Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Oddities: Friday the 13th (1988)

In the Atari 2600 days, Wizard Video's games based on slasher classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were controversial and sold "under the counter" to minimize negative publicity.  Fast forward to 1988, and the world has changed -- Friday the 13th is published by LJN Toys for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and sold at Toys'R'Us with an official Nintendo seal:

The credits screen is more complicated than the norm, with an unusual distinction of the "underlying source code" as belonging to LJN Toys Ltd., separate from the intellectual property of Friday the 13th owned by Paramount:

LJN Toys was notorious for producing weak games, often with exaggerated and unfulfilled claims on the box, but Friday the 13th is fairly accurately described.  The gameplay is not the usual 8-bit side-scroller, though its attempt to make an adventure game of sorts out of the concept doesn't make for a compelling experience either.

The concept borrows a bit from Mystery Mansion -- the player has six different camp counselors available to pit against perennial franchise villain Jason Voorhees, choosing one at a time to take on the challenge at Camp Crystal Lake:

The player has to round up clues and artifacts by wandering around the campsite, rescuing campers and eventually assembling the necessary ritualistic elements to take on Jason.  This isn't an immediately terrible idea, but the implementation leaves much to be desired.  For starters, the map shown so neatly above doesn't work that way in-game -- instead, we travel left and right in a side-scrolling view, with occasional roads "into" and "below" the screen available.

This approach makes it very difficult to get our bearings, especially because since Jason is being kept out of play for the climactic confrontation, so we have to make do with ersatz enemies unrelated to the franchise.  These fright-wig wearing, slow-walking zombies aren't even much of a threat -- only one ever appears onscreen at a time in the early going, and we can either beat them down by throwing rocks at them, or simply jump over their heads and leave them behind.  (Different counselors have different abilities; George can jump high and easily leap over the zombies.)  Even when the enemies are not really dangerous, the constant harassment makes it hard to map the world out -- the relationship between the map and the in-game display is there, but it's not very intuitive.

Occasionally we are allowed to enter a building and search for clues and items:

Again, this isn't a bad design idea, but it's let down by clumsy execution.  Walking around in the cabin is awkward because we can only walk forward or turn; turning is almost instantaneous, while walking forward requires the counselor sprite to crawl up the screen a few steps before the display refreshes, giving the navigation a clumsy rhythm.  It feels like we're slogging through molasses when we try to explore this interiors, and there's no dramatic reason for it; there also don't seem to be any enemies inside, so there's precious little horror going on here.

We can run into other counselors in cabins and switch places with them.  In these pre-ESRB days, it seems an opportunity is wasted here to build on the slasher genre's ultimately conservative morality by allowing George to "TAKE" Debbie or vice-versa, summoning Jason as punishment:

We can take a rowboat out, where we are harassed by crows and yet more zombies that come flying out of the river like Castlevania's fish-men creatures, except not fun as sometimes they simply and inescapably land on our heads:

And on occasion a camper is threatened -- an alarm goes off and the map shows us a flashing cabin where the attack is taking place.  But we can't always get there in time, and if we run into Jason on the way, he can make short work of any idiot camp counselor, albeit not as creatively as in the movies -- he basically throws an axe at us until we die a bloodless death:

Note also Jason's unusual color scheme -- blue mask and hands, purple jumpsuit and hair.  The NES' color palette was limited, but these are odd choices by any measure.

Friday the 13th ultimately feels more like a clumsy scavenger hunt than a horror movie come to life -- we enter small cabins with nothing of interest in them, and occasionally a larger building with a note that serves as a clue to the next note we must look for.  We need to pick up artifacts and items so that we can carry out basic assigned tasks like lighting fires in fireplaces, but most are not hidden anywhere specific, instead showing up in mid-air when we wander around the woods avoiding half-hearted foes.  The whole experience seems slow-paced and random, only hazily building toward a climax we begin to suspect will be less than riveting.  I imagine most players, like myself, gave up before really getting close to victory.

LJN Toys Ltd. and Friday the 13th -- two occasionally acceptable tastes that taste awful together.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Gremlins (1983)

I always like to be topical for the Halloween week, so it seems like a good time to tackle Brian Howarth's Gremlins - The Adventure, casting the player as teen-aged Billy Peltzer from the now-classic dark comedy movie written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante.  As the computer game industry matured, and visibility and revenue grew with it, legitimate licensing began to replace the "Space Trak" games of the wild-and-wooly early days, and so it was that Adventure International and Warner Brothers reached an agreement to produce an official Gremlins adventure game (Atari had a license as well, releasing more action-oriented titles for its 2600 and 5200 consoles.)

It's a traditional Scott Adams-format adventure game -- for visual appeal, I'm playing the Sinclair Spectrum ZX version with graphics by Teoman Irmak.  The artwork is rendered using character-mapped images, not vector-and-fill drawings as in earlier Adventure International games on the Speccy; they display much faster, but consume more memory, which may be why several locations lack illustrations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will here note that I am a big Gremlins geek.  This is currently gracing our kitchen:

Interested readers are encouraged, as (almost) always, to experience Gremlins - The Adventure firsthand before proceeding with my playthrough notes below.  The game is very tightly plotted and challenging, with only a few obtuse puzzles that can generally be figured out as other possibilities are eliminated.

We begin in immediate danger, as a GREMLIN throws a dart at us!  (The game's text tends to emphasize the registered trademarks of Warner Bros. Studios.)  We have only one move to react, and my decision to check Inventory (and find nothing there) proved fatal.  Restarting, we can DUCK to avoid the first dart, but a second one is shortly on its way.  The gremlin seems to have an endless supply, and we can't JUMP or CRAWL to find another way to avoid them, or GET GREMLIN to interfere.  Our only apparent option is to run DOWN the stairs to the living room.

Of course, there's another Gremlin here, but he seems unarmed and there's a tempting sword on the wall, as well as a PELTZER Remote Control (which, based on inventor/Dad Randall Peltzer's track record, isn't likely to be reliable or effective.)  We can GET SWORD and KILL GREMLIN -- the head lands in the fireplace.  (If memory serves, this moment was in the shooting script but portrayed less graphically in the actual film -- Gremlins was one of the PG movies that helped establish the need for the PG-13 rating.)

The sword is useless against the dart-thrower upstairs.  Venturing into the kitchen, we see a microwave oven, a closed laundry chute, and another Gremlin standing on the blender.  Can we START BLENDER?  No... but trying to OPEN CHUTE suggests we PRESS BUTTON... and when we do this, it actually starts the microwave and cooks a gremlin already in it.  Another PRESS BUTTON starts the blender, and we've blended that one into green goo.  The carnage is piling up fast!  A third PRESS BUTTON, and the laundry chute opens to reveal...

Billy's pal GIZMO, the little MOGWAI!   While the game's artwork is generally pretty good, the likeness of Gizmo leaves something to be desired -- he calls to mind an irritated Fred Flintstone in a bat costume:

It seems appropriate to GET GIZMO and take him along, for cuteness' sake if nothing else.  And we can also PUSH BUTTON two more times -- is this what point-and-click adventures started out like? -- to open the drawer and LOOK in it twice, acquiring a kitchen knife and a spark igniter.  Presumably further gremlin abuse lies in our very near future.

