Saturday, July 2, 2016

Adventure: Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder in the Hotel Lisbon (2014)

Ed.: As many have noticed, I'm finding it difficult to keep up with my adventuring and blogging of late.  So I'm changing up my approach a little bit -- feedback is welcome!

For several years now I've been doing comprehensive playthroughs and avoiding more recent games -- unnecessarily, as it turns out, since walkthroughs are actually easier to find for modern adventures than the vintage text games I often choose to battle through.  So I'm going to try a lighter approach and see how that works -- I'm going to play a game for fun's sake, capture a few screenshots, and then write about it from recent memory, rather than trying to take detailed notes along the way.  I won't be doing reviews, exactly, and there will still be some spoilers here where I want to comment on or illustrate something notable.  But I'm going to try to focus more on what a particular game brings to the adventure gaming genre, and how it uses or changes its conventions, and break my old habit of narrating every step of the game, at least where more recent titles are concerned.

So, with that said, I've recently been playing Portuguese developer Nerd Monkeys' 2014 point-and-click animated adventure, Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon.

The adventure game genre never quite died off commercially outside the United States, though I was surprised to see this effort is not implemented using the near-ubiquitous Adventure Game Studio, but Game Maker Studio.  The game is designed by Filipe Duarte Pina and produced by Diogo Vasconcelos, with backgrounds by Luis Bacharel, character design by Nuno Saraiva, a great jazz combo score by Rafael Pina, recorded with live instruments but yet somehow seamlessly looped when necessary.

The story is straightforward -- our hero and avatar, the amoral Detective Case, must solve a murder as well as several supplementary cases with the occasionally helpful assistance of an inherited robot sidekick who wants to be a stand-up comedian.  (Straightforward as adventure games go, anyway.)  The game mechanics are kept simple, and there aren't really any inventory puzzles of the traditional sort -- we do collect items and evidence, but they are used primarily within the victim and suspect interview sequences that provide the bulk of the gameplay.

It's not hard to work one's way through the game using exploration and a little experimentation, and there are walkthroughs available elsewhere, so I'm going to skip the details of the plot other than to say there's a murder afoot and an array of suspects with possible motives.  But I'm going to talk about details of the game's style here, so as always, I'll warn you that beyond this point there are likely to be...

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

Detective Case/Lisbon (for short) has an appealing 2-D low-res European comic-strip look about it, with dialogue popped up in word balloons.  There's not a lot of character or event animation -- mostly walking, idle animations and some funny close-ups during the interrogations.  But the combination of backgrounds and characters (by different artists, no less) works nicely, and there are nice little visual touches like passing traffic and silhouettes used to indicate people who exist in the game's world but aren't available for interaction.  The engine smartly allows itself to cleanly adjust to a variety of vertical resolutions by employing a wider canvas (visible in windowed mode):

The writing is funny, unabashedly bawdy and politically less-than-correct at times, but it's not self-conscious or smarmy.  The translation to English is sometimes grammatically awkward, and there are a few jokes I never was able to grasp, but the characters come through well enough.  The game is not voiced, probably to reduce costs and localization challenges, which I appreciated when trying to click past repetitive dialogue exchanges.

(Speaking of repetition, while the game is generally pretty polished, I did run into one repeatable crash early in the game -- if one clicks on the police station door after entering from the left side without walking farther into the scene, the engine's text positioning calculation fails and causes the game to halt.  But I didn't run into any other showstoppers or gameplay dead-ends.)

The game's visual design is very consistent -- the camera angle never changes, so the same sprites are used everywhere; there's not even any scaling, as all entrances are left, right, or through a doorway that transitions to another location.  This is used creatively to accommodate a raucous foreground audience that treats the early going as a sitcom, and as a happy byproduct, the game's fast-travel taxi can be summoned anywhere, even inside a hotel room, to speed up gameplay.  There aren't many locations in the game, but the excellent score and well-chosen colors and background details keep the visuals interesting.

There's not a lot to actually do in this adventure, beyond pursuing the case at hand by exploring the world, finding connections and interviewing the parties involved to elicit information or confessions.  There are quite a few funny little details to check out and conversations to trigger, but many are optional and unvarying, and there are only a few cases where pixel-hunting becomes necessary to find an important item.  The interface is helpful -- Detective Case can ask Clown Bot for a reminder about the current objective, and we can review the items in inventory to learn additional details that might trigger an investigative path.

The core of the gameplay is the interviewing mechanic, a graphical reinterpretation of the classic ASK [SOMEONE] ABOUT [SOMETHING] text adventure approach, enhanced and/or limited by multiple choices for both questions and objects.  This has always been a problematic approach for me going all the way back to Infocom's The Witness -- each puzzle succumbs to trial and error, of course, but one never feels like much a detective when resorting to that.  Here, we're not allowed to initiate an interview unless we have all the necessary evidence to complete it successfully -- a reasonable design choice that saves us from too many dead ends, but it still doesn't help when we just happened to miss an important item somewhere and wish we could talk to someone to pick up an idea about where to look.  There's an additional layer of complexity here -- we can conduct a given interview as Detective Case or as Clown Bot, and some suspects react very differently to the two characters, leading to different outcomes based on the same evidence.  And the game's finale requires us to interview two different suspects at the same time, switching back and forth through six rounds of questioning instead of the normal three.

Unfortunately, the whole approach is sometimes a little opaque -- two questions may make basically the same point in slightly different ways, with one being successful and the other failing miserably.  Essentially we read the three possible questions, review our current inventory, and select the most productive question paired with supporting evidence.  But sometimes two pieces of evidence that should support the same line of questioning produce very different results, and sometimes a piece of evidence that seems tenuous at best ends up being the one the game wants us to pick.  So there's still some guesswork involved in these interviews, and the finale is especially vexing -- we have to replay the question/answer pairs we know multiple times as we try different combinations for the one we're currently stuck on, and there's no way to save the game mid-interview, leading to a lot of repetition that becomes frustrating the closer we get to finishing the main story.

