Tuesday, January 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I remember reading a Scott Adams article about his adventures, but I don't know if it was his seminal article in BYTE (which I may never have seen). The article I read talked about his use of an interpreter, but I don't think it gave any details.

    I was intimately familiar with Greg Hassett's 1979 article "How to Write an Adventure." I believe it was published in Creative Computing. It was essentially an instruction manual for how to write adventures in BASIC -- split the input into verb and noun, look up both on a game-wide table of all known verbs and nouns and turn both into a number, then have separate code for handling each verb which you branch to via a large ON-GOTO statement. Rooms and objects were likewise numbered; room descriptions were held in the array P$(), object names were held in the array OB$(), and the room number that each object was in was held in the array OB().

    Do you happen to recall the title of Scott Adams' seminal article, and which issue of BYTE it appeared in?

    1. Hi, Roger!

      Well, this IS a bit of a mystery. With a quick search, I've had no problem finding the December 1980 BYTE article in which Scott Adams published BASIC source code for his interpreter and the data for his second adventure, Pirate Adventure. But while I find many claims that the source of Adventureland was published earlier in BYTE, I can't seem to track down the actual issue anywhere!

      I'm starting to think that the Pirate Adventure article is the one that everyone references, and that Adventureland never was published that way. That might make Hassett's article (from July 1980 as far as I can tell) the earlier one and perhaps more of an influence on actual programming.

      I'll have to do some more research on this!