Leaving the house through the open front door, we arrive in the Peltzer driveway.  Heading north leads to a road into town; south takes us to Mr. Futterman's garage, where there's a snow plough (more common as a UK spelling) and a ladder.  We can GET LADDER; EXAMINE PLOUGH reveals controls etc., but we can't seem to do anything much here at the moment.

Heading into town, we find more evidence of the game's United Kingdom origins, as we encounter a Petrol Station to the east.  We can enter the station to see a service bay with a pit, containing a welding torch, gas bottle, valve & pipe.  I don't know if we need these, so we'll just make note for now.

Further down the road, we find Dorry's Tavern, where Zach's girlfriend Kate works in the movie.... though there are a bunch of Gremlins in here, and no sign of her.  We can't hang around too long before being savaged by the Gremlins.  There's also a gang of the creatures blocking the village square north of Dorry's?  No, they're just depicted in some locations and not in others once they start following us around.

At the east end of our small town is a Department Store, a Cinema, and the same bunch of Gremlins.  Just like in the movie, the cinema is showing Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (though this is only hinted at in the artwork and never explicitly stated in the text, probably because the license did not include permission to use the Disney property.)  It seems we're being pursued by trouble now, as the gang of gremlins is still following us around, and as we go into the department store we hear an engine start.  We'd better get out, as we shouldn't be near the movie's ending yet.  (This proves to be a bad assumption on my part, anyway, as unlike the movie, the game does not end in the department store!)

In the cinema, we can access the projection room and START PROJECTOR to disperse the gang of gremlins as they go to watch one of executive producer Steven Spielberg's favorite movies.  Unfortunately, as we exit the theatre we are instantly killed by a Snow-Plough driven by Gremlins.  Is this a timing device?  Is that the motor we heard starting earlier?

Backtracking to an earlier saved game, we can go to the west side of town to visit the Y.M.C.A -- things are quiet now, but there's likely to be a Gremlin population explosion here soon, courtesy of the swimming pool where everybody can get themselves wet after midnight.  We can head this possibility off by GOing into the POOL and GETting the PLUG, draining the water away.  Good, I hope.

In town, to the north, we find a mail box, but can't seem to do anything with it.  And I get hit by a gremlin-driven snow plough again.  So... it seems like the puzzles aren't really too difficult here, if one is familiar with the movie -- the key is to do everything as quickly as possible!  Let's check out the department store before we start over for efficiency's sake.

The Hardware Department has an electric drill, a hacksaw, a smashed bent, a display counter, and a power mains outlet (i.e., a standard wall socket.)  There's some jointing tape on the counter if we look there.  There are also some stairs leading up, and a spare room with a smashed vent and, in my playthrough, a returning gang of gremlins who pursue us from room to room as before.

The second floor has a reception room, with another smashed vent.  The third floor has corridors, with doors; we can access a few small offices, where we see more smashed vents.  Are we supposed to be closing these vents or something?  The fourth floor has a corridor with a locked door, and there's a trap door in the ceiling.

Running back downstairs with the gremlins in hot pursuit, we see nothing much of use in the sports department, and a toy department where I was hoping to find a little car for Gizmo to drive (as seen in the film) but came up empty.  I grabbed the jointing tape from the Hardware department but was unable to FIX VENT or REPAIR VENT with it.

So it seems we've mapped out most of the world -- what to do next?  We can get the welding equipment from the petrol station, but the snow-plough is rampaging around already.  Time to start over.

This time, I stop by the station and liberate the welding equipment before going to Dorry's.  We need to figure out how to use this stuff as a weapon.  OPEN VALVE turns on the gas.  IGNITE TORCH uses the spark igniter to light it.  But can we FIX TAPE or FIX TORCH to finish the job? 

Hmmm... if we DROP GIZMO in the department store, he jumps into the Vent system.  Maybe he has something in mind?  With the ladder, we can enter the trapdoor in the fourth floor ceiling to reach the roof of the department store.  But eventually the gang of gremlins arrives and we're dead if we are spending too much time trying to figure things out.

So... what else?  We can WELD CONTROLS to keep the snow-plough from getting out of the garage, that should help.  And we already know how to occupy the gang of gremlins when it manifests.  With that done, we are out of immediate danger, but what to do?  There doesn't seem to be anything to do on the roof, and we haven't dealt with the gremlins at Dorry's yet.

We can't BURN TAVERN, and eventually another gang of gremlins arrives -- actually, the movie ended, it appears, so we can return to the cinema and start the projector up again to occupy them for a while.  It seems we should be moving the story toward some sort of climax now, but how?  And what about the mailbox?

Hmmmmm.  What haven't we tried?  There's still one live gremlin at the house.  We couldn't kill him with the sword, but the kitchen knife works and we can now acquire the flashlight (the empty gremlin pods and leftover chicken scraps are beyond my Power to carry, apparently.)  It's interesting that this Howarth game contains both a torch and a flashlight, I have mistaken the European usage of "torch" both ways while playing his earlier games.

Can we find some stationery in the department store office and send a letter to the Chinese shop where Mr. Peltzer got Gizmo in the first place to summon help?  Apparently not; adventure games are usually much more concrete than that idea would require.  Can we mail anything else?  Most items produce a slightly misleading I don't understand you response, but MAIL FLASHLIGHT produces an evil giggle from the mailbox?

We can GO BAR inside Dorry's -- there are beer pumps with a half-inch diameter plastic pipe attached, and a camera.  GET CAMERA, PRESS BUTTON, and the flashbulb causes all the gremlins to flee.  We can CUT PIPE using the hacksaw too.

Returning to the YMCA to take care of the pool, which I hadn't done yet in this, my umpteenth attempt, I realize that the DROP ALL command is handy, but each drop actually consumes a turn, so if we try to do that while there's a gang of gremlins around, we die after the third drop!  Oops.

Recovering again, can we open the mailbox?  Do we want to?  While trying to do so, I end up using the camera too many times to ward off roaming gangs -- it apparently will only flash twice, so it fails as a gremlin-dispersing tactic after that.  I should probably restart and save that second flash.  We can't OPEN MAILBOX or KNOCK MAILBOX or CUT MAILBOX or SAW MAILBOX.  Ah -- but we can CUT MAILBOX with the welding torch, except An arm whips out from box and closes valve!  And does so repeatedly.  Hmmmm.  Can we tape the valve open?  Apparently not.

Oh, here's an idea that will force me to restore to a point prior to my error -- what happens if the flashlight is lit when I put it in the mailbox?  That makes more sense.  We now see that  STRIPE the GREMLIN jumps out and runs off!  And now we can use the torch to CUT MAILBOX... into little metal plates?  Ah, maybe this is how we cover the vents all over the department store.  That's going to be quite a job.  We'll UNLIGHT our recovered FLASHLIGHT in case we need it later.

Gangs of gremlins continue to appear, so we repeatedly have to play projectionist to keep them occupied.  I'm feeling like I don't really want Gizmo to enter the vent system, as it feels like the idea is to trap the gremlins in the vents.  And then maybe pump gas in?  Now the tools in the hardware store make sense.  (This possible ending differs from the film, which gave Gizmo a much more prominent role.)

