The game opens with a nicely-animated zoom-in, revealing the game's title on the wall of the prison, where play begins:
The graphics are implemented using simple line drawings, similar to the Sierra Hi-Res Adventures of the time. Later games implemented colored fills for substance and shading, and employed the services of trained graphic artists, but this early effort gets by with very simple illustrations indeed.
The game also features music, an uncommon feature for its time, with an option for short or long versions, as gameplay freezes whenever music is playing. The tunes are simply arranged for the Apple II's sound hardware, with no harmonies, and familiar, often punning in nature - a mouse is accompanied by the Mickey Mouse Club theme, a book on sailing by Popeye The Sailor Man . The musical interludes turn up frequently near the beginning of the game, less so as the story progresses; one suspects the novelty wore off for the designer as well.
Escape from Rungistan also features spot animations here and there, like the mouse that crawls down the wall and across the floor of the player's cell at the beginning. Several key events play out in real-time, requiring the player to enter critical commands before an animation sequence reaches its (fatal) end. Woe to the hunt-and-peck typist!
The game is structured in three parts, and it is impossible to return to previously visited territory. This allows the transitions between sections to serve as checkpoints -- after an untimely death, the player can choose to continue at any of the major milestones reached. The game even has a HINT PLEASE feature that offers some useful help.
Still, I had to resort to a walkthrough, and replay an infamous real-time sequence numerous times, to find my way out of Rungistan. I appreciated the game's sense of humor and its many, many ways to die -- but it's definitely an old school adventure, with plenty of room for fatal, unforeseeable mistakes. I found its puzzles obtuse and aggravating on occasion, but the experience was still entertaining.
As always, I urge interested readers to play the game before reading further, because in the interest of documentation, I'm going to give a number of surprises away. I realize this game is more than twenty-five years old, but if it's new to you, I don't wish to spoil anything.
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
The game's intro screens promise that the player will have to learn skills to complete the game, but in reality this education consists of reading two books in the prison cell. One book instantly teaches the player how to navigate via boat, and reading the second book on flight somehow causes a pilot's license to be mailed to an address discovered later in the game. If the player misses this essential reading at the beginning, or fails to make use of the books before they are confiscated by the guard, the game is impossible to finish in the third act.
I trust my U.K. readers will not take offense to the American usage of the word when we LOOK MOUSE, and are informed that HE'S A CUTE LITTLE BUGGER. On a similar note, given the lack of facilities in my cell, and some frustration with being well and truly stuck there at the game's beginning, I experimented with a certain colloquial scatologism involving the verb TAKE, and was surprised to see the game reply with THAT IS MOST ILLOGICAL CAPTAIN!
HINT PLEASE finally suggested I call the guard, who was willing to bring me FOOD on a tray when requested to do so. The items delivered allowed me to make some progress.
The game's graphical limitations are most evident when human characters are involved -- without the text, I wouldn't know if this was a bearded old man, a space alien, Mr. Bill or a gingerbread man:
Old-school parser limitations reared their ugly heads in several situations -- FEED MOUSE doesn't work, but GIVE CHEESE does. Similarly, it's impossible to DIG FLOOR; we have to DIG HOLE, and answer the game's WHERE? prompt with FLOOR. If we dig more than once, the guard shows up and we are dead. And as it turns out, WALL is a much better answer.
Once out of the prison, the player encounters a snake crawling through the desert, using a simple pixel draw/erase technique for animation. But it's best to wait for the snake's animation to play out, as any action is immediately fatal, though funny, as follows: THE SNAKE HEARD YOU TYPING. SINCE HE ALREADY HAD A HEADACHE, HE BIT YOU REAL GOOD.
The first real-time event requires the player to RUN EAST, then JUMP GORGE before the edge approaches too closely. I liked this puzzle -- it made complete sense, even though figuring out how to pull it off took some experimentation.
