Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Vampire Castle (198?)

I've written and podcasted about Aardvark Software in the past -- the firm was one of the earliest microcomputer software companies and produced a number of adventure games.  But some of the company's products have not survived, most likely because the quality was not always up to commercial standards.  A case in point is this week's adventure, Vampire Castle for the Commodore 64, written by M. Basman and (I believe) ported from an earlier OSI/Compukit version.  I'm running it using the VICE emulator.

We're not given any introductory text, but presumably we'll be exploring a castle and dealing with a vampire at some point.  The BASIC program borrows from the Scott Adams style, tersely presenting the location, visible objects, and obvious exits, though it does not use a windowed display so the text simply scrolls up the screen. INV is the inventory verb, the traditional I shorthand does not work; more annoying is that we have to type GO EAST, for example, as there are no N/S/E/W shortcuts.

I can't really recommend playing Vampire Castle, because while the game itself isn't difficult, getting it to run to completion was a serious meta-adventure that soon became an extended exercise in frustration.  I had to find some bug fixes online, and create a couple myself, just to get through the game!  So I'm happy to spare others the headache by documenting my playthrough experience below, despite the inevitable...

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

We begin in the Entrance Hall (presumably of the Vampire Castle) with nothing in inventory.  There's a timepiece here, and a sign reading "THE VAMPIRE WAKES AT MIDNIGHT," so there's a bit of time pressure on us -- we can TAKE TIMEPIECE and READ TIMEPIECE to see that (in my playthrough) it's already 8 : 7, which I'll interpret to mean 8:07.

Heading east takes us to a library where a scroll and a bookcase are visible.  The scroll reads, "NOT ALL EXITS ARE OBVIOUS," which we kind of inferred from the OBVIOUS EXITS ARE display.  But we can take a hint and PUSH BOOKCASE to open up a downward passage.

There seems to be some glitching here in the text of the tape image I found online -- we find ourselves in a HIDDEN C.RID. -- maybe a HIDDEN CORRIDOR, with exits leading N.TH and UP.  There's also a rope here, which we can take, and oddly, when we try to GO NORTH the parser snippily responds CAN'T.

I suspect we're cruising for a crash here, as it seems all instances of OR are being represented by a graphics character -- east of the library is the ARM.Y, for example.  We'll take the axe here, anyway -- are we setting up for a game of Clue? 

East of the armory is a... .WER?  A Tower maybe?  There's a sledgehammer here, and some visible parapets.  We can try to GO PARAPETS, but YOU FELL AND DIED, ending the game.

Hmmmm.  Let's do some more mapping before we try to solve that one.  West of the entrance hall we find a study, with a fire in the brick fireplace.  GO FIREPLACE is an obvious though fatal thing to try, as YOU BURNED TO DEATH and the game is over again.  We can't EXTINGUISH FIRE or PUT OUT FIRE on a retry, so it looks like we have to do a little bit of puzzle-solving work here.

I suspect the character glitch is what's preventing us from going north downstairs from the library -- I think the corrupted N.TH word displayed may also be used by the parser.  But before we go looking for bugs, let's try to TIE ROPE -- TO WHAT? -- TO PARAPETS so maybe we can climb more safely... nope.  Can we GO ROPE instead of trying to GO PARAPETS?  No, apparently.  We can try to TIE ROPE ... TO ME as well, and the parser seems to accept it, but we still fall and die.

So what's going on here?  Well, fortunately the CASA Solution Archive informs us that a user named ogreid at GameBase 64 has provided several bug fixes to the BASIC code.  Replacing lines 580, 1020, 1070 and 1130 with his or her recommendations allows us to get rolling again.  But I'm still seeing the same typo on the directions?  Retyping line 162 where the string constants are defined seems to fix the problem.

Now we can GO NORTH from the hidden basement corridor, finding an Alchemist's Lab containing a flask of oil.  North again is a store room, with a crate and a bucket and another passage leading up, taking us on a one-way journey back to the study with the fireplace.

Can we get some water in the bucket?  Well, we can't POUR OIL on the fire, so it seems we should try to find some other liquid at least.  We can't OPEN CRATE, but we can BREAK CRATE -- WITH WHAT? -- WITH AXE... no, WITH SLEDGEHAMMER... no.  Man, that's a tough crate!  READ CRATE tells us DON'T HAVE IT, even if we do, apparently because it can't be read.

Now when I try to GO PARAPET, I get... a syntax error in 580?  Ack.  Maybe I should just re-download this file from a different source -- like GameBase64.  This version seems much more complete, with a completely different opening.  Strange!

At least now we have some idea about the object of the game -- there are ten treasures we're supposed to find.  But as we continue, we realize that this is a completely different Vampire Castle game!  That certainly accounts for the differences, but this isn't the game we're supposed to be playing.

So we'll have to go back to the Aardvark version I found, and see if we can get through it somehow.  I start by re-correcting line 580 to:

    580 IFT$="PA"THENL=6:GOTO250

Now I can climb up to the parapets -- but I had to look at a walkthrough to learn that I should not have responded to "TO WHAT?" with TO PARAPETS, but just PARAPETS when tying the rope.  That's why I was still dying after I thought I had fastened the rope safely in place!

Okay, let's hope we're in better shape with the code now.  Now we can reach the lower tower -- we could pick up the oar here, if not for the seven-item inventory limit we're now running up against.

So we'll explore to the south, finding a chapel, where we see a key and some holy water.  Somehow, if we GO UP from the chapel, we find ourselves back in the armory downstairs?  Ah, the parapets are apparently somewhere below the main floor, which is why we go from the tower to the lower tower.

The holy water must be in a non-portable container of some kind, as we must TAKE WATER -- IN WHAT? -- BUCKET to carry it along.  Can we put out the fire with it?  EXTINGUISH FIRE, PUT OUT FIRE, THROW BUCKET, THROW WATER, POUR WATER and EMPTY BUCKET all fail, but we can DROP WATER to put the fire out, turning it to ashes.

Inside the fireplace is a torch, or a .RCH actually, which we could take if we weren't also having problems with TO being turned into a graphics character.  Retyping the associated data line 184 for the torch seems to clear that problem up.  It doesn't seem we can take the ashes from the fireplace.

What else can we do?  Well, we can try to BREAK FIREPLACE -- NOTHING HAPPENED.  Hmmmm.  But if we go inside the fireplace, then we can BREAK FIREPLACE -- WITH WHAT? -- SLEDGEHAMMER to open a secret passage to the north.  (The parser seems to treat a lot of these more complex commands situationally -- if we don't have the right object, or at least a plausible one, we don't get the further prompts and nothing happens.)  The passage leads to an underground lake, with a boat -- probably what that oar is for, and we should also bring the key from the chapel, one suspects.

Now we'll GO BOAT, and ROW BOAT to arrive at a gallery.  After we get out, the boat drifts away -- trying to TIE ROPE to the BOAT before going anywhere doesn't seem to help, so this is apparently a one-way trip.  We can try to GET TAPESTRY here, if we drop something first -- I'll drop the oar and the crate for now.

The tapestry is nailed to an overhang when we try to GET it, however, so we'll have to GO OVERHANG and then GET NAILS to free it up.  Except we don't have a hammer?  Hmmmm.  Ah -- while we couldn't BREAK CRATE -- WITH WHAT? -- WITH AXE, we can BREAK CRATE -- WITH WHAT? -- AXE!  Now we have some wooden stakes, but still no hammer.

We also note that, now that the crate is broken, we can't GO OVERHANG -- it's too high, we must have been using it to climb up earlier.  Oh, and maybe the sledgehammer will work as a nail-pulling hammer too, though that usually isn't the case.  So it's necessary to backtrack a bit... and yes, the sledgehammer allows us to GET NAILS and drop the tapestry.

Oddly, even though the tapestry drops, we don't see anything new until we GET TAPESTRY, revealing a passage north.  This leads to an antechamber with a rusty door -- or a rusty DO. thanks to another item text problem.  Aaargh!  Well, we can still try to OPEN DOOR -- but NOTHING HAPPENED.  Another data statement update is called for, and we have to restart and play back through to this point again.

Now we can OPEN DOOR... wait, no, we still can't?  UNLOCK DOOR, maybe?  Oh, it's rusty -- can we EMPTY FLASKDROP OIL?  Nope, but we can OIL DOOR to open it.

