Thursday, August 30, 2012

The LoadDown -- 08/30/2012

August is wrapping up, with a few more new titles for download as a U.S. holiday weekend approaches...

DSiWare -- Nothing for the Wii this week, but there are several portable titles on the wire; only one for the DSi, though.  Escape the Virus: Shoot'em Up is a fast-paced pattern shooter with a biological theme, and not, as the title suggests, a PSA for vaccination.

3DS eShop --Two new games and an old one arrive here.  The Game Boy Color title Toki Tori (also on Wii and Steam these days) returns and continues to provide a good old-fashioned puzzle/platform challenge.  SpeedX 3D is a 3-D tunnel racer with a stained-glass look, as though one is racing through a series of Tiffany lamps.  And Outdoors Unleashed: Africa 3D is more disturbing than the title suggests -- with an array of non-tranquilizing weapons on hand, the player is tasked with shooting a wide variety of beautiful and in many cases endangered animals.  In the head.  At least the wildlife is poorly animated, so the game resembles a demented target gallery/puppet show more than actual specicide.

XBox Live Arcade -- One new title here, as Activision's fading Rock Band series abandons the traditional plastic instruments in favor of the standard controller, with Rock Band Blitz.  It does, fortunately, continue the series' tradition of licensing well-known pop songs, with (somebody's) favorites by bands ranging from Foster the People to Quiet Riot.

PS3 on PSN -- Three new games here: Rock Band Blitz (see above), skateboarding remake/update Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, and Lights, Camera, Party!, a Playstation Move mini-game compilation.

Notable Elsewhere --  Telltale Games' episodic The Walking Dead series continues on its current roughly bi-monthly schedule, as Episode 3: The Long Road Ahead arrives on XBLA, PS3 and PC.  This one's on my personal must-play list this Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Blackwell Unbound (2007)

This week, we're tackling another of Wadjet Eye Games' recent point-and-click adventures, as we take on company founder Dave Gilbert's Blackwell Unbound, published in 2007.  This adventure, second in the Blackwell series, was actually created out of historical flashback sequences intended for the third released gameProduction and cash-flow exigencies called for a little restructuring, but while this story may have been intended to set up the events of the third game, its a self-contained tale that stands well enough on its own.


Blackwell Unbound focuses on Rosa Blackwell's aunt, Lauren, whom we heard about but never saw in The Blackwell Legacy, and her own adventures with our favorite spirit guide Joey back in the 1970s.  Lauren's story mirrors Rosa's, as she tries to help some unfortunate ghosts pass on to the next plane of existence in New York City.  As is the case with most of Wadjet Eye's titles, the graphical style is intentionally retro, but the VGA-resolution visuals take advantage of modern color depth and transparency effects.  The game also benefits from an evocative, jazzy score by Thomas Regin and a talented cast of voice actors who interpret Gilbert's dialogue with humor and sensitivity. There's also an optional commentary track, allowing the author to inject background and anecdotes, but for obvious reasons it should not be turned on for the first playthrough.

As always, I encourage readers to explore Blackwell Unbound before continuing here -- this 2007 adventure is commercially available from the publisher, and also via Steam, as a single title or as part of the Blackwell Bundle trilogy set.  It's not a difficult game -- persistence and thoughtful consideration pay off -- and it's very reasonably priced at US$4.99 (at this writing).  Beyond this point, be warned -- much of the fun of adventure games lies in experiencing the story first-hand, and my remaining commentary will necessarily provide plenty of...

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

The story opens with Lauren standing in the Void, the passage for spirits established in the first game, pondering the nature of infinity. 

Then we're back in her apartment, where she has to indulge her cigarette addiction before getting on with the case at hand.  It's odd not having our old friend, Lauren's niece Rosa Blackwell, involved, but it's also interesting to see Joey in a slightly different milieu, at a different time in his post-life.  We actually get direct control of Joey first, an interface improvement not available in the first game, while Lauren takes a smoke break on the balcony -- we have to get her back on task.  Because Joey can't physically interact with the world (he can't even blow on things in this game), his limitations usually make for interesting information/conversation puzzles.

Clearly Lauren is mad at Joey, and chatting eventually establishes that some pipes unexpectedly burst during an investigation earlier today, Lauren got soaked, and he laughed.  This is unusual for an adventure game -- we're dropping into an established relationship, without the usual intro and orientation; in this case, the first game provides some context, although one needn't have played it to join in progress here.  This exchange establishes the relationship between the characters, and Lauren's addictive personality, before we get into the plot; it works well.

Lauren's case list, drawn as usual from leads in the newspaper, already has three closed investigations -- the "ghostly" reports turned out to be manifestations of rats, water pipes, and alcohol.  There are two remaining cases to solve -- Strange music heard on the Roosevelt Island Promenade, and Construction halted on 53rd street due to bizarre "accidents."  We can pick up Lauren's dictaphone and camera before heading out to see what we can learn, and take a look at a family photo (seen in the first game, at a later time, in Rosa's apartment) to learn a bit about Lauren's family, and her late mother, former medium/custodian of Joey.

Blackwell Unbound features the streamlined pick-a-destination navigation approach common to modern adventure games, and as a minor but effective detail, the New York city skyline circa 1973 still features the World Trade Center.  We can choose to visit Roosevelt Park or 53rd Street; there's no fixed order to resolving these investigations, though for coherence here I will focus on one at a time.

The park features a ghostly jazzman, playing his translucent saxophone in the dark of the night.  He won't tell Lauren anything about himself.  He won't respond to Joey either -- but as a fellow ghost, at least Joey can harass him by pulling on his saxophone.  The startled spirit thinks he is onstage at Johnny Ivory's, having his set interrupted, and whacks Joey with his sax after a few exchanges (apparently ghosts can feel pain when it's inflicted by another ghost with a suitably ghostly implement.)  We'll need to figure out more about Johnny Ivory's before he'll say anything useful, it seems.

Back at the apartment, we can look up Johnny Ivory's in an old-fashioned 1973 phonebook to find the place, at Bleeker and 7th; it's a jazz club, which Joey looks forward to visiting.  (We can also call up Rabbi Stone from Gilbert's earlier game, The Shivah, though he has nothing to say to us; it's just a little in-joke.)

The Blackwell games feature moody NYC-influenced scores, and composer Thomas Regin makes solid use of modern non-MIDI technology at Johnny Ivory's, with real pianos and saxophones.  A man plays the piano, and flirts with Lauren ("These fingers can go all night long.")  His name is purportedly C. Sharpe -- get it? -- and he knows musicians, but the jazzman's description doesn't ring a bell.  A photo on the wall depicts a beautiful singer, an older sax player who Lauren recognizes as the ghost, and a younger pianist whose face is obscured -- we should note that the photo is provided by Jambalaya Records.

C. claims not to know anything about the band in the photo (and Gilbert's commentary, well worth listening to on a second playthrough, reveals that he wrote explanatory dialogue here, but due to an oversight never got the voice actor to record it, and so had to patch it in by recycling existing dialogue.)  Lauren can't examine C.'s sheet music, but Joey can float up to look over his shoulder and observe that C. actually wrote the song he's playing, and that his full name is Cecil Sharpe, a detail he readily admits to when Lauren asks.

We stop back at the apartment to get the address for Jambalaya Records, and the phone is ringing; it's Lauren's brother, Jack.  She listens to his voice but does not reply before hanging up; judging from her comments earlier about the family photo, she thinks her brother will have a better life if he has no contact with her.  It's an odd and poignant moment -- we can get Lauren to call Jack back, but she won't say anything before hanging up again.

So we're off to Jambalaya Records to talk to the proprietor, Dwayne, a Jamaican one-man promotion and management operation for small, unknown jazz and reggae groups.  He can't help identify our mystery sax player without seeing the photo, and he's too busy to go to Johnny Ivory's.  So it's time to use Lauren's 1973 instant non-digital camera.  With the photo, we learn the band was a lounge jazz group called the C-Sharps, and that they haven't been active for 8 or 10 years.  But Cecil still claims ignorance.

So it's time to use another of the Blackwell series' core mechanics -- we can combine items in Lauren's notebook to draw conclusions and come up with new topics.  Combining Cecil Sharpe and the C-Sharps produces a new C Sharps and Cecil Sharpe item.  Now we can ask Cecil directly if he was ever in a band called the C-Sharps... but he still denies it.

Paying the jazzman a second visit introduces us to The Countess, an older woman who seems seriously imbalanced but is not a beggar or bag lady; she claims to see patterns in the world, of dire import, before she leaves in a righteous huff.  Talking to the jazzman doesn't produce any new information, but Dwayne at Jambalaya confirms that Cecil Sharpe was the band leader of the C-Sharps, and an impressive pianist.  Now we can confront Cecil, and after he admits that he was the leader of the C-Sharps, he tells us that the sax player's name is Isaac Brown, and someone strangled him to death.  We also learn that a reporter named Mitchell from the New Yorker magazine came around asking questions about Isaac at one time, before he died; Cecil also lets on that he was not unhappy to see Isaac go.

