Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Version 1.0: Lode Runner

I've been playing the April 2009 Lode Runner game on XBox Live Arcade lately, and it inspired me to go back and take a quick look at Doug Smith's original game for the Apple II, published by Broderbund Software in 1983:



It's a classic 1980's game design, with minimal sound and simple graphics -- bricks, ladders, ropes, and animated stick figures.  The rules are straightforward -- pick up all the gold; avoid enemies and/or dig holes to trap them (and force them to cough up any gold they have picked up along the way); escape using the ladder that appears when all the gold has been collected.  The enemy's chasing behavior is simple -- they first try to match the player's vertical level by climbing or falling, then they run towards the player on the horizontal; knowledge of their approach can be cleverly used against them.

Lode Runner was one of the first games to combine action and puzzle elements successfully, and it's still a fantastic game, even in its original form.  The design is elegant and perfectly suited to the 8-bit hardware generation -- by keeping the animated graphics small and the AI simple, there was plenty of horsepower available to run the game smoothly and cleanly.  The many spin-offs and sequels that followed have generally kept the basic formula intact, and for good reason.  In this screenshot, two Bungeling soldiers are closing in, a third is materializing about halfway up the screen, and I have idiotically created a hole immediately to my right, into which I am about to fall and die when it closes up:

 

I never actually played Lode Runner on the Apple II during its heyday, but it was a solid hit and I remember seeing it on computers at school on occasion.  My first extended time with the game's concept was spent with an ersatz version for the TRS-80 Color Computer, called Gold Runner.  Written by Dave Dies and marketed by Tom Mix Software's Novasoft budget division, it only had 32 levels, compared to the original game's 150, but it was a reasonable facsimile and I had a lot of fun with it.

The game was also a big hit in Japan on the NES and appeared on many consoles there, courtesy of Hudson Soft.  I have played the game on the Wii Virtual Console, in its TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine incarnation as Battle Lode Runner, and on my mobile phone in a less-than-successful port, where the small screen made it too difficult to see what was going on outside the boundaries of the scrolling screen.  Most of the console versions suffer to some degree from the addition of scrolling -- the tiny figures of the original game made it possible to see the entire level at once and plan effectively.  The console versions tend to feature larger, more appealing characters, but it's much easier to run into an enemy in an unexpected location.

Still, the console games are recognizably Lode Runner:




Remaking early games for modern systems can be a challenge -- judging from some recent XBLA releases, it's easy to lose sight of what made them great in the first place.  So I am pleased to tip my hat to Tozai Games' XBLA version, which is nicely rendered in modern 3-D but plays as it should, in 2-D.  There are innovations and enhancements, with more enemy and brick variety than the original could manage.  But none of the changes break the fundamental gameplay, and the puzzle and multiplayer modes are worthy additions.

The controls even work well -- there's no "animation lag" to mess up the tight timing required for many of the puzzle levels, and the imperfect XBox control pad copes acceptably with the four-direction movement.  Best of all, the action fits on one screen, with no scrolling; the camera zooms out for more complex levels, and zooms in to show off the 3-D character models when the size of the layout permits.  None of the layouts are viewed quite as distantly as in the original game -- they are generally more compact, though no less challenging.  And the single player journey plays very much like the classic game -- so much so that I just had to go back and play the original for comparison. 

Verdict?  I still like the original a lot, but I don't think I'm going to attempt to complete all of its 150 levels any time soon -- the XBLA version is providing my Lode Runner fix for the moment.  And if history is any indication, there'll be another one along soon enough.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Spook House (1982)

This week, we visit the Spook House, written by Roger Schrag in 1982 for the TRS-80 Model I/III, published by Adventure International:



This game, a.k.a. Graphic Venture #2, was marketed as half of a "double feature" set with Schrag's Graphic Venture #1: Toxic Dumpsite (which we will cover in a future post.)  Trivia note: the dedication is to Roger's brother and sister.