We are now in the Vampire's Tomb (well, actually, the VAMPIRE'S .MB), with a closed coffin at hand.  We have a sledgehammer, some nails, and some stakes, so it seems we're somewhat prepared to deal with the fiend.

Let's try to OPEN COFFIN -- we can now see the vampire in the coffin, though there's not enough description provided to know if we're dealing with a bald Max Schreck/Reggie Nalder Nosferatu, or a handsome Bela Lugosi/Frank Langella lord of the undead.  He's just a VAMPIRE IN COFFIN.  But no matter, we'll just -- well, we can't STAKE VAMPIRE, or HAMMER STAKE, and INSERT STAKE just produces an inventory listing.  But we can KILL VAMPIRE -- WITH WHAT? -- STAKES -- and abruptly, and disappointingly tersely, victory is ours!

I wasn't sure if we'd actually made use of a few of the objects, so I went back and left some things behind -- without the torch, we can't see anything in the dark Vampire's Tomb, and we need the key to open the vampire's coffin.  I presume that if we're too slow about our business, the vampire wakes up and kills us at midnight, but I didn't feel up to verifying it; with all the restarting and replaying, I'd only burned about an hour of game time when I got to the end, so it's not like the timing is very tight.

I don't think the byte code problems I ran into were Aardvark's fault -- most likely some corruption in the archives over the years -- but the other bugs are real and the parser's somewhat cryptic assumptions are annoying in many situations.  It was definitely a challenge getting through Vampire Castle, but for all the wrong reasons, and it'll probably be a while before I take on another Aardvark adventure.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Invincible Island (1983)

This week we're returning to the substantial adventure game library of the Sinclair Spectrum ZX, tackling Pete Cooke's Invincible Island, published in 1983 by Richard Shepherd Software.  Mr. Cooke was recently profiled in Retro Gamer magazine, and while he's best remembered for his action games, he wrote several text adventures early in his career.  The Speccy was a terrific platform for adventure games, with 48K of standard memory and flexible handling of text and graphics.

Cooke's engine uses vector-and-fill illustrations, which take some time to draw, and the parser isn't particularly speedy either, so I'm running Invincible Island using the ZXSpin emulator, with the CPU speed artificially cranked up to 14 MHz (though this also makes typing rhythm on the emulated keyboard a little unpredictable.)  The parser is unusual in that it demands full-word entries, and won't accept abbreviations of verbs or nouns, though there is an I command for inventory and the usual navigational shortcuts are supported.  The graphics system is also a little bit unusual -- it does some color shifting, occasionally drawing a fill in one color and then changing it to another using the ZX's attribute-based hardware, and draws some more detailed objects and characters using bitmaps overlaid on the background.

Invincible Island features a very traditional adventure plot -- per the intro, we are cast as an explorer stranded on the remotest island of the XARO.  We are seeking treasure, based on a letter from a Dr. Chumley, and have arrived in a small boat; the goal is to find the treasure and escape alive.  It's not quite clear why we're "stranded," since we have a boat, but for the sake of drama we'll assume we can't simply go back the way we came.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to visit Invincible Island firsthand before reading my comments below.  It's not too difficult, though I did need a few hints along the way, and my notes are intended to describe my playthrough experience in as much detail as I can manage.  In other words, there are...

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

As the game begins, we find ourselves in a small cove with our small boat anchored nearby.  We can't GO BOAT or ENTER BOAT or EXAMINE BOAT to any effect, though it looks suspiciously sail-less in the illustration.  And we have nothing in inventory, so it seems we're remarkably ill-prepared for this expedition.

North of the cove is an open plain, prominently featuring a large, rusty chest.  It is, of course, locked, and no other details suggest themselves.  Further north is the edge of a large forest (a maze, perhaps?) -- we can acquire an axe here (GET AXE fails but TAKE AXE works), and there's a sign which we can't READ, though we can EXAMINE SIGN to learn that the strange writing is unreadable.

We can travel north again to find the late Dr. Chumley's camp -- we can't enter the dilapidated tents, but we can pick up an anorak (a winterized jacket) and a spade.  North of the camp (the map seems fairly large, so I'm just exploring in one direction for now) we encounter a native resident of the island, watching you suspiciously.  Our intrepid looting may encounter some opposition, then, but he allows us to proceed past him to a hill overlooking a valley, with a deep pit in the ground.  North of this point, at last, we encounter a strong wall, possibly the northern boundary of the map.

We'll probably regret this, but we can try entering the pit -- and it leads to a lush green valley, from which we can readily return by going U, so we don't regret it at all.  Oh, no, wait -- that's what happens when we travel D from the hilltop, entering the pit is immediately fatal as we drown in the cold, murky water at its bottom!

Restoring and heading east from the valley, we find the foothills of a mountain range, and a tatty old MAP.  We can't READ the map -- or anything, it seems, as the verb is unrecognized -- but examination reveals it's a map of the surrounding waters, which may come in handy later.

We can go U into the mountains, but first we'll examine an ornate Asian pagoda lying to the east.  The door is locked, and there's no KNOCK verb, so we'll probably need to come back here.  Heading up into the mountains, you feel cold, so it's a good time to WEAR ANORAK so we can reach the peak and recover a parchment there.  Examining it reveals a cryptic message:


Neither a reverse-alphabet or a shifted-alphabet try (assuming L = I, E or R) seems to translate it, and there's no TRANSLATE verb.  Hmmmm.  The native wants nothing do with the parchment, so we'll probably have to look elsewhere for help.

Returning to the strong wall, we head east and find we can go north again, to a door in the stockade wall.  It's not locked, actually, though the description claims it's blocking our path; we can just ENTER DOOR to find ourselves in the courtyard of a temple; heading E takes us back out.  We can climb the temple's heavy stone steps by heading U, discovering a jewel encrusted altar (with completely unreadable writing) and a red key.

Heading back south, we travel west of the native's location to find a desert area with three pillars and a torch we can take with us.  Going west again takes us into a dead and silent plain, and further west is a barren and deserted land, with a portable skull.

From the skull's location, we head north and (via the customary vagaries of adventure game geography) abruptly find ourselves at the edge of a clear blue lake.  We can't take the footpump here, so we'll probably need to bring a raft or something to this area later on.

We can walk further north along the edge of the lake, then head west to a winding river.  South of the river is desert again, with a deep pit in the sand -- this one turns out to be a dried up old well, containing another parchment.  And now we see how this works -- as we acquire various bits of parchment, EXAMINE PARCHMENT reveals more of the original message. It still seems to be encrypted, but maybe it will succumb as we have more text to work with.  (It seems we're not supposed to be able to move until we LEAVE the PIT, but it has no illustration and is treated as a sub-room -- if we LOOK again, we're returned to the area outside the pit.)

North of the river lies an obviously rickety bridge -- and trying to CROSS BRIDGE despite the warning leads to death via great fall and cracked-open skull.  We can't REPAIR or FIX it after a restore, so we'll have to come back to this puzzle.  On the way back, I discover that the "you can't carry it" response doesn't mean that the footpump is not portable, only that we've filled the eight available inventory slots, so I am able to DROP ANORAK and TAKE FOOTPUMP.

Hmmmm... as I pass by the native again, you see a swarm of natives brandishing swords and spears in the distance.  That can't be good.  West of the forest's edge is a cliff base with a caged yellow canary sitting handily nearby.  While I'm trying to figure out what do with the poor bird, the natives now appear to be closing in.  I try to escape to the west, unfortunately walking into a dark cave maze where I can see nothing in the dark -- except for the approaching natives, who must be sporting phosphorescent body paint as they arrive shortly to catch you and stab you to death.

So there is a time limit, or maybe I should avoid bothering the one native too often.  At any rate, I'm going to start over and continue mapping -- so far the puzzles don't seem too difficult, we just need to find the right objects and learn our way around the island.

East of the starting point is a sandy plain, with a pit which we can ENTER to once again slip and fall on the ladder and drown in seconds.  So that was a bad idea!  Past that point, after a restart, is more beach, with a pile of stones.  EXAMINE STONES when we don't have them suggests that "you don't have some STONES" -- gee, thanks -- but we can safely TAKE them and note nothing special about them.  (I never did find a use for them.)

