behind and venturing into sci-fi territory, as Adventure #6: Strange Odyssey finds us marooned on a forsaken hunk of space rock...

The LoadDown - 08/24/2009

We interrupt the Great Scott Project for our weekly downloadable console games roundup:

WiiWare -- Mr. Driller W, Namco's latest iteration of the franchise spun off from Dig-Dug back in the Dreamcast era. It doesn't appear to have online play -- I know the XBLA version had issues in that area when it first released -- but is a great concept that's very playable.

Virtual Console -- As recently announced, Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back arrives, continuing the Lucasarts trilogy for the SNES, with platforming action and Mode 7 vehicle sequences recreating the best/darkest episode of George Lucas' best mythmaking ever.

DSiWare -- Pop+ Solo -- another puzzle game, based on the passable WiiWare title Pop.

XBLA -- Last Wednesday saw the final Summer of Arcade release, and from everything I've heard it's a great one: Shadow Complex, set in the universe of Orson Scott Card's novel Empire, with Metroidvania-style gameplay. I plan to check this one out myself, but 'Splosion Man is keeping me occupied for the moment. I am hoping we see more of Telltale's Wallace & Gromit series now that the Arcade season is over.

P.S. I don't generally cover the PS3 downloadable scene, but I hear Fat Princess is out and by all accounts fantastic.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Weekend Intermission: The Curse of Crowley Manor

As promised, we will take occasional breaks from the Great Scott Project proper for asides and intermissions. Beyond the founder's titles, Adventure International also published works of interactive fiction created by other authors. I remember looking at these in the company's catalog once upon a time, fascinated by the possibilities, but never anted up the cash to buy any of them. One of the earliest was Other-Venture #1: Classic Adventure, a port of the original Colossal Cave Adventure, and the series continued with several other games over the years.

I spent a little time this weekend with the 1981 release, Other-Venture #2: The Curse of Crowley Manor, written by Jyym Pearson and Norman Sailer. These games are definitely not running on the Scott Adams engine -- the screen layout is very different, the parser has uniquely aggravating quirks, it requires a disk drive, and the Other-Ventures did not appear on the same broad range of platforms as the Adventures did.

It's always interesting to look at early works in any genre, before the conventions are fully established, because it's apparent that some experiments proved enduring and others were creative dead-ends. Crowley Manor is one of those failed experiments -- it's aiming for a dark, novelistic approach, but is hamstrung by some major issues.

First, even on disk, there isn't enough text storage to create the literary feel the authors are aiming for, and typos and grammatical issues undermine it at every turn. When we LOOK WINDOW and are told "ITS LONDON AT NIGHT.." [sic], it kind of pulls us out of the story. We can find the date by looking at the furniture and discovering a desk calendar, which helps a little. But creating atmosphere with limited text was a real art form in the early days, and this game doesn't pull it off. There's a static graphic of a tower that I presume represents Crowley Manor at the side of the screen, but in the TRS-80 era it doesn't help either.


The design and parser have a lot of problems -- play testing appears not to have been a priority, and even assuming we have to think like the authors doesn't help much. TAKE is not a synonym for GET, for example; GET KEY does not work, GET GOLD KEY is expected; WAIT produces the intended effect at some points, at others a generic WHAT ?? response. Very often, the game seems intentionally obstructive. Consider this early exchange:





Why is the door only listed as part of "furniture"? (I actually have an answer to this one -- LOOK FURNITURE is being evaluated as LOOK, I eventually realized.) Why does opening the door force me to walk through it? Why do potential exits go unmentioned in any given room? Why do I automatically close the door without saying so when I come back into the office?

Most problematic, the game is so intent on telling a set story that, as players, we feel like we're just along for the ride, trying to guess what command the game wants us to type in order to move the plot along. At the start of the game, we look around the office and wait for the phone to ring. If we try to leave the office before the phone rings, it rings just as we are leaving, and we are prevented from actually leaving. If we don't answer it, it rings some more. It will in fact ring indefinitely, until we answer it. We can't really do ANYTHING ELSE once the phone starts ringing, except ANSWER PHONE. This approach protects the player from missing a critical plot development -- but it also robs the player of anything resembling freedom.

The constraints persist once we have dispensed with the telephone call -- in order to get to Crowley Manor as directed, we have to take a hansom cab. Fair enough -- we get into the cab, talk to the driver, ride through Trafalgar Square and see Big Ben, arrive at Crowley Manor... and then wrestle with finding a means to end the cab ride and get on with it. The driver will say "HERE WE ARE" forever, but EXIT CAB, PAY DRIVER, GO MANOR, GO DRIVEWAY, LEAVE CAB, THANK DRIVER and TIP DRIVER are all unsuccessful. OPEN DOOR produces "YOU CANT" [sic], which I trust is just bad punctuation and not a typo. GET OUT finally does the trick, and the cabbie takes 10 shillings for his trouble automatically, after having apparently rebuffed all previous attempts to pay him. It's all very scripted and formal, and the game is no help at all when it comes to making progress.