There were very few graphic adventures released on the TRS-80 Model I/III, as the system's black-and-white, low-resolution, oblong-pixel graphics were not well suited to visuals.  The Graphic Ventures are also unique compared to most graphics adventures of the time -- rather than displaying a single illustration per location, the player can face and see North, South, East and West, essentially creating four sub-rooms for each room, and can also navigate Forward, Backward, Right and Left.  I asked designer and programmer Roger Schrag about this innovative approach:

I think I just saw it as a natural progression. I really enjoyed the Scott Adams Adventures, but I thought it was time to turn up the volume and inject a visual aspect. Facing different directions in a room was just part of adding a dimension to the experience.
I tried to find out how the graphics were stored, but Roger himself doesn't remember!  My own peek at the disk contents implies that the graphics were stored as raw blocks of screen data, perhaps with some sort of run-length encoding for compression.  The display technique is quick and solid, as evidenced in the spinning room that rotates through all of its four perspectives fairly rapidly, so I don't think the graphics are being rendered as vectors.

Another unusual aspect of Spook House is that the doomsday counter runs in real time -- the player has thirty minutes to find and defuse a time bomb, and if the game is allowed to run without input, or the player takes a break, the game will charge ahead to ignominous defeat.  Most games of the era measured "time" in terms of moves -- the time pressure here ups the tension level significantly. 

Roger created three Graphic Ventures for the TRS-80 -- this one, Toxic Dumpsite, and Sledge of Rahmul.  On the technical design of his adventures and his days as a young programmer, he recalls:

I don't think I actually built an adventure engine, in the way that Scott Adams did. With the Scott Adams Adventures, you could create a new adventure by preparing a data set only. You would not need to write a single line of code because the engine is already complete. I believe when I went to write Spook House I took the code from Toxic Dumpsite and tweaked it. So I did a lot of code reuse.
But I don't think I actually wrote an engine per se, probably because I didn't sit down beforehand and spec out the functionality for an engine. Rather, I just sat down and started writing an adventure. And when I discovered I needed a widget to do X, I coded a widget to do X.
I was not a planner in those days. I just wanted to write code. I'm like the impatient driver who starts the engine, puts the car in gear, and starts driving down the road before thinking about the fact that they don't know how to get to their destination.  I've always been more detail oriented than creative. So I suspect I enjoyed the coding much more than actually mapping out the adventure itself.
I had to fight my way through the Spook House on my own -- even Roger Schrag himself doesn't remember the solution more than 25 years later, my desperate late-night emails notwithstanding.  I wasn't able to find a published walkthrough for this game anywhere online, so for the first time, my spoilers section will conclude with a complete walkthrough.

I do encourage readers to play this one for themselves -- it's not too difficult to solve, and it's a unique experience in the history of the graphic adventure.  If you get stuck, the spoilers contain some significant hints, and there is a walkthrough down at the bottom of this post.  The game is definitely worth a play-through.

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


The biggest snag I ran into was that I could SAVE GAME, in one of five slots, but couldn't get LOAD GAME, RESTORE, RETRIEVE, or UNSAVE to work to get back to my save point.  I finally referred to the manual -- CONTINUE A GAME is the magic phrase!

The opening is reminiscent of Scott Adams' Adventure #7: Mystery Fun House -- but with a real-time twist:




There's a great gag in the water area that subverts a traditional adventure game convention -- the player character constantly reports "HELP!!! I am sinking!", but never seems to drown.  A little investigation reveals that we're actually in a swimming pool, and it's not of a dangerous depth:

 

I did find one bug, maybe two -- LOOK WATER and LOOK SAND cause part of the verb dictionary to be dumped.

The TRS-80 graphics are necessarily schematic, but there were times I couldn't tell what I was looking at.  I finally realized that the house-shaped object visible from a platform was actually another platform with something on one edge, rendered in perspective, rather than a hill with a little house sporting a disproportionately large chimney:




A parser note -- the player can LOOK UP and occasionally discover something of interest, but LOOK DOWN simply acts as a synonym for LOOK.  Another oddity that perplexed me for a while, partly because of the LOOK SAND/WATER bug -- DIG works in sand, but finds nothing; it is more productive to DIG in the water.

Other than being blown up by the bomb when tikme ran out, the only fatal scenario I encountered was semi-random, with a hint of forewarning by the game, and also slightly disturbing -- too many jumps off the ramp or climbs down the pole occasionally led to a game-ending case of paralysis!

