Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Micro-Fun's Death in the Caribbean

This week, we take a look at a less-well-known graphic adventure game -- Death in the Caribbean, written by Philip and Bob Hess, with illustrations by Barbara P. Lawrence, published by Micro-Fun.  It challenges the player to find a treasure chest buried somewhere in the tropics, though there's nary a pirate in sight.

I remember this game primarily because we had a copy of the Apple II version in my high school computer lab, and my teacher posed an interesting question: how did they fit so many screens of graphics onto a single double-sided disk?  It was fairly obvious from watching the game run that it was executing drawing instructions (vectors and fills) read from the disk, rather than reading full-screen images, but it was an interesting technical question and I learned quite a bit from thinking it through.  Thanks, Mr. Herrild!

I started out playing this one on the Apple II, but unfortunately either the disk images I found online are corrupted, or the game has some quirky bugs -- I was never able to get past one point where there's a random chance of success or failure.  If I failed, the game ended as expected, but if I succeeded, the game went into the Apple II's debug monitor.  I suppose I could have found the correct JMP to get myself back in business, eventually, but I started over using the Commodore 64 version instead.

Oddly enough, the C-64 version uses stored bitmap graphics on 2 double-sided disks, with gettable objects overlaid on the backgrounds in crude rectangular blocks.  Some of the drawn text clues are much harder to read on the C-64, and the 1541 disk drive was notoriously slow, so it doesn't seem like Micro-Fun made the wisest technical decisions when preparing this version.  But it plays reasonably well on a modern emulator with accelerated disk handling and machine-state save support.

I found this adventure INCREDIBLY tough to complete -- it took me several evenings, even with a compliant emulator and a walkthrough on hand.  The game's design doesn't do much to make it a pleasant experience.  The map navigation and room presentation are quirky -- there are quite a few "YOU ARE FACING [compass direction] AND THERE ARE PATHS [to your right/left/behind you]" room descriptions; the information given does make sense, but the frequent reorientation makes it hard to visualize the map, and there are several points where a wrong turn is instantly fatal.  Also, the parser is frequently obstinate, room descriptions can be misleading, and many of the puzzle solutions are far from intuitive.  There also isn't much of a plot to speak of, or much to look at -- there are lots of locations, but many are very similar with nondescript palm trees and paths, and there aren't very many interesting props or characters populating the sprawling map.

I'm not going to encourage anyone to actually play this one.  But if you're feeling up to it, be aware that my comments past this point may give some secrets away, but will not actually make the game much easier.

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

The swing hanging from a tree early in the game is composed of two manipulable parts -- ROPE and SEAT.  Taking the ROPE first leaves the SEAT hanging in mid-air with no visible means of support, although taking and then dropping the SEAT puts it properly on the ground.

There's a thoroughly annoying ghost in the game who randomly makes off with critical inventory items and hides them in his grave; he can be deactivated by wearing a magical amulet, but it's not found until later in the game.  At first, on the Apple II, I couldn't even tell what his brief graphical appearance was meant to represent, so when I saw messages like "YOU ARE ON THE NORTH BANK OF THE RIVER. I HID YOUR KEY." I thought the game was being intentionally sadistic.  After switching to the C-64, where the ghost is animated briefly, pausing the text output while he scrolls across the screen wearing what appears to be a Swiss Alpine cap, it became clearer that it was the GHOST speaking.  And, of course, stealing/hiding my stuff, forcing repeated treks to his grave to recover my belongings when it was possible to get there, and quit/restore cycles when it was not.

The parser is sometimes pretty flexible -- MOVE ROCK and GET ROCK both work, PLUG/COVER HOLE and SPILL/EMPTY BOTTLE are recognized.  But most of the time it's not very helpful -- CLIMB DOWN, then ROPE in answer to the following prompt works, but CLIMB ROPE does not work at all.  And its full-word vocabulary approach gives it a coquettish insistence on specific hyphenation:

Another odd quirk -- rooms with items to be discovered tend to have that information engraved permanently in the description, so that, for example, "SOMEONE LEFT MATCHES HERE" is still displayed long after the player has taken the matches elsewhere.

There are two puzzles that are fairly tough, and are made more difficult by the Commodore 64's bitmap graphics - the higher-resolution images on the Apple II are easier to make out clearly.  One involves an encrypted message:

It's a simple letter-subsitution cipher, but cracking the code takes a little while (hint: E is NOT the most frequently occurring letter, and the two most common letters in this message substitute for each other), and it's not easy to tell some of the letters apart in the C-64 version.  For the record, the text is meant to read:
The other similar puzzle is REALLY tough if you're playing on the C-64 and/or don't know much about music:


Research is of no use on this one -- Mozart wrote several Concertos No. 1 for various instruments, in various keys.  But to open the treasure chest, much later on, after navigating a large maze with very limited lantern fuel and dealing with a dangerous zombie by bringing and opening a bottle of fog, the player has to have recognized and noted the key this sheet music is written in -- its key signature, actually -- which is the key of G, denoted by the pixellated F-sharp on the staff.  If the player didn't catch that detail, the end-game is unsolvable; even if it was noted, answering the UNLOCK CHEST - "WITH WHAT KEY?" prompt with "G" seems a bit of a stretch.
At long last, with dog-eared walkthrough and grave-digger's calluses in hand, I dragged myself to the unexciting conclusion:

So that was Death in the Caribbean; it felt more like Purgatory, actually.  But we've played and discussed it, and now we can look forward to something (hopefully) more entertaining next week.  I have a few adventures lined up, but suggestions are always welcome.


  1. Thanks for your endurance, Dale. This was a fun read.

  2. Thanks, James! Glad you enjoyed it. I figure if I can't be a whiz at solving these things, I should at least try to be entertaining. :)

  3. My favorite memory of this game, after spending god only knows how many months trying to find a way through the waterfall without destroying either my light source or my methods of relighting it, was to (in desperation) attempt to relight the lamp "with lighter" an item which didn't exist as it was never found in the game, and didn't appear in my inventory.

    The game informed me that I had forgotten about the lighter I had in my back pocket, and that I quickly lit the lantern and pressed on...

    Opening the treasure chest with the Key of G? Good lord, I don't know if I would have ever figured that one out.

  4. I was hoping for the iconic shot (to me, at least) of the red wagon,
    that is about all I can remember from the C64 version of the game.

  5. Madpuppy, sorry I missed the red wagon! But I think that's what makes video and computer games a unique art form -- our individual memories are based on what we experienced when we played through the game. A movie or novel is pretty much the same for everyone, a game can create very different memories for each player. For these posts, I tend to show the title screen, the victory screen, and anything funny, buggy or beautiful I run across along the way. Thanks for the comment!