Back in the store's hardware department, we have to PLUG DRILL, then DRILL PLATE; it drills a hole in the plate on the wall, not one of the plates we have in hand.  Hmmmm.  We can't TAPE PIPE to the plate.  JOIN PIPE seems to be recognized, but I can't do that just now.

What else?  There's still that locked door on the upper floor -- ah, Gizmo does need to go into the vent system to open the door for us.  Now we can weld that vent shut, and seal all the other ones, leaving the one on the roof open; wait for the gremlins to arrive; use the camera flash to scare them into the vent; and WELD PLATE one last time to seal the gremlins inside the vent system.

Now what?  We can DROP BOTTLE, GET TAPE, JOIN PIPE... nope, still can't join it. If we CUT PIPE... all the Gas escaped!  I don't stand a chance now! I'm DEAD!!  Remembering to CLOSE VALVE first works better.  We have to INSERT PIPE, also, so that we have a Pipe from bottle to plate visible onscreen.

Have we rounded up all of the gremlins?  They're not in the movie theatre anymore, and I haven't seen the gang turn up for a while.  I'm glad I had gone outside looking for a way to ignite the gas, as in fact it's just a matter of time before... Boooommm! Gas exploded! I destroyed all the GREMLINS except... STRIPE the GREMLIN knocks me down!

Fortunately we have drained the YMCA pool, so the boss gremlin's last attempt to produce a new army fails, as he jumps into the empty pool, and the sun comes out just in time to fry him.  But the game isn't quite over yet... do we need to go back home?  Fortunately, it seems Gizmo is okay with the sun out -- bright light isn't bothering him at this point... wait, what happened?  STRIPE recovered and reached water, you say?  And we're dead again, with the town overrun by gremlins?  How did that happen?

We can't leave Gizmo at home -- he follows us around, so it's probably safer to carry him.  Restoring and waiting for the explosion again... okay, I see what I missed.  Stripe has thudded into the pool, but he isn't dead yet, just dazed.  We have to drop everything, GO POOL, GET STRIPE and carry him outside.  And as soon as he hits the sunlight, victory is ours!

Mr. Howarth maintains a tight sense of urgency in this game, with some threats that can be contained and some that must just be dealt with, and it makes for a challenging but not unfairly frustrating experience.  It's interesting to see a few differences between the game and the film, especially the substantially different ending, which helps keep the experience fresh while preserving some of the key moments fans will remember from the movie.  We still have a few Brian Howarth games to tackle -- he produced this and several more games after his Mysterious Adventures series ended, and I'm sure you'll be seeing more of his work featured here in future.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Sands of Egypt (1982)

Once in a while I like to blog about a vintage adventure I've experienced before, for the sake of nostalgia and to see how it's held up over time.  I first played The Sands of Egypt (1982) on the TRS-80 Color Computer, but for this return visit it was easier to track down the original Atari 400/800 version.  Datasoft didn't produce many adventures, but I had fond memories of their illustrated games and wanted to play through this one again.  (Emulation tip: it seems to run only on older Atari machines, it froze for me in 800 XL mode and would not run past the title screen, but ran fine on an OS-B configuration.)

The title screen is surprisingly simple and quiet given the Atari computers' audiovisual power; in-game, the interface design features an illustration on the upper section of the screen, with simple scrolling animation on many screens.  Text entry and response are handled by the lower section, and available exits are efficiently indicated with a compass rose.  The graphics aren't as brilliant as I remember them being -- most of the layouts are fairly schematic and perspective is sometimes a little odd.  At least the visuals are an integral part of the experience, as some important objects can only be located by examining the imagery.

I usually suggest that readers tackle the adventures I cover here before reading my playthrough notes, for the sake of savoring the experience firsthand, but I have to say that The Sands of Egypt aren't particularly hospitable.  The parser is obstinate even when the player has exactly the right idea, and the early going requires a lot of blind exploration in an extensive and unmappable desert.  So consider yourself forewarned if you intend to play it, and also forewarned if you proceed, as there are still going to be plenty of...

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

We initially find ourselves lost in the desert, naturally, with nothing in inventory, as clouds scroll lazily across the blue sky.  And we see nothing but sand.  If we're lucky, we can wander around until we stumble across the top of a cliff.  We can see a tiny speck of blue off in the distance, and are able to climb D to the base of the cliff, though we can't get back up from where we land.

We can wander around the base of the cliff, eventually running across some old rope -- it crumbles to dust as we pick it up, but You notice however that it was made from braided palm fronds, which sounds suspiciously like a clue.  Depending on how much wandering it took to get here, we are also growing thirsty... then very thirsty... then we are dying of thirst, likely to die very soon.

At least the old rope helps us to do a little mapping if we don't touch it -- there isn't much to do at the base of the cliff beyond noticing the rope, and the three locations are distinguished by the available exits.  From the original base location, we can go W, S, then E to find ourselves suddenly at an inviting-looking pool, with a camel standing nearby and a pyramid off in the distance.  We're still quite thirsty, but the game casts us cruelly: You are a civilized explorer - if you have no canteen, then you will not drink.  Really?  Even at the dehydrated brink of death?  We can even GO POOL and SWIM -- My that's refreshing -- but remain resolutely committed to dying of thirst.

Entering the pool, we can see a drain cover with a handle, but we can't seem to PULL HANDLE.  And I couldn't figure out how to exit the pool before dying of thirst -- irony!  Ah -- on a retry I learned we can CLIMB STEPS at the edge.  But we have no canteen or camel chow, so this seems like a dead end for the moment.

What else?  Closer examination reveals that the desert locations' graphics do subtly change layout -- the bumps on the ground shift in each location, so maybe we can map it out that way.  But... hmmm... no, they're not that consistent.  I did find a shovel in a room to the west of the top of the cliff, and a nasty snake north of that location, who is prone to striking and killing.  But we can KILL SNAKE - How? - WITH SHOVEL, leaving behind a pool of snake oil; we can also travel to the east and discover... nothing, really.  But we can dig in another spot and find a torch.

We might as well see what else we can dig up -- there's a magnifier south of the cliff, but no sign of a canteen yet, unfortunately.  It finally turns up in the northeastern reaches of the desert, and once we have it, we can get the snake oil.  That might not be a good idea just yet, considering the hydration situation; we certainly can't DRINK OIL, so we'll have to do something with it once we have it.

At least we have enough useful items to do some actual puzzle-solving now, instead of wandering around trying to map the vast and unforgiving desert that creates most of the game's early challenge.  Now we begin to run into the parser's major limitation -- it often supports the designer's idea of what we should do, with few alternatives considered.  For instance, we have to GO TREE and then CLIMB TREE at the pool to retrieve some dates for the hungry camel; trying to CLIMB TREE directly acts as though the tree isn't an object we can interact with.  And we can't climb the tree while carrying very much; at least, one appreciates the parser's support for DROP ALL and GET ALL, as it saves us some thirst-provoking movement.

We can now FEED CAMEL with the dates, MOUNT CAMEL, and RIDE CAMEL to the pyramid to examine a carving.  There's a real scepter mounted in the carving, and since archaeological integrity is not on our to-maintain list, we can GET SCEPTER - How? - PULL SCEPTER... oh, wait, It's stuckOIL SCEPTER helps, and we can afford to EMPTY CANTEEN afterward to get rid of the oil.