The infinite hallway was a vexing puzzle, in part because the parser responds to GO WALL elsewhere with "What?" or "Huh?", implying it's a nonsensical command, but accepts it on the north and south sides of the hall near the end of the game:

 

I got stuck at this point for quite a while -- I could hear the pirate talking on a recording, but couldn't find a way to make out what he was saying, or open the treasure chest.  These were, as it turned out, red herrings.  I finally discovered I could BREAK SKULL WITH ANCHOR to yield a remote control.  Pushing its button in every location in the game, facing in every direction (there is an in-game hint about the right location that I missed but recognized in hindsight), I finally discovered the time bomb.  I expected DROP BOMB IN WATER to be a fatal experiment, but it actually worked!




So that's Roger Schrag's Spook House.  Soon we'll take a look at his earlier game, Toxic Dumpsite.  (I just happened to tackle Spook House first because it got top billing on the game's packaging.)

The game's difficulty was rated as Moderate in the Adventure International catalog, and as I was unable to find a walkthrough for the game anywhere online when I got stuck, I am posting my own as a public service.  The puzzles in Spook House all make sense, but the parser can be a little bit obstinate at times when dealing with prepositions, and with only 30 minutes to solve the game, time is of the essence.  I was finally able to solve it in 63 moves, in under ten minutes, including the time to log my commands for your adventuring pleasure.

Detailed walkthrough is below the break:


Monday, September 28, 2009

The LoadDown - 09/28/2009

Time for our weekly, semi-opinionated roundup of Wii, DSi and XBox 360 downloadable games...

WiiWare -- 2 titles from major publishers this week.  Taito continues its update series on the Wii, with Arkanoid Plus! carrying the torch for the long-running series, itself a variation on Breakout.  And Konami releases DRiiFT Mania, a racing game; there's no online support as far as I can tell, so it must use Wiimotes and nunchuks to support the promised 8 players.  (I also have no idea whether it's to be pronounced 'Drift', or 'Dreeft'.)  Both titles look to be of solid if not spectacular quality.

Virtual Console -- Just one this week, and I'm always happy to see a coin-op arcade release -- but it's Sega's Altered Beast, which hardly seems worth the 1000 point asking price.  Most people have played this game to death in its slightly-inferior Genesis pack-in incarnation, already available on the Virtual Console, and while the coin-op audiovisuals are better, it's still just a stiff, scrolling beat-'em-up.

DSiWare -- 2 titles this week, and one is a real game.  Art Academy: Second Semester is a sequel with additional creativity tools.  Dragon Quest Wars marks Square/Enix's debut on the DSi download service -- it's a grid-based strategy game, not as sophisticated as Final Fantasy Tactics but not a bad fit for the DSi, and it supports Wi-Fi play with others.  The DSiWare scene is definitely improving as time goes on.

XBLA -- 3 games released on the service last week, all of which have a retro vibe: ION Assault (sort of a neo-Asteroids), The Warriors: Street Brawl (a Final Fight-style beat-'em-up based on the cult 1970's movie), and Zombie Apocalypse (which plays a lot like Robotron:2084).  Unfortunately, the classic-style game mechanics are not enough to make any of these games tremendously worthwhile, especially as the originals and other variations are already available on XBLA.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

WTF, Video Girl? Seriously, WTF?

The editors at Electronic Games magazine found it necessary to censor this January 1984 ad for Video Maniac's line of t-shirts, game gloves and sportswear, starring a vision of loveliness referred to only as "the above Video Girl":



To which the only reasonable response is:  WTF?

Like most censorship, the modification has the unintended effect of making the image much more intriguing, and significantly dirtier than it would otherwise be.  What, we wonder, could possibly be going on behind that big black dot?  What sort of amazing videogame orgasm could Video Girl be experiencing, not even looking at the screen, dressed in her totally eighties wardrobe and official Video Maniac gaming glove, fooling around with an ordinary-looking coin-op joystick?

Heh.

Joystick.

The situation looks rather dangerous, actually -- the joystick appears to have been ripped from its arcade cabinet moorings and is either sparking dangerously or giving off some kind of weird Xanadu aura.  It's as though a miniature Tesla coil has been delivered by a roller-skating Olivia Newton-John, then wired to Video Girl's most private areas.  Intriguing as a cheap kinky thrill, perhaps, but not enough to merit the risk involved, nor having the hit song "Magic" stuck in one's head again after years of intensive therapy.

And what's going on behind those sexy, languid closed eyelids?  Ecstasy? Contempt?  Boredom?  Cocaine-induced subconjunctival hemorrhaging?

Ah, Video Girl!  Thou art mystery incarnate.

But seriously, WTF?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nothing Screams 'Videogames' Like a Mime!