Still, the game is entertaining, and Detective Case's, um, cases are developed in a light-hearted but logical manner.  And there's some charming retro humor on offer, including a vintage arcade stocked with parody coin-op titles in the Space Quest tradition:

Along the same lines, a thorough tour of the Hotel Lisbon allows us to access the mysterious room 401, which leads... right out of the game and into a vintage operating system:

This last joke is handled particularly nicely -- the game autosaves before we enter this area, as there's no way back in once we've exited, hinting at the frustration of 1980s game crashes and adventuring dead ends without forcing a replay.

There's also a nice nod to the development team, appearing as alley dwellers in an optional area of the game, and the band in a restaurant can be induced to play an entire song complete with vocals.  The music really makes up for a lot of the gameplay's limitations -- there's always a jaunty, promising feel in the air even when the hunt for evidence, suspects and the right combination of interview questions bogs down.

And that's what I have to say about Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon!  It's not a must-play adventure, but I look forward to seeing what this developer comes up with in the future -- the intentionally limited style seems to be working for Nerd Monkeys, and I appreciate that they aren't biting off more than they can chew like some other indie adventure game devs.  Sometimes a simpler style benefits more from modern technology than an envelope-pushing style the budget can't support.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Adventure: Dr. Livingston, In Search Of (Softside, 1980)

Thanks to all the longtime readers inquiring as to my whereabouts.  I assure you I am well, just busy with life elsewhere.  I have not written a new post since August of last year, and my old weekly schedule will not be returning any time soon, so I'm going to just start calling these "Adventure" posts instead of "Adventure of the Week."

Anway, I had a little free time this weekend, and so I wandered randomly into the SoftSide disk magazine archives in search of something I haven't played yet.  And I discovered that I had somehow overlooked this TRS-80 text adventure from September of 1980: Dr. Livingston, In Search Of... -- also known as African Adventure: In Search of Dr. Livingston when it was ported to other platforms later on.

It's basically a jungle-themed treasure hunt, without much of a plot to speak of.  Like many of the SoftSide adventures, this BASIC-language game's author is uncredited -- the engine appears similar to other games the company published, which I will probably appreciate if we get stuck along the way.  This game predates the availability of lowercase alphabet display kits for the venerable TRS-80, so the parser will only recognize entries in uppercase.

I've been considering changing my old format for these posts, especially when I'm dealing with animated/modern adventures and well-known games where walkthroughs are commonly available and that level of detail doesn't necessarily add value.  But this adventure is more obscure, so I'm going to stick with my usual approach, detailing my playthrough experience in the following.  In other words, if you plan to search for Dr. Livingston on your own, you may want to stop here.  There are certain to be...

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

We begin where so many other adventures begin, in a bedroom, presumably our own, in pajamas, with a closet, a bed, and some bedcovers that are curiously emphasized in the text as TURNED DOWN.

There's also a TIMEWORN BOOK on hand, so it makes sense to READ BOOK.  Oh, right, YOU DON'T HAVE IT.  I am clearly out of practice!  I GET BOOK -- 'TIS DONE providing a nicely period-appropriate parser response -- and then READ BOOK; TRY READING IN BED.  Um... okay.  I GO BED and now we can finally READ BOOK to discover its title: "AFRICA - LAND OF THE UNKNOWN - BY R.U. REDDE." 

The book seems fairly central to the action here, as we can also OPEN BOOK and READ PASSAGE: "... PLORER NODDED OFF TO SLEEP, HIS THOUGHTS BEGAN TO DRIFT T..."  This seems like a clue, but we're not allowed to SLEEP, GO SLEEP or CLOSE EYES, so I'll GET UP and see what else we can do here.  EXAMINE CLOSET yields no information... and neither does GO CLOSET?  Ah, we have to OPEN CLOSET, adding a faded red knapsack and a pair of hiking boots to the visible items in the room.

I'll GET KNAPSACK and GET BOOTS -- they are automatically worn, it seems.  OPEN KNAPSACK reveals only that it's already open, and I can't seem to PUT BOOK or DROP BOOK in any way that involves the knapsack, so we'll assume it is just here for show or perhaps to increase our carrying capacity.

There appears to be no way to leave the bedroom -- N, W, S, E, U and D all reveal various blocking messages.  I suspect these are randomized for variety, and that the "THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF" text doesn't necessarily mean we can open up a passage there.   We can't seem to do anything with the nightstand, so we'll try going back to bed.

I suspect we need to sleep, but repeated reading of the book doesn't do anything, and I can't PULL BEDCOVERS or COUNT SHEEP.  Ah!  DRIFT OFF is hinted at by the passage in the book... and now we find ourselves DRIFTING IN A ROWBOAT ON A LAKE.  That's a nice transition of a type peculiar to text adventures -- the conceptual pun, if you will.

There's a tiny grey mouse in the boat with us, and we can see a beach on the eastern shoreline.  We can simply GET MOUSE and store him in the knapsack, and go E to arrive on the shoreline with our boat conveniently tied to the dock.

The game does not in most cases tell us which directions are available for travel; going N is unsuccessful, so I'll head S into a grassy plain where a native throws a spear at us.  Fortunately, HE MISSES AND RUNS OFF, and we can now GET the poison-tipped SPEAR.  The grassy plain is a bit of a local maze, and I eventually find my way out to the east, where a trail begins near a tree.