I ran into further parser trouble while trying to get back to the pool before dying of thirst -- I was able to feed the camel another date, ride back to the pool, fill the canteen... and then DRINK WATER failed, and so did DRINK CANTEEN.  I had similar problems on the retry, until I noticed that FILL CANTEEN leaves it on the ground, so we have to GET CANTEEN before we can DRINK (DRINK WATER and DRINK CANTEEN still don't work.)

Okay, now it feels like we're getting somewhere.  The scepter is shaped like a hook, just like the handle on the pool cover, so let's see if we can drain the pool now.  We can't USE SCEPTER or HOOK HANDLE or PULL COVER, it seems... ah, we have to HOOK HOOK - To what? - TO HANDLE.  We can now open the cover -- well, not OPEN COVER or PULL COVER or PULL HANDLE but PULL SCEPTER -- to drain the pool, and go down the drain into... pitch blackness.  And By moving around in the dark you have managed to fall into a pit filled with snakes.  You die almost immediately.

Back to a saved game we go, to CLIMB PYRAMID on a return trip via camel, where we find an axe we can use to CUT FRONDS from the palm tree by the pool.  And LIGHT TORCH - How? - WITH MAGNIFIER to make our way down the drain.  We're now in an underground canal, traveling east and west.  Well, not traveling, exactly -- if we go E, we end up being devoured by deadly South American PIRANHA (imported by a Peruvian merchant, according to the game.)

So W it is!  Here we find a boat, and should use it, as going further W puts us back into the piranha-infested waters.  We can FLOAT BOAT and GO BOAT to find ourselves traveling the canal.  We have to ROW BOAT a few times to reach an archway, though after we dock and disembark to explore a tomb, the boat drifts away... we probably should have made a rope out of those palm fronds, and maybe secured the boat to that vertical row of pixels that looks like it might be some kind of pole near the archway.  It's restoration time again.

Of course, the parser is up to its old tricks as we try to make up lost ground.  We can't MAKE ROPE - How? - WITH FRONDS, but we can BRAID FRONDS.  Sigh.  And then we can't TIE BOAT, but we can TIE ROPE - To what? - TO BOAT, and then TIE ROPE - To what? - TO POLE.  In that order, mind -- if we try to tie it to the pole and then to the boat, it ends up just tied to the boat, untied from the pole, and the boat drifts away again.  Ack!

With that issue addressed, we return to the tomb.  We can't READ HIEROGLYPHICS, as They're not in English, but we can TRANSLATE HIEROGLYPHICS for the usual -- we have to return the royal scepter to its proper place to gain access to the treasure, lest we be cursed.  Of course, I left the scepter aboveground, so it's faster to restore -- in fact, this is the only workable possibility for reasons that will become clear shortly -- and UNHOOK HOOK before coming down here.  So now we can PUT SCEPTER - Where? - ON SARCOPHAGUS... oh, wait, we can't do that?  That's not the proper place, apparently, it has to be put ON MUMMY.

Now the ground shakes, and a narrow crack opens in the wall!  We can't take much into the deeper recesses, but we can bring a ladder out after glimpsing too much fabulous treasure to carry.  I particularly like the raven and hippopotamus artifacts:

 (I also died of thirst here, because for no discernible reason, when we go through the drain, we drop the canteen and it empties!)  We can't PUT SCEPTER until after we have translated the hieroglyphics, either.

Now we can get the ladder and escape, unless we're dying of thirst, in which case we can fill the canteen from the canal and die from encountering a baby Piranha in the canteen instead.  Getting out of the boat is also a challenge, as we can't seem to EXIT BOAT or GO SHORE or CLIMB OUT or navigate out of it, and eventually we are swept over hitherto unmentioned falls.

To successfully get out of here, we have to untie the rope from both the pole and the boat (otherwise the rope somehow traps us in the boat), drift downstream, and DROP LADDER when we are near the hole in the roof, so we can CLIMB LADDER before going over the falls to get back to the pool.  Whew!

Now where do we go?  Well, the only real possibility seems to be to get back on the camel and see if he can take us somewhere new -- and yep, we ride back to civilization, with a nice refreshing cityscape too look at while we plan a return expedition to cart off the treasure and destroy irreplaceable archaeological evidence of a past civilization!  Victory is questionable at hand!

The Sands of Egypt is one of those old-school games that, for better or worse, derives most of its challenge out of delaying and interfering with the player's progress.  The parser and the map are both rather cruel, especially by modern, post-Lucasarts standards, and I'm kind of surprised I ever had the patience to finish this one as a youngster -- I suspect my limited game budget forced me to view the difficulty as good value for money at the time.  But it was still interesting, if frustrating, to revisit it, and now I believe I can die happy if I never play it again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Last City (1983/2001)

This week, we arrive at the twenty-first and last of the Roger M. Wilcox adventure games, a science fiction story fittingly titled The Last City.  It was written in 1983 for the TRS-80 and ported to the IBM PC several years later, which is why it remains the author's best-known game -- the PC port was well-circulated and even spawned some additional conversions.  In 2001, Wilcox brought The Last City to Windows, and for the sake of consistency with the rest of his rediscovered library, we'll be playing that version here.

If you consider yourself an old-school adventure gamer, you really owe it to yourself to go check out the Wilcox archives.  These nearly-lost games are completely in the tradition of the Scott Adams adventures by which they were inspired -- all of them are interesting and a few of them are really, really good.  As always, though, it's at your discretion -- I'm happy to document the experience for history's sake, and to that end, there shall be myriad...

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

We begin in a suitably post-apocalyptic setting -- the rubble-strewn remains of an east/west freeway, with nothing at all in inventory.  We are informed by a brief introduction that human technology was eventually surpassed by magic, and it proved our downfall.  We are now on a quest to rescue the last of human technology.

We can't even GET RUBBLE here, so let's explore the area a bit.  A seemingly endless desert borders the freeway on the north side, but we have nothing available to help us map the area, so we'll come back later.  South lies instant death in a magically-contaminated wasteland (though when this happened, I was actually able to continue playing after death -- the What now? prompt is visibly disabled, but we can still type blind and our commands will be processed.  This was in the 09/11/2013 build, and past experience suggests that Mr. Wilcox will fix the bug soon after he reads this!)

Sticking to the freeway route, we find the remains of an ancient boulevard to the east, leading to the edge of a gigantic domed city we can't enter via this path.  More interesting is a pawn shop on the north side of the street, where we can acquire a Small advanced device (with five button), Fulcrum, Plank, Sand shovel, and a Pick and pitons (for climbing, most likely.)

We have enough stuff now to facilitate mapping the desert, and... well, as it turns out, there's only the one room after all!  But we can DIG here with the sand shovel to find a Dirt shovel (such specialized hardware!) and a Key if we dig some more.

The freeway loops back on itself to the west, so there's nothing to explore out there.  Can we use the device to protect against the magic contamination?  PUSH ONE doesn't do much, nor does PUSH FIVE or anything in between.