No adventure game can offer complete freedom, of course -- there are always restrictions. If we finish Zork I and decide that in Zork II we don't want to adventure any more, but prefer to cash in our treasures from the first game and set up a training school for novice adventurers, or perhaps a nice bakery, that's not really an option. Modern MMORPGs are better at that sort of thing, offering many more choices to the player, at the expense of narrative structure. But Crowley Manor doesn't even play fair -- it's downright painful trying to guess what it wants.

Once I've arrived at the scene of the crime and am told to meet Inspector Strade in the kitchen, where the body is, I find my way there and:




Sorry for the non-sequitur -- just had to check. I half expected it to say J.CLOUSEAU, because I cannot imagine being a less competent Police Inspector than I seem to be. I am apparently discomfited by the sight of blood, and I fail to notice that A) the body has gone missing and B) there is a door in this room until, ashamed of myself and my dereliction of duty, I look at the floor. (Again, LOOK FLOOR turns out to mean LOOK in this context, with no indication that FLOOR isn't actually being recognized. Arrrgh!) Back to work -- Inspector Strade was supposed to meet me here, but there's been no mention of him yet, so perhaps I should:


Whoa! Didn't see that one coming. Was Inspector Strade invisible or simply extremely quiet and retiring, then? And if I can't see him, how on earth do I know his body is torn to pieces? Or is his body just now torn to pieces because I looked at him? This Inspector Strade seems to have serious self-image problems. Oh, wait -- I can LOOK STRADE in ANY room and learn that HIS BODY IS TORN TO PIECES. Perhaps I'm clairvoyant... oh, wait. I eventually find a key and unlock a cabinet, and Strade's body falls out. It is, in fact, torn to pieces. Silly parser.

Enough! As this is just a side excursion from the Great Scott Project, I do not feel compelled to finish The Curse of Crowley Manor. But playing it even briefly confirms that there's a reason the Scott Adams and Infocom text adventures have endured where so many of their contemporaries have been forgotten. There was a lot of substandard product published in the golden era -- it's just easier to separate the wheat from the chaff with a little historical perspective.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #4

The Great Scott Project is moving along nicely, although I expect the pace to slow down very soon as I start to encounter titles I haven't played before. But we're already up to Adventure #4: Voodoo Castle. Through the mists of time, our reliable Adventure International catalog tells us:

Count Cristo has had a fiendish curse put on him by his enemies. There he lies with you his only hope. Will you be able to rescue him or is he forever doomed? Beware of the Voodoo man…
This was the first Adventure not officially written by Scott Adams himself -- it's credited to then-spouse Alexis Adams, although it's likely she handled the design and he did the implementation. If I may wax interactive-fiction-esque for a moment, the authorial voice is noticeably different from the Adventures we've played so far. Voodoo Castle depends less on puzzles than on discovering magic words and explicit clues -- characters and artifacts provide information that can't easily be guessed or worked out through trial and error. The map is straightforward and not particularly atmospheric -- there are no mazes, few odd connections, and many locations are generic: "a room in the castle." The player character is never really defined -- he/she could be servant, lover, or friend; I chose to believe I'm some sort of loyal aristocratic ally of the Count.
I had intended to fire this one up on a virtual Commodore VIC-20, as I'm running out of opportunities -- only the first five Adventures were released for the C-64's junior sibling. But while they worked just fine in the real world, the extra-large 16K Adventure cartridges are tricky to configure and start in emulated environments, and after struggling with a couple of different approaches I decided to play this one on the Apple IIe instead, using the excellent AppleWin. The opening screen follows the standard we've seen elsewhere, using the Apple's 40-character text mode:

I was able to finish the game in a couple of hours, but did get stuck at one point and had to resort to the hint book (details below). Once again, if you are playing along, this is a good place to stop reading and go explore on your own. Feel free to return when you've experienced it to your satisfaction.

******** SPOILERS AHEAD ***********

Random observations:

The game challenges the player to free Count Cristo from a voodoo curse, but the voodoo theme is treated fairly loosely -- there are Ju-Ju references and a pin-spiked doll, but no sign of zombi, poultry, snakes, or any other stereotypical aspects of vodou. Most puzzles are of a purely practical nature, while other events are based on decidedly Western chemistry, spiritualism, and superstition.