It would not be an outdoor adventure game if we weren't obligated to CLIMB the occasional TREE, and this one hosts a VICIOUS VIPER.  We can't seem to SPEAR VIPER or KILL VIPER, but this snake isn't particularly strike-happy, so I'll climb back Down and head south onto the trail.

We can see cliffs to the east leading to a plateau, but I'll continue south for now to the overgrown end of the trail where we find a sack of coffee beans, which we'll take with us in case they come in handy later on.  We can't go any further south, but we can travel east to see a nearby village.  This would be a good time to SAVE GAME, if this engine sported such a feature; but it does not, so I'll have to live in 2016 and make do with an emulator save state.

As we enter the village, A VOLLEY OF SPEARS FLIES OVER YOUR HEAD!  AN OBVIOUS WARNING!  So we'll take this under advisement as we flee back W... except we can't go back that way!  I stumble S into a hut, where we find a crumpled note that reads: "SWAMI DIAMOND."  Okay, I was hoping for something a little more coherent, but we'll keep the note in case this comes to mean something later on. 

Unfortunately, when I re-emerge from the hut, we're dead, presumably from a native attack, with only 5 of 250 possible points earned -- but to my surprise, this early game actually has a bit of an auto-rewind feature, and we find ourselves drifting in the boat on the lake again.  However, we have none of our inventory... though this turns out to be informative, as when I make a direct return to the native village, people seem much friendlier and one native offers a trinket in trade for something.  I think perhaps we are better received if we're not carrying the spear I picked up earlier... and yes, if I restore my earlier save and DROP SPEAR before going into town, we're safe here.

I can't TRADE KNAPSACK or TRADE MOUSE, so let's do some more exploring.  I find a jungle south of the trail's end, where we meet a wild dog who is not friendly.  Fleeing at random, I find some quicksand -- we can't travel north across the quicksand, it seems, though we can see that a trail continues beyond.  I can't seem to find a way out of the jungle, either, so we'll restore again and check out the cliffs alongside the trail we saw earlier.

A FIERCE BLACK LEOPARD BARS THE WAY to an opening in the cliffside, and we can't THROW SPEAR (it just hits the ground) or KILL LEOPARD (THAT'S TOO DANGEROUS.)  So I'd better map this area out more thoroughly and make sure I'm not missing some important inventory items.  Oh, wait -- I didn't try to TRADE the coffee BEANS to the friendly natives, and that works -- now we have a GOLDEN NOSE RING in inventory and 20 points in our SCORE.

I try to JUMP QUICKSAND when I run across it again, and the game asks, "DO YOU REALLY EXPECT TO JUMP OVER 30 FEET?"  To my surprise, when I answer YES, the game displays a short bit of vintage TRS-80 animation as we leap over the quicksand with a satisfying "TA DA" at the end!

Safely on the opposite side, we can acquire some sugar cane.  I wander around some more, and apparently we've been whittling as we walk, as suddenly we're informed that we've converted the sugar cane into a CHARMING LITTLE FLUTE.  I also discover that if we DROP MOUSE by the plateau opening, the leopard is startled into flight and we can now go U into the opening, where we find a SPARKLING DIAMOND, worth another 20 points it appears.

I discover we can enter the cave to the east, finding a cavern and a pearl-handled dagger -- but our load is getting too heavy, and there's an occasional unsettling voice heard uttering the word "SWAMI," so I'd better decide what to do with some of this stuff.  I can't seem to PLAY FLUTE, but I can CHARM VIPER with it, and take the LETHARGIC VIPER along.  We can DROP VIPER near the wild dog in the jungle -- the two fight and both disappear into the quicksand, and a DEEP-BLUE SAPPHIRE appears sparkling in the grass.

There doesn't seem to be much of a plot in this adventure.  Can we stash these treasures back in our bedroom?  Yes, if we return to the boat and DRIFT again, we find ourselves back home.  And now we have 102 points, suggesting that this is indeed what we're meant to do with the treasures.  I also discover that we can only DRIFT at home when we have the book in inventory, but it does not travel with us to the rowboat.

I return to the caverns and acquire the pear-handled dagger, then find a passage heading east to a valley.  A trading post here offers a silver chain in exchange for something... there are ears of corn in a field to the south, but they aren't in demand it seems.  I find two shrunken heads on a sign to the west -- apparently headhunter territory.  I also find some groundnuts near a squirrel running by, with a sign suggesting this is also a trading post of some kind, although it may just refer to the nearby hut we visited earlier.  To my surprise, I can TRADE GROUNDNUTS for the silver chain.  Time for a trip home to drop off some treasures, and we're at 137 points now.

Exploring some more, I find a hungry alligator lurking in the marshes but am unable to escape being eaten by him.  I stumble into the UJIJI VILLAGE, land of the shrunken-head artistans, and in a pit to the south I actually find Dr. Livingston!  I can't GET LIVINGSTON -- or can I?  The parser responds, DR. LIVINGSTON?, and when I guess successfully by typing the "magic words" I PRESUME, 'TIS DONE, and now we have him in inventory!

We can take Dr. Livingston back to our room and drop him there, and now we're at 187 points.  So it feels like we've finished the story, but we must have at least a few more random treasures to acquire.   What haven't we done yet?  We can THROW SPEAR to kill the alligator, though the result is randomized and it took me a few tries and fatalities before I succeeded.  This doesn't seem to accomplish anything new, though, and eventually the DEAD ALLIGATOR is replaced by another HUNGRY ALLIGATOR with nary a treasure or other substantial change in sight.