Travel to the east again reveals yet more beach; we can DIG without any special tools, but we don't make any headway scrabbling with our bare hands.  This seems to be the southeast corner of the map; heading north from here discovers a small hut, which we can quasi-enter to find a jewelled necklace.  We can't seem to WEAR it, though.

West of the starting point is some green land, with a rusty key available -- we can use it to UNLOCK the rusty CHEST to the north, but a large coiled snake leaps out when we open it, and we immediately feel dizzy, then very dizzy, and then nothing, because we're dead.  It seems like most of the danger is right around the starting point!

North of the green land is a native hut, with some food nearby.  We can ENTER HUT to discover a bubbling green potion, apparently in some sort of portable form so we can carry it along.  North again leads to some rolling hills, and north once more brings us back to the canary and the cave maze entrance.

It seems appropriate to fetch the torch and map out the maze, and to bring the canary along in case of poisonous gas.  The canary collapses in the southeast corner of the cave; we can't breathe a little bit later, and eventually we die from lack of oxygen.  Trying again, we find the cave's exit in the northwest corner, a one-way passage leading out to the foot of the cliff near the desert.  If we're quick about it (or careful, as it seems like some locations are more oxygenated than others) we can pick up a sword and a parchment piece in the cave, then make our escape.

Next, we'll head into the forest.  A well-lit east-west path borders dark, foreboding areas to the north and south, where you see a pair of eyes watching you through the treesDROP FOOD doesn't distract this entity; eventually it leaps out from the trees and smashes you on the head, fatally so.  If we stick to the brighter path, we can reach its end and find a box in an area to the south.  It's too strong to open, however.

The green potion seems to cure the snake venom; there's another parchment piece in the chest, but that's all.  So we'll have to exercise the adventure gamer's woeful prerogative, and dig everywhere we can with the spade... but that's not getting me anywhere either, so far.  Does the red key from the temple unlock the pagoda door?  Yes!

Inside the pagoda is a circular room, occupied by an old wizened native.  We can KILL NATIVE WITH SWORD, and he drops something we can't see.  But this is not only senselessly cruel but stupid, as he is immediately replaced by another elderly citizen, and the murderous mob appears within a few turns to dispatch us.  We can't GIVE him anything to make peace, either, it seems.

It feels like we're on the wrong track here.  Can we drop the stones on the box to open it?  Nope.  Decode the parchment maybe?  With the pieces we have, there are a few short words visible -- TRT, FT, RT, RFT.  Hmmmm... the font used for the parchment is kind of stylized, maybe those T's are actually C's.  If we assume RFC is THE, then we have a simple two-character shifted code -- A = C, B = D, et cetera.  It looks like we have ? and % and @ characters in the mix too, perhaps around the ends of the alphabet.  And there's the word CRC, which would be ETE -- not really very compelling.  But keeping in mind that the parchment remains incomplete, it does look we're onto something... the fragments we have now read something like this, if we treat % as ', @ as B, and ? as A:

... PAGE IS ... ETE
... ND YOU'LL F...
... F THE SUN AN ... HE...

So it looks like we're getting somewhere with cracking the code!  But it doesn't really give us anything specific to try.

Can we open the box with the axe?  OPEN BOX WITH AXE is understood, it seems, but the box is still too strong.  CUT BOX WITH AXE isn't recognized.  But BREAK BOX WITH AXE works, yielding a yellow parchment.  Now we have more of the message:


It looks like we need at least one more piece of parchment to complete the page.

At this point, I got stuck, and I needed to consult John Barnsley and Andrew Barker's walkthrough at the CASA Solution Archive -- dang, I was doing so well! -- to learn that I was being misled by the parser.  GIVE FOOD in the presence of the native indicates that the native doesn't want it, but a more explicit GIVE FOOD TO NATIVE garners a more positive response, and earns us a phrasebook in exchange!

Now we can read the sign near the forest, which just indicates that we should stick to the way laid out for you, which we've already figured out, and the altar in the temple, which advises us to search the high and low places but beware of the ancient land for none may follow.  Hmmmm... these ancient messages aren't very clear.

Can we GIVE NECKLACE TO the elderly NATIVE, now that we know how this works?  Maybe the unfindable items being dropped by the natives when we try to kill them are parchment fragments.  And yes, now we have another parchment piece -- and with the phrasebook in hand, we don't have to hand translate the content, we just have to find the last piece.

What about the rickety bridge?  Maybe it's a matter of weight.  We can DROP ALL -- which still keeps the parchment in hand -- and CROSS BRIDGE successfully to find a wooden package on the beach.  It contains an inflatable dingy [sic], and to the east we find a calm blue lake with a small island in the distance.  Looks like we should have brought the footpump here!  Fortunately, we can cross the bridge with that small bit of weight, and with both items in hand (counter-intuitively, as it seems the footpump should be foot-activated) we can INFLATE DINGY WITH FOOTPUMP.

Now we can DROP DINGY and SET SAIL for the island -- but no, that doesn't work.  USE DINGYENTER DINGY? SAIL DINGYFLOAT DINGY?  Ah, we have to CROSS LAKE, and on the island we find the last bit of the parchment!  And this is interesting -- the parchment has reverted to encrypted form, but that's probably because we had to leave the phrasebook on the other side of the bridge.  Yes!  After we reacquire it, we can fill in the remaining blanks -- somewhere west of the sun (by the three pillars, based on the illustration) and the temple, we should LOOK AND YOU'LL FIND.

LOOK where we found the skull doesn't seem to do anything, but DIGging in the desert east of that location (also meeting the specified criteria) yields a pile of GOLD!  As soon as we take it, though, the mob of angry natives materializes in the distance, so we'd better get going!  It's hard to escape in time -- they close in within three or four turns, and we need the navigational map to escape.  Might they be triggered by digging up the gold, not taking it?  No, it's the TAKE GOLD that does it.  I just didn't have the skull in hand, as suggested by the walkthrough, so I had no magical protection from the natives -- that's what the BONES OF OUR ANCESTORS bit must be about.

I hurry back to the boat, SET SAIL, and... we get a black screen with no text and no closure?  Is this the intended climax of the game?  Nothing changes if we DROP SKULL, except that the native mob again appears.  This seems to be a technical glitch, as if we drop everything but the gold, we strike out to sea only to die a lingering death from exposure, because we dropped the map before departing!  If we leave with just the gold and the map in inventory, we get the proper victory ending.  Vincimus!

Invincible Island proves entirely vincible in the end, and it's not too difficult aside from a couple of quirks and specific parser interactions required.  This one was fun, and I look forward to playing more of Pete Cooke's several text adventures in the future.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Robin of Sherwood (1985)

This week, we're tackling Brian Howarth's Robin of Sherwood, one of his later games, released in 1985 after his popular Mysterious Adventures series had run its course.  It uses the Scott Adams engine, as usual for Mr. Howarth, and was published by Adventure Soft UK under license based on the BBC TV series of the same name airing at the time.  (It also aired in the US as Robin Hood.)  The show had a strong cast and high production values, though what I find most notable about it as I write this in 2014 is that Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O' Brien appeared as the wizard Gulnar in several episodes, and Jeremy "Boba Fett" Bulloch also showed up on occasion. 

I'm playing using Hein Pragt's modern Scott Adams adventure interpreter, though it presumes to start every location with "I'm in a" and the game seems to be coded for a variation where "I'm" is the only standard text, so the screenshots are slightly glitchy.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to become Robin of Sherwood for a few hours before reading my detailed playthrough notes below, but I will suggest keeping Solution Archive founder J. Gunness' own walkthrough handy, as there are a couple of puzzles whose solutions are very well hidden indeed.  Beyond this point, dear adventurer, beware -- in the interest of documenting history, there are certain to be...

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

The story begins as we find ourselves (as Robin, naturally) locked in a dark Dungeon, with Much, Will Scarlet, and some other undistinguished Prisoners nearby.  We have nothing in inventory, but that Locked grating looks promising... though a closer look reveals that it's twelve feet off the floor.  We can't CLIMB MUCH or GET WILL to help, and we can't JUMP to reach it on our own, or STACK WILL or LIFT WILL or TALK MUCH.  (Well, obviously, I can, but not in the game.)