Joey can now talk to the ghost of Isaac Brown, who is still not very talkative, but confirms that the New Yorker reporter asked him about his life.  Back home, we can call the magazine's editorial offices and learn that the reporter's name is Joseph Mitchell - an actual reporter for the magazine in the real world.  He won't answer his phone, but we can go up to the office to see him.  The New Yorker sequences are like some other instances in the Blackwell series -- we can't do anything but talk to our target; there are no props or puzzles in the room to deal with, so we can only enter, have a conversation, and leave.

Mitchell won't talk much about himself, or about the late Mr. Brown, but confirms that he did interview him... and lets slip that Brown had a sister.  We also learn that he never published his article after Brown was strangled, out of respect (or so he says.)

Trying to ask Cecil about his sister provokes an angry response, and he clams up.  We can try again, but Joey's negative assessment of Lauren's PR skills is generally accurate.  And Isaac's ghost is no more talkative than before, nor is Dwayne.  Joey seems to be volunteering to help, but beyond noting that Cecil seems hung up on a girl, he can't really do anything. This observation does, however, open up some conversational options for Lauren, asking him about love and his unwillingness to let go of the past, and we learn that his sister Sarah Brown died after an illness destroyed her singing voice, then Isaac did too.  Cecil says that Isaac was a violent heavy drinker in life, and he feels a bit responsible for how Isaac ended up after Cecil fired him.  He also mentions that Sarah and Isaac used to play a duet at the band's gigs -- so maybe we should use Lauren's dictaphone to capture a sample?  This doesn't seem possible, but we can listen to Lauren's own recordings -- she has been capturing her dreams, many of which seem to foreshadow events in other Blackwell games.

We're on the right track, though -- we have to ask Cecil about the duet a second time, and then pull out the dictaphone while he's playing.  With the song recorded, we can return to Roosevelt Park, and play it for Isaac -- he plays his part of the duet, and a really nice moment, emotional and sweet and melancholy.  Isaac realizes he's dead, and Sarah is dead, and now he is ready to go.  As he passes into the light, he mentions an old lady who promised to help him, but then strangled him.  And when Lauren comes back to our own plane, there's a strange old woman hassling Joey; yes, she can talk to ghosts, and she is the Countess.  She thinks she is saving people, like Lauren and Joey do, but she's killing living people.  Joey and Lauren try to catch her, but she gets away after Lauren runs out of breath (Gilbert explains that this was a development of convenience -- he wanted to implement some sort of chase sequence, but the game's budget did not allow it.)

After we return to the apartment, Lauren goes out to the balcony for another smoke, and we have to use Joey to get her moving again by engaging her in a little conversation about the mysterious Countess.

Joseph Mitchell doesn't know anything about her, so we'll go investigate the construction site at 53rd and Lexington. 

Lauren can't get past the gated wall around the project, but Joey can simply pass through.  The ghost of a middle-aged woman wanders aimlessly in this area, repeatedly saying, "My home..."  Apparently she used to live in the building that formerly stood on this site.  She refuses to acknowledge Joey because he hasn't properly knocked to gain admittance, and his spoken "Um, knock knock?" fails to convince her.

Getting Rosa to knock on the gate gains Joey "entrance" to the ghost's "apartment."  She doesn't accept Joey's version of reality, and insists she's in her third-floor apartment, with a "D" on the door; I thought at first that this was her initial, but it's actually part of her apartment number.  It becomes clear that she tried to stand her ground when the building was slated to be torn down by a developer, refusing to leave her apartment.  We can claim to be various people, but she always sees through Joey's ruse and concludes he is one of "them," presumably her eventual evictors.

In the Seagram Realty foreman's trailer parked on the site, Joey can read a letter on a desk from a Mrs. Harriet Sherman, who apparently moved out but hasn't gotten compensation payments as promised.  There's a Farrah Fawcett calendar on the wall, as a little 1970s reminder, except she wasn't yet a TV celebrity in 1973, as Gilbert acknowledges in his commentary.

Looking up Harriet Sherman in the phone book gets us into her retirement home down in Battery Park City.  She claims she's owed sixty dollars by the realty company, but is willing to answer some questions.  Lauren can take the contents of her rainy day jar along to cover the debt, which is useful because she won't talk otherwise.  And she won't give the money back, even after Lauren admits that she doesn't really work for Seagram Realty, so it's good we don't need the money for any other purpose in this game.  Like most of the environments in Blackwell Unbound, Harriet's apartment is full of carefully observed incidental detail, like the cheesy seashell wallpaper and plastic fruit display:

Harriet says she did see a strange old lady back at the old building, if we ask her about the Countess, but it falls far short of a positive ID.  She says everyone but Mavis Wilcox was happy about the buyout of the old building, but she was a lunatic.  We also learn that she didn't leave the building alive -- she was strangled.  It seems there's a common thread between these hauntings.

Mavis still won't talk about herself or answer any of Joey's questions.  But Joseph Mitchell, oddly enough, knew Mavis Wilcox too, and interviewed her shortly before she died, for another unpublished piece.  She was indeed intensely loyal to the building, and almost never left it, but was nice enough; she had family.  We can try to look up Wilcox in the phone book, but we need to be more specific as there are a number of them listed.  Harriet has some mail that came for Mavis after she died, but she's had it for six months and no relatives have come looking.  She allows Lauren to take the envelope, which contains a thank you note from Joseph Mitchell, and a photograph of Mavis with a college-age kid in a Columbia sweatshirt which the reporter was returning.

So can we figure out who this kid is?  It's probably family.  We can call Columbia University, but we can't get the operator to do anything beyond directing our call.  But Joey can claim to be Mavis' son -- gaining some new information as she says, "Sam?" -- and now we can ask her some questions.  She says nobody comes to see her, except the grocer on occasion, and somebody she doesn't want to talk about.  We can rather insensitively (in Joey's hands) learn that Sam had no brothers and/or sisters, and that his late father's name was John Durkin.  She emphatically denies seeing any strange old women around if we ask her about the Countess, but she seems to be dissembling. 

There's no phone listing for Sam Wilcox, or Sam Durkin.  Mitchell says Mavis seemed proud of Sam, but he got the impression he didn't visit often.  And she was divorced from John Durkin several years before he died.  Harriet's no use on these topics.  So how do we convince Mavis that she's dead?  She seems fixated on her address, and the "D" on her apartment door -- this seems odd but turns out to be one of those interactive fiction necessities, a hint that has to be repeated in case we didn't pick up on it earlier.

We can combine "Sam" and "John Durkin" in Lauren's notebook to draw the conclusion that Sam's last name is probably Durkin (this being 1973 and all.)  Now Lauren can call Columbia University and talk to the young man (who, Dave Gilbert's commentary informs us, is also a character in Wadjet Eye's first release, The Shivah.)  We have to give him Mavis' apartment number, 3D, to convince him we knew his mother (we piece this together from our conversations earlier -- third floor, "D" on the door.) 

Sam believes his mother essentially committed suicide by refusing to leave, but doesn't have any theories about her murder.  We learn that he once gave her a Mother's Day gift, but can't find out what it was.

The notebook metaphor occasionally breaks down -- it works well for establishing connections between topics so we can learn more about specific details in conversation, but obvious connections that should make sense often result in a default, "Hm, no, I don't see any connection" statement from Lauren.  This is kind of jarring when we know, for example, that Sam Durkin was the son of John Durkin and are just trying to make sure Lauren knows it too.

We can now talk to Mavis about the gift, but, reduced to guessing, we don't make much headway. It's not flowers, or any of the other available items in the conversation tree.  Fortunately, Joseph Mitchell recalls her showing it to him -- a leather bound edition of Alice in Wonderland.  Asking to see it induces Mavis to tell him it's right on the table... and then realize that she can't find it, or pick it up.  This creates an opening for Joey to force her to recognize that everything is gone, the apartment and everything in it, by suggesting she look for the book out in the hallway, and then leading her outside the construction zone.  She is upset and angry that the apartment has been torn down, but at least she realizes she is dead. 

Taking her off into nodespace (a term for the Void that's not, as far as I recall, actually used in the games, but is used in Gilbert's commentary here) lets Lauren send Mavis off into the light.  But before she goes, she also mentions an old woman who said she was going to help her, but killed her instead.

So how does this end?  Ah, now that both cases are solved, Lauren and Joey are about to call it a night at the construction site when the Countess shows up.  In the Isaac Brown scenario it was hard to tell if she was alive or dead, because the lighting and background made her look semi-transparent, but now we can see she's flesh and blood.  She's also a deluded medium -- she thinks she's helping spirits enter the next world by strangling people who don't, apparently, meet her standards of happiness.  Again, we don't get to track the Countess down -- Lauren runs into a lamppost offscreen, and we're back at her apartment again.