What was the meaning of the note in the hut?  Are we supposed to bring the SWAMI DIAMOND there?  I try that, and nothing happens in the game or score-wise. So I think this is the best ending I can come up with:

Looking at the code, I don't see any other treasures or events I haven't seen.  It turns out that we get points for dropping ANY of sixteen inventory items in the bedroom, not just the treasures -- and in fact, it looks like we are better off keeping some of the mundane items than going for the treasures in trade, although there are some other specific scoring events that award points so it's not strictly a matter of treasure hoarding.  We've seen what there is to see here, it appears, and I'm not motivated to track down the perfect combination of actions to earn all 250 points, so I'll leave that as an exercise for more obsessive adventurers than I.

So I think that's it for the oddly named Dr. Livingston, In Search Of!  And I hope to be back, if not next week, at least relatively soon with another post.  Thanks for reading, and for your patience of late!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spottiness Ahead!

FYI, my postings here are going to be less frequent for the next several months.  I've taken on a couple of theatre projects that are going to eat up more than my available free time, and it's a busy time of year on top of that.  But rest assured I will be back, I have some games in the pipeline that I haven't written up yet and several more I am eager to tackle.  Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quick Impressions: King's Quest 2015 - Episode 1

I've been remiss in my regular blogging duties this week due to a hectic schedule, but this gives me an opportunity to introduce an occasional look at more recent adventure games.  My regular Adventure of the Week posts operate under a self-imposed five year embargo -- yes, I know there are walkthroughs a-plenty out there, but I like to let a game ferment and grow some historical context before I write about it in spoiler-filled detail.  But I do play more current adventure games, and I'd like to use this space to write about those now and then.  And... for a change there will be...

***** NO SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

This past week I've been playing the new King's Quest game, the first of five planned episodes being released by Activision's revival of the classic Sierra label as an "indie" channel.  The season pass on Steam currently retails at $39.99, a bit more than the $25-$30 range other publishers have conditioned us to expect.

First, let me say that I'm glad to see something KQ-related finally come to market after a long dry spell, fan projects and the abortive Telltale Games take on Roberta Williams' classic franchise notwithstanding.  It's a healthy sign of revival for the adventure game genre, in that a large mainstream publisher is taking a gamble on a title like this. 

Second, I should point out that I'm not a huge fan of the series -- I've played KQ I-VII and written about them here, but I've always regarded the series as a bit contrived and less dramatic than it wants to be.  With tongue firmly in cheek, I also question its sense of morality, as Graham and his progeny seem to feel no compunction at all about pushing old women into ovens and such when the plot calls for it; they're unfailingly polite and deferential to everyone else, but witches and non-human creatures are often cruelly dispatched without a moment's thought.

As I write this, I'm only about 4 hours into this first episode -- apparently the budget does allow for a little more content than the three hours or so I usually get out of an episodic release -- but I have to say I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  It's definitely not designed as a point-and-click game -- I'm playing with an Xbox 360 controller, which provides direct control of our hero and works well for the mild action sequences and Dragon's Lair-style events that come up once in a while.  That said, there's no parser and interactions with inventory objects are very simple -- we just stand near something that an object can be used on, open inventory, and select objects until something at least responds, often with a groan-inducing pun if it doesn't apply.  Sometimes no response is produced at all, but I can't say that's a bad thing.

I like the structure of the story -- an aging King Graham (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) shares tales of his life and exploits with his granddaughter, Gwendolyn, allowing for plenty of "I would have died IF I had done that" instant recoveries and first-person-from-a-distance narration.  This convention flows better than the clunky popups and frequent die-and-restore cycles of the vintage King's Quest games.

And I like the artwork a lot -- the three-dimensional environments often call the pioneering painterly style of King's Quest V to mind, and the character models, while a little chunky up close, fit the quality voice acting nicely.  Animation is lively and often subtle, and while there are little glitches and priority breaks here and there they never seem all that important somehow.  And the effects animation is really well done -- flames and flowing water look great, but not overly realistic, without the pasted-on, memory-constrained look that the vintage Sierra titles often suffered from when trying to look dramatic.

The gameplay is, if anything, a little too reminiscent of the vintage series.  I'm currently doing quite a bit of backtracking and experimenting, and a little fast-travel or parser-quick navigation would be handy, but that's always been a problem in these animated adventure games if you ask me.  So we do spend quite a bit of time watching young Graham's gangly walking animation, steering him from place to place as we try to figure out what to try with the latest object we've acquired.  Dialogue interactions do occur, and are generally informative and/or entertaining, but dialogue doesn't drive the story as directly as in many other modern adventures.  For the most part, we have to figure out where to use the thing on the other thing, with the occasional hint thrown our way by another character or future Graham, and the old-school mechanics are fine with me.

All in all, I think the Odd Gentlemen and Activision have done the right thing in bringing King's Quest back.  The style is a workable hybrid of the modern choice-driven and classic animated adventure games, and I'm enjoying the story and the puzzles, many of which call the earlier titles to mind without seeming like direct copies.  I expect I'll write about this game in more detail some day; for the moment, let me just say that the 2015 King's Quest is proving very worthwhile -- a bit of nostalgia, a lot of genuinely fresh fun.  And I'm glad there are still death animations, with the added bonus of quick recoveries.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Wizard's Revenge (1981)

This week's subject, Wizard's Revenge, is another of an informal series of text adventures published by the Atari Program eXchange for Atari's 8-bit home computers, and the only one I hadn't yet tackled in my recent posts about these games.  Wizard's Revenge was written by Max Manowski circa 1981, and does not appear to use the same parser as the other adventure games in the APX library.  It also has a few role playing game-style elements, so it may present some different challenges.