United Microware Industries ad for its VIC-20 line, from the January 1983 issue of Electronic Games magazine:




The problem with using a mime to promote videogames is that the two art forms have almost nothing to do with each other.  Videogames are about noise and visuals and interactivity; mimes are about grace and imagination and silence.  (While some occasionally try to be about interactivity, it's always at the risk of being ignored or physically injured by those who aren't into the whole audience participation thing.)

But the mime employed for this photo-shoot is at least giving it her all.  She looks positively delighted about being buzzed by spaceships and bombarded with meteors, although she does appear to be trying to elbow the VIC-20 itself out of the shot.  It's probably more exciting than walking against invisible wind and blowing up invisible balloons for drunken hecklers at the Third Annual Art'n'Beer Fest In the Park.

In all seriousness, I really do like good mimecraft.  Most random street mimes aren't very good, but a trained, creative, funny performer can do amazing things without so much as a prop or a line of dialogue.

I wish UMI had survived into the Sega Genesis era of the early 1990's.  I would have loved to see this mime on a TV ad, opening her mouth and silently screaming nothing at all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Eliza Visits Dr. Chips

I sincerely doubt she is taking any well-meaning advice I had to offer, but Eliza is about to visit her technological cousin, Dr. Chips, written by Bill Miller in 1979 and published by Adventure International for the TRS-80 Model I.  This doesn't qualify as a Turing Test, as neither participant is human, and to declare that either has been "deceived" or "fooled" presumes a level of non-ignorance to which these programs do not aspire.

While in its time this exercise in recursive virtual psychoanalysis would have required two separate computers, the following transcript was captured using revolutionary TRIOW* technology:

* Type Response Into Other Window


Eliza Visits Dr. Chips

HELLO, I'M DOCTOR CHIPS - THE BRILLIANT PSYCHOANALYST.
PLEASE STATE YOUR PROBLEM AND I WILL TRY TO HELP YOU.

HI! I'M ELIZA THE BROADCAST PSYCHIATRIST,
WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?

I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU AT ALL.

DON'T YOU REALLY UNDERSTAND I AT ALL.

I'M REALLY NOT INTERESTED IN TALKING ABOUT MYSELF.

DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU ARE REALLY NOT INTERESTED IN TALKING ABOUT MYSELF.

IS THAT THE ONLY REASON?

SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT I WORK IN BROADCASTING?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

I DON'T BELIEVE THAT I FULLY UNDERSTAND YOU.

WHY DON'T YOU BELIEVE THAT ME FULLY UNDERSTAND YOU.

HOW DOES THAT QUESTION RELATE TO YOUR PROBLEM?

WHY DO YOU ASK?

I THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW.

OH, I ALREADY KNOW.

I CAN BELIEVE THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

YES, BUT WHAT'S THE REAL REASON?

?Redo from start

I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU AT ALL.

DO YOU WISH TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND I AT ALL?

WE WERE TALKING ABOUT YOU - NOT ME.

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?

DON'T YOU BELIEVE THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

WHY DO YOU SAY THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

OH, I SAY THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

DOES IT GIVE YOU PLEASURE TO THINK THAT I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

I CAN'T GIVE YOU AN ANSWER BUT PERHAPS I CAN HELP YOU FIND ONE.

HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU CAN'T GIVE I AN ANSWER BUT PERHAPS ME CAN HELP I FIND ONE.

YOU APPEAR TO BE UNSURE.

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

EARLIER YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

OH, I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS NORMAL TO BE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

LET'S TALK ABOUT YOU - NOT ME.

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

WHY DID YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

OH, I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

I CAN BELIEVE THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

DOES IT GIVE YOU PLEASURE TO THINK THAT I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DO YOU ENJOY BEING NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT I ENJOY BEING NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

EARLIER YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

OH, I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

WHY DO YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

THAT'S A GOOD REASON.

WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?

THE ANSWER SHOULD BE OBVIOUS.

I SEE.

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU SEE?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

WHY DID YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

OH, I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU SAY THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

DOES IT GIVE YOU PLEASURE TO THINK THAT I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU?

IS THAT REALLY WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

EARLIER YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

OH, I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT. LET'S DISCUSS THAT FURTHER.

I CAN BELIEVE THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS NORMAL TO BE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME - ARE YOU?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU - AM YOU?