I couldn't resist cheating a bit here, using my unexpected life-after-death powers to cross through the fatal wasteland and reach the foot of an ancient-looking castle, complete with a moat and a Raised drawbridge, with a picture of a half-donut on it.  Hmmmm.  I'm probably here too early.  And slightly hungry now.  At any rate, I've been exploring and experimenting quite a bit, and I begin getting these time-out warnings: "Magical premonition: city will cease to exist in 39 turns."  So there is some time pressure to deal with here.

So what can we do?  The concrete rubble on the freeway is in chunks too big to lift -- with the fulcrum and plank, though, we can MAKE LEVER, and USE LEVER to turn one chunk into a Levered-up concrete blockEXAMINE BLOCK reveals that Underneath it's only dirt, so the dirt shovel comes in handy as we DIG to find a Parchment.  It reads: "As our world crumbles down, the future I see: To go in is five-four, to go out is five-three!"  This sounds very useful indeed, but now the timer has gone to zero, and even though I'm not-quite-dead, the game is truly over; I can still make moves, but the screen keeps flashing and none of my moves register, probably because The last city of humankind has been destroyed!  The human race is forever lost to the cosmos.  So it's time to start over, reset the end-of-game timer, and see if I can play honestly this time.

On the second go, I confirm that the parchment speaks truth -- we PUSH FIVE and PUSH FOUR at the edge of the city, and we are transported inside the dome among Light human traffic.  (The layout inside the dome is a little awkward to visualize, as the dome curves around but we can only navigate in cardinal directions, so mapping is very valuable here.)  East of our entry point is City Hall, where a Perpetual lamp is available.

To the southwest, at the south edge of the city, is a cover we can open, revealing a passage downward.  We travel down a metal ladder to an area with horizontal pipes and a Half-donut, which suggests it has something to do with the castle... that, um, I haven't visited yet.

Near the north edge is the city's central tower, a monolith of sandstone that rises all the way up to the dome.  We can CLIMB the TOWER (using the pick and pitons, one presumes) to approach a Circular ceiling hatch, which is sealed and resists attempts to open it or break it for the moment.

Toward the east edge of the dome is an unused part of the city where various magic items are available -- examination establishes that one of the wands could be made operational, so we should GET WAND; It looks like it needs to be recharged.  (We have a seven-item inventory limit, so some discarding becomes necessary along the way, but most items have obvious and limited uses so it's not necessary to juggle too much.)

We can also PUSH FIVE, PUSH THREE at the east edge of the city to teleport through the eastern wall of the dome, where we find ourselves in a secluded rock formation.  There's nothing else of note here, but LOOK ROCKS reveals a Magic stone, which radiates a strong aura of protection

Finishing our urban exploration, we learn that using the device to teleport through the north and south walls of the dome sends us straight into solid granite or off the edge of a cliff, fatally so in both cases.  There's also a botanical section near the center of town, where hydroponics and potted flowers abound.  We can't seem to do anything with them, though, unless there's some subtle joke about the magic stone afoot here.

The stone allows us to pass through the magical wasteland safely, as expected.  At the castle, legitimately this time, we can THROW DONUT -- the two symbols combine and vanish, and the drawbridge opens.  Inside the foyer, a sign reads, "GO NO FURTHER."  But we'd be poor adventurers if we didn't go yes further anyway, to reach the castle's main audience chamber, where a Steel door and some Royal paraphernalia reside (to use with our magic stone hydroponics, no doubt.).  We can visit the royal quarters and try to GO BED -- No time for that now! You've got to save the city! -- and GO TOILET -- Thanks. I needed that.  Giving in to the temptation to LOOK TOILET reveals that There seems to be a passage behind it!  And we can go D to find an underground storage chamber, containing a Small plastic explosive (and, in a nice touch from the author, revealing that the castle is mostly illusion, as the reality distortion fades out a bit here, revealing the chamber to be conventional plastic of a decidedly non-royal character.)

Trying to USE EXPLOSIVE suggests that we need something at least as hot as a spark.  We can CHARGE WAND in the magical wasteland, where the contamination provides a power source, and discover that USE WAND creates a small lightning bolt, but it only holds one charge, so we'll have to save it for setting off the explosive.  Dropping the explosive near the sealed hatch and setting it off -- the most likely thing to try, it seemed to me -- opens up a passage into the dome.

On top of the dome, we find a Laser cutter -- surely the last piece of human technology we have been seeking?  But the plot has drifted slightly from its original stated premise, and the game isn't over yet -- we have to return to the castle and USE LASER to cut a hole in the steel door.

We now find ourselves in an unconceiled [sic] missile control room in front of a Humongous control console.  Aha!  This syncs up with the magical premonition -- there's a "Countdown at T minus 26 turns, and counting" displayed as I arrive here, while the premonition is also reporting in, saying that the city will cease to exist in 26 turns.  Can we stop the missile?  There's a black "SPEED LAUNCH" button, and an unlabelled red button.  Launching it didn't seem like the best option, so I decided to PUSH RED, causing the missile to detonate in its silo without launching, but still taking the city... and the player... with it.  So that's not the solution.

On the third try, we try what seems to be left to try, and aha!  We have to PUSH BLACK to launch the missile ahead of schedule, at which point we have one move available to PUSH RED and blow it up in mid-air.  Victory is ours, and a cheering crowd arrives to celebrate the brush with annihilation so cleverly instigated and then narrowly averted by the player!

Roger M. Wilcox considers The Last City to be the best of his twenty-one games, and it's a good one -- well-designed and not too cryptic, with sensible puzzles and a plot that develops quite nicely without being overtly spelled out.  It's been a pleasure working my way through this series during the past year, and I'm really glad these vintage adventures have been unearthed and re-released so long after they were created.  There's one more game that owes its existence to the Wilcox family, however, and I'm sure we'll be taking a look at it soon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Escape from Traam (1981)

This week, we're going to attempt to Escape from Traam, as we tackle this third game in the Other Ventures series written by Jyym Pearson and published by Scott Adams' Adventure International as an alternative to the founder's classic series.  Pearson's adventures were a bit different from the norm at the time -- they're more narratively structured, with tighter plotting and more constraints on the action, sacrificing some interactivity for the sake of dramatic set pieces.  The Other Ventures parser is more capable than Adams' early system in some ways, but also rather picky, and we're not often given a list of obvious exits, which makes mapping and survival a trial-and-error affair at times. 

For this post, I started out playing the 1980 TRS-80 version, but ran into a roadblock, an apparent bug that turned out not to be present in the slightly modified 1981 Apple II version, so I'll note the point where that transition occurred.  Here are the starting screens from both versions -- note that, unlike Adams' own portable engine-driven adventures, the OtherVentures were converted specifically for each platform, with some differences between versions as a result.  The TRS-80 edition features a single static graphic that occupies most of the right side of the screen, while the Apple II version toggles between vector-and-fill-and-scribble illustrations and text screens using the ENTER key:

Interested readers are encouraged to Escape from Traam independently before proceeding here -- but do let me suggest that you avoid the 1980 TRS-80 version and seek out the later revisions if at all possible, as in my case the original release proved unfinishable.  I also recommend having a walkthrough handy, as there was one "password" puzzle for which I never did find the legitimate solution!  Beyond this point I will be detailing my experience as fully as I can manage, so be advised that there are certain to be...