The plot is fairly standard early-adventure material -- the player has been banished to a strange land by a powerful wizard, though this setup does more than most adventure games bother to do, in explaining why the player starts out in an unfamiliar place with no possessions to speak of.  The game also handles illumination in a more sophisticated way than most adventures of its era, and the structure is very open-ended -- there aren't many required puzzles, there are a lot of red herrings and atmospheric optional locations to visit, and the player is given a lot of freedom to explore.

Interested readers are of course encouraged to spoil the Wizard's Revenge before reading about my experience here -- but be warned that the game is a little buggy and there are lots of fatal scenarios, and no built-in SAVE facility, so I highly recommend using a modern emulator with machine state save capabilities, as I don't think I would have persevered for very long without that technical assist.  I also found that the game seems to work better under an (emulated) Atari 800 OS-B configuration than on an XL platform, though even then I found a number of situations that just hang the game.  So feel free to avoid some annoying non-game issues and learn what this one is all about in the...

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

As the game begins, we find ourselves in a Forest.  YOU ARE 50% ALIVE, we're informed, suggesting that there is a role playing game concept of the player's health involved here.  There's a cave to the east, but I'm going to do a little exploring and mapping first.

My initial attempt to head North meets with resistance, as the parser informs us that I DO NOT ACCEPT ABBREVIATIONSNORTH is more successful, leading to a clearing in the woods with a green pole stuck in the ground.  I try to EXAMINE POLE, and the parser's visual response suggests it's only really recognizing POLE -- but just the same, the ground trembles, and we fall through a newly-opened crack before it closes above us. 

We are now in a Dimly Lit Room, with passages west, east, and south.  Heading SOUTH, we pass through a room with a little light visible to the south, into a Very Narrow Passage -- I thought the game had gotten hung up here, but there's just a pause as we find a sword, get stuck, and struggle back into the room to the north. 

Just out of curiosity, I try this again -- and on the second try, I get attacked by vampire bats and my health drops to 37%.  This happens again on subsequent tries, until I'm dead, so I guess we're only supposed to find one object here.  What's interesting is that after I restart and make another attempt, I acquire a silver button instead of the sword.  Curious, I start again and pick up a potion.  So it seems this is a way to acquire only non-critical items.

From the room with little light, I discover we can go EAST into a room with walls that feel covered with moss, and we hear strange sounds from the east.  We can't go north -- the room descriptions don't always list the available exits, so we have to make attempts in all possible directions, though at least UP and DOWN don't seem to be recognized so I think we only have to worry about four possibilities.  Heading south leads us into a Room that feels Damp (this game's text doesn't always name rooms formally, so my capitalization is going to be rather inconsistent here also.)

Here, we can only go back north, or west into a Dry Room with a torch on the wall.  I try to TAKE TORCH, based on my recent experience with APX adventures, but we can only GET TORCH... no, that doesn't work either... ah, my mistake.  I'd gone back to the damp room, and instead of telling me the torch wasn't available, the parser was just saying HUH? in response to GET TORCH and WHAT? for TAKE TORCH.  This suggests the nouns are treated according to situation or location, and maybe given priority over the verbs; the parser actually underlines the words it recognizes with up-arrows after we enter a command, giving us some hints as to how the game "thinks."

In the dry room, I do successfully TAKE TORCH -- and it's already lit, saving us hunting for matches and such.  The passage mentioned leading north turns out to be too narrow to enter, but the torch's light reveals that it seems to run on for quite a distance.  The only other apparent option is to head WEST, which leads us back to our starting point.

I still have some areas to explore inside the cave, but let's check out the map above ground now that we're back here.  Heading west from the forest leads to a Small Stream, flowing north to south.  DRINK WATER here proves refreshing, but doesn't seem to improve our health, which remains at 50%. 

I head NORTH again and find the source of the stream at the mouth of a small cave.  I DRINK WATER once and feel stronger -- but health stays where it is, and when I try to drink again, I die of an overdose!  After a restore (there is no SAVE GAME command, so I'm glad I'm playing under the Atari800Win emulator) I drink just once, and confirm that we can't go north or west here, and EAST returns us to the clearing with the green pole, though it's no longer here after I disturbed it earlier.

In the interest of mapping, I follow the small stream south this time, to the point where it flows into a small crack in a large rock.  Trying to go west from here leads into an area where The Ground Here Is Very Swampy, and the game appears to hang.  So I have to restore again, and hope this doesn't happen too often; the same thing repeats when I try again, so it might be a bug or an intentional dead end.  I'll steer clear of it for now.

South of the forest is an area with many trees, and ONE OF THEM IS VERY TALL.  We can't go UP, but we can CLIMB to see a deep valley far to the east.  I try to go NORTH, and subsequently fall from the tree, knocking my health down by 9%.  CLIMB does not bring us back down, but DOWN works here.  Just to be thorough, I learn that trying to head EAST from the treetop is fatal, but the player's character is somehow wiser about heading south or west.  So maybe under some circumstances yet to arise, we will be able to head east?

I head south of the tall tree to find more trees and a large hole in the ground.  The game seems to hang up again if I try to go WEST of this point, and we can't go DOWN into the hole, at least not that way.  EXAMINE HOLE proves unintentionally effective, as we find the edge of the hole slippery and fall into it.

This leads us back to the room where we felt moss earlier, but with the torch in hand, we can now see it much more clearly.  It has mossy walls and passages leading east, south, and west.  This is a really nice way to handle illumination -- we were able to explore in the darkness before we had a proper torch, which is a more natural solution than the usual it's-so-dark-you'll-break-your-neck-just-by-walking-around situation these games often present.