Hmmmm.  We're off to an unusually slow start here!  SHOUTing and SAYing things doesn't seem to get us anywhere.  But we're Robin Hood -- shouldn't we be able to do something athletic?  CLIMB GRATING, maybe?  No.  But we can CLIMB PRISONERS to end up standing on somebody's shoulders, where we can EXAMINE the GRATING more closely, to observe a guard standing on top of the grating.  He moves periodically between a stool about ten feet away and the grating.  We can try to GRAB GUARD, but the prisoners have gotten tired and we all collapse into a heap.

Trying again, we can't TICKLE GUARD or PUSH GUARD or POKE GUARD.  I'm guessing we want to get him to drop a key, or something; we can't KILL GUARD or GET GUARD through the grating, obviously.  But we can GET FOOT -- The guard falls over and is winded.  But if we can't figure out what to do next quickly enough, he recovers, raises the alarm, fetches Sir Guy, and ends our adventure.

We can't readily KILL GUARD or GET THROAT or GET LEG, and we only have a little bit of time.  I was on the right track, actually, but just didn't trust the limited parser enough -- it turns out that we can in fact STRANGLE GUARD, and The guard chokes to death.  We couldn't see the guard's sword while he was alive, for some reason, but now we can GET SWORD, PULL BOLT to unlock the grating (the bolt also becoming visible now that we have a tool to assist), and GO GRATING to escape the dungeon.

Now we're in the Guardroom -- and we can hear running soldiers, just as we accidentally lose our sword into the bowels of the Dungeon.  There's a Door here, though, so we might as well just GO DOOR into the castle courtyard.

Here we find two more Doors, some Battlements, and Main Gates with Portcullis up.  The doors aren't visibly distinguished -- we have to try to GO DOOR to learn that we can GO LEFT or GO RIGHT.  Heading left takes us through the door we haven't yet been through, to the Great Hall, but the Sheriff of Nottingham is here, and we're overpowered by the guards.  Game over!

Restoring, we try to GO GATES -- the portcullis is lowered now, but our flight is blocked by soldiers, though Much and Will manage to escape.  We can GO BATTLEMENTS, about the only available option, and GO DOOR to reach a stone staircase heading up and down, with two more doors available.

The left door takes us into a bedroom, with a Locked Treasure Chest, a Window and a Bed.  The chest is too heavy to carry, and it's locked, of course.  Through the window we can see the soldier-infested guardroom below, so we won't be going back that way any time soon.

The right door takes us to another bedroom, where The Lady Marion waits for us to TALK to her -- she informs us that her father is Sir Richard at the Lea, and she lives at Leaford Grange, so perhaps we are not yet acquainted.  This bedroom's window overlooks a fifteen-foot drop, but we can successfully GO WINDOW to escape the palace.  (We also note that when we try to GO BED in other bedrooms, we're told it's no time for sleeping, but if we try to GO BED in Marion's room, it's Not allowed!)

Before continuing, it seems a good idea to backtrack a little bit and check the rest of the staircase out -- above Marion's level is a single, empty bedroom, and below is the Great Hall where the Sheriff is stationed, so the window does seem to be our best option.

Now Herne the Hunter appears, to tell us: "find six Touchstones of Rhiannon and return them to their rightful home."  I knew we'd get around to some more traditional adventuring eventually!  We find ourselves in Sherwood Forest now, where most of the game will take place, with travel possible in the four cardinal directions.

It's hard to map the forest out, as we have nothing in inventory, but we can wander around a bit and eventually run into John Little, bewitched slave of Belleme, who threatens us with his quarterstaff, though we can pick up a spare one nearby.

North of Little John's location is a waterfall, and as is almost always the case in adventure games, we can GO WATERFALL, in this case to discover Herne the Hunter's cave.  Herne just repeats his earlier message, but we can pick up our long bow and a quiver with arrows here, as well as Albion, one of the seven swords of Wayland.

North of the waterfall is the outlaws camp, where Much and Will have arrived after escaping the castle in Nottingham.  The forest is large, but not hard to map -- there are some boundary loops where we hit the end of its range, but standard N/S/E/W navigation works as expected.  Most of the significant areas lie around the edges of the forest, so we just have to spend some time mapping it out.

In the northwest corner of the forest, we find the Templars Camp -- they have a touchstone, but will only exchange it for their stolen Holy Crest.  The northeastern area leads us to Kirklee Abbey and Leaford Grange.

On the east, we find a sand flat leading to the Castle de Belleme.  We can enter the courtyard, where a Statue of Azeal stands in front of the door.  Trying to GO DOOR is a bad idea, as A mighty wind blows you back.  You are in the grip of the forces of Azael the Evil One.  There is no escape!  Darn that Little Mermaid!

Elsewhere in the forest we meet Gregory the tax collector -- though he wanders off on his own before we can really interact with him, so we'll have to track him down again later.  On the western edge of the forest we can find a stone circle, and a couple of areas near a stream.

It feels like we've explored the area pretty well, so let's check out the puzzle possibilities.  Trying to GO GRANGE at Leaford is fatal, as there are numerous soldiers around, but we can KNOCK DOOR at Kirklees Abbey to meet a Nun, who says she will exchange the Abbey's Touchstone for four hundred gold pieces.

Okay, so we have a lead on a couple of Touchstones, but we gotta pay the Nun.  Can we ROB GREGORY?  Not directly.  (What if his name was Rich?)  We can't TAKE TAXES either.

I had to resort to the classic J. Gunness walkthrough to learn that we can SAY FOLLOW to get our Merry Men to tag along, and that if we ATTACK JOHN with the quarterstaff we can break the spell.  With our gang of four, we are able to intercept Gregory and... no, no, we're not.  Hmmm... okay, what else am I missing?  Apparently (thanks, J!) if we hang around the outlaw camp for a while, a messenger will arrive.... and yes, A messenger enters and tells of an archery contest at Nottingham with a silver arrow as first prize.

Off to Nottingham we go (we can GO NOTTINGHAM from the spot in the forest where we can see it in the distance).  The contest is already in progress, and all we have to do is SHOOT ARROW, easily winning the contest, but falling into the Sheriff's trap!  Trying to escape again via the Battlements isn't successful.  We can't SHOOT SHERIFF, or SHOOT DEPUTY for that matter, because we can only SHOOT ARROW as far as the parser is concerned, but we can GRAB SHERIFF and use him as a hostage while we GO GATES, then DROP SHERIFF after we're safely back in the forest.  Fortunately, he runs off and the guards break off their pursuit.

The silver arrow is valuable, presumably, but what do we do with it?  Trying to find my way back to the outlaw camp, we run into Friar Tuck and SAY FOLLOW to get our band up to five -- except he won't follow, it seems.  TALK FRIAR does reveal that Marion is now a captive of Simon de Belleme -- so we'll have to go deal with that evil castle now.

We can enter the Castle de Belleme, but when we try to SHOOT ARROW, its master uses magic to burn up Robin's bow.  Ah, but we can just KILL BELLEME and stab him with the Silver Arrow!  We have to reclaim the silver arrow from his body after he dies, but we also find our first of the six Touchstones!  We should also UNTIE MARION, and she tags along.

We can CLIMB the STATUE in the courtyard safely now, and EXAMINE its hollow EYES to find One hundred Gold Coins!  And what function does Marion serve?  Well, without the walkthrough, I don't think I would have ever found out that we need to EXAMINE BUSHES in the spot just south of Leaford Grange to let her show us a hidden cave, as the bushes aren't specifically mentioned as an available object!

Marion leads us into a passage underneath the Grange, avoiding the heavily armed surface patrols, to a cellar, where Siward the Thief resides.  Siward is nervous and shy, apparently, as he cowers from conversation, and he won't respond to SAY FOLLOW, but we can GET SIWARD and carry him around like luggage.

In the forest, we encounter a serf driving a horse and cart -- we can STOP CART and the serf runs away, making this a clear predecessor to the current Grand Theft Auto series.  We can't DRIVE CART, but we can GO CART -- the horse runs out of control but still leaves us neatly parked inside Nottingham Castle.  It's not a good idea to LEAVE CART, as we will be overpowered by guards, but if we WAIT until nightfall, then we can DROP SIWARD to get the thief to unlock that treasure chest across from Marion's room.  We can liberate the Templars' Holy Crest, another Touchstone, and another hundred gold coins this way... but we have to work fast, as the guards will arrive as soon as dawn breaks.  We have to get all three items and escape through Marion's bedroom window again -- she's been along for the ride this whole time.