WHY DO YOU ASK?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.

WHY DID YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

OH, I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I SAY THAT I SAID THAT I CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

WHY DO YOU SAY THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU SAY THAT YOU SAID THAT YOU CAN ELABORATE ON THAT?

YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?

DOES IT GIVE YOU PLEASURE TO THINK THAT I AM NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

DO YOU ENJOY BEING NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME?

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT I ENJOY BEING NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU?

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.



[Ed:  And... scene!]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oddities: Benny Hill's Madcap Chase

Kato-chan and Ken-chan aside, there haven't been many videogames featuring established comedians or comic actors.  There have been some Monty Python techno-experiments, focused more on Terry Gilliam's artwork and the general Python sensibility than the writing/performing troupe as personalities.  The Cinemaware Three Stooges game is an example.  And I think the recent Ghostbusters counts; at least it's a more authentic effort than, say, the Atari 2600 Porky's or Ocean's 16-bit Blues Brothers game.


But there's one example that goes back farther than any I'm aware of.  Back in 1985, U.K. software publisher DK'Tronics decided to license the name and image of British comic Benny Hill, based on his Thames Television series The Benny Hill Show.  The result was this unusual action game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum:




Had this game come out in the mid-1990's CD-ROM Full Motion Video era, it could have gone horribly wrong in a number of ways.  I would approximate the precise number as:
  • 15 megabytes devoted to musical theme "Yakety Sax" and variations thereof
  • 35 megabytes of risque puns and double entendres
  • 400 megabytes of digitized video featuring Mr. Hill leering, winking, and slapping an elderly gentleman on the back of the head
  • 199.9 megabytes of Louise English's cleavage
  • 100 KB of gameplay

Arriving during the 8-bit era, however, Benny Hill's Madcap Chase is obligated to be an actual game, and it is, albeit a simple and repetive one.  Benny (in his beret-wearing Scuttle persona) is required to sneak across town, avoiding hazards like lampposts and telephone booths; steal articles of clothing (including lingerie) from a clothesline; then store it back at home base.   He must accomplish this one piece at a time, while avoiding a buxom, matronly representative of society's outrage.  True, the official game story indicates that Scuttle is actually rescuing the brassieres and pantaloons on behalf of some unseen beneficiary, but there's no evidence of that in the game proper.  He's just a dirty old man in a beret; not that there's anything wrong with that. He certainly seems cheerful enough:




 

It's all in good fun, and certainly worth a brief giggle, but the game lacks the pacing of Hill's traditional show-ending speedy chase sequences.  There's not very much that's Madcap about it, actually, as Benny has to carefully move up and down a narrow band of ground to work his way around the various obstacles.  The sound isn't remarkable -- an assortment of annoying chirps and buzzes, with no music.  But the graphics are large and colorful, and nicely animated given the technological constraints of the Spectrum.  Color clash is kept to a minimum, thanks in part to the sheer size of everything; of course, the large graphics also make it difficult not to get chased down and trodden upon:




That's about all there is to it -- retrieve as many articles of clothing as possible before time runs out.  But it's an interesting historical artifact, representing Benny Hill's one-and-only outing into the videogame industry.  Not a great game -- but it would be a shame if it were completely forgotten, wooden tit?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Retro Shop Talk: Roger Schrag on Arex (1983)

I've recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Roger Schrag, a then-young and very talented TRS-80 Model I and Color Computer coder circa the early 1980's. He wrote several games published by Adventure International, and some very popular utilities for The RAINBOW magazine.  I owe him a personal debt for creating EDTASM+, a patch that made the cartridge-based Radio Shack EDTASM editor/assembler for the Color Computer compatible with disk drives -- for FREE! -- and gave me my first practical chance to tackle machine language programming. 

I thought it would be fun to revisit his games of the early 1980's and ask a few questions about them, and he has graciously offered to share his recollections of the time. 

We're going to start with the action game Arex, which Mr. Schrag programmed for the TRS-80 Color Computer.  This was a conversion project -- the game was originally created by Willam Muk Koon Yet for the TRS-80 Model I in 1982:




Arex is an abstract action game that plays like a combination of Qix and Targ.  The player controls a "spaceship" (as depicted on the box art, anyway -- it's just a plain white plus sign in the game) whose mission is to invade 90% of the available screen real estate, "eating" immature enemy shapes and avoiding the mature, dangerous ones.  There's a time element too -- the player's trail of territory-occupying rectangles starts to decay into dangerous white dots if the player stops moving for too long, undoing progress and making navigation riskier.