An advertising leaflet found in-game is actually NOT promoting Adventure #5 -- instead, it is a clue for the game at hand:

(I have a hunch the name refers to Scott and Alexis' daughter, or another relative -- Adventure #3 is dedicated to a Maegan Adams.)

There is, of course, a traditional Adams promo to be found -- in this case, a raven can be heard outside the window, and LISTEN RAVEN yields the ad:


An unusual grammatical inconsistency occurs if the player sips the witch's brew -- instead of the first-person phrasing typical of the Adventures, the game-ending response is: "YOU'VE BEEN TURNED INTO A BROOMSTICK & A WITCH RIDES OFF ON YOU!"

As the puzzles are straightforward and the rooms nondescript, I found myself wishing more memory had been available for item descriptions -- there are a lot of interesting props in this game, e.g. Animal heads, a Knight's Suit of Armor and Labeled chemicals, but LOOKing at almost everything produces the generic "I SEE NOTHING VERY SPECIAL" response.

Alexis chose to dedicate the game "to all MOMS!", and I wonder whether domestic frustrations inspired the maid character, who appears just long enough to chase the player into another room whenever he/she tracks soot through the ballroom; there doesn't appear to be any other purpose for this event, so I suspect it's a bit of an in-joke.

There's a bit of a cop-out in one puzzle -- trying to break the window yields "THIS GLASS CAN'T BE BROKEN" as a response, with no further explanation as to why. It's a coherent reply, it just seems like some sort of magical justification could have been dreamed up.

There's also an unforeseeable dead end, as was common in the text adventure era -- entering the jail cell without the saw in hand condemns the player to death from starvation, boredom and/or the reset button.

The Ju-Ju man (presumably the Voodoo man referred to in the catalog copy) never really seems menacing. But perhaps we should beware for other reasons, as his dialogue seems redolent of sex and drugs:

Ju-Ju man says: "My bag is now yours! Its magic will help you -CRACK- the curse!"
As I neared the end of the game, one annoying situation drove me to the hint book for help. I couldn't figure out how to get the magically slamming window to stay open -- there was no opportunity to nail, prop, or break it open. The first decoded clue urged me to GET LUCKY, but as a suitable partner was nowhere to be found, I concluded it must have something to do with the two good-luck charms I had acquired. I discovered that I was stumped simply because the two items are not interchangeable -- the medium had hinted that I should keep such a charm on myself and my friend, so I had left the clover near the Count's coffin and carried the rabbit's foot myself. As it turns out, I needed to drop the rabbit's foot in the coffin room -- an "ON WHAT?" prompt then allowed me to place it explicitly ON CRISTO, an option not available for the four-leaf clover. Then with the clover in my possession, the window magically stayed open and I was able to finish the game. Not an intentional puzzle, per se, but it certainly puzzled me. Whew!

And thus we have un-cursed our dear friend/patron/employer/lover, and a post-comatose SMILING COUNT CRISTO seems quite pleased to be out of his coffin and none the worse for wear. At least I like to think his smile is genuine, and not a symptom of premature rigor mortis and rictus setting in.

So the Count is not down for the count after all. But we are, brave Adventurers! Up next -- we embark for Transylvania with Adventure #5: The Count!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #3

Pirates and plunder are past. We're now moving into secret agent territory with Adventure #3: Mission Impossible! Let's get into the proper mood with some vintage catalog copy:

Good morning, your mission is to… and so it starts. Will you be able to complete your mission on time? Or is the world’s first automated nuclear reactor doomed? This one’s well named. It’s hard, there is no magic, but plenty of suspense. GOOD LUCK…..
For this round, we're going to use MESS emulation to play the graphically enhanced S.A.G.A. edition for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This version came out after certain lawyers associated with a certain television property suggested that the title Mission Impossible might not be in the public domain. The player's character is still referred to as Mr. Phelps, but this edition features the game's new moniker:

(Probably for the best in this case, as the Commodore 64 game Impossible Mission was a big hit in the U.K. where the Speccy was popular; the new title may have prevented market confusion and legal wrangling in that territory.)

I'd never seriously played a S.A.G.A. (Scott Adams Graphic Adventure) release before embarking on this adventure, and I was initially thrown off by the graphics. Given this opening display, I was at a bit of a loss:

I couldn't figure out where I was, which way to go, or even what I was looking at (MACHINE? REEL-TO-REEL? SPEAKER?). Fortunately, after temporarily giving up and reverting to the original text version for comparison, I realized there must be a solution. I buckled down and looked up the Spectrum S.A.G.A. documentation. D'ohh! The ENTER key toggles between graphics and text. All set to go!

