Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #3

Pirates and plunder are past. We're now moving into secret agent territory with Adventure #3: Mission Impossible! Let's get into the proper mood with some vintage catalog copy:

Good morning, your mission is to… and so it starts. Will you be able to complete your mission on time? Or is the world’s first automated nuclear reactor doomed? This one’s well named. It’s hard, there is no magic, but plenty of suspense. GOOD LUCK…..
For this round, we're going to use MESS emulation to play the graphically enhanced S.A.G.A. edition for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This version came out after certain lawyers associated with a certain television property suggested that the title Mission Impossible might not be in the public domain. The player's character is still referred to as Mr. Phelps, but this edition features the game's new moniker:

(Probably for the best in this case, as the Commodore 64 game Impossible Mission was a big hit in the U.K. where the Speccy was popular; the new title may have prevented market confusion and legal wrangling in that territory.)

I'd never seriously played a S.A.G.A. (Scott Adams Graphic Adventure) release before embarking on this adventure, and I was initially thrown off by the graphics. Given this opening display, I was at a bit of a loss:

I couldn't figure out where I was, which way to go, or even what I was looking at (MACHINE? REEL-TO-REEL? SPEAKER?). Fortunately, after temporarily giving up and reverting to the original text version for comparison, I realized there must be a solution. I buckled down and looked up the Spectrum S.A.G.A. documentation. D'ohh! The ENTER key toggles between graphics and text. All set to go!

Well, sort of. Ultimately, I concluded that the graphics are okay, but they don't add much and are more of a hindrance than anything. They're reasonably attractive by the standards of the day, and artful layout here manages to sidestep the Spectrum's traditional color-clash problem. But the illustrations provide insufficient information for actually playing the game -- for example, the above display doesn't communicate that the available object is a "Large tape recorder" or that the room's only exit is WEST. The net result was that I generally stayed in text mode while figuring the game out, then played through it one more time with the graphics on to see what I had missed (not much, as it turns out.)

Adventure #3 contains no treasures to hunt and store for points; it's an all-or-nothing race against time. Scott Adams' design creates a sense of time pressure and urgency right from the start, with a panic-inducing opening that motivates the player to take action (or inventory, at least) immediately. The game isn't really difficult to solve -- the puzzles are nested in a fairly linear fashion -- but there's little margin for dilly-dallying with wasted moves. It took me a while to learn my way around the game and learn the shortcuts, and I saw this attractive but unfortunate ending several times:

I did finish this game once upon a time back in the 1980's, so it only took me a couple of hours to re-work my way through, technical issues and restarts included; a final replay took less than ten minutes.

As always, at this point I urge you to stop reading if you intend to play the game on your own, because my further observations may ruin a few surprises. Go, play, save the world, come back. Digital bits don't just randomly decay on the Internet like they did on 1980's floppy disks.

************ SPOILERS AHEAD ***************

Random thoughts on the experience:

A navigational parser anomaly I noticed in Pirate Adventure resurfaces here -- only U works, UP is not actually recognized. I think it's a dictionary issue for the interpreter at large, because UP is used as a noun here, as in GET UP.

I accomplished something new on this playthrough -- I finally figured out how to use the movie film cartridge in the projector. The (a?) correct command is LOAD CARTRIDGE. As an adolescent adventurer, I got stuck and never did pull this off as intended -- repeated attempts to PUT CARTRIDGE just dropped the film next to the Projector, producing no change in the green button's behavior. Even the official Adventure International Hint Book provided no direct clue as to what I was doing wrong. I ultimately resorted to soft-resetting my TRS-80 Model I and PEEKing around in memory, where the program data was still stored, to find the related text. It became sort of a meta-adventure at the time, but it's satisfying to finally see the expected response in context. Of course, watching the visitors' movie isn't absolutely essential to finishing the game -- trial and error during the endgame effectively discovers the same information. And skipping the film altogether shaves quite a few moves off the race against the bomb's constant countdown, lessening the time pressure considerably.

I'm pleased to report that Adams' marketing flair is again on display -- this time, the advertisement for the next Adventure is in a leaflet found by frisking the dead saboteur, with a nod to the theme's television origins:

Hi! Look for Adventure number 4: "VOODOO CASTLE" at your
favorite computer store! (Now back to our current program.)
One serious limitation of the S.A.G.A. engine is that objects are generally only displayed in the rooms where they first appear -- there's no graphical depiction of objects that are dropped elsewhere by the player or materialized by the game logic. This is a real problem in Secret/Mission/Impossible, because the suicidal saboteur drops dead in a random location. With the graphics turned on, it's impossible to find the body. Only the text mode indicates the presence of "Dead saboteur."

There are some nicely handled clues and a solid real-world consistency to the puzzles -- shaking the mop to find the blue key would be totally random, were it not for the piece of yarn found on the saboteur's body after he has hidden the keys. Signage also provides useful hints toward puzzle solutions without initially seeming to do so -- as it turns out, the Break Room is indeed the only safe place to deal with liquids.

Finally, I was disappointed to note that the S.A.G.A. graphics don't do anything at all to enhance the SUCCESSFUL ending of the game - the break room looks just like it always does, with no visible evidence of the player's heroic actions under pressure:

But fanfare and ticker-tape parades are not for us. We take quiet, honorable satisfaction in having saved the world (or at least some regional portion of it) from nuclear armageddon.

Next time, we muster our jou jou and venture into supernatural territory with Adventure #4: Voodoo Castle!


  1. I think this is the only Text Adventure I ever completed by myself back when I was a kid. I'm starting to play 1-5 over again, and the rest that I never got to, on iPad now!

  2. I have to admit, I am a big fan of Text Adventure games. I grew up in the 70's playing the original Adventure on a mainframe at my mom's work. And when I got my first compuer (VIC-20) in 1981, this was the first game I bought. And I found it very frustrating. The game was good, but the time limit was a big turn-off.