I'm impressed with both versions I played -- Arex is a great game that should have gotten more attention than it did.  I think it came to market at the worst possible time, and really before its time -- its simple four-direction control scheme, pick-up-and-play rules and schematic visual style would have made it a natural on portable game devices from the GameBoy on up to modern mobile phones.  Someone ought to track down the rights and release an updated version.

Origins:

Roger Schrag was given the assignment of converting Arex (and Airline) to the TRS-80 Color Computer after he ported the classic Scott Adams Adventure interpreter to the CoCo on his own initiative.  He recalls:
If I remember right, after I got my Color Computer, I translated the Scott Adams Adventure engine on my own from the Model I to the Color Computer. Once I had an engine working on the Color Computer, I could generate Color Computer versions of the Scott Adams Adventures in an automated fashion. I never had to play the adventure on the Model I or know any part of the solution in order to convert it. I showed this to Adventure International and they immediately gave me a contract--I got royalties and credit on the Color Computer version of the Scott Adams Adventures. Then they came to me with Arex and Airline and asked if I would convert them also.

I began the conversion process by porting the code exactly as-is, just making changes to allow for hardware. This kept the game design intact. (I had to rearrange the screen some due to different screen resolution.)  Many things [at Adventure International] were extremely informal and without structure. I don't recall what guidance I was given with respect to matching the original game play or freedom to innovate, but I suspect I was given very little.

I believe AI provided me with nothing but a free copy of the Model I version and the same instruction booklet any purchaser gets. I don't believe I was given any source code, nor any design information. I don't believe I ever had any contact with William Muk. I was a hacker in those days, and had written my own disassembler. The Z-80 machine language was very primitive and easy to disassemble. The 6809E processor in the Color Computer had more registers and instructions than the Z-80, so it was easy to port code instruction for instruction without having to understand what the code did. (Except for hardware issues, of course.)
Playing the Game




The first screen is actually more difficult than some of the later ones, because it's wide open -- the enemies are free to pursue the player swiftly and directly, and the player is free to make all kinds of mistakes.  Later levels have existing walls, which provide shielding of a sort, allow fewer spawning points for the enemy ships, and constrain the player's route to something that should work.  On the first level, there are no rules, and it took some doing to get this clean run:



The screenshot below from level 2 provides a better picture of the gameplay.  The walls of red rectangles are there when the level starts.  The white plus shape is me, the blue rectangles are my trail, and the white dots are early bits of my trail degenerating behind me.  The blue checkerboard thing is a young enemy; the two white shapes are mature enemies capable of taking me down.  The screenshot definitely should NOT be taken as any kind of a strategy tip -- in my quest to show as many gameplay elements in one screenshot as possible, I have gotten myself fatally stuck.  In this picture, I can't cross over my trail of blue rectangles and am just waiting for death to come when my decaying trail catches up with me...



The game has a bit of a learning curve, but it has that classic "one more try" quality, and eventually I got the hang of it.  After hovering around the low mid-thousands for a while, and not getting on the board at all many times, my score finally broke 10K and I made it to level 5.  Hardly an impressive performance, but I figured I'd quit while I was ahead.


 

Roger Schrag Talks Shop:

I asked Roger about some of the technical and business aspects of this game and its era.

On Arex's impressive, Williams-arcade-game-style sound:

I did not use interrupts to manage the sound--I remember being impressed by the games that did. If I remember right, I initially ported the code exactly as-is from the Model I version, making the necessary changes for graphic/sound/controller input hardware. In other words, I started with all of William Muk's original logic and program flow. If I remember right, I didn't have to change much of William's design. The graphics in this game are so rudimentary that there isn't much CPU use going on. That allows plenty of time for managing time delays to get the sound effects correct.
On the game's solid, flicker-free graphics, an improvement on the original:

I remember the video flicker problem inherent in the Model I's design (video goes blank when CPU accessing video memory). I don't remember at all how that whole issue played out on the Color Computer. I also don't remember Arex having flicker problems. So I suspect I did sync updates with the vertical blanking interrupt. But I can't be sure.
(To my recollection, the Color Computer didn't have a hardware-level flicker problem while video memory was being accessed, but it was possible to update video memory while the screen was being redrawn, creating flicker and tearing if page flipping wasn't used to keep the view stable while the next page was drawn in the background.  Page flipping on the CoCo chewed up an extra 1.5K to 6K of precious memory, depending on the graphics mode, so it's probable that the 16K Arex doesn't use page-flipping.  Whatever the solution, there's something smart going on to keep flickering at bay.)