We can GIVE CREST to the Templars -- we now have three of the touchstones.  But we only have one hundred gold coins to give to the nun at Kirklees Abbey.  Hey, shouldn't we have two hundred now?  It seems we have to KILL SIWARD as soon as he opens the chest, or he manages to ill-get some of our own ill-gotten gains.  Having restored to an earlier save and done that, it's time to take on the tax collector -- with some walkthrough help to know that we have to EXAMINE SACKS to find the coins he's carrying (again, the sacks aren't directly visible, and Gregory and his cart move on before we can examine anything else in detail, so this is hard to figure out!)  Now we have two hundred additional coins, and can GIVE COINS to the Nun, yielding a fourth touchstone.

Okay, we have four of the six touchstones, but not a lot of obvious puzzles remaining.  Any place we've missed on the map?  Well, I learn that we need to avoid returning to the Templars -- they surround and overpower us if we wander into their enclosure a second time.  But I do find the village of Wickham, to the west of the north side of the stream -- I hadn't quite realized there were two sides to the stream on the map.  There's a notably Large Tree off to the west; EXAMINE TREE suggests that The tree is Holy to Herne the Hunter, though only if we examine it from the village; standing at its foot, this is not discernible.  We can CLIMB TREE and EXAMINE it from a closer perspective to find one more Touchstone.

Okay -- what about that stone circle?  It seems like a safe place to drop the Touchstones; at least we can get rid of them for now in case we need the inventory space.  There's no SCORE command, so I can't tell if this is the right thing to do, and nothing else suggests that this is something we ought to do here.  Maybe I should be dropping the mystical sword Albion here instead?  Or the silver arrow as well?

Um... okay, I guess now that we've dropped the arrow, the game is over!  After we drop it, see, Herne magically appears and magically turns it into the sixth Touchstone -- why didn't he just say we needed to find five Touchstones of Rhianna and a silver arrow?   Or even four, since the fifth one was in his own holy tree?  Anyway, that's it -- chances are Mr. Howarth was running short on memory, so this will suffice.  The game is over, and victory is ours!

I enjoy these early adventure games in large part because they leave so much to the player's imagination -- there's quite a lot that happens in this game, communicated by the briefest of text.  But Robin of Sherwood also exemplifies the limitations of these early games -- several of its puzzles are extremely well-hidden, and with a more sophisticated parser and more room for descriptive text, the designer's intent might have been much more clearly hinted at.  As it stands, there's a little more game here than the technical constraints can support, and without a walkthrough I imagine many adventurers got hopelessly stuck deep i' th' Hood.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds (1994)

This week, we're playing through Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds, published in 1994 as the first of another long-running children's adventure series from Ron Gilbert's Humongous Entertainment.  It stars young Freddi Fish (the name and voice, one suspects, is intentionally androgynous) and a colorful cast of fishy characters.

Freddi Fish 1 runs on the upgraded SCUMM engine licensed from Lucasarts -- it runs in 640 x 480 resolution, with full voice acting augmented by large-print onscreen text for early readers, great CD music by George "The Fatman" Sanger, beautiful backgrounds and plenty of high-quality animation with little repetition.  These games were still in production years after mainstream publishers began to shy away from point-and-click adventures for adults, and the cartoon audiovisuals still hold up well twenty years on.

I can easily recommend playing through Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds -- it's not particularly challenging, but it is entertaining and well-produced, and there are a couple of smart gags along the way.  I'll be describing my playthrough experience in detail below, so as always there will be...

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

The story begins with an animated intro in which Freddi delivers flowers obtained from the surface, courtesy of a friendly pelican named Sam, to many of his/her friends -- but when Freddi arrives at Grandma Grouper's house, she is extremely distraught.

Someone has absconded with her treasure chest of kelp seeds, meaning no harvest for the local residents.  This is pretty dire by children's adventure standards, and as Grandma is clearly in no shape to take action, Freddi sets off to locate the missing seed cache.

As always in a Humongous game, we're free to click on lots of things on every screen, some of which advance the story or place an item in Freddi's inventory, many of which trigger funny little incidental animations.  When we get tired of playing around outside Grandma's house, we can exit stage left to  encounters Freddi's friend Luther, who is trying to figure out how to swim a loop-de-loop -- Freddi demonstrates, but Luther can't quite manage it; he does, however, manage to bump his head on a rock formation, dislodging a bottle with a note in it.  The note suggests that Grandma Grouper's treasure can be found by going to the old whale bones.  Luther volunteers to help, though Freddi has to dash his greedy dreams by reminding him that the seeds aren't his to cash in -- and Freddi minces no words: "If we don't find them soon, all the fish are going to die!"

After our heroes exit, a couple of gangster sharks named Spongehead and (apparently) Boss show up -- apparently the bottle Luther found was meant to be a bread crumb, and now they're going to be in trouble with the Squidfather.  On the way to the bones, our heroes encounter Mrs. Halibut, who is trying to rescue her guppy Gabby from an undersea grotto -- the entrance gap in the rocks is too narrow for her to swim through, and she's gotten herself stuck.  Freddi and Luther struggle to pull her out, giving rise to my favorite line in the whole game:

Entering the grotto, we find little Gabby stuck under a rock, trying to push it away with a board he's found.  Freddi declares that a bigger board is needed, and we can acquire a purple conch shell while we're here.  As in Gilbert's Putt-Putt series, and, to be honest, most adventure games, Freddi's progress depends primarily on solving puzzles using inventory items found in his travels; they're not usually hard to find, as most are lying around in plain sight and we just have to explore the world thoroughly, taking anything that's not nailed down.

Heading east, we find a larger board, but might as well visit the old whale bones nearby since we're in the neighborhood.  We find another bottle suggesting that we go to the deep canyon -- we will be chasing a series of these clues, it seems.  We can also acquire one remarkably human-looking, unsuitable-for-scrimshaw bone -- some other bones nearby just dance around a bit, so it's important to click on just the right one.  Nearby, Freddi and Luther can also talk to Ray (a manta ray, naturally) who offers a SuperDuperDookaBookaPolyGizmo gadget that can provide access to a beautiful pearl protected by a net, if we can bring him a clock, and we can pick up a small silver key lying by a rock.

Freeing Gabby with the large board earns us a purple sea urchin from the grateful Mrs. Halibut (who, though unsuccessful, seems a more responsible parent than some of the adults in the early Putt-Putt games).  We can visit the King's castle, though at the moment there isn't anything much we can do here except admire his collection of pearls and shiny things while he jabbers on about how happy he is to be King.  On the way there, we encounter Herman, a hermit crab with an old-school Yiddish accent who is trying vainly to sleep in a glowing shell -- we can give him the purple shell, and he moves (with suitcases!) into the new digs, giving Freddi and Luther the glowing shell in exchange.

We can also swim up to the surface, where Fiddler Crab is locked in a cage -- he gives us his fishing pole if we free him using the key we found earlier.  Mr. Crab plays his claws like a violin to accompany his own singing, though his lyrics tend to be short of inspired, along the lines of, "Thanks for unlocking the cage!  I will give you my fishing pole."

It's entirely possible to have puzzles solved before we even encounter them, giving the game's open structure, and the fishing pole ends up to be important at the deep canyon to the west of our starting point, where Luther tries to grab the bottle and knocks it down into a deep, scary hole where it hits a deep-sea phosphorescent angler fish on the head.  Freddi is brave enough to swim down, but the angry fish keeps scaring him off -- fortunately, the fishing pole can be used to retrieve the bottle, pointing to another clue waiting at the King's castle.  (Apparently organized crime has some connections with the royal authorities, as nobody on the King's staff seems to have objected.)

Of course, the King won't give up the bottle without a pearl in exchange, so we have to solve that puzzle.  Ray suggested we look at the junkyard -- on the way there, we can play an optional math mini-game where a starfish instructor challenges us to solve multiple-choice math problems.  This is the only situation where the game's intended audience becomes really obvious -- the "ADVANCED" problems only involve 2-digit numbers -- but the game implements a workable solution for spoken numbers, with characters capable of saying, for example, "forty" (pause) "five" to cover all the values from 1 to 100.