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

We begin IN THE COCKPIT OF A SMALL SPACE SHIP... FLYING OVER A FOREST -- and we have nothing in inventory, apparently just popping out to Traam for a gallon of milk or something.  We learn shortly that THE SHIP IS LOSING ALTITUDE, and if we LOOK at the control PANEL we learn that an alarm is beeping and a light is blinking.  There doesn't seem to be anything we can do to prevent the ship from losing altitude and crashing, but at least YOU HAVE SURVIVED afterward.

We're in a SMALL FOREST CLEARING now, and the only productive direction to go is south, where we find a SHEER CLIFF.  We can't CLIMB CLIFF -- YOULL [sic - no apostrophes allowed in Pearson's 1980 TRS-80 engine] FALL -- or JUMP -- ITS [see above] TOO DANGEROUS.   But LOOK CLIFF establishes that there's a stout bush growing near the top -- except the parser doesn't seem to recognize the word BUSH.  I had to LOOK SHIP an extra time -- earlier it was noted that there were scraps about, and the ship was upside down -- to discover a nylon rope, and GET ROPE doesn't work but GET NYLON ROPE does.

We can TIE ROPE TO BUSH (TIE ROPE doesn't work, nor does TIE BUSH or LOOK BUSH -- the parser's recognition is very context-sensitive) and then CLIMB ROPE to reach THE CREST OF A SHEER CLIFF.  East of this point is a BRUSH THICKET -- and we see that A LARGE ALIEN WARRIOR IS HERE READING A MAP.  We can CLIMB ROPE back up, but it's probably more interesting to see if this warrior is friendly or not.

The warrior can be observed to have an insectoid head, and the map is written in symbols.  TALK WARRIOR produces, "TFRBY AW HXW YCOV SBV VFCD RH XWFW."  We can't make it out, but he doesn't seem hostile.  Is this another one of those linguistically-improbable alien letter substitution codes? 

Time for some code-cracking guessing based on common letters and short, common words -- if AW were to translate to IN, then we would get the rather impenetrable:

     ____ IN __N ___ ___ ___ __ _N_N
That last word probably won't translate to ANON or ONAN, so let's try something else.  If HXW = THE, then we get this more promising result:

     ____ _E THE ___ ___ ____ _T HE_E
Maybe the last word is HERE -- starting by letting F = R, we can guess in similar fashion that A = M, T = B, R = I, B = N, Y = G, C = O, S = A, V = D, D = P, and maybe O = L to get to this adventurey-sounding command:

This makes sense, and is well within the player's abilities and the game's interface.  What an alien wants with gold, we may never know, but the creature doesn't keep us from traveling south, to a valley where we find a cave entrance to the west and another hill further south.

It is, of course, too dark to see inside the cave, and once we're in it's very difficult (I thought it was impossible at first) to get back out.  So let's CLIMB HILL and see what we can do at THE EDGE OF A STRANGE SILVER STREAM.  The stream is notably EERIE and steams, so it's not surprising we can't SWIM or wade into it; we can travel west to a small wooded hill.  We can't do much here but get a frond if we LOOK TREE.  The frond is a large stiff leaf; can we use it as a makeshift raft?  We can't seem to DROP FROND IN STREAM or RIDE FROND or MAKE RAFT.

Can we do anything in the cave?  We can't FEEL WALL or anything, but if we CLIMB CAVE we find ourselves in A SMALL DESERTED CABINLOOKing around (there's no EXAMINE verb) discovers a large, locked trunk with a keyhole, stashed in a hole in the floor.  The trunk is NOT A VISIBLE ITEM if we try to take it -- Pearson's games tend to use words that the parser doesn't recognize except in very specific usages -- and the only exit, to the north, takes us back to the valley.

So it seems we need a key, at the very least.  How can we cross or float down the stream?  I finally had to consult a walkthrough to learn that, back at our landing crashing site, we can MOVE SHIP to find a hand laser.   Also, that we can navigate around in the cave, in the dark, with LOOK alternating between IT'S TOO DARK, IF YOU COULD SEE ANYTHING I WOULD TELL YOU, and, if we keep going W and LOOKing... finally... at some semi-randomized point... YOU JUST BUMPED AGAINST AN OBJECTFEEL OBJECT suggests that IT FEELS LIKE STEPS, and CLIMB STEPS leads us to an ANCIENT ROOM with inscriptions on the walls and a dirt floor.

Dirt floor, eh?  We can try to DIG here, but the WITH WHAT? prompt leaves us few sensible options -- fortunately, WITH FROND works, and YOU HAVE UNCOVERED AN ANCIENT ALTAR (but are no closer to, and perhaps don't need to worry about, using the frond as a raft.)  The inscriptions on the walls translate as THE AL_HEMI_T, based on our earlier discovery, so assuming that U = C and G = S, we have THE ALCHEMIST at hand, perhaps a good source for gold if we can find some base metal to transmute.  There's a crudely carved stone cup here, also, which we can take with us.

West of the altar we enter an ancient stone hallway, occupying three "rooms" from north to south.  There's a hole in the roof at the north end, and if we CLIMB HOLE we are back at our landing site, though we can't seem to go back the way we came.  Oddly, now if we LOOK SHIP, we find a SILVER KEY that wasn't apparent before.  We can use the key to unlock the chest in the deserted cabin, finding a DICTIONARY.  Trying to read it indicates that we can't, but an ALPHABET CHART falls out.  We don't need it, at this stage -- apparently we were supposed to find this earlier instead of cracking the code ourselves -- but it reveals that it's a simple letter-offset cipher, wrapping around from S => A through N => Z.

So now what?  We can FILL CUP at the strange stream, although if we forget to GET CUP OF LIQUID afterward, as I did, we can find ourselves alone and befuddled at the altar.  Trying to PUT CUP ON ALTAR, YOU STUMBLED AND SPILLED THE LIQUID, and now the altar HAS SILVER STAINS ON IT.  Not what I wanted, nor did I even know silver could leave a stain!  Trying to POUR LIQUID ON ALTAR has the same unwanted effect.  Hmmm.  Trying to take the shortcut out to seek other possibilities, I discovered that the hole at the end of the hallway caves in, presenting a block of lead along with a hole-blocking quantity of rubble.  Ah -- if we POUR CUP here, apparently the cup itself is the Alchemist, and THE LEAD SMOKES AND CHANGES TO GOLD, producing a gold ball.  We have to navigate back out of the dark cave, going E from the steps location so we can CLIMB CAVE back to the cabin.  Whew!

After we DROP BALL at the alien warrior's location, TALK ALIEN (or any other move that consumes a turn) reveals that A LARGE GOLDEN TREE IS HERETALK ALIEN produces "OWSJW AW SOCBW," or "LEAVE ME ALONE," so I guess we're done with that bit of interaction.  We can CLIMB TREE -- an irreversible decision, so I'm glad I saved prior to doing so -- to find ourselves in a cave, where A SMALL MONKEY-LIKE CREATURE IS CHAINED TO A WALL.  We can attempt to UNCHAIN CREATURE, and the cave opens up to the south as A TREE GROWS THRU A HOLE IN THE WALL... no, wait, that's just a detail we only see if we LOOK -- we can't actually unchain the creature, and the path to the south is open already.