On why the Model I voice samples were dropped from the CoCo version:

I remember thinking at the time that the voice samples on the Model I version were pretty silly. I might even have found them annoying when playing longer games. I don't think there would have been any problem getting the sample data transfered across platforms. So my guess is that I dumped the voices because either (a) I thought it was an unnecessary feature, or (b) we wanted to keep the program to a 16k footprint. If I had to guess, I'd go with (b).
On why this Color Computer game doesn't force the user to continually reset until a particular red/blue color scheme is achieved (working around the machine's unofficial and unpredictable black-background pseudo-color mode):

I didn't think it really mattered which way the program came up. For those who cared, they could hit reset and restart until they got the color arrangement they liked. Some programs would start by showing a screen that said, "Press the Reset button until this screen appears blue. then press enter." Those programs had more sophisticated graphics. Since this program had crude graphics that only involved red, white, and blue (if memory serves), then it really didn't matter if red and blue were swapped.
On what was going on in the industry and the company around the time Arex shipped, on the eve of the mid-1980's game industry crash:

I was a kid at the time I did all of my work for Adventure International. I wasn't doing it for the money. I wrote these programs for the intellectual challenge and for the novelty of seeing my name in full page color ads in the magazines.  Checks sort of came in whenever they came in. Sometimes there were sales reports attached. Sometimes not. Since I wasn't doing this for the money, I really didn't care much.
(I asked Adventure International founder Scott Adams to comment on the back-office situation at the time, and he indicates that he did all the royalty payment processing and sales reports himself, using a TRS-80 Model II with a fancy $5,000 8 megabyte hard drive.  But towards the company's end, the royalty payments slowed and stopped as overall cash flow did the same.)

Roger Schrag again:
My sense is that I got a lot more money (relatively speaking!) from [Model I titles] Sky Warrior, Spook House and Toxic Dumpsite than from any of the Color Computer programs. I think the Color Computer products came out right as the end was coming, and that is when royalty payments became extremely erratic. But this was also right about the time I was leaving home to go to college. And so a new chapter in my life was beginning, and I didn't pay much mind.

So that's the story of Arex on the TRS-80 Color Computer.  It's quite fun, and well worth tracking down in any of its several incarnations if you're in the mood for a fresh retro challenge.

Thanks very much to Roger Schrag for taking the time to dig out old artifacts and memories -- we'll be taking a look at the rest of his early-80's game oeuvre in the near future.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Sierra's The Colonel's Bequest


This week we're going to turn the technology clock forward a little bit and look at Roberta Williams' The Colonel's Bequest, published by Sierra in 1989.  It's a murder mystery set in New Orleans, circa 1925, and is initially presented as if it were an Agatha Christie play; its themes recall the very first Sierra Hi-Res Adventure, Mystery House, also by WilliamsThe game introduced a new character, young investigative reporter Laura Bow, who also appeared in the 1992 sequel, The Dagger of Amon-Ra.  In this story, Laura is invited to her friend Lillian's family estate for the weekend, and is drawn into a web of intrigue coalescing around ailing Uncle Henri's will. 

I bought The Colonel's Bequest when it first came out, but never finished it properly, so it's high time I gave it some more serious attention.  The game runs on the Sierra Creative Interpreter, the second generation of Sierra's 3-D illustrated, animated adventure game technology -- the graphics resolution is doubled compared to the original Adventure Game Interpreter used for King's Quest and its descendants.  The graphics engine is still limited to 16 colors, and background graphics are still drawn using vectors and fills; the early SCI games really pushed that image technology to its limits.  The game also supports more sophisticated music and atmospheric sound effects, with support for a variety of sound cards and MIDI modules, but does not yet handle sampled audio.