There are a couple of other optional activities -- we can play a shooting (actually feeding) game where Freddi tries to throw food into the mouths of approaching turtles.  We can also collect purple sea urchins from various locations to weigh down a bucket enough to open the gate to the volcano-based Clamshell Theatre, where a frog tap dances briefly before getting yanked offstage and we can read some gag announcements for other, unseen, acts.

Getting back on task, we head to the junkyard.  A junkyard dogfish blocks the way, but he'll leave with a heartfelt "Thanks!" if we give him the "whale" bone we picked up earlier.  Salvaging a dashboard clock from a wrecked car (I thought it was an odometer at first, but it has clock-like numbers on its face), we deliver it to Ray, whose gizmo can be used to make a temporary gap in the net by spreading its strands apart.  We have to win the pearl by playing a round of Find-the-Lady with the talking oysters responsible for hiding the pearl:

We can play multiple times, but we can only earn one pearl per customer (and Luther apparently doesn't count.)

Taking the pearl back to the King's castle, we obtain the final bottle.  This last clue mentions a sunken ship, which we haven't visited yet, but Freddi knows where it is, and we shortly find ourselves there -- after a cutscene informs us that Spongehead has also finally remembered where he hid the treasure chest.  A pegleg pirate fish using a mandolin for a crutch wishes us luck, and we're off to explore the ship before we think to ask why a fish would be so severely disabled with one caudal fin missing.

Aboard the ship, Freddi can see Grandma Grouper's treasure chest in a large windowed room, but the window is too heavy to open and there's no crank on the rope mechanism meant for the purpose.  Searching for a crank in the ship's hold, we encounter one Fineas McFinn, a pirate captain who sings The Aaaarggh Song (I might not have the spelling right) with an... an organ-grinder's instrument, I guess one might call it, until it breaks.  He'll give Freddi the useless crank handle if we can come up with a substitute instrument.  Searching the ship, we find a crutch, and can trigger a dancing skeleton briefly reminiscent of Ron Gilbert's classic Monkey Island games.

Heading outside the ship -- we can't go back to the main map, so the solution must be around here somewhere -- we can trade the crutch to the pirate outside.  Fineas accepts the mandolin and gladly gives Freddi and Luther the crank handle in exchange, though we have to sit through another uninterruptible rendition of The Aarrgggh Song before we can continue.  Now we can access the ship's interior to find Grandma Grouper's missing kelp seed treasure chest!

Unfortunately, the subplot has thickened, and the bad guys also arrive to claim the treasure!  But this is a kids' game, and Freddi suggests that everyone can share the kelp seeds with no need for violence.  The sharks resolve to take this idea to the Squidfather, whose entire criminal organization seems to have no concept of how agriculture works.  Our heroes trail kelp seeds from the leaky treasure chest all the way back to Grandma's house, with kelp springing up instantly in their wake, so why these seeds are so hard to find in the first place remains the game's biggest mystery.

But all's well -- even if that little green jerk Luther tries to steal the credit -- and victory is ours!

There's not much challenge to any of the Humongous Entertainment games, but they do have a suitably Gilbertian sense of humor, and it's interesting to see what can happen when most of an adventure game's budget goes into artwork and animation rather than complex design.  Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds is a fine example of children's interactive entertainment -- there's plenty to do, a story that's easy to follow with plenty of signposting (literally and vocally) to keep the player on track, and a colorful world to explore.  And I can't help thinking that the current resurgence in commercial point-and-click adventuring owes something to all the kids who grew up with Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish and friends in the 1990s.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Adventure of the Week: VTHG Adventure (1986)

This week, we're taking a look at VTHG Adventure, an odd little game I ran across while poking through the online archives -- it's credited to Calamity Software, and appears to have been written as an in-joke for members of a computer users' group in 1986.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the player's attempt to attend a TRS Users Group meeting, and the action plays out using a simple menu-driven interface.  Technically, the design seems to be a hybrid of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book and a traditional text adventure -- there seems to be a world map and an object/logic model under the hood, but the player is given limited choices at any given moment.

There's no real need to play VTHG Adventure -- it's very brief, and while there are a lot of choices available there's really only one path to a successful conclusion.  I think I'm covering it pretty thoroughly in the following... so, yes, there will be...

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

At the game's beginning, we're waiting for the other members of the TRS Users Group; we can keep waiting, look at our watch, leave, or look at our pocket calendar.  We can end the game readily enough with repeated waiting -- eventually, You waited more than 3 hours, waisting [sic] your entire evening.

Looking at our watch repeatedly produces strange results, as the time seems frozen at 7:20 PM until we formally choose to wait.  Leaving the room produces a menu of options -- we can try to use the front door, the back door, a door to the west or a small door to the east.  For the sake of readability, from here on in I'll ignore the game's menu structure and try to describe the action in more traditional terms -- no reason we should all have to struggle with finding and typing the menu number for "go north" instead of typing N!

Looking at our pocket calendar reveals that the meeting was actually last week, so we might as well leave.  Leaving through the front door or the back door ends the game, as we simply go home with No excitement today.  Exploring inside the building, choosing the small door to the east produces a vintage 1980s gag ending -- we find ourselves in a closet, and while we can opt to "Stay in the closet" indefinitely, when we eventually "Come out of the closet"... well, at least we get a clue as to where this users' group might have been based:

Exploring to the west is more productive, as we find ourselves in a hallway with doors to the east and north and a staircase leading down.  The northern door exits the building, ending the game again, while the staircase leads down to another hallway.

We can wait indefinitely here, but it's most interesting to head north into another hallway with passages in all four of the cardinal directions.  To the east is a maintenance room, where we can acquire an AHUG badge from a table; we can also walk into a wall if we aren't paying attention, as the menu system cheerily provides invalid options for further exploration.

Leaving the maintenance room and traveling north leads to another section of hallway; north of this area is an empty room with a ladder leading up to a trapdoor.  The ladder leads up into a closet, where the same joke ending (it's always funnier the second time, folks!) is available if we choose to "Come out of the closet" instead of going back down the ladder.  We can bump into some walls in the hallway, but we're rapidly running out of new places to go.

Across from the maintenance room, on the west side of the hall, is a large room where there are people looking at a weird, ugly machine -- an Apple ][e, described as "a highly illegal machine" in this era of intense schoolyard rivalry amongst people who hadn't set foot in a schoolyard in quite some time.  Examining the people in attendance reveals that they are uniformed, black armband-sporting members of AHUG -- the outlawed Apple Hackers User Group!  Good thing we have that badge we picked up earlier without knowing what the AHUG was!

The plot is running out of steam here, as the only real option left to us is to "Sneak out and notify the TBI" -- our final action, it turns out, as this ends the game in the most positive way:

So was the TBI the TRS-80 Bureau of Investigation?  We're never told, though it clearly has some connection to TRS-80 manufacturer Tandy / Radio Shack so that's probably a pretty good guess.

There's not a lot to VTHG Adventure, obviously, but a little post-game research suggests that it was written for the members of the Valley TRS-80 Hackers Group.  So while this wasn't much of a game, its tongue-in-cheek storyline captures a little bit of early home computing history.  And that's what we're all about here at Gaming After 40.  Excelsior!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Sorcerer's Castle (1979)

This week, we'll be venturing into Sorcerer's Castle, an early Greg Hassett text adventure which I hadn't gotten around to playing yet.  It was written in BASIC and originally published in 1979 (according to fairly reliable sources -- no date or publisher is cited onscreen) for the TRS-80 Model I computers.  It was also ported to the Commodore 64 later on, but we're playing it on the TRS-80 here.

Greg Hassett was a bit of a wunderkind back in the day, creating his own adventure games in BASIC and moving on to machine language while still in his early teens.  I completely missed out on his games at the time they were published, so I've been catching up on them all these decades later.  While misspellings tend to abound, Hassett's technology and designs are generally solid, and all of his games have been very playable in my experience.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to visit Sorcerer's Castle before reading through my playthrough notes below.  It's not a difficult game, though it requires more than the usual quota of mapping, and I'll be describing my entire experience here.  In other words, there are surely...