With this insight, I travel back to the dimly lit room we visited earlier, which is now just a room with passages to the west, east and south.  I haven't been west yet -- this leads to a room with a Musty Smell, and we can continue west to a small room with a door on the west wall.  I try to EXAMINE DOOR, and end up wounded somehow, though the game suggests we might be able to push harder.  This seems misleading, as another attempt produces a click, and a dart is stuck in my neck, costing some health as I pull it out.  PUSH DOOR produces a similar result, and with my health dropping again I opt to restore to a previous save state.

Heading back to the east, I see some strange powder near the north wall.  We can't TAKE POWDER, or PUSH WALL to look for dust-disturbing secret panels, but if we try to go NORTH, a spark from the torch lands in the powder, and it explodes!  We don't seem to suffer much damage, but the torch is now useless.  I try to DROP TORCH after a restore, but DROP is not even a recognized verb, so we'll do some more mapping before we try to push through this area.  I do discover that if we let the torch be blown up, and try to go NORTH, we're told that it's too dark to see anything -- but if we type LOOK, we can learn that we're still in the musty room despite the lack of a light source.

We have some more mapping to do, so I'll head east of the formerly dimly-lit room into a dead end -- but when I try to turn back, a bright flash occurs, we move through the air, and find ourselves in a small cave with a poisonous snake approaching.  I try go SOUTH but fail to escape a deadly bite.  After yet another restore, I attempt to KILL SNAKE, and to my surprise I'm able to do so even though I don't have an obvious weapon in hand.  But the game hangs again here, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm even going to be able to play this one to completion.

What next?  Let's check out the strange sound to the east of the mossy room.  The passage turns north into a Very Large Room with water blocking the way north and a large, apparently friendly bird.  I try to EXAMINE BIRD and SING BIRD and PET BIRD, but only get strange looks and more chirping.  CLIMB doesn't work -- he's not that large -- nor does RIDE BIRD.  I try to EXAMINE POTION, in case it might be helpful here, but the parser assumes I want to imbibe it, and I find myself back at 100% health... just before the game hangs again.

What is going on?  I set up my emulator to run as an Atari 800 with OS-B instead of as an Atari XL, reboot, and now the game seems to be slightly more cooperative.  My quick test, heading into the swampy ground west of the trees, leads to a pearl and a hang-free prompt.  I opt to head north into knee-deep water, where I get bitten by a water moccasin and die.  Restarting, I go to the bird room, and trying to go NORTH reveals that we must either WADE or SWIMSWIM is not great, as a large fish bites us and we're wounded.  WADE has the same effect.  Dang it!

Entering the narrow passage, luck grants me a book this time.  READ BOOK reveals a single page of writing: "TO LEAVE THE CASTLE, KEEP GOING EAST."  That will probably be useful advice.  Next, I try to KILL SNAKE in the small cave again, but this still seems to hang the game.  I restart and pick up a worm in the narrow passage, which enables me to GIVE WORM and get the bird to fly me across the water.  This game seems to depend on random events to a startling degree!

We enter a small passage here, crawling to discover a key before we have to back out.  The passage caves in, but another passage north takes us to a Round Room with passages west and south.  Writing over the south passage reads: "WHEN SMILED AT ALWAYS SMILE BACK," but then the writing fades away.

We might as well head south, then, to a dead end where a rock SEEMS TO STICK OUT IN AN UNNATURAL WAY.  I TOUCH ROCK and fall through a trap door, landing fatally on some spikes.  So we'll restore and avoid doing that.

Instead, we'll go west into a room with passages to the south and west.  THE NORTH WALL LOOKS STRANGE, but we can't walk through it or otherwise interact with it.  The south passage leads to a room with walls that sparkle, and no obvious exits.  SMILE and SMILE WALL aren't productive, but I TOUCH WALLS, and we find ourselves at the west end of a valley with steep sides and a western sparkling wall, presumably way to return.

Heading east, I pass some bushes, and reach an area where the walls are not as steep.  CLIMB still fails, but we're not hurt after sliding down from about halfway up, and we can continue east to an intersection of two valleys.

A partially readable sign suggests, "TO EXIT GO .O.TH," which means it's a good time to save state for the umpteenth time -- and also suggests that Mr. Manowski's game must have felt a little sadistic in its original, unSAVEable form!  I opt not to decide yet, and check out the east end of the valley, where some rocks are starting to fall.  EXAMINE ROCKS proves fatal, though, as they crush our health turn by turn, and we can't escape by heading back to the WEST -- all we can do here, in fact, is suffer wave upon wave of falling rocks until we're dead.

Restoring and heading north instead, I find some bushes at the north end of the valley, and go west into a small room with a passage west and a small gem in the wall.  Going west leads us to the small cave with the poisonous snake we earlier reached by another route, and again the game hangs up.

I'll restore and try going south at the intersection -- this leads to a stairway in the south wall.  The steps are tiring, we're told, but we are able to climb them and arrive at a clearing.  To the west is a tall tree -- similar to but not the same as the earlier one -- where we can see a valley to the north and a river to the east.  Further west is a clearing with some bushes bearing yellow berries, which I'll ignore for safety's sake at the moment.

This game's map is fairly large, though there aren't a lot of inventory items or puzzles to deal with.  I'm going to go back to the east for now, discovering a castle near a river with an open door.  GO DOOR is not recognized, EAST causes us to drown in the river, and GO CASTLE is also unproductive.  It finally dawns on me that, with the castle's door on its east wall, we've probably just come through that door -- which suggests we're making progress escaping said castle.

I try going SOUTH from here, finding a log across the river that DOESN'T LOOK SAFE TO CROSS.  But with the luxury of a save state to back me up, I try to CROSS LOG anyway... and to my surprise, victory is ours!

