Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Chinese Puzzle (1981)

This week, we're looking at another Atari Program eXchange adventure game: Chinese Puzzle, written by Dennis Koble (later to co-found Imagic) and published in 1981, using the same engine as most of the other APX adventures for the Atari 8-bit computers.


(A technical note: we have to RUN "D:CHINA" at the Atari BASIC READY prompt to fire this one up, as there's no autostart on the commonly available disk image.) 

According to the title screen, we've been drugged by a Chinese madman and locked in a suite of rooms; our only objective is to escape.  This game is unusual in that the environment is explicitly constructed as a puzzle, with no attempt to create a realistic atmosphere or establish an adventurous plot.  It's just a conundrum in need of solving.

Interested adventurers are of course encouraged to work out this Chinese Puzzle independently, but I'll warn you that it's brief yet much more difficult than the other APX adventures I've played to date.  Most annoying is that the final sequence is either buggy or intentionally illogical; I had to decipher the APX engine's data format to figure out the exact sequence of actions required.  So feel free to skip the aggravation and sail casually on into the...

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

We begin in the 3-Room, deathly silent, paneled with teak and rosewood.  "The magic number is 3. Remember that," we are advised, but SAY 3 doesn't do anything, nor is the noun 3 recognized.  We have nothing in inventory, so we'll start trying to map the place out.

The map is highly schematic.  North is the Red Room; East the Blue Room; South the Yellow Room; and West the Green Room.  We can also climb Up to the Grey Room, but we can't go Down yet; SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY.  So we probably have to do something to open that passage.

Expanding our exploration, we find the Orange Room north of the Red Room, where a faceted crystal prism breaks the incoming light into a cascading shower of rainbows.  We can TAKE CRYSTAL here, and it seems color is going to be a key part of this puzzle.

Heading north of the Orange Room returns us to the Yellow Room -- so the map wraps around on itself.  Does the same thing happen when we explore east-to-west?  Yes, west of the Green Room is the Purple Room -- with a Chinese ideogram written on parchment lying on the floor -- and the map wraps around back to the Blue Room here.

READ IDEOGRAM produces no effect in the Purple Room -- but this suggests it will do something more interesting elsewhere, so we'll take it along as we continue to explore.  Above the Grey Room is the White Room, and above that the Black Room.  We can climb Up from the Black Room to return to the 3-Room, but can't return the way we came, as we noted earlier.

It seems there aren't a lot of items to work with here, and no obvious uses, so we'll have to start experimenting.  I try to READ IDEOGRAM in every room -- it's written on white parchment, but it doesn't seem to be readable in the White or Black rooms.  In the Yellow Room, however, we're told that YOU NEED TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO THAT.  So there must be another object available somewhere.

HELP suggests that TURNOVER is an accepted verb, but I don't seem to have any luck with it anywhere here.  LIFT CRYSTAL suggests that an effect may occur somewhere -- and in the Black Room, instead of THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE, the parser responds: YOU CAN'T LIFT A CRYSTAL.  Is it sensitive to CRYSTAL?  I DROP CRYSTAL, and The crystal rolls across the floor into a corner.  Interesting; we can't seem to do anything with the corner, though, as it's not recognized by the parser.

Aha!  Mysteriously, now there's a lacquered Chinese box in the White Room.  I try to OPEN BOX, but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET. We still can't READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room.  The box doesn't respond much at all anywhere but the White Room, so it seems whatever's going to happen with it has to happen there.

Oh, wait -- with the box in hand and the crystal as well, I can finally READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room.  It resembles the word "CHINA," we're told, and SAY CHINA is recognized -- but is it effective anywhere?  Yes, in the Red Room apparently, though nothing is happening yet when we do so.

If we DROP CRYSTAL in the Black Room again, the box returns to the White Room -- one of those easy-to-miss bugs in early adventure games.  I notice that DROP IDEOGRAM often returns THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE -- so is it supposed to do something, somewhere?  Ah -- in the Yellow Room, The paper flutters to the floor.  This has no apparent effect but the mention seems to imply something special has occurred.

Now that we have relocated the ideogram -- for reasons that never become clear at all -- we can TURNOVER BOX in the White Room, and learn that Written on the bottom of the box is the word RUSSIA.  Okay, we're starting to see a pattern here.  Now we can SAY CHINA in the Red Room -- Ah yes.  One of the big 3.  So we may be on to something now! 

SAY RUSSIA has no effect here, but in the Blue Room it's recognized, though not effective at the moment.  Hmmmmm.

I restart and poke around some more, and somehow, without ever SAYing CHINA or discovering the magic word RUSSIA, I've gotten myself into a state where the next step of the solution appears to work.  We SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room and it's recognized as The second of the Big 3.  But if I SAY CHINA first, it seems I can't SAY RUSSIA again after that point.  And SAY USA doesn't seem to work anywhere, until I discover that SAY U.S.A. should work, potentially in the Green Room.

There's definitely some weirdness afoot here -- we can either TURNOVER BOX to learn about RUSSIA, or OPEN BOX to learn about U.S.A., but we can't seem to do both.  And somehow I accidentally stumble onto the endgame by skipping SAY CHINA altogether and jumping ahead to SAY RUSSIA and SAY U.S.A. in the appropriate locations, which isn't very satisfying as it feels like I've short-circuited the intended solution.  I'm not even sure the room colors have anything to do with the puzzle at this point.

So I finally break down and decipher the game's data file to figure out how these pieces are supposed to fit together.  It turns out that a series of actions have to be taken in a precise and counterintuitive order, due to the game's use of what I'll call "flag 4" to track status.  In some cases, if we do something and then re-do it, the flag gets reset and breaks (or supports) the expected sequence, and we have to repeat certain actions to make other actions possible.  The solution makes very little sense, but below I've listed what has to be done.  (You may notice that steps 1 through 5 are technically optional but are required to learn all the magic words; as I had discovered accidentally, the game can be finished very quickly by starting this sequence at step 6!)  Here's the sequence:

1. DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (sets flag 4:1)
2. TURNOVER BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:2)
3. SAY CHINA in the Red Room (requires 4:2, sets 3:1 which is never required)
4. TAKE IDEOGRAM and DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room again (resets to 4:1)
5. OPEN BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:4)
6. READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (requires box in hand, sets 4:3)
7. SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room (requires 4:3, sets 4:6)
8. SAY U.S.A. in the Green Room (requires 4:6, sets 2:1)

Finally, a secret panel in the floor lies open in the 3-Room, though we won't actually see this unless we Look in that room to see the open passage added to the description.  All we have to do now is go Down -- we've reached The Way Out, and victory is ours!

Examination of the data file verifies that there's no more effective way to finish this Chinese Puzzle, so this is indeed the desired solution.  There are a few more of these APX adventures in the archives; I really feel like I should branch out a bit, but I seem to be addicted to these odd little games.  So I'll just have to see what comes up next next time around!

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