Well, sort of. Ultimately, I concluded that the graphics are okay, but they don't add much and are more of a hindrance than anything. They're reasonably attractive by the standards of the day, and artful layout here manages to sidestep the Spectrum's traditional color-clash problem. But the illustrations provide insufficient information for actually playing the game -- for example, the above display doesn't communicate that the available object is a "Large tape recorder" or that the room's only exit is WEST. The net result was that I generally stayed in text mode while figuring the game out, then played through it one more time with the graphics on to see what I had missed (not much, as it turns out.)

Adventure #3 contains no treasures to hunt and store for points; it's an all-or-nothing race against time. Scott Adams' design creates a sense of time pressure and urgency right from the start, with a panic-inducing opening that motivates the player to take action (or inventory, at least) immediately. The game isn't really difficult to solve -- the puzzles are nested in a fairly linear fashion -- but there's little margin for dilly-dallying with wasted moves. It took me a while to learn my way around the game and learn the shortcuts, and I saw this attractive but unfortunate ending several times:

I did finish this game once upon a time back in the 1980's, so it only took me a couple of hours to re-work my way through, technical issues and restarts included; a final replay took less than ten minutes.

As always, at this point I urge you to stop reading if you intend to play the game on your own, because my further observations may ruin a few surprises. Go, play, save the world, come back. Digital bits don't just randomly decay on the Internet like they did on 1980's floppy disks.

************ SPOILERS AHEAD ***************

Random thoughts on the experience:

A navigational parser anomaly I noticed in Pirate Adventure resurfaces here -- only U works, UP is not actually recognized. I think it's a dictionary issue for the interpreter at large, because UP is used as a noun here, as in GET UP.

I accomplished something new on this playthrough -- I finally figured out how to use the movie film cartridge in the projector. The (a?) correct command is LOAD CARTRIDGE. As an adolescent adventurer, I got stuck and never did pull this off as intended -- repeated attempts to PUT CARTRIDGE just dropped the film next to the Projector, producing no change in the green button's behavior. Even the official Adventure International Hint Book provided no direct clue as to what I was doing wrong. I ultimately resorted to soft-resetting my TRS-80 Model I and PEEKing around in memory, where the program data was still stored, to find the related text. It became sort of a meta-adventure at the time, but it's satisfying to finally see the expected response in context. Of course, watching the visitors' movie isn't absolutely essential to finishing the game -- trial and error during the endgame effectively discovers the same information. And skipping the film altogether shaves quite a few moves off the race against the bomb's constant countdown, lessening the time pressure considerably.

I'm pleased to report that Adams' marketing flair is again on display -- this time, the advertisement for the next Adventure is in a leaflet found by frisking the dead saboteur, with a nod to the theme's television origins:

Hi! Look for Adventure number 4: "VOODOO CASTLE" at your
favorite computer store! (Now back to our current program.)
One serious limitation of the S.A.G.A. engine is that objects are generally only displayed in the rooms where they first appear -- there's no graphical depiction of objects that are dropped elsewhere by the player or materialized by the game logic. This is a real problem in Secret/Mission/Impossible, because the suicidal saboteur drops dead in a random location. With the graphics turned on, it's impossible to find the body. Only the text mode indicates the presence of "Dead saboteur."

There are some nicely handled clues and a solid real-world consistency to the puzzles -- shaking the mop to find the blue key would be totally random, were it not for the piece of yarn found on the saboteur's body after he has hidden the keys. Signage also provides useful hints toward puzzle solutions without initially seeming to do so -- as it turns out, the Break Room is indeed the only safe place to deal with liquids.

Finally, I was disappointed to note that the S.A.G.A. graphics don't do anything at all to enhance the SUCCESSFUL ending of the game - the break room looks just like it always does, with no visible evidence of the player's heroic actions under pressure:

But fanfare and ticker-tape parades are not for us. We take quiet, honorable satisfaction in having saved the world (or at least some regional portion of it) from nuclear armageddon.

Next time, we muster our jou jou and venture into supernatural territory with Adventure #4: Voodoo Castle!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #2

Ahoy, maties! The Great Scott Project is sailing along nicely. The magical, treasure-strewn Adventureland is well and truly behind us now, so it's time we tackled Scott Adams' Adventure #2: Pirate Adventure (also known as Pirate's Cove in its VIC-20 cartridge form, released through Commodore). Per the Adventure International catalog:

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum… You’ll meet up with the pirate and
his daffy bird along with many strange sights as you attempt to go from your
London flat to Treasure Island. Can you recover Long John Silver’s lost
treasures? Happy sailing, matey...