The game still feels a little bit unfinished, with lots of loose ends, so I restore to my pre-log crossing situation and wander around this area a little bit more.  I meet a smiling man in the woods to the west, and SMILE gets him to tell us that "IT'S SAFE TO CROSS THE LOG," which we'd already figured out.  I find a flute in a grove of willow trees, but can't PLAY FLUTE to do anything with the poisonous snake.  I get the impression that certain random events, especially the discovery of one of multiple possible objects in the narrow passage early on, allow Wizard's Revenge to have multiple solutions, but I'll stop here, satisfied to have found one of them at least.

Wizard's Revenge is certainly not a standard adventure game -- it's got some odd behaviors and a few bugs, but as what I surmise is an attempt to produce a more RPG-like, loosely-structured experience, it's not bad.  The map is very large and I have to think that other paths to the ending are available -- at the least, the design presents a greater illusion of choice than most text adventures of its time.  As far as I can determine, this is the only game Max Manowski ever published, so we don't have any other examples of his approach to the genre to compare to this one.  But I enjoyed wandering through this expansive, if largely plot-free, adventure game.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Castle (1981)

Castle is another escape-the-castle adventure involving a wizard's curse, written by Robert Zdybel and published by the Atari Program Exchange for the company's 8-bit computers, circa 1981.  (All of these games start up with the same COPYRIGHT ATARI 1981 notice, and I'm starting to wonder if it's really just the engine's built-in notice and these games were released over a longer period of time.) 


Castle uses the standard Atari Program eXchange engine written in-house at Atari, with all the attendant quirks I've been noting while working my way through these games in recent weeks.

Interested readers are, of course, encouraged to escape the Castle before reading about my experience below.  The game isn't overly difficult, but figuring out how some of the pieces are supposed to fit together isn't always straightforward, and the APX parser's approach gets in the way here and there -- the player tends to have to hunt for the location where an object can be used as intended.  In any case, be advised that if you have any interest in experiencing this adventure firsthand, you may want to go away and do that, as there will surely be...

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

We begin in a large open courtyard -- our imprisonment being rather informal, it seems -- near a beautiful fountain.  There's quite a bit of detailed, evocative text in this game, which suggests the map may not be very large.  We have nothing in inventory, so we'll explore the large stone arches in all directions.

Heading North leads us into a Banquet Hall, where moldy remains of the last dinner served suggest a hasty departure.  There is a parchment lunch sack lying here, and we're told that it has a grease spot in one corner.  I try to TAKE SACK and TAKE LUNCH SACK, unsuccessfully, but TAKE LUNCH works.  OPEN LUNCH reveals a tuna sandwich, a banana, and a liverwurst cookie.

East of the banquet hall is the Scullery, where we see a large, half-full bottle of water that looks potable.  Zdybel's text in this game works around the engine's lack of a typical EXAMINE verb, so it pays to read the room descriptions in detail while the objects are in situ to pick up important details. 

South of the scullery is the Ladies Quarters, where cobweb-covered feather beds once hosted the castle's female staff.  We can return to the courtyard to the west, but I'll continue south into the Bunk Room, apparently abandoned by the Royal Guard.  An Elven steel sword here suggests that the author had recently played ZORK, what with the lunch sack we found earlier and the blue glow we see before us.  We'll TAKE SWORD too.

West of the bunk room is the Great Gate, where a thick drawbridge secures the castle.  An iron crank probably controls the great drawbridge, but we'll keep exploring, confirming that we can return to the courtyard to the north.  The map is straightforward so far, and geographically consistent -- it appears the courtyard is surrounded by a ring of 9 rooms, all connected in the expected fashion.

Continuing West of the Great Gate, we find a Guardhouse containing a brass oil lamp, so we'll TAKE LAMP as custom dictates.  A forbidding staircase leads into unknown territory below, so we'll keep ZORK in mind and continue exploring to pick up any other worthwhile adventuring accessories before we go down there.

A Small Grate secured by a heavy, padlocked iron chain lies to the north of the guardhouse, west of the courtyard.  It appears we could go west if the chain was removed, but for now we'll have to go north to what should be the last room in this area.  This is the Great Staircase, leading upward, but we're warned that The ageing [sic] stairs are showing signs of neglect and just might not hold your weight

I'll take the risk and head Up to the Chapel, where we see a broken-down pipe organ and a wall of stained glass.  PLAY ORGAN isn't recognized by the parser, so that's probably not something we need to pursue. 

This upper floor seems similar to the first, with the chapel in the northeast corner.  I'll tour in clockwise direction again to visit the Council Chambers, with a wrought-iron grating covering a window cut from the stone; the King's Chamber, with a moldy mattress and a passage upward that's currently blocked for some unstated reason; and a Sitting Room with a potted plant crying for "Water" -- another clear influence, this time from Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave.  In the southeast corner of this floor is the Queen's Chamber, with a magically fresh-looking blueberry and raisin cupcake on hand (though we must TAKE CAKE, TAKE CUPCAKE doesn't work) and a route up to the Lookout, a breathtaking view with no other exits.  West of the Queen's Chamber is the Sewing Room, and in the southwest corner is a Small Stairwell with a staircase leading up into unfathomable mist, so we can't climb it at the moment.  (I later discover that the sewing room seems to exist solely to allow for a joke about early computing hardware logic gate technology -- HINT here suggests that the new Enchanted Castle Limited (ECL for short) represents a major improvement over the TTL series.)  There's also a Great Hall connecting the small stairwell to the chapel, and we can go up from the chapel into the Bell Tower to acquire a small sack of birdseed if we TAKE BIRDSEED, TAKE SACK and TAKE SEED don't work.  We can't RING BELL either.