I was surprised at how much The Colonel's Bequest feels like its text adventure ancestors -- while Laura moves through the scenery like a videogame character, there's still a lot of typing and reading.  A parser is used to interact with objects and people, and there are detailed text descriptions of most visible rooms and objects, even when they aren't directly relevant to the gameplay.  Since this is an animated adventure, however, Laura's positioning is often important -- she will refuse to closely examine or interact with an object if she isn't close enough to it, or even facing in the wrong direction; generally this is so the animation will display properly.  Also,  Laura's many possible deaths are sudden and often unexpected -- the kinder, gentler approach of later point-and-click graphic adventures is nowhere to be seen here.

The Colonel's Bequest feels a bit like the Infocom text mysteries (e.g. The Suspect and Witness), but the fundamental structure is different.  The story progresses in eight one-hour acts (rather long for a play, granted), each divided into four "fifteen minute" segments.  Protagonist Laura Bow doesn't actually drive the plot -- rather, it unfolds around her, and her job is to use her observational and puzzle-solving talents to gather as much information and evidence as possible.  Time itself is elastic, moving forward only when the player makes a key discovery.  Characters are put in specific places, doing specific things during each segment, with no direct reference to passing time; Laura is free to explore for hours between significant events if the player so chooses.

The game can actually be finished by simply wandering around the estate looking for each milestone occurrence; the story will move forward until it reaches a conclusion, whether Laura is accomplishing what she's supposed to or not.  Of course, there's more than one ending, and even when the best one is achieved, the game's detailed rating of Laura's investigative skills, or lack thereof, may inspire a replay.

I ran The Colonel's Bequest on a modern PC using DOSBox with Adlib sound card emulation, just as I did back in the day.  One disadvantage I (re)discovered is that it takes a lot longer to play an animated adventure than a text adventure, if only because so much time is spent physically navigating the environment even when you know what you want to do.  There's no way to execute a quickly typed sequence like N/N/E/GET LAMP/W/S/D.  But I wasn't annoyed by the more deliberate pacing -- it seemed perfectly appropriate to an old dark house mystery.

This one is fun to play, and has significant replay value if you like mysteries.  The Laura Bow games were not re-released in the Vivendi/Sierra box sets a few years back, unfortunately.  If you plan to play the game yourself, which I do encourage, you may wish to stop reading here lest I give anything away.  

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

King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, The Colonel's Be... quest.  Tradition!

Like most old-fashioned mysteries, this is a melodrama at heart -- the characters are not treated naturalistically, but are clearly and strictly defined by their mode of dress and style of dialogue.  Celie, the African-American cook, is given an Aunt Jemima kerchief and a text-rendered accent rife with stereotype: 




There are even a few "suhs" thrown into her dialogue for period flavor.  But Celie is a sympathetic character, and the portrayal is ultimately no more offensive than the fromagesque accent of Fifi zee French maid.

The parser is very solid compared to early text adventures and the Sierra AGI generation; I didn't run into many unrecognized verbs, and the noun list is impressively thorough, covering almost all visible objects.  The game also makes (indeed requires) intelligent use of "look in/behind/through" constructs, which makes Laura's work seem much more investigative than the simple LOOKs of old.  The only frustration was that Laura can only pick up a handful of useful objects -- most can be looked at, but "belong to" someone or something and cannot be taken, so the puzzle-solving is a bit on the easy side, as most props are eliminated from consideration.

The game doesn't feature many puzzles in the traditional adventuring sense -- there are several, but the game can be finished without truly solving any of them; the game's overall arc relies more on watching, eavesdropping and examining telltale evidence.  Getting a perfect rating is very difficult and requires being in the right places at exactly the right times, so an initial playthrough to map out the story will help a lot on subsequent attempts.  Fortunately, the game is forgiving, and most of what the game has to offer can be experienced without coming anywhere close to a decent final rating.

The game is played fairly straight, but it still has a sense of humor. If Laura tries to use the toilet while another character is in the bathroom, the game haughtily informs us that this is NOT a Leisure Suit Larry game.  If she is alone, the game discreetly shoos us out of the bathroom while Laura attends to private matters.  Note that none of this scatological activity is required to finish the game -- it's just there for fun.  The bathroom also hosts an entertaining death sequence -- if Laura takes a shower, she undresses (discreetly turning her back, revealing a pert pixellated bottom), then gets stabbed to death a la Psycho.



Laura dies in a number of entertaining ways, most of which are unforeseeable -- she can't swim, for instance, and will drown if she falls or walks into the smallest patch of bayou water.  She can be killed by the murderer, run down by a horse, fatally tumbled down