Lauren takes another smoke break, and as Joey we can engage her in speculation about the Countess.  She's clearly a medium, as she can see Joey, but she has no spirit guide -- was her guide "killed" somehow, if that's even possible?  Is this Lauren's future, losing her sanity as life goes on?  The Countess clearly has some connection to the spirit world... the list of names we can discuss from both cases has only one obviously in common, and that's Joseph Mitchell.  Joey takes a bit of a jump to the conclusion that Mitchell's writing is somehow telling the Countess who needs to be "helped." 

Confronting Mitchell reveals that he hasn't actually written anything today -- earlier we noticed that his typewriter seemed dusty from disuse.  Noting that two people he was writing about are now dead provokes him to say it's just coincidence, but calling his bluff softens his reaction and he admits he stopped writing after the deaths.  (In real life, Joseph Mitchell did suddenly cease being productive, though he still went to his office at the New Yorker every day for years.  There's no evidence that this fictional situation was the reason, however.)  Mitchell doesn't immediately accept Lauren's story about the Countess, or her reassurance that he's done nothing wrong; he sees his enforced, window-sitting existence as a penance, and mentions an earlier death we didn't know about.  Three deaths, all people he was writing about, so he ceased writing.  Lauren tries to get him to write about her, but he can't do it; she explains that she wants to force a confrontation with the Countess, and he finally acquiesces.

Now we wait for the Countess to arrive at Lauren's apartment, full of righteous zeal.  And we learn that Joey actually cares about Lauren -- he is concerned for her safety, and doesn't want her to die.  But before anything can get too weird or maudlin, the Countess shows up -- we can engage her in conversation to confirm our theory about her connection to the unknowing Mitchell.  She also says that her spirit guide "went away" somehow, and snapped her mind.  She also mentions that Lauren is loved, which doesn't make sense to her.

Lauren can offer to help the Countess, but she says she doesn't need any help.  And then she begins strangling Lauren. 

Joey encourages her to fight -- we have control, but most of the items in Lauren's inventory don't really count as weapons... until we, er, light upon her lit cigarette.  We can blind the Countess with a quick jab to the face, but then Lauren collapses from the attack.  Joey challenges the Countess to help him, an actual spirit, and he can keep talking to her, slowly backing out onto and past the balcony as she follows. 

Then Lauren recovers, and can push the Countess over the edge, to her death.  Oddly enough, the police don't get involved, but this is probably because the story is wrapping up, ending on an optimistic note as Lauren calls her brother Jack, who is due to be married soon.  Joey thinks this is a bad idea, but we won't know why until later in the series.

The credits sequence features a nice, New York piano bar kind of song with vocals.  The game presages The Walking Dead by several years by keeping a few statistics just for fun -- in my playthrough, Lauren smoked 50 cigarettes and Joey was hit 11 times by Isaac's saxophone:

I really like Wadjet Eye's approach -- they've brought back the nostalgic LucasArts style, while taking a more modern "indie" approach to storytelling.  There aren't a lot of puzzles to solve here, and the fantastic elements are really just a hook for stories about human beings.  The main attraction of Blackwell Unbound, and indeed the entire series of Blackwell games, lies in its well-realized sense of character and atmosphere.  I won't be covering the next game in the series, The Blackwell Convergence, for a while, as its 2009 release means my self-imposed five-year embargo on new commercial titles is in the way.  But I have played it and can recommend it; I look forward to covering it officially, probably sometime in 2014.

Calling Vintage Cyberstrikers...

I mentioned an early online game called Cyberstrike in a posting back in 2010, and as luck and the Internet will often have it, someone ran across it who's trying to reconnect with that community in 2012.

I wasn't a Cyberstriker myself, but it's interesting to see that the game survived until at least 2004 -- the magazine ad that inspired my post was from the early 1990s, so that's impressive longevity for an online game.  

Anyway, I can't help this person out, but if the handle KillerDoGG rings a bell with you from Cyberstrikes of yore, he invites you to drop him a line at

Hi i am trying very hard to contact my old friends from cyberstrike days 1996 till 2004. If you have any old contacts from then till now it would mean a great deal to me. you could sinply drop the name KillerDoGG and my email on your blog and i would be grateful.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The LoadDown -- 08/23/2012

The pace is picking up a bit this week, as Nintendo tries a novel distribution approach for a substantial new release.

Wii Virtual Console -- The SNK Neo*Geo titles keep coming, with Metal Slug X, basically an enhanced version of Metal Slug 2.  The whole Metal Slug series saw a disc-based release early in the Wii's life, but it's nice to have this well-animated action series available this way too.

DSiWare -- Just one new game here, as the 3DS XL debuts and Nintendo shifts its focus ever more in the direction of its newer portable system.  Abyss is an exploration game where the player's robot must find resources in caverns, as visibility deteriorates over time and the tiny craft's thrusters combat gravity.

3DS eShop -- The big news here is that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is available as a downloadable title, arriving simultaneously with the physical, packaged retail release.  Both editions are priced at $39.99, which seems wrong somehow given that no trucks, boxes, or plastic are involved in delivering the digital release -- but Nintendo is treading carefully at this stage, and likely doesn't want to stick retailers with dust-gathering shelf stock if the online channel suddenly explodes.  There's also VectorRacing, rendered in seriously retro wireframe/vector style, and in true 3-D to boot.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two new games this week... see the PS3 section below for more info on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure HD.

PS3 on PSN -- Four, count 'em, four new titles this week.  JoJo's Bizarre Adventure HD brings the anime-inspired Dreamcast fighting game back for another round.  Valve's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive brings the latest in the popular multiplayer team combat series to the PS3, arriving simultaneously with PC, Mac and XBox 360 releases.  Retro/Grade is an indie rhythm/shooting game where the player must re-fight a space battle -- backwards, to preserve the space-time continuum.  And Deep Black is an underwater swimmer/shooter originally announced as Underwater Wars.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Alexis Adventure (1983)

This week, we're taking a look at a TRS-80 text adventure of uncertain provenance -- I haven't been able to track down an author, but Alexis Adventure was published in the January 1983 issue of the cassette-based CLOAD magazine.  It's a fairly straightforward adventure based on Greek history and mythology.  As Alexis V of Xanthus, we must reclaim our father's crown by escaping jail, traveling to four other islands, finding the Crystal Sphere, raising an army, and battling General Tarkaan, usurper of the throne.

Alexis Adventure is written in BASIC, and competently executed, though the parser is occasionally obstructive and a few of the puzzles don't readily present themselves as such.  There's also one situation that can occur randomly and forces a complete restart, as the game has no SAVE command.  But it's not unsophisticated -- the text is in upper and lowercase (something of a rarity for the era), and there's even an unexpected twist to the game mechanics at the end.

I encourage interested readers to sample Alexis independently before proceeding with my comments, as always -- but in this case I must add an additional caveat.  This adventure is actually self-spoiling, as it displays all the locations, objects and verbs onscreen while it's building its database!  So if you really want to avoid any giveaways, close your eyes for about twenty seconds after getting past the instructions.  And if you've played the game already, or don't intend to, feel free to march your faithful soldiers into the...

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

Our hero starts out in a jail cell, holding a small pouch, which very conveniently contains a skeleton key.  The engine is slightly cumbersome -- while each room starts out with a Scott Adams-style display, the room description eventually scrolls off and does not refresh without a LOOK.  So when we OPEN POUCH, we see something interesting, but EXAMINE POUCH just tells us that It looks like a small pouch.  We have to LOOK at the room to see that the act of opening the pouch dropped the skeleton key on the floor.  And, as is sometimes the case in hobbyist-created adventure games, if we OPEN POUCH a second time the key is spirited out of our possession and back onto the floor.

There are quite a few locations in this game, but there isn't much for us to do in most of them.  We can explore the great city on the island of Xanthus, behold a valley where many battles were fought, and find the palace gates where a suspicious guard will not let us pass. But there are no objects of interest here -- all we can really do is make our way to the dock and board a sailing ship, the Xenophon, which fortunately we are free to command.

The sailing navigation is rather odd -- it seems to be semi-random, and doesn't force us to stay inside what seems to be a local 9 x 9 grid; some confusion results from the game's announcement of "Land!" whenever we're near an island, without telling us which of the game's five islands it might be or in which direction we can see it.  In general, Xanthus is to the north, Tripolis to the east, Hyklos to the far north, Skiros to the southeast, and Ikaria to the southwest .  We have to watch the weather -- we can end our journey by drowning in bad conditions, and this is somewhat random; it can even occur on our first move out of dock, so this can be fatal and game-restarting.  Other than that glitch, we are free to travel the archipelago, visiting and returning to each island at will (assuming we can find our way there and back.)

On Tripolis, we can acquire a witch doctor's mask.  There are angry natives in the village, and a cave with a portcullis and a suspiciously placed skull.  We can PULL SKULL (not TAKE or TURN it) to reveal a passage.  Inside we find a faded scroll, containing hieroglyphics (aren't those usually Egyptian?) telling of "the treasure of the shores of Skiros."  Past the scroll we encounter an angry native armed with a spear; we can do the obvious and WEAR MASK, which frightens the poor fellow into running away, dropping his spear.