Heading south, we find ourselves in A MEADOW OF STRANGE BLUE GRASS near AN ODD LOOKING STATUE.  The statue is of a creature named VRUP BRLCB, or... good grief, DICK NIXON???   Perhaps proper names are not meant to be translated, or he was even trickier than we suspected.  We can MOVE STATUE -- it creaks and is now visibly tilting; PUSH STATUE and it tumbles over.  THERE'S AN INSECT UNDER THERE -- a Watergate-style bug, maybe? -- and closer examination suggests that IT'S A BUG IN THE PROGRAM.  Perchance Mr. Pearson is just having a little fun here.

We can go south to an area behind a row of large trees.  Heading east puts us suddenly IN THE MIDST OF A TRAAM WAR PARTY as THEY ATTACK.  We can try to SHOOT WAR PARTY, but it's the first death scenario we've run into -- THE TRAAMS MURDERED YOU.. AND DEVOURED YOUR CORPSE, as the game resets to the very beginning.

Restoring a recent save, we discover that we can climb one of the trees, a large blue tree that lets us travel east via the branches of an adjacent yellow tree, and CLIMB DOWN to land on the opposite side of the war party.  We can travel south to a LARGE CLEARING IN FRONT OF A TRAAM CITY.  Some TRAAMS ride up, though -- I think this is meant to be on horseback or something, as opposed to an escalator, the first image that came to my mind -- and it's a fatal situation again.  Hmmmm.

Restoring, if we LOOK before entering the clearing, we can see that THE TALL CREATURES RIDE ACROSS THE CLEARING ON STRANGE BEASTS.  We must be near the endgame, as we're dying a lot more frequently.  Trying to TALK TRAAMS is no more productive than shooting them; we can't leave the area after they arrive, either.  So maybe we're missing something we should have done earlier?

We can LISTEN outside the war party's location to hear, "KW OWZH HXW ASRB VCCF IBOCUPWV -- QIGH DIGX HWX DRB" --  translating to "WE LEFT THE MAIN DOOR UNLOCKED -- JUST PUSH THE PIN" -- it's unclear what that means just yet, but it's probably worth noting.  We can't hear anything intelligible from the hillside on the other side, but LOOK reveals a mound we can dig in, where we find the burial site of a Traam along with a pendant COVERED WITH STRANGE DESIGNS.

We can't PUSH PIN or SHOW PENDANT as the Traams ride up, at least not to any beneficial effect.  We can TALK MONKEY in the cave, to learn his name is STAMMD and that he speaks English.  He tells us our ship is in orbit, scanning for us, and that we have lost our memory.  It looks like the version we're playing here is slightly different from the one in the CASA walkthrough I'm referencing -- that document references a BLUE DOOR instead of the MAIN DOOR, and advises us to LOOK BUSH in the clearing.  I don't see any bush here, and LOOK doesn't reveal it -- but aha! LISTEN mentions that THERE'S A TINKLING SOUND FROM BENEATH A LARGE BUSH.  Ahem.  LOOK UNDER BUSH reveals a drainpipe leading into the ground.

We CLIMB DRAINPIPE and we're at the north end of a dark, dirty pipe.  Heading south, A FOUL SMELL REACHES YOU, and next A SMELLY LIQUID COVERS YOUR FEET.  At last, we reach a point where A STRANGE GAS IS SEEPING OUT OF A CRACK; it proves fatal if we hang around too long.  We can try to HOLD BREATH -- no go.  Hmmm...  time to look at the walkthrough again -- it seems I missed digging for a helmet back at the altar... except that doesn't seem to be the case in this version?  It looks like the word HELMET does exist in the dictionary, but after several backtracks and restarts, I still can't seem to DIG it up after uncovering the altar!  And it's clear that we're not going to get any further without it.

So at this point I decided to switch over to the Apple II version, which is a slightly different build with illustrations.  We still have to explicitly GET NYLON ROPE, etc., but gameplay is otherwise very similar -- with the key improvement that in this version, I was able to uncover the strange helmet after digging up the altar.  It's also easier to spot that the bush over the drainpipe exists with the help of the illustration!  And it also seems to match the walkthrough more closely, as we're apparently looking for a blue door now.

Replaying up to this point, we can PUSH PIN to open the blue door, encountering a human slave in a white uniform.  TALKing to him produces panic, he is quite sure that we will be killed by the Traamfla -- but we can travel south, reaching a room where a Traam gives an alert, and trying to KILL TRAAM is unsuccessful, as quite the opposite occurs.  We're better off killing the human slave and stealing his uniform, which FITS NICELY when we WEAR it.  (This is one of those ethically questionable puzzles adventure games are occasionally prone to -- apparently, one human's death is worth less than another's convenience.)

Now we can get into town, although one Traam does ask whose grave we violated to get the pendant, and we get killed if we loiter too long after the question is raised.  Moving hastily to the south, we find ourselves in a darkly painted room where we have AN EERIE SENSATION OF BEING WATCHED.  We next enter a room where a number of Traams lurk -- we SHOW PENDANT and are thrown into a cell.

Did that go right?  I suspect I missed something in town, where a staircase leads up to a brighter area.  Backtracking to an earlier save, I try dropping the pendant to avoid suspicion, and now we can CLIMB STAIRS from that room instead of being shot for illegal pendant possession.  There's A HUGE BLACK MAN IN A SLAVE'S UNIFORM here, which might be politically incorrect if not for the earlier Caucasian slave we met (and killed.)  He challenges us to tell us who he is.  The answer is KASTAMAN, which I wouldn't have known if I hadn't had access to a walkthrough.  Apparently there's some place in the game where we can hear "FIND KASTAMAN..." but I was not able to find the hint itself -- I saw it only in a binary search of the disk image -- and the original manual mentions nothing about it, nor does his reference to "THE THIRD PLANET" seem to suggest anything.

At any rate, Kastaman unlocks the door and lets us into a room where we find a cabinet, also locked.  But we can MOVE CABINET to reveal a door; it's dark inside, but if we LISTEN we can hear water rushing.  Going north, we find ourselves FALLING DOWN A DEEP PIT HEADING TOWARDS AN UNDERGROUND RIVER.  And we're soon dead, landing in a pool of icy water.  Heading west is much more successful, as we enter the library.

We can only interact with one book -- it's locked, but we can just BREAK LOCK to open it.  The book is quite short, and reads, "UNHOOK AUTO PRESSURE, LIFT DECOUPLING RING, AND PUSH THRUST BAR."   We don't even need to translate it, and these instructions sound worth noting for some later puzzle.  We can go east and south to return to Kastaman's area, go back downstairs (E actually), pick up the pendant, dart through the heavily populated area before we get killed, and make our way back to... a prison cell, once again.

Okay, it's time to look at this area more closely.  The cell is completely empty, but nothing has been confiscated from inventory.  We can't learn anything about the bars or the floor; but if we DROP INSECT, it circles the floor and climbs up one of the walls, where it crawls through a crack in the stone and disappears.  LOOK CRACK reveals a loose stone block, and MOVE BLOCK opens up a small passage.