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

We begin ON AN OLD PATH MADE BY HORSES IN MEDIEVAL TIMES -- there's no further introduction provided, so it's not quite clear whether we are in medieval times at present, though there are no anachronistic items in our empty INVENTORY (INV is as short as the parser will accept, I does not work.)  To the south is THE END OF THE PATH, surrounded by a forest that I will assume presents a maze of some kind.  Going E from the starting point also leads us into being LOST IN A DARK FOREST, so I guess we'll have to deal with a maze before we get anywhere interesting.

While I'm pondering which way to go, a character named CHESTER THE JESTER appears to suggest that "PASSAGES THAT SEEM ALL ALIKE CAN SEEM QUITE DIFFERENT, JUST HOPE YOU'RE RIGHT!" before vanishing IN A CLOUD OF PINK SMOKE; he will show up from time to time to offer these sorts of hints, though they're not critical to success. 

We don't have any inventory items to drop around the maze to distinguish one location from another, so we're going to have to map this out by trial and error -- it seems like some rooms are different with similar descriptions, while others are clearly unique.  Basically, there's a dark forest with spruce trees surrounding the initial area; most rooms have only one or two functional exits, with the rest redirecting to the same spot, so it's not too hard to find our way out, arriving at a bridge south of the forest.

While we're mapping, Chester returns a few times to say something about "GULP GULP GULP, DRINK IT DOWN, I'M NOT SUCH A STUPID CLOWN!" before vanishing again.  He also warns us, "DON'T BRING THE SWORD TO THE SORCERER'S PLACE.  IF YOU DO, HE MIGHT CONFRONT YOU FACE TO FACE!"   This jester generally has the rhyming thing down, though his sense of meter is not really very good if you're, for instance, trying to keep time while he's aroun'.

Crossing the bridge presents no trolls, blockades or other puzzles, and we find ourselves traveling south into a VAST FOREST STRETCHING OUT OF SIGHT.  This is another maze like the dark spruce forest; we can find our way south to a MEDIEVAL CASTLE.

The castle's front door is locked, but we can find a bag of coins around the east side of the castle, and a set of keys to the west.  There's another forest location accessible from the west side of the castle, containing a GOLD PISTOL, potentially useful as a treasure and as a weapon.  From the south side of the castle, we can see a TOWER WITH A SMALL WINDOW IN THE FAR, FAR DISTANCE.  There's no EXAMINE or object-specific LOOK verb, though, so we can't get any more information about it from here.

Eventually a BLACK KNIGHT appears and kills us, so we may be working against time or randomness in some way.  Restoring from a recent save, we can UNLOCK DOOR and enter the castle.  We find ourselves in a SPLENDID CHAMBER 30 FEET HIGH -- where the black knight shows up again to kill us, while we're noting the Crowther/Woods Colossal Cave reference in the location description.

Restoring one more time -- I suspect the black knight's appearances are based on a move timer, so our luck will run out again eventually -- we go west of the castle entrance to THE MASTER BEDROOM, with a persian rug.  North of the bedroom is a DAMP, MUSTY LIBRARY where we can READ a BOOK on sorcery to learn the MAGIC WORD: ALAKAZAM.  It's always nice to see a sorcery tome with a sense of traditional pop culture in its incantatory phrasing.

This time when the knight shows up, we have the presence of mind to try to SHOOT KNIGHT -- and now THE KNIGHT DISINTIGRATED [sic].  We're free to explore a corridor south of the entrance, visiting a BEDROOM WITH A STONE FLOOR and acquiring the PRICELESS SAPHIRE [sic] there, and then stopping by a BEDROOM WITH A WOODEN FLOOR to pick up a FLASK OF LIQUID (we have to GET LIQUID, not GET FLASK.)

At the south end of the corridor, we find a BEDROOM WITH A DIRT FLOOR (though there's no DIG verb to follow up with) leading to a PRIMEVAL CONFERENCE ROOM, which leads in turn to a MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.  We have some inventory items in hand now, so we can map the maze out and find our way to several new locations. We can enter the tower glimpsed earlier, though it's just a scenic waypoint, and also find our way to the brink of a pit which we can freely enter to pick up a GOLDEN SWORD.

North of the pit is a BARREN CUBICAL [sic] with a velvet pillow in it -- there's no onscreen distinction between treasures and non-treasures, so it's advisable to take everything that seems pretty or valuable.  We do have an inventory limit of 7 items, however, so I'll guess that the key and book have served their purposes and leave them behind for now.

North again we reach THE END OF THE CASTLE, with some forest visible through a small window that's slightly ajar.  We're told YOU CAN GO NOWHERE!, as there are no obvious exits, but we can OPEN WINDOW and JUMP to land in a pile of leaves, leading back into the spruce forest near the start of the game.

Returning to the castle, we resume exploration west of the vast north-south corridor.  We find a DUSTY PANTRY with markings in the dust that read, "GO SOUTH TO DUNGEON."  We have a pistol and a sword, and nowhere else to go at the moment, but the crack leading south is very narrow so we'll have to be choosy about what we take with us.  Fortunately, Mr. Hassett has given us a DROP ALL command, but even with nothing in hand THE CRACK IS FAR TOO SMALL FOR YOU TO FOLLOW.  And there's no GET ALL command!  Hmmm.  Well, following up on Chester's earlier comments, we'll try to DRINK LIQUIDSOMETHING SEEMS DIFFERENT NOW...  the crack is now a towering hole, allowing us to pass through the crack to a PRIMATIVE [sic] ART GALLERY sporting a PRICELESS PAINTING.

Removing the painting reveals a locked vault in the wall, which requires a key for opening.  So I've left the wrong item behind, it seems!  Retrieving the keys and returning here, we OPEN VAULT and obtain a gold bar.

West of the art gallery is another maze, this one with a note from Mr. Hassett: "THIS IS NOT THE MAZE WHERE THE PIRATE HIDES HIS TREASURE. -- GH."  The Colossal Cave influence is strong in this one!  Checking our SCORE reveals that we still have 0 points, so we haven't succeeded in storing any treasures in the proper location, assuming that's a factor here.

So we'll retrieve some more items -- we didn't need to drop anything to squeeze past the crack -- and map out this maze.  There's a giant opal to the south, and we can make our way to a KITCHEN with silverware and a DINING ROOM with a pewter cup.

An alcove east of the dining room leads to a study with a king's crown, leading to a sitting room that leads... directly into the dungeon!  With AN EVIL SORCERER JUST WAITING TO CAST A SPELL ON YOU HERE!  And YOU CAN GO NOWHERE!  And A PIRATE JUST APPEARED AND CHARTLED [sic] before stealing all of our treasure and hiding it... wait for it... DEEP IN THE MAZE.  Without the golden sword, we're summarily dead as the sorcerer casts his evil spell!

So we restore once again.  We must need to take care of the pirate before we encounter the sorcerer, or find a weapon that isn't made out of gold.  Or maybe SAY ALAKAZAM -- nope, I DON'T KNOW WHAT A "ALAKAZAM" IS.  Maybe it's a verb?  ALAKAZAM works but just provides a quick escape from the dead end of the dungeon back to the dusty pantry, with no effect on the wizard.

Backtracking again, we explore more of the domestic area beyond the kitchen.  There's the OFFICE OF THE SORCERER with a platinum pen available, adjoining an empty drawing room.  Do we have time to do anything with the sorcerer?  It seems the pirate only strikes once, so maybe we need to trigger him without our key weapons in hand.  We'll need to figure out where the treasures get hidden, anyway, so let's go hunt that location up now that it seems we've mapped the game out fairly thoroughly.  Assuming the author's hint is correct, we'll look for treasures in the other maze of twisty passages.  It appears that this pirate can't afford a treasure chest, so he just scatters everything randomly.  But the maze is fairly small, so it's not too hard to reclaim everything once we've got it mapped out.

Chester the Jester continues to pop up, suggesting that we shouldn't read the book?  And that some treasure might be outside under a tree?  And that the black knights can't be killed?  Not sure if this is new information or intentionally misleading or what, but I'm starting not to trust this joker.

It feels like we're close to the end of the game now.  We can SHOOT SORCERER with the golden pistol, but the game suggests that something unidentified vaporizes in the process; if we KILL SORCERER using the sword instead, his scepter remains behind, so we'll choose that option.  Assuming we have discovered most of the treasures at this point, where are we supposed to store them for SCORE?  The starting location works in some adventures -- but not in this case.  What about the tower?  Nope.