The cave also contains some magical phosphorescent light which we can simply TAKE with us, and a catapult.  We can't GO or USE or ENTER or FIRE the catapult, it seems, or CATAPULT ME.  Examination reveals that it has an ammunition chamber, and a lever.  Hmmmm.

The island of Hyklos hosts a very dark cavern, so the phosphorescent light we picked up on Tripolis is important.  Inside is the river Styx, and Charon, the traditional boatman.  He won't let us on the boat -- we probably need a coin, per tradition.  We'll have to come back here.

The island of Skiros has shores populated by tropical trees.  We can CLIMB TREE and TAKE BANANAS there, but getting down is more of a challenge -- CLIMB DOWN and CLIMB TREE do not work, but for some reason going N does.  The site of a recent forest fire yields charred pottery, still full of hot coals which ought to be useful for igniting something.  A giant gorilla guards a map on the island's summit; we can't GIVE him the bananas, but if we drop them he'll take them and leave.  The map thus obtained is no help for ocean navigation, but shows us a trail through a rockslide somewhere in the game's world.  I tried to DIG for treasure all over the island, even though I had no special tools for doing so; I got no error responses, but still came up empty.  There's also a wall of vines covering a passage to the south; we can BURN VINES with the hot coals to make our way inside.  Here we find a sword of sharpness (unlike those cheap swords of dullness, apparently.)

The island of Ikaria contains the massive rockslide the map is supposed to help us with.  The tidepools along the coast contain a huge oyster.  We can simply OPEN OYSTER (with the sword of sharpness, apparently) to reveal a giant pearl, and leave the poor creature as an annihilated oyster.  There's also a pickaxe available along another shore.  With the map from Skiros in hand, we can... well, we can't GO ROCKSLIDE, or walk N into it, or USE MAP or FOLLOW MAP.  But we can GO TRAIL to find a sheltered cove, where the fabled Cyclops lives, though perhaps not particularly lavishly, as he looks hungry.  We can't KILL CYCLOPS -- no real surprise there -- and he doesn't want the oyster.  And if we hang around too long, our hero gets eaten, so that's not useful for our purposes.

Going back to Xanthus, we can try to KILL GUARD outside the place, which gets us thrown back in jail... though none of our possessions are confiscated, it appears.  Can we use the catapult on Tripolis?  Yes, we can INSERT SPEAR - In 1 word, where will you insert it? - CATAPULT to load it into the long, narrow ammunition chamber.  We PULL LEVER, and it fires but... hits nothing.  At least we can retrieve the spear, now lying on the ground, and re-load.  I assumed it would have more range... aha!  The catapult is itself portable -- I was picturing something more substantial, I think the author is actually thinking of a crossbow.

Now we can kill the Cyclops with the catapult and spear, and take his eye as a trophy.  We can't go anywhere beyond the Cyclops' lair, though, so what else is there to do?  We can go back to Tripolis to check out the angry natives.  We can't SHOW EYE or WAVE EYE or DROP EYE to impress them.  What about the treasure on Skiros mentioned by the faded scroll?  Now that we have the pickaxe, we can DIG and get a different response at our landing site -- we find a collection of gold coins.

Let's see if Charon will take a coin now, in the cave on Hyklos.  It's a bit of a parser struggle, but GO FERRY takes care of the details, and we soon find ourselves on the other side of the Styx, where a three-headed wolf (probably a relative of Cerberus) blocks the way south.  We can KILL WOLF, and the sword of sharpness handily dispatches the creature.  To the south we find ourselves in Hell, where Pluto holds reign and the crystal sphere is visible. 

It gets a little bit interesting here -- I think the author was trying to design an unpredictable puzzle, but if we've inadvertently anticipated that by carrying both the eye of the Cyclops and the oyster from Ikaria, the logic gets a little muddled.  If we try to TAKE SPHERE, Pluto sees that you have the eye of the Cyclops, so he wants you to bring him the giant pearl of Ikaria instead.  These underworld figures are always so deceptive and demanding!  And even after we open the oyster we've been carrying, he still sees the eye and won't accept the pearl.  We have to DROP EYE and then TAKE SPHERE, at which point the Lord of the Underworld will ignore the alternative lying on the ground, at last allowing us to give him the pearl in exchange for the sphere.  The generic EXAMINE handler is disappointing here -- EXAMINE PLUTO yields only, It looks like Pluto - god of the underworld.

Now we must pay Charon for passage back to the other side of the Styx, and work on raising our army.  The valley on Xanthus now shows 144 soldiers under General Tarkaan's command.  They seem to be waiting for us to join the battle, but we have no soldiers and can't recruit any here.  Back to Tripolis we go, where the formerly angry natives are now bowing and worshipping us as we have the fabled Crystal Sphere in hand.  They happily join the cause, and we now (in my playthrough) have 174 soldiers in inventory -- let's hope their greater numbers are a match for Tarkaan's well-trained and equipped troops.

Somehow all of our Tripolean fighters fit on the Xenophon, and we can return to the valley on Xanthus.  And suddenly, the game shifts modes -- it's no longer an adventure game, but a simple strategy exercise:

We can choose from four different tactics -- Defensive fortification, Frontal attack, Flanking maneuvers, and Encirclement of the enemy.  Option #4, Encirclement, seems like a good choice, and it is -- since we have more soldiers, and can apparently move into surrounding positions quickly, Tarkaan's forces are quickly disposed of.   If a tactic isn't working out, we can retreat and change our approach before we lose any more soldiers, but in truth the battle's development seems pretty random and the outcome is largely determined by the size of each side's forces.  I retried the battle several times, and all four options worked fine for me with the numeric advantage I had.  The code randomizes the number of soldiers on each side, between 125 and 225, so I may just have lucked out when the digital dice were rolled.

With Tarkaan's forces defeated, Alexis can walk through the unguarded palace gates, TAKE CROWN, WEAR CROWN... and victory is ours!

The length of Alexis V's reign is based on how long it takes us to finish the game -- I only got 8 years out of him, but the ocean navigation tends to take up a lot of moves while we try to find our way to the right island.  I'm content with eight good years -- after all, that's as much as any U.S. President can ever get.  The CLOAD adventure games don't have the consistency of similar series, like the SoftSide adventures, but this one provided good value back in the day, and was fun to revisit through in 2012.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The LoadDown -- 08/16/2012

August plods along, with just a few new downloadable games on the wire...

WiiWare -- Nothing at all this Wiik.

DSiWare -- One new game -- Crazy Chicken: Pirates, a point-and-shoot stylus-driven rail shooter starring a bevy of piratical poultry that the player must knock out to win treasure.  Judging from the title, it's meant to be part of a series.

3DS eShop --  I hesitate to call this a separate game, since the DSiWare version will run on the 3DS and it's about the same price, but if you want visual depth, you can buy Crazy Chicken: Pirates 3D instead.

XBox Live Arcade -- One new game here, as the Summer of Arcade wraps up: Dust: An Elysian Tale, an action RPG with beautiful hand-drawn animation.  It's also notable for its indie cred, as it was developed mostly by one person and won the 2009 Dream.Build.Play challenge run by Microsoft.

PS3 on PSN -- Just one new game here as well, an intriguing indie puzzle/adventure game called Papo & Yo.  The story concerns a frog-craving pink rhino named Monster, a toy (or is she?) robot named Lula, and a young boy hero named Quico; it's an allegory for alcoholism and the damage it inflicts on loved ones.  And no, I'm not making that part up this week!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Thunder Road (1980)

This week, our regular adventure series returns to the vintage TRS-80 era, with Thunder Road, an adventure game created by the father-and-daughter team of Don and Freda Boner.  Billed as A TRUE LIFE ADVENTURE, this one has a refreshingly different theme -- we're runnin' moonshine and avoiding the sheriff in the hills of Kentucky.

I'm playing the original version, though the BASIC code I found in the archives seems to have been typed in by an anonymous benefactor, as there are a few textual differences between this version and the one published in the Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures.  The game was commercially published by The Programmer's Guild in 1980 before appearing in print form, and has also been ported to the Commodore 64 and IBM PC.

The player's goal is simple -- we must DELIVER WHITE-LIGHTNING (MOONSHINE) FROM YOUR FARM IN GEORGETOWN THROUGH THE HILLS AND HOLLOWS TO KNAWBONE.  (The original source code refers to POSSUM HOLLOW instead of GEORGETOWN, which may be a clue about where this version originated.)  The intro tells us that is the player's official last run, trying to raise money for college before going straight, but warns us that IF THE LAW DON'T GET YOU, THE MOUNTAIN WILL.

Thunder Road is somewhat unusual among adventure games, as it has very few inventory objects, and no command for listing our current inventory.  It's a linear story, with lots of dead-ends and single-choice scenarios, but the simple plot moves along quickly.

I always encourage interested readers to explore the games I cover here before reading my detailed comments; Thunder Road isn't difficult, as long as it's approached with persistence (and ideally an emulator with good save-state support.)  I'm trying to capture these in detail for posterity, so I will have no qualms about revealing the plot, the puzzles, and the ending.  In other words, beyond this point you'll find plentiful...