The game features a number of hazards which don't have to be negotiated, just avoided. For example:
It's best to duck back out of the cave at this point, as there's nothing there the player needs; otherwise THE BEAR EATS YOUR CUTE CUDDLY HEAD.
The game does its best to cover for a limitation of the engine, when a bridge becomes unstable and is destroyed in the process. If the player hasn't crossed the chasm and is left on the wrong side, the bridge still displays from a distant perspective - here, the text addresses what the image cannot handle:
One bug I ran into while crossing the bridge -- I did a LOOK EAST before actually crossing the unstable bridge, and it never collapsed, it just forced me to retreat to safety. But at this point, I could attempt to cross the bridge indefinitely, not getting anywhere but not dying or destroying the bridge either.
Many Apple II gamers will remember Escape from Rungistan's infamous skiing challenge. I found the skis, but had a hard time getting started. A walkthrough saved me at last, by providing the magic word GERONIMO. This launches the player into an arcade sequence - unable to go around the approaching trees, we have to line our skis up precisely with the space between the trunks. It goes on for somewhat longer than seems necessary, and it took me a while to get through this section successfully.
Once safely down the mountain, the next major challenge involves opening the safe in the saloon. The four pieces of the combination are found in the area -- on a piece of paper in the cash register, a bottle on the shelf, and carved into two tree trunks in the mountains nearby. There aren't too many assemblies of these fragments that make sense, fortunately. But figuring out the combination is less than half the battle. Satisfying the parser is an even tougher hurdle -- after trying various unsuccessful TURN DIAL, LEFT 7 and SET L14 commands, a walkthrough finally helped me out, indicating that the entire combination is treated as a single magic word: L14R21L7. Here again, failing to open the safe is not immediately fatal, but makes the game impossible to finish within a few moves of victory.
I continued to find the walkthrough helpful at this point, as to get to the next section, the player has to catch a falling bird's egg, build a raft from the saloon doors, and obtain some dynamite without getting blown up by rebel guerrillas. Whew!
The third section of the game features a cat who appears to be holding a frying pan. It's a classic bribe-ready guardian puzzle -- he's incredibly tough for a housecat and refuses to give up the prize, until the player gives him a mouse and obtains what turns out to be a magnifying glass.
There's also a friendly farmer who resembles Yul Brynner in Westworld, and gives the player a little employment:
A prison helicopter past this point is accompanied by impressive (for the era) sound effects. Waiting around watching the copter turned out to be a bad idea, as eventually THE PILOT SPOTTED YOU AND LANDED ON YOUR FACE. But letting it fly by the guard tower allows the player to sneak past while the guard is watching the helicopter.
The final chapter becomes truly difficult, and makes reference to a walkthrough almost essential. Graffiti provides no clue about its purpose, which is to provide the key directions for navigating a maze. The pilot's license promised earlier in the game arrives in a residential mailbox, but entering the nearby house proves fatal, as THIS IS THE PRISON GUARD'S HOUSE. YOU ARE DEAD.
Encountering this charming native stereotype is also fatal if an almanac has not been found in a field earlier:
Even with the almanac in hand, it's not obvious that PREDICT ECLIPSE is the right thing to do while in the cannibals' stewpot, nor does it quite make sense that doing this yields a precious religious relic -- to wit, an empty gas can.
After fueling the plane and using the player's book-larnin' piloting skills, another adventure game cliche turns up. After the player gives the border guard the bottle obtained from the saloon safe, THE GUARD TAKES THE BOTTLE AND GETS SO DRUNK THAT HE CAN'T SEE.
We LIFT GATE, cross the border and:
It's a bit anticlimactic after all of the challenges, illustrations, and humorous asides up to this point. But victory is sweet just the same, and I did enjoy the journey. Thank goodness for online walkthroughs, though -- there's no shame in resorting to a hint or two. Or ten. Everyone has their own threshold for when a puzzle stops being fun, and the good, often anonymous folks who have shared their solutions over the decades deserve a lot of credit for keeping the rest of us moving forward.