We're seeing more black knights show up now, but it seems if we have the Sorcerer's scepter in hand, they run toward us but crash harmlessly into walls and vanish, instead of killing us.  And, after much trial and error, it appears that the proper storage location is the area directly outside the castle, on the north side.

Not all the treasures are worth the same number of points -- most count for 10 or 15 points of the 225 possible, but oddly enough the velvet pillow appears to be worth 20.  So now we have a little trudging to do, working within the inventory constraints to bring all the treasures out of the castle.  The sorcerer's scepter proves to be the crowning touch, worth 50 points to earn the full score of 225 -- though there's no laudatory announcement or formal end to the game, taking a bit of the shine off of our achievement.  Victory is ours, just the same!

Sorcerer's Castle appears to be one of Greg Hassett's earlier efforts -- there's no release year onscreen or in the source code to confirm the 1979 release date listed in other sources, which would put it after his earliest works from 1978.  But it's written in BASIC, unlike his more sophisticated later games; moreover, the parser dictionary is limited, it's a standard-issue fantasy setting without much atmosphere, and there's no plot to speak of, just some mazes and straightforward puzzles.  But playing through it was a pleasant diversion, and I think I've played through the author's published body of work now -- the only game I appear to be missing, Mystery Mansion, doesn't seem to be in online circulation and as far as I know its existence is only suspected based on a reference in one of Hassett's other titles.  I hope it turns up someday, but for now we can close the book on a collection of very playable text adventures from an author active in the industry's early years.  Onward!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Infocom Sampler (1984)

I think I've misremembered slightly in the past, as in fact this was my first real encounter with a major publisher of interactive fiction -- the 1984 Infocom Sampler, including short excerpts from several games, along with a tutorial written specifically as an introduction.  I played this on the TRS-80 Color Computer back in the day -- oddly enough, this sampler was marketed and sold at Radio Shack stores, but the actual games were not.  They had to be mail-ordered directly from Infocom, and I suspect they didn't do particularly well on the Color Computer as a result -- I distinctly remember that, while Infocom games on store shelves had nicely printed labels for IBM PC, Apple II, etc., the CoCo "grey box" releases featured dot-matrix stickers.

The included excerpts are from seminal Infocom classics -- ZORK I, Planetfall, The Witness, and Infidel.  These games will be or have already been covered here in detail, so I'm going to focus on the tutorial section in this post and cover the demos briefly.  This isn't a substantial experience -- if memory serves, I bought this and played it through one summer afternoon back in the mid-1980s.  For this playthrough, I'm using the modern WinFrotz interpreter and a Z-machine file obtained at the IFArchive.

You won't be suffering much if you read beyond this point, as the Sampler is only meant to provide a taste of Infocom's products.  But there may be a few minor giveaways, so I'll pause here per usual to note that there might be...


The game opens up with a little brochure-speak, letting the user know what's ahead, before launching into the Tutorial.  We find ourselves in a Living Room, with an oak door, a mahogany door with a faded sign above, and a table with a brass lantern sitting on it.  Our goal, we are informed, is to catch a prized butterfly in the room behind the mahogany door, and we are given a number of helpful hints about how to interact with the sophisticated Infocom parser.

My first instinct is to GET LAMP, of course -- but as this is a tutorial and subject to pedagogical constraints, we have to first LOOK and then take INVENTORY, following quite a few specific orders before control is given over to us.  At least the Infocom sense of humor is in evidence: "Oh, well.  You weren't carrying anything to start with, but you might have been, so it's good to have checked."

Now we are marched to the east, where as we suspected It is pitch black.  You are likely to be eaten by a grue.  The tutorial commentary notes: Luckily, we have seen a lantern in the living room. As the main said, "Go west!"

A little more control is given to us at this point, but the tutorial's "suggestions" are still requirements -- I'd like to GET LAMP, which we can now do, and then READ SIGN, but we're advised to (Try sticking to sentences dealing with the lantern, which is useful if we're going to see anything in the closet.)  Sigh.

Now we can enter the dusty closet and acquire a butterfly net and a skeleton key -- at least we're allowed to TAKE ALL and not forced to pick up each item separately -- and now we can READ SIGN to learn: "Butterflies are free. Bring your net."  We UNLOCK MAHOGANY DOOR (and the tutorial explains that the parser has assumed the skeleton key should be used.)

Now we can open the mahogany door and head south into the Butterfly Room, where Flying around in graceful arcs is the most beautiful butterfly you have ever seen.  The tutorial hints that we should be careful not to let it get away, and SAVE is not supported in the Sampler, but just for fun I'll try to CATCH BUTTERFLY without closing the door.  And now the story is over, as the butterfly really and truly escapes, ending the game!

One gets the impression that Infocom was slightly on the defensive in an increasingly competitive adventure game market when this closing promotional text was written, as the closing text takes pains to explain why Infocom has "no pictures in our stories" and "why we don't simply translate works of popular fiction directly into interactive fiction" (this before Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published, one guesses, though that wasn't really a direct conversion.)  It's interesting to see that the closing text mentions a number of platforms even more obscure than the TRS-80 Color Computer -- Infocom's highly portable Z-machine interpreter was also running officially on the HP 110 and 150, DEC Rainbow and DECmate, Osborne 1, Kaypro II, CP/M and TI Professional computers, and of course today various flavors of Frotz keep the original story files compatible with pretty much every device out there.

I can't let this story go without a proper ending, so I restart the tutorial and remember to close the door this time.  We can't simply GET BUTTERFLY, we have to be more specific and CATCH BUTTERFLY IN NET (or some variation on that theme.)  An easily-won victory is ours:

The tutorial now resets completely, but we can play any of the four demos by typing its name at the initial >> prompt.  I'll assume some familiarity with the source material and just summarize these excerpts here.

ZORK I --  The "Demonstration of ZORK I" drops us in the usual starting point, west of the white house with a mailbox.  We can explore the environment -- it seems this is the complete game map.  SCORE mentions that the entire ZORK I has 350 points possible, but doesn't say what our scope is here.  We can go through the trap door and get killed by the troll's bloody axe, and our belongings get scattered around after reincarnation -- with no SAVE feature, there are no easy wins here!  But eventually we take out the troll, ending the game on a successful note.  There doesn't seem to be a specific point goal here -- we can stash the jewel-encrusted egg from the bird's nest in the trophy case, or not, and the story always ends after we successfully dispatch the troll.

Planetfall -- This demonstration also starts at the beginning of the full game -- all we have to do is escape from the ship and survive to reach planetside and get out of the pod before drowning.  Heading up into the building nearby, the story ends as we meet Floyd the robot, much earlier than in the game proper.  It's good storytelling but not particularly interactive, so while it's a valid promotion for the full game (with Floyd's sales pitch: "You'll buy the real Planetfall and come back and play with Floyd, won't you?"), there's not much to actually do here.

Infidel -- We begin at the beginning, as the supply plane makes a drop at our now-deserted campsite.  We obtain the black box, which reads out our current latitude and longitude in this pre-GPS era, and can find a pick axe and shovel to open the padlocked trunk in our tent.  In the trunk we find a stone cube and, unlike the full game, a map with the target longitude and latitude provided, instead of finding it in our game package as a copy-protection measure (we are cautioned: "This is not necessarily the location of the pyramid in the real game.")  We can then grab a drink of water at the Nile and work fast before we get hungry to navigate to 24/11/7 N, 32/12/43 E, dig until we find the top of the pyramid, and PUT CUBE IN OPENING.  The demo ends just as we are about to enter the pyramid.

The Witness -- I had forgotten this detail, but Infocom answers exactly the question I had as I started this section up: "The Witness is so richly interactive that there is no small portion which could be broken out for this sampler."  So we're just given a canned, completely non-interactive transcript that demonstrates the writing style and gameplay of the full experience.  As a 1940s gumshoe, we arrive at the Linders' estate and are greeted by Mr. Phong, who escorts us in to meet Mr. Linder and his daughter, Monica.  Rain starts to fall as we get a drink, turn on the radio, and read the threatening note Linder received... then, suddenly, we witness his murder by... "Stiles!"?

And that's it for the Infocom Sampler!   Just a taste, with some interesting variations on the full games to fit the demo concept.