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

We start out down on the farm, with a classic '57 SOUPED UP CHEVY LOADED WITH WHITE-LIGHTNING, along with an old barn and our faithful still.  We can't GO BARN, but EXAMINE BARN suggests that THERE IS SOMETHING THERE.  We have to ENTER BARN instead -- this may turn out to be an old-fashioned parser struggle in places.

The barn contains two spare tires and some parts for the still.  GET PARTS is ineffective -- YOU NERD- WHAT WOULD I DO WITH IT -- but we can GET TIRES.  Any unsuccessful GET, even for items that don't exist in the game, returns the default response, so we can't trick the parser into revealing clues about the dictionary.

We can't go N unless we're in the car; unlike the navigation systems in most adventure games, we'll be spending most of our time in our car.  Immediately after leaving the farm we see that THE REVENUERS (horrors!) are ABOUT 10 MILES BEHIND ME, and we are approaching 3 FORKS IN THE ROAD.  Going S does not take us back to the farm, but downhill on Dead Man's Curve, where we shortly perish; E takes us back to the farm.

Going W at the fork instead runs into a narrow road where DUMB OLD DEPUTY EARNEST HARDLEY has a roadblock set up.  We can't JUMP ROADBLOCK -- the standard adventure game navigation system doesn't really capture the feel of speeding along mountain roads, I must say.  If we hang around too long near the Deputy, though, we're arrested and the game is over.

North of the fork is a dead end where the revenuers shortly catch up with us, so we'd better see if we can talk to Deputy Hardley and get past his roadblock somehow.  Any contact seems to lead to arrest.  I tried to STEER CAR on Dead Man's Curve, revealing that we are ill-prepared for the task at hand, as apparently I NEVER LEARNED HOW TO 'STEER' SOMETHING.  We can't HIT DEPUTY or AVOID ROADBLOCK, nor does it help to SPEED UP, PUSH GAS or DRIVE FASTHELP just tells us that DEPUTY HARDLY DOESN'T HAVE ENOUGH SENSE TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN.  But we can RUN ROADBLOCK to get past it, smashing through it and leaving the angered deputy in the dust.

Past the roadblock, we come to a "T" in the road.  Heading north takes us to some woods, where we find out that SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THE CAR.  We can EXIT CAR to find a FUNNY LOOKING BOX containing... A FORTUNE COOKIE.  We can't GET COOKIE -- but OPEN COOKIE helpfully yields DON'T BE FUNNY. TRY, BREAK COOKIE.  We BREAK COOKIE and WHAT DO YOU KNOW, A FORTURN! [sic -- but this isn't the Boners' fault, it's a mistype.]  The fortune reads, cryptically, "HE WHO ABANDONS HOPE WILL BE CLOSED OUT."  But if we dilly-dally too long here, the law soon catches up with us.

South of the T is a dark wood leading to a BUMPY ROAD where we see A CUTE BLOND LADY HITCHIKING [sic].  We should probably stay focused on the task at hand, but for history's sake I'll stop and... PICK UP BLONDPICK UP LADYGET LADY finally hints that we should TRY PICK-UP LADY.  And after all that  trouble, we see her take off in our car, with our precious cargo of moonshine.  Restoring and just driving past her, we're still stuck; smoke pours out of the hood, the engine's blown, and we're arrested.  There's nothing we can do to prevent this, it's just the wrong choice to make; Thunder Road's designers provide us with lots of choices, but in general only one is correct at any point.

Trying the northern route again, we see on closer examination that the problem with the car is that it has two flat tires.  We CHANGE TIRES, using the spares we took from the barn at the start of the game, and we're automatically back on the road.

We soon come to another T intersection, this one branching east and west.  W puts us IN D [typo] DARK TUNNEL, and continuing west brings us to where we see A STRANGE LIGHT UP AHEAD.  I hope it's not a train!  It's not, but going W again leads to another dead end, where we discover SHERIFF BUBA WITH A GUN AT MY HEAD.  Man, I bet that guy would like to buy a B.

S leads to an UNKNOWN ROAD -- we're apparently not a very well-oriented ridge runner -- and driving west at that point leads to a lightning strike that sets the car on fire, destroying the moonshine and the player.  Going south instead leads to a bridge... that's out, as helpfully noted by a sign.  We can get out of the car to find an old pipe, which I never found a use for, and some bushes and tree limbs.  We can't HIDE CAR or JUMP BRIDGE, but EXAMINE TREE discovers AN OLD ROAD BEHIND THE TREES!  Fortunately we have time to MOVE TREES before the law catches up again.

Backtracking to check out more of the map, I learned that heading E of the east-west T leads to a gravel road, where the revenuers take a wrong turn; roads here lead east to a church parking lot or south back to the bridge area.  We can get out of the car at the church, where we see AN OPEN DOOR; we can't ENTER DOOR but we can ENTER CHURCH to find a LARGE PIPE ORGAN.  It's unplayable, it seems, but closer examination of the instrument yields A SET OF KEYS.  These always come in handy in adventure games, so we'll take them with us.

Past the church is a GAS STATION, with paths leading back to the bridge area and the church.  Taking the hidden road by the bridge leads to another dead end with a locked gate, and unlocking the gate is complicated by the LARGE MEAN LOOKING BEAR here.  HELP suggests, perhaps unwisely, that we FIGHT IT!  - and, to my great surprise, FIGHT BEAR actually works: OH NO ** WHAT A FIGHT ** YOU KILLED IT (though we can also randomly fail.)  But then the law catches up again, while we were distracted beating a bear to death.  This plays out much faster if we just UNLOCK GATE immediately after pulling up to it -- this seems to be a bug, actually, as afterward we just "GET BACK IN THE CAR," without ever having to deal with fighting the bear or even exiting the car.

Now we're driving across FARMER BROWN'S PASTURE, where we again have a few choices about which way to go, only one of which is a good idea.  Driving south gets us permanently stuck in FARMER BROWN'S LAKE; the western route leads to a BULL PASTURE where bulls charge the car and we're dead again. 

Going east gets us back on to the main road, where a sign indicates we're now just 2 MILES SOUTH OF KNAWBONE.  Of course, another bridge between here and there is closed for repairs.  The game's parser again reveals a refreshing sense of humor -- if we try to JUMP BRIDGE, we're told DON'T BE RIDICULOUS. WHAT I NEED TO DO IS JUMP RIDGE.  That works, and after we JUMP RIDGE we find ourselves on the other side.  One quick move north to Knawbone, and victory is ours!

These people must really like our moonshine -- they're prepared to give us ALL THEIR MONEY, which ought to cover the player's college education (at least, circa 1980.)  It takes a village to raise a child, as they say --in this case, a booze-loving village with minimal living expenses and no sense of irony.

I hadn't played any of the Boner family adventure games before -- they created at least four titles for the TRS-80, working with Bob "Captain 80" Liddil's The Programmer's Guild.  Thunder Road was a quick little game to play, something I appreciated after tackling more substantial adventures in recent weeks.  The design is very linear, with numerous unpredictable fatal dead ends, but it has a sense of humor and with a modern emulator (and frequent saves) it's much more playable than it was back in the day.  Good, albeit brief, stuff.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The LoadDown -- 08/09/2012

The summer doldrums are dragging on, but there's a little bit of life on the wire this week...

WiiWare -- No new games this week, but there's a downloadable Hulu Plus player available for the Wii now, with a free month of the service to promote it.

Wii Virtual Console --   Another of the classic Neo*Geo console/coin-op platform's many one-on-one fighters, REAL BOUT FATAL FURY SPECIAL, joins the downloadable lineup.

DSiWare --  One new game, Commando: Steel Disaster, a military-themed scrolling shooter that is unfortunately NOT related to Capcom's classic series.  At least the press release makes me all nostalgic for the days of poor English localization: "Excellent visuals and game graphics for an effective appearance!"

3DS eShop --  One new game, Touch Battle Tank 3D, a fast-paced but simple tank combat game with vaguely TRON-esque visuals.

XBox Live Arcade --  A new title this week is Hybrid, a faction-driven third-person shooter, as the developers behind Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life try their hand at a more conventional genre.

PS3 on PSN -- Sony's downloadable lineup tends to be more adventurous than most; this week's new game is Sound Shapes, a rhythm/music based platformer (?) with musical contributors including Jim Guthrie, Beck, and Deadmau5.  It may be more at home on the PS Vita, but it's on the PS3 as well.

Notable on PC -- For nostalgia's sake, I have to mention the new Cannon Fodder 3, a brand-new sequel to the classic Sensible Software titles.  And I'm curious about Deponia, a point-and-click adventure from the German team behind The Whispered World.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Non-Game Related: Zombie Slayer

This isn't directly video game related, although at the moment I know I'm eagerly awaiting Episode 3 of Telltale's The Walking Dead, so it's not like zombies never get mentioned around here.

The annual Flint (Michigan) Zombie Walk is coming up -- this year it's benefiting the Michigan School for the Deaf, and to help promote the event my friend and collaborator Dan Gerics has put together a music video for a song we wrote a few years ago.  It's Zombie Slayer!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Nancy Drew #1 - Secrets Can Kill (Remastered 2010)

This week, we're going back to the roots of a modern adventure game series -- sort of -- as we play through Nancy Drew #1: Secrets Can Kill.  I say "sort of" because we're actually playing Her Interactive's 2010 Remastered Edition, making this version effectively Nancy Drew adventure number 22.5, released between numbers 22 and 23.  (The original 1998 version of the game is no longer offered for sale by the publisher.)

Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series began humbly, with simple puzzles and hand-drawn cartoon illustrations.  As so often happens in the adventure game industry, Her Interactive decided to bring the first entry in the long-running series up to date with this remastered edition celebrating the famous girl detective's 80th year in print.  The games are more challenging than one might expect, with Junior/Senior difficulty settings; I'll be playing this one as a Senior Detective and probably getting stumped on a few puzzles, though I don't expect this one's plot to be as convoluted as some of the more recent titles.

As always, I encourage interested readers to go adventuring on their own before proceeding here; this one is still commercially available from the publisher and via Steam.  Be advised that beyond this point, Nancy's adventure will be revealed in all its dangerous and amusing detail, and I shall have no qualms whatsoever about revealing any secrets or masking any...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***** 

The game opens in the standardized style of the more recent Nancy Drew titles, with Nancy's desk serving as an introductory interface with memorabilia, a scrapbook full of promos for the rest of the series, a case file summarizing the story at hand, and a plane ticket to Nancy's destination.  I thought the sound quality in this game had dropped off tremendously from the series' generally decent standard, until I realized that it's springtime outside Nancy's window and we can hear a noisy lawnmower running in the background!

The plot is a bit unusual, as this time Nancy Drew has to investigate an actual murder, instead of vaguely threatening, spooky circumstances and puzzles; this may be because this first game was based directly on one of the newer Nancy Drew books, unlike the other games in the series.  So we find Nancy going undercover, at the behest of a local police department, masquearading as a new student at the high school attended by the late Jake Rogers to see if she can find any clues.

We click on the plane ticket, and we're off to the ritzy-sounding Paseo del Mar, Florida.  Nancy's Aunt Eloise is the school librarian here, and according to a note in Nancy's room, she has left us a puzzle -- the key to the library is in her safe, but "Remember not to enter in a wrong combination!"  Apparently dear Aunt Eloise takes her security seriously.  The bureau contains an invitation to a Sigma Phi Kappa Delta reunion, and above it is yet another mirror that Nancy cannot see herself in.  I'm tempted to think that she might want to have that looked at, but it's traditional that we never really see Nancy herself in much detail in this series, for the sake of player immersion; in fact, the game's title screen illustration is rather unusual in that regard.

In Aunt Eloise's parlor, a book tells the tale of the Haunted Ghost Bridge, and a troop of frightened girl scouts whose hair purportedly turned white after they camped out near it.  A cryptic clue, "Follow the X to the spot below!" was reportedly uttered by one of the maddened girls, but this doesn't seem to play into the story in any direct way.

Our aunt's safe, as it turns out, features a combination lock marked with greek letters, so clicking on the sequence σ, φ, κ, δ (sigma, phi, kappa, delta) opens it up easily.  There's a key inside, labeled "Ideas," some papers we can't actually examine, and a sliding tile puzzle with some attractively retro and thematically appropriate artwork:

Solving it reveals Aunt Eloise's login name: eloise drew, along with her anagrammatic password, O WISE ELDER.

As we're about to leave the house, Nancy gets a call -- we're to meet Detective Beech, alias "Uncle Steve" for cover purposes, at Maxine's Diner.  Navigation around town is handled via a convenient map, not drawn to scale, which depicts all the known landmarks.  There are only three locations we can explore -- the school, Aunt Eloise's house, and Maxine's Diner -- but the interiors are fairly substantial.

Maxine's features a jukebox that plays the most generic game soundtrack techno imaginable, way out of keeping with the diner's 1950's decor, but we can insert a quarter to change the tune (there's a quarter available in the mug on Nancy's desk at the start of the game, and plenty of coins show up during play if we watch for the sparkles and solve some optional puzzles.)  The diner features two arcade games, both featuring trackballs in order to work well with a mouse -- Barnacle Blast is a Breakout/Arkanoid type contest that was also used in Nancy Drew #8: The Haunted Carousel, and the word puzzle game Aggregator seems to be permanently out-of-order.  We don't have to play these games at all, but I did discover that if we select the cheesy/sleazy synth-and-sax "Rock'n'Roll" track on the jukebox, and try to play a game without any cash, Nancy's breathy "I need more money" comment sounds rather different than the designers intended.

We can peruse the diner's menu, noting that some letters are highlighted in red and green -- the three red ones are S, H, and, er, I... hmmm.  The green letters are J, O, U, N, R, and A, and there are also some syllables highlighted in pink (Cash and Cow) and blue (is and my.)  This is probably a puzzle, at some point... something is somebody's cash cow, apparently.  But SJOUHRANI must be a coded phrase of some kind.

The diner's counter is tended by a young man named Daryl, from whom we learn that the late Jake Rogers used to work here.  We can wander into the kitchen without being interrupted, noting that Jake was on the schedule this month, but his name has now been crossed out.  There's a code at the foot of the schedule -- CEKEEEIHIGM HCYRYSGTNY.  A crumpled note indicates that someone named Connie broke her date with Daryl to the Sadie Hawkins' dance, and we can snag a soup ladle from the dishwashing area.

Meeting with "Uncle Steve" is rather entertaining -- the officer isn't very good at improvising.  All we learn is that Jake had substantial savings, and the police suspect he was involved with drugs or gambling or something illegal; we're to keep an eye out for a journal that might document any illegal activities.  We also note that the school's athletic teams are known as the Fighting Manatees, as noted on the 50's Dance sign by the exit of the diner.

The high school is rather quiet, with just a handful of students around -- Nancy's so undercover it appears the zombie apocalypse is upon Paseo del Mar, but each of the people she can engage has a story worth investigating.  We can examine the Student Bulletin Board -- actually, there are a number of these scattered around the building, and we will need to check every one of them out to find clues to the game's central puzzle.  The first one I examined indicates that the Drama Club is presenting a poetic drama called Doctor Deception, which sounds suspiciously puzzle-y -- "Student files under lock and key will show the lies of the doctor-to-be," followed by the cryptic annotation Hf:L1.  Another bulletin board promotes the Senior Essay Contest, also with a postscript: Zn:D1.  These bulletin boards are a little too easy to peruse, as only the worthwhile items can be examined -- it's more like a hotspot hunt than a real search for information.  Another board advertises the school's marching band picnic, La:U2.

In the student lounge, Connie the Hall Monitor is available for a chat.  There's also a soda machine where Nancy can spend some of her hard-found quarters.  Connie mentions that Jake Rogers was "a total creep" and that "nobody liked him"; she seems rather callous and hard-nosed about the whole thing.  Connie also has a crush on Daryl Gray, though she won't say why she broke her date with him; she mentions that his family used to be well-off.  She will also tell Nancy that she thinks the person leaving the weird messages on the bulletin boards is the same one who keeps setting off the soda machine alarm.  She also won't let us into the Teacher's Lounge, although it's locked in any case.

Outside the lounge is another cryptic message, labeled As:U4: A CRANE CONTESTANT IN A MASKED DISGUISE WON THE PRIZE MONEY DESPITE ALL THE LIES.  It seems there may be a monetary motive involved with Jake's death.  And a note about the student art exhibit mentions Eloise Drew, and a scrambled message: EPAT OEDIV NEDDIH EHT / ETAF SREREDRUM YM LAES LLIW, coded as C:R1.  This message is just backwards: THE HIDDEN VIDEO TAPE / WILL SEAL MY MURDERER'S FATE.  Interesting -- did Jake know he was going to get killed?

Foreign exchange student "Hal" Tanaka sits in a study area -- he thinks Connie was dating Jake Rogers, and mentions that Daryl Gray's dad was a successful politician, but a failure in business, and that he went bankrupt several years ago.

Access to the maintenance room is blocked by a braille combination lock, suggesting that Nancy will need to get in there at some point.  Back at Aunt Eloise's house, we can poke around some more.  Nancy can examine a book that tells an odd, disjointed story.  I suspect it's structured to allow certain letter patterns to fit, but I don't see any reason to mess with it yet.  Another shelf has a book safe, homemade, with a key marked "T. Lounge."  This seems like it might come in handy, except Connie still won't let us in; the vocal acting direction is a little off here, as the reading of Connie's "I don't care if you have a search warrant, you're not going in" sounds like the actress thinks that Nancy actually has a search warrant, instead of being sarcastic as intended.