Before I go down into the darkness below the guardhouse, I try to TURN CRANK at the great gate, to no avail as it's rusted in place.  I try to OIL CRANK with the oil from the lamp, also unsuccessfully, and I also fail to USE OIL and OPEN LAMP.

So we'll continue mapping -- I head down into the darkness, TURNON LAMP (a verb peculiar to the APX engine) and find myself in the Gaol, where a grinning, armed, presumably animated skeleton blocks our way and guards the tempting ring of keys lying on the floor.  I try to KILL SKELETON and ATTACK SKELETON, but USE SWORD is the only way to dispatch him as the blow smashes the dancing skeleton into a hundred small pieces.  We can't TAKE KEYS or TAKE RING, so the ring of keys on the floor appears to be strictly decorative in nature.

The gaol lies to the south of the Dungeon proper, with torture implements, strange Elven runes on the wall and a suspiciously less-dusty eastern wall.  I try to READ RUNES but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, and trying to go east suggests something is in the way.  The map down here does not resemble the upper floors -- so far, we can only reach the gaol and the dungeon.

So our map is complete for the moment, and now we can start solving some puzzles.  My first thought proves lucky, as I EAT CAKE and feel a strange Elvish feeling come over you, allowing us to READ RUNES: "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER."  But no magic words I try seem to work, so we probably need to discover the word somehow.

I try to THROW BIRDSEED and OPEN BIRDSEED at the lookout tower, but nothing seems to work.  We can DRINK BOTTLE and EAT LUNCH, for refreshment, but no other results manifest... and I probably should have watered that plant, shouldn't I?  There's no SAVE GAME supported, so I'll have to return to an earlier emulator save state.

WATER PLANT causes the plant to grow to the ceiling, just as we expected, but this seems to have no real impact on the story -- it now bellows for water, but we can observe this only at the moment we water it; otherwise, the plant seems to have disappeared from the world.  Our bottle is also gone, so there appears to be no way to refill it; I'll just restore again and ignore the plant's entreaties for now.

In the King's Chamber, we can LIFT MATTRESS to find a golden amulet with a strange inscription: "You rule the toads of the Short Forest and every newt in Idaho."  There's a Royal Seal on the ceiling, in gold; I try to WEAR AMULET, OPEN AMULET, WAVE AMULET and OPEN SEAL, but the parser doesn't recognize any of these concepts.

In the bell tower, requesting a HINT suggests that the bishop used to feed a flock of birds here.  So I try to SCATTER BIRDSEED, which as I expected doesn't work, and DROP BIRDSEED, which does but not the way I wanted it to.  We can EAT BIRDSEED, which does nothing beyond leaving a bad taste in our mouth and consuming the birdseed, and FEED BIRDS isn't recognized.  It finally dawns on me that I found the birdseed here originally, so the hint is just descriptive.

I'll play some more with the amulet -- the fact we can READ it in the King's Chamber but nowhere else suggests whatever we can do with it must be done there.  LIFT AMULET does nothing to open the seal, but INSERT AMULET does, causing a small step-ladder to extend down from the ceiling.  This leads us to the conveniently located King's Mistress' Chamber, where a yellow canary looks hungry.  I try to FEED CANARY and DROP BIRDSEED, but only FEED BIRD works -- the little bird says, "ARJAYZEE."  That sounds like the author's initials, and likely a magic word. 

SAY ARJAYZEE doesn't work on the dungeon door, but it does thin out the mist in the small stairwell, allowing us to reach the Wizard's Tower.  A thin black spellbook is here, but we can't READ BOOK in this location, so we'll just TAKE BOOK for now.

We can't read it in the dungeon either.  Just for fun, I try taking the "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER" clue literally and SAY AND -- and lo and behold, the wall fades into a thinning mist!  Now we can enter the Potion Room, with a gigantic vault door to the north.  There's a flask of blue fluid here with a faded label, but I have to leave and reenter the room to learn that the parser calls this a POTION, not a FLASK or a FLUID

READ POTION suggests it's called "OLD IRONBENDERS STRENGTH EXTRACT," and DRINK POTION suggests it lives up to its name.  With our newly acquired power we can OPEN VAULT and enter the King's Vault.  There's a note here, reading: "... under my mattress, simply insert it into the ceiling and the secret room will appear."  So... wow, that was a lot of work for something we've already learned.  And our new strength doesn't allow us to BEND BARS in the council chamber or BREAK CHAIN at the small grate to create a new exit.

So where can we READ BOOK?  In the Potion Room, we get a different response -- YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET.  It turns out this is very much like the black-light puzzle in Wizard's Gold -- we have to TURNOFF LAMP before we can read fiery script revealing another magic word: "XANADU."  We can SAY XANADU right here, as luck would have it, and the potion room's eastern wall disappears.

Now we can reach the Wizard's Treasure Room, where a small silver key is encrusted with gems and inscribed in gold.  This is partially a gag, as the key says, "Harvard" rather than the more common "Yale."   But the key itself should be useful, and proves to be as we return to the Small Grate, UNLOCK CHAIN here, and open up a passage to the west, out of the castle.  Victory is ours!

Castle is clearly derivative of some classic adventure games that preceded it, but after borrowing quite a bit of their flavor it goes off in its own direction.  The puzzles are nested a little bit too linearly, especially at the end, but there are a few interesting red herrings designed to raise questions in the player's mind and trip up the experienced adventurer, and Mr. Zdybel wrote some nicely atmospheric text.  I think this is the last of the APX games to use this engine, and I've enjoyed working my way through these adventures on summer afternoons.

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!