As this was the first of Adams' adventures I ever played, on my first home computer, it seems fitting that I run this one on an emulated TRS-80 Model I. The emulator I'm using is Matthew Reed's superb TRS32 -- and it supports lowercase characters, a luxury ROM upgrade I was never able to afford, so the text is considerably more readable than it was my first time through.

On startup, I see that the interpreter was apparently responsible for displaying the classic boot screen I remember but haven't seen in decades -- I haven't seen this text on any of the newer interpreters I've been using, so I'm preserving it here for posterity:

I remember thinking at the time that the reference to a "PIRATED" COPY OF ADVENTURE was specific to this game's startup screen, but it appears on all of the TRS-80 Adventure games and in similar form on other platforms. From a coding perspective, I suspect this screen was loaded directly into screen memory as part of the game loading process, or into memory otherwise recycled after this point -- on a platform with 16K of RAM, it seems an awful lot of space to devote to introductory text otherwise.

No hints were needed for my playthrough -- having played the game several times before, I found myself in familiar territory and was able to finish in about an hour. This is largely because Pirate Adventure is more straightforward than Adventureland, by design -- the objectives are spelled out clearly, death is better foreshadowed, and aside from a little magic transportation the world makes coherent sense. Objects and characters behave logically, and the primary challenge is inventory juggling -- unable to carry everything needed at once, the player has to drop and shuffle and find alternate modes of transportation. The Parrot is a useful source of hints and reminders, making it harder to miss something important. Navigation is straightforward, with no serious mapping needed; there is a small maze of caves, but the tricky parts can be ignored. And the game has a sense of humor -- it's a fun piratey romp, and while Ron Gilbert has never to my knowledge cited it as an influence, it's hard to see how it could NOT have informed The Secret of Monkey Island to some degree.

Again, if you plan to play it on your own, go forth and do so! This post will still be here when you get back, ye treasure-huntin' scallywag.

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

Points of interest:

A great, creepy prop is encountered early in the game: "Large blood soaked book." The brief text description is visually evocative in the best early text adventure tradition. And as always, Adventure #2 promotes the next one in line, this time via an advertising flyer stashed inside said book:

Ask for Adventure number 3: "MISSION IMPOSSIBLE" at your favorite computer dealer. If they DON'T carry "ADVENTURE" have them call: 1-305-862-6917 TODAY! "ADVENTURE" also supports lower case!
(I've never known if the lower case reference was meant specifically for TRS-80
users; it does appear in the canonical "generic" .DAT files in circulation, but
I believe those originated on the TRS-80 as well.)

There's one tactical similarity to Adventureland here -- one has to be carrying a bottle of (salt) water to keep a fish alive and kicking in inventory. These kinds of associative in-possession/in-room object puzzles are part of Adams' style -- the parser can't generically handle containers or explicit object linkages, so it's often the case that you have to be carrying associated objects, or have one in hand and find one in the room, for these connections to work. Consequently, certain puzzles can be difficult to grasp -- the rules can seem inconsistent, when in fact you just didn't notice whether or not you had access to some significant combination of items. It's useful to notice such quirks -- playing an adventure game is like pitting one's brain against that of the designer. Actually, at this writing, I am pitting my aging brain against the designer as he was 30 years ago! Methinks Scott Adams has found the key to immortality.
One great meta-gag suckers me in no matter how many times I play this game. The player encounters a Mongoose, and having been through this sort of thing before, feels obligated to take it along, "in case it should come in handy" (the adventurer slyly remarks to him- or herself). And near the game's climax, when the deadly mamba snakes turn up right on cue, the Mongoose is thrown into battle and... does not survive. It develops that the mongoose is a squirrel, or was a squirrel, and is now a dead squirrel. The play on the gamer's tendency to take the game's word for granted presages any number of Monkey Island jokes, and I laugh every time.
I did encounter one bug I'd never noticed before -- after digging up the wooden box, you can OPEN BOX repeatedly, and the *RARE STAMPS* keep falling out of it (pulling them out of your inventory if need be.)
But Pirate Adventure is not frustrating at all -- patience, observation, and trial and error make it possible to get a worthy ship built and crewed, a lengthy process that occupies most of the game. Once on Treasure Island, digging up the two treasures and lugging them home is fairly straightforward.
Victory is ours!

A pleasant trip to the beach, really, and quite profitable. Time to shake the sand out of our safety sneakers, put the Peter Gunn Theme on the stereo and don our Secret Agent Man sunglasses for Adventure #3: Mission Impossible!