Connie has some empty cans of soda on her table; can we distract her with a cold can of pop?  No, Nancy just buys it from the machine and drinks it down immediately, smacking her lips in a distinctly Muppety manner.  On my way out of the school to investigate elsewhere, this time I noticed some police tape on a locker -- probably Jake's.  The lock is a combination lock, accepting 4 digits; another puzzle to solve.

Exploring the school's gymnasium area yields another cryptic footnote -- Ir:D2.  The message reads "fin dthem ornin gedit ion..." -- we can shuffle the spaces around to obtain, "Find the morning edition and discover another crime.  The answer is in black and white to who will do the time."  And another bulletin board message -- SNESNVD INROAI, Kr:L2.  These seem to be combinations of periodic table symbols and directional codes.

Continuing our searching near the gymnasium, we find yet more messages -- K:R1, with three bits of upside-down / mirrored poetry.  "Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, let the books in the library be your answer guide."  "A symbol of kanji worn with great pride, reflects big secret that someone must hide." And finally, "To keep up his charade, even if it meant cheating, to make the grade, he did what it took."  (This last one is tricky to decipher, as some characters can easily be mistaken for others -- I had read part of it as "wake the globs" before realizing it was probably "make the grade."  And I had them reversed as well -- the lines should flow in the opposite direction, so that they rhyme!)

An eye chart near the restrooms seems to be a cipher of some kind, but it's not clear what it means.  Characters tend to hang out very silently, and the 3-D point-and-click navigation tends to allow them to show up unexpectedly.  This guy seems a little creepy, hanging out by the restrooms, and, thanks to some overenthusiastic "idle" animation, looking rather unsteady on his feet at first glance:

Player number 80 turns out to be one Hector Sanchez, the self-nicknamed "Hulk," who is cocky beyond all reasonable measure.  He doesn't seem to know anything about why Jake Rogers was killed, and says he can't answer Nancy's questions now because he has to go to practice, yet he still just stands by the men's room.  We can talk to him some more to learn that Hal Tanaka used to talk to Jake quite a bit, and has a nasty temper; Connie is having some money problems; and Daryl was the one who found Jake's body.

A poster advertises The Crane School of Self-Defense, with phone number 555-JUDO; Nancy can phone them, but the answering machine indicates they are not seeking any new initiates at this time.

A mirrored message on the bulletin board near the library reads, "GRAPE GRAPE / ORANGE COOL / WILL PLAY THE ALARM IN THE SCHOOL," annotated as Zr:R4.  Does this have to do with the soda machine?

After we enter the school library using the key from Aunt Eloise's safe, the music changes to something more suspenseful.  A sports magazine contains an article about steroid abuse, and a strange note in a book lists "Things to Remember:" including this clue: The answer to my fate, A matchbook behind Maxine's schedule holds the first step, My messages hold the remaining 18 steps, the Elements tell the order, The letter and digit tell the direction; I:U2.  It's initialed JR, and since Larry Hagman is in Texas, this is probably a note from the late Jake Rogers.

There seems to be someone running around the library -- an alarm goes off and we hear running footsteps, though we never see anybody and I never figured out what this was all about, despite the suspenseful music.  We can search the library card catalog at a computer, but without some idea of what to look for it's not useful yet.

Talking to Hal again, in the Study Dome, reveals that Hulk suffered an injury recently and may have some issues with steroid use.  Hal doesn't know (or won't tell Nancy) Jake's locker combination, but suggests it might be tied into a phone somehow.  Maybe we need to use JAKE like JUDO on the combination lock -- yep, 5253 it is!

Jake's locker contains a book of English Essays, bookmarked to a piece on etiquette.  And a videotape case, empty.  And a Judo magazine, with an article mentioning a "masked marauder" named Nineco who appeared from nowhere to sweep a local competition.  And a newspaper mentions a break-in at the Drug Station Pharmacy on 80th Street.  (Why would any legitimate pharmacist want to call his or her place of business the Drug Station?)  Apparently several vials of Hectinol, a powerful steroid, were stolen, and this is likely the crime referred to by one of the earlier clues.

Back at Maxine's, I can't find a matchbook behind the schedule, but there is a code written in an empty square -- Te:L3.  We can talk to Daryl a little more -- he seems concerned that Nancy is "writing an article about the murder for the school newspaper," claims not to know Connie well and has no idea why she took Jake to the dance instead of him.  He also says that Hal is intense about becoming a doctor, Sanchez is under pressure to perform, and finding Jake's body was the worst thing that's ever happened to him.

"Uncle Steve" isn't working very hard -- he's still hanging out at Maxine's, drinking coffee and letting Nancy do all the legwork.  He agrees that the videotape is potentially important, and that the notebook in the library might provide clues as to the whereabouts of Jake's journal.

So far, so good -- this one is not as complicated as some of the later Nancy Drew games.  We just have to talk to everyone about everything, solve some puzzles, and we'll make progress.

Back at Aunt Eloise's, I noticed a drawer I hadn't opened.  A note to herself reminds Eloise to talk to Jake about books being out of order, call Nancy about flight info, and call Jackie about Spanish schools.  Aunt Eloise also has a VCR, should we ever find that elusive videotape.  Looking at the encyclopedia on the shelf again, I pull out all the capital letters (since we've seen other ciphers of this form) to get:


I tried some possible letter frequency decodings, and thought I was getting somewhere with a "HAL LOOKS" result at the beginning of the phrase turned backwards, but finally concluded that I was not really getting anywhere.  Maybe I need another clue.  I played through several levels of Barnacle Blast at the diner, but didn't earn any rewards or puzzle assistance.

Is this message encoded using the same code as the diner schedule?  That doesn't get us anywhere either.  So it's time to put a call in to Ned, Nancy's boyfriend -- he misses her, but he's no help, and Nancy's hint-offering friend Bess is not even in her contact list in this early game.  We can change backgrounds on Nancy's phone if we want.

So  now what?  Well, it at always pays to look around -- I missed a Closing Procedure memo at the diner, with this puzzle: 1.3, 8.9, 6.7, 4.4, 5.4, 4.4, 12.5, 4.9, 8.5, 13.6, 4.6, 10.8, 14.5, 4.10; Hg:L3.

There is still no matchbook concealed behind Maxine's schedule, or anywhere near it, as far as I can see.  What about the "remaining 18 steps"?  We can order the clues we've found based on the atomic number of the elements, creating a sequence of coded directions.  Assembling the clues we have so far establishes that we only have twelve of them, so presumably six more are needed.  (And it turns out I don't have to keep such careful track of these notes myself -- they are all logged in Nancy's notebook as we discover them.)

Aha!  The maintenance room lock isn't limited braille numbers, really, there are different patterns to the arrangements of dots.  But I can't find a successful sequence based on logical combinations of patterns; another clue will probably be needed.

Let's make use of another clue and try setting off the soda machine alarm in the student lounge. GRAPE GRAPE / ORANGE COOL -- we don't have to actually buy anything, just press the buttons -- causes the alarm to go off.  And then workers arrive to remove the annoying machine, and Nancy, so this is a fatal error.  Hmmmm.  Let's try the soda machine by the gym instead -- okay, that's not fatal at least.  We can now tell Connie that someone has set off the alarm, and she steps away from her post to deal with it.

While she's gone, we can sneak a peek at her notebook -- she's writing a letter to an unnamed person, who might be dead or at least distant.  It seems to refer to Daryl -- one scratched-out line reads, "I think you're the best student council president ever."  We can get into the Teacher's Lounge now too, and find CL:D2 on the bulletin board. 

We can also log into a PC using Eloise's info.  We can print a security report, read Eloise's email to learn that Jake was on bulletin board duty, which explains some things, and get a whole list of passwords to various places.  The Maintenance Room password is NOTE, and the Teacher's Lounge copier password is WORK, though we don't need this for anything.  The security report indicates that lights were left on in the library, Connie Watson's backpack was found in the student union, and a toolbox was left in the boiler room on the night of Jake's murder.  At 8:05 PM, Hal Tanaka was seen peering into the school's entrance.  At 8:30 some individuals were arguing outside the gym -- a shortish red-haired male and a bigger male with a football jersey with 8 or 0 on it.  Daryl Gray, Nathan Gomber and Yvonne Wong were observed soaping the teacher's lounge windows and compelled to clean it up.  And at  12:01 am, the guard heard screams and found the body of a male teenager, almost certainly Jake Rogers.  So did Daryl not find the body?

We can open the teachers' file cabinet and peruse the Senior Final Papers.  Hal Tanaka's paper on etiquette is an obvious plagiarism of the essay we found earlier, containing the same typographical error, out instead of our.  A map bears the legend "A Trophy was not the only prize, but also money of a greater size" - Ag:D1. A bookshelf contains an old Paseo del Mar Biz Sheet, showing Gray Enterprises sustaining heavy losses but promising a return to strong profits; Gray was apparently under investigation for security leaks around its defense business.