The passage is very tight -- YOU HAVE TO LIE ON YOUR STOMACH -- so we have to CRAWL a few times to emerge into a roomier section where we can stand, at least.  If we try to CLIMB here, we fall and land on a sharp object... but this is not fatal?  LOOK OBJECT reveals that IT'S A SPIKE, DRIVEN INTO THE FLOOR.  A DEEP PIT IS EAST.  Boy, I sure wish I had that rope from the cliff earlier!

Restoring and trying again, I discover that we can UNTIE ROPE after descending the cliff near the crash site, and that TIE ROPE TO SPIKE at this point allows it to dangle down into the deep pit.  CLIMB ROPE takes us down to the bottom, where a hole in the wall beckons.  We can't UNTIE ROPE here, so we'd better hope the hole takes us somewhere interesting...

And it does!  We're now ON A LAUNCH RAMP where we see A SMALL FIGHTER -- though judging from the illustration, it's been built by the Third Graders' School of Spacecraft Design.  There's also a black door to the north, which takes us back to the area where we entered the blue door earlier... and of course, we can't get back to this point after going through it, so that was a bad idea.  Can we restore and just CLIMB COCKPIT?  Yes, and then it seems we must follow the instructions we found earlier -- which we do need, as the individual instruments on the panel can't even be made out when we're sitting in front of them, a they're just a BUNCH OF INSTRUMENTS.  We UNHOOK AUTO PRESSURE, LIFT DECOUPLING RING, and PUSH THRUST BAR... and...  

We're airborne!  And then we're in orbit!  And our mother ship is straight ahead, looking suspiciously like Star Trek's Enterprise.  We can't RADIO SHIP or SIGNAL SHIP, but LOOK INSTRUMENTS  gives us a useful detail -- A BUTTON MARKED "BEACON" IS BLINKING.  We PUSH BUTTON, and a friendly tractor beam pulls us in to safety -- victory is ours!

Jyym Pearson's games were not as broadly influential as those of his publisher and contemporary Scott Adams, but they are challenging and historically interesting, as the "set piece" sequences foreshadow what Telltale Games is now calling "interactive drama," as seen in The Walking Dead.  Pearson continued to create adventures after Adventure International closed its doors, and while I haven't tackled his work in anything like chronological order, I am planning to explore his body of work more thoroughly.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Volcano (1981)

This week's adventure is something I ran across in my occasional quest to discover something both obscure and straightforward.  Volcano was part of a four-game Adventure Pak compilation published by budget-oriented Keypunch Software back in 1981 for the Atari 400/800 computers.  It's the closest thing to a genuine adventure game in the package, but even this one is really more of a choose-your-own-adventure experience.  A game of this sort would have been quick and cheap to develop and debug, but the gameplay is very limited, so the market didn't see many of these "adventures" in commercial circulation, even in the early years.

Volcano begins with quite a bit of text, including some interesting and scientifically valid educational information about volcanic eruptions; there's even a little bit of audiovisual material here, though it's just a lengthy run of white noise accompanying a simple graphical animation of an eruption.  The plot is inspired by the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, and as we finally we arrive at "THE SCENE" we learn that we're camping on the west side of the mountain, at a remote site we hiked to after leaving our car behind.  We have a campfire, and the world is eerily quiet... until, of course, an earthquake hits, and the top of the mountain explodes, making a quick escape our most pressing priority.

Interested readers are always encouraged to sample these games directly -- in this case, I highly recommend using an Atari 400/800 emulator with save-state capability rather than real hardware.  The introductory sequence is lengthy and (as far as I can determine) unskippable, and as death is frequent, unpredictable and always a single decision away, I can't imagine that many summoned the patience to finish this game back in the day.  But you needn't even go that far, really -- there isn't much to the game, in keeping with its budget-publisher roots, so it's not going to take me long to summarize it in the following discussion... which, as always, contains myriad...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***** 

With the lengthy introduction out of the way, we at last arrive at the "gameplay" -- should sufficient memory remain to support any.  

Digging in UNTIL IT'S SAFE TO MOVE doesn't seem like a good idea; stopping to take photographs also seems unwise; getting to high ground might be dangerous; and starting back down the mountain to the car might not really work out well either.  I'm going to opt for action #5, TRY TO FIND SOME SELTER [sic] -- but we're too close to the hot ash for this to be a valid survival strategy.  We're dead, and we'll need to start over (or restore a saved state, thanks!) and try something else.

Sulfur dioxide gas prevents us from getting to higher ground; it turns out that our best course of action is to try to drive out.  We find the trail to our parking spot blocked by fallen trees, but we have the option of trying a short cut.  I correctly guessed that we're better off dealing with a known trail than a vaguely-remembered short cut, and we're making progress.

Reaching the car, we see that large rocks have rolled onto the road.  We can opt to wait for the rescuers, as this is a likely place for them to look, or try to move the rocks; we can also build a fire to attract help, which doesn't seem useful given the smoky atmosphere, or leave the car and traverse the road on foot, which is fatal as YOU ARE OVERTAKEN BY A MUDSLIKE [sic].

Proceeding with all due speed is still the best choice, so after moving the rocks out of the way, we drive down the road at 80 mph -- until the bridge ahead is taken out by a mudslide where the Toutle River normally runs.  And now the famous Mount St. Helens Ash Cloud is coming!  We are blinded by the hot, dark cloud, and we fall down with eyes full of ash... but not fatally!

Opting not to LIE DOWN WITH YOUR FACE ON THE GROUND, I chose to RUB THE ASH FROM YOUR EYES -- but that was a bad choice, as the ash is very abrasive and with our swollen eyes we are rapidly overcome!  It's better to try to keep moving -- we do so, and find ourselves in a creek. 

Washing our eyes out with water isn't successful either, as it becomes a heavy, gritty paste.  Leaving the creek also proves a bad idea, though I thought maybe we'd want to get out of the way of any impending mudslides.  Our best option is to keep walking in the creek -- hopefully away from the eruption -- and yes, our avatar has enough presence of mind to check the current and follow it downstream.

THE[sic], WITHOUT WARNING we find ourselves in hot water... literally, HOT WATER UP TO YOUR NECK.  We find a fallen tree and grab hold, traveling downstream with it.  Opting to HANG ON instead of swimming underwater or trying to reach the bank, we end up safely on the bank after we hit a log jam.

We have arrived at the outskirts of the eruption zone, where the landscape is devastated.  We have some injuries, but resting is a bad idea -- YOU FALL ASLEEP AND NEVER WAKE UP!  Heading down leads us into a pocket of poison gas; we're better off heading up to the ridge, overlooking a lower layer of thick smoke.

Having already risked the trip down, it seems wise to try to attract rescuers.  We arrange rocks to spell out 'S O S' and build a small fire before falling asleep, exhausted.  Then we hear a helicopter, and it's semi-naked time as we rip off our shirt to attract attention!

And victory is ours!

Volcano is a really brief adventure, but even so I would have had a hard time mustering the will to finish it back in the day, due to its lack of save-game capability.  There's only one path to success, and navigating that path depends solely on picking the right menu option at each juncture.  It's a shame, too, because despite the almost nonexistent gameplay and myriad typographical errors, there's actually a lot of good, seriously-presented information here about surviving an ash-heavy volcanic eruption.  It's just not much fun to play.