As we are leaving the Teacher's Lounge, a threatening message comes in on Nancy's cell phone -- from a Mitch Dillon?  He's not very anonymous, thanks to Caller ID.  Looking up a braille alphabet online (or in the school library -- I did independent research before realizing the information should also be available in-game), we can get into the maintenance area and use the service elevator.  This takes us to the boiler room, where we see that the school was established in 1967, according to a plaque on the wall.  We can also get some gloves from the toolbox here.

Daryl is touchy about the Gray Enterprises situation, and admits that the night of the soaping prank was the night of Jake's murder, but that's all he'll say.  "Uncle Steve" says Mitch Dillon is a suspect, and if he does anything beyond calling to let him know.  Gee, thanks, Officer!  He also says that the situation with Mitch is "covered," and won't give Nancy any more information.  Nancy can call Mitch back at his business number -- he runs an Air Conditioning/Heating company -- and he denies threatening her, but threatens to find a permanent solution for her "problem."

It seems like a good time to interrogate the student body more closely.  Hal admits to the plagiarism when questioned, saying he was desperate to keep up with his extra college scholarship coursework, and Nancy learns he was blackmailed into doing Jake's homework.  He also says that shortly before Jake died, he mentioned he was late for a meeting with Daryl Gray.  Connie says Hal seems burnt out and stressed.  We can also notice (just visually, there's no clickable hotspot) that Connie is wearing a kanji symbol on a medallion around her neck.  Hulk Sanchez denies that his injury has hurt his chances at all, and claims not to know anything about the pharmacy robbery.

We can order the coded steps we do have, but we need three more... two more, actually, I missed a bulletin board by the entrance.  This one gives us  He:U2, along with a clue about the meaning of the U/D/L/R parts of the code in case we needed one.  Another clue posted by the library is in numeric code -- the values are suspiciously in the range 1-26, so we can break this one easily to read, "COOL, COOL, POP, SPOT, GRAPE", labeled Y:D3.  Just one more missing!

The new soda machine code turns out to be an optional puzzle; it yields an easter egg, and pads Nancy's purse nicely with 99 coins.  Calling Tony's Pizza at 555-TONY doesn't yield any information; we can overhear Connie and Hulk arguing near the gym, and Connie apparently does something physically painful to Hulk to make her point, offscreen.

Nobody seems to want to talk to Nancy anymore at this point, but we still have some code-cracking to do.  "SJOUHRANI is my cash cow" seems worthy of further investigation.  Could it be HECTINOL?  One letter too many.  Is OU one symbol?  Does the WERDYCNAN code on the jukebox follow the same mode?  Is there a letter-frequency basis we can use to break this down?  Ack.

It seems Connie may be the masked Judo champion, she wears a crane medallion and there's a Crane judo school; it also occurs to me that the masked judo champion's name, Nineco, is an anagram of Connie.  But figuring this out doesn't give us any obvious way to move the story forward.

I'm getting stuck here, so a walkthrough comes in handy -- the menu message is HIS JOURNAL IS MY CASH COW; nothing to do with Hectinol, I just missed a highlighted L on the menu!  And the jukebox text is just NANCY DREW backwards.  I've been completely on the wrong track with my decryption attempts!

I also learn that we can exchange the soup ladle for a bolt cutter, hidden under the cutting table in the kitchen at Maxine's; I doubt I would have noticed we can look under the table otherwise.  Can we use the bolt cutters in the boiler room somewhere?  The plaque on the wall is unmovable.  But I had missed a detail earlier -- the toolbox where we found the gloves belongs to Dillon HVAC.  The plot thickens!

I also missed the map drawers in the corner of the library -- and the clue leading to it -- because the constrained navigation common to the Nancy Drew series, due to its prerendered visuals and scripted point-and-click "3-D" pathways, led me to believe we couldn't get to it.  Now that I discovered a way to see it and go to it, we can open a drawer and get the 18th clue, Na:L3.  The accompanying message appears to be "CHUNDER MY COMBO IN CATALOG!" -- odd: Vomit my Happy Meal into the Sears & Roebuck?   Then I realize that the red letters comprise the first part of the message, and the blue letters the second, so it's really "IF ANYTHING HAPPENS TO ME, SEAR-ch under my combo in catalog."  Searching on the code 5253 produces a fake entry, a pseudo-book called Evidence, by J. Rogers, stored Under my Seat in Reference...

Yes! Under a chair by Rogers' chemistry book is a tablet with greek symbols on it.  This is almost certainly the "box" we have to solve, but I don't have the matchbook yet so I don't know where to start.

Back to the diner we go, but there's nothing new here; according to a walkthrough, we're apparently supposed to get a note from Dillon HVAC via Daryl, but nothing of that sort is happening.  So I'd better make sure I've found all the other clues, I guess.  Reference books in the library indicate, among other things, that Lizzie Applegate wrote "The Bandit's Treasure," referenced by the other cryptic book at Aunt Eloise's house, and another volume helps Nancy identify the kanji for Crane, on Connie's medallion.

Now Daryl is a little more talkative -- as open as this adventure's structure seems, there's still some enforced linearity.  "Uncle Steve" has left the diner, but Daryl says he's been acting strangely -- apparently he lost something at the diner last week and went "psycho," accusing the staff of stealing it.  Now Daryl hands us a note promising a solution to the mystery -- we are to meet the sender in the basement of the maintenance room at the school.  This note comes from Dillon again, apparently -- he used a company envelope!  If anonymity is his goal, he's really bad at it.

In the boiler room, the fire is burning much hotter than usual -- perhaps we'll see if the emergency warning on the wall about overheating is correct.  A matchbook is here, apparently the one we've been looking for -- it has a greek symbol on it -- next to a Maxine's cup.  Was the matchbook what "Uncle Steve" lost?  Is he in cahoots with Dillon?  Whoops, I wasted too much time investigating the clues, and now the furnace has blown a hole in the wall... and Nancy.  We'd better tend to the crisis quickly -- we can cut the chain off with the bolt cutters instead of messing with the combination lock, but we have to lower the levers in a puzzle sequence to match the dial positions shown on the emergency poster on the wall.

With the furnace returned to normal operating condition, we see that the elevator controls are broken.  We can exit through a grate -- and the videocassette we've been looking for is sitting conveniently in front of it.  Now let's try to open Jake's puzzle box!  Starting with the symbol from the matchbook and pressing buttons in a pattern defined by the element-sorted codes, it clicks open, and contains... another videocassette?

We hurry back to Aunt Eloise's house to use her VCR.  One video accuses Daryl Gray of selling military secrets from his Dad's corporation, to... Dillon HVAC???  Jake Rogers apparently found out and was blackmailing Dillon for money.  And Dillon isn't using the military tech to design better heating and cooling systems -- he's selling them to "Uncle Steve," which explains why the police officer has been rather unhelpful, and why he wants "the journal" so badly -- it's actually his record of the whole industrial espionage operation.  We learn that it's taped under a book cart at the school, though in my playthrough I did not have a chance to retrieve it at this point.  The other videotape shows Hulk Sanchez obtaining Hectinol, Connie stashing a trophy and her ninja costume, and Hal plagiarizing his essay -- Jake was apparently running a substantial blackmailing operation.  (If we don't have both videotapes at this point, apparently we can take time to go back to the school and confront the students -- but in my playthrough I didn't get to do that, as the endgame kicks in as soon as we view Jake's hidden tape.)

Before we can leave Aunt Eloise's house, Detective Beech arrives -- and Nancy lets slip that she's found his journal, rather than referring it to as Jake's.  He holds her at gunpoint, casually confirms that Dillon killed Jake, and demands to know where his journal is.  All of Nancy's options are lies -- according to her, it's somewhere in or around the house's entrance.  This allows the designers to get some late exposition out of the way -- while he's hunting wherever Nancy directs him, a little dialogue moves the story along.

Finally, Nancy can hint that the journal is concealed behind the tapestry, in the safe, and then lie to him about the combination -- hopefully we'll find out what sort of booby trap Aunt Eloise has set up. We have to give him the wrong password three times, at which point a burglar-proof cage drops down and surrounds the would-be safecracker.  The bad guy is behind bars -- and apparently the local authorities are rather embarrassed about having a criminal on the force, right under their noses, so they're concealing his identity:

The students confess to their various offenses and deceptions, just to put a tidy ending on everything.  And Nancy is off to relax by the seashore for a while:

All's well that ends well -- for Nancy, anyway.  She kicks back on the beach, and doesn't seem to be at all concerned about the late Jake Rogers, the likely-to-lose-his-scholarship plagiarist Hal Tanaka, the steroid-addicted and game-injured would-be athlete Hector "Hulk" Sanchez, or the likely-to-be-convicted Daryl Gray.  Connie's situation is, thankfully, a bit more ambiguous -- we can at least hope that she gets over her fight fright and goes on to a successful judo career.

The game wraps up with an old adventure game tradition -- promoting the next game in the series with a preview of Nancy Drew #23: Shadow at the Water's Edge, inspired by Japanese horror films and providing a marked contrast to this early, relatively simple tale.  I'll likely keep returning to this series now and then -- the games are fun and challenging, but they also tend to be a little formulaic, so I'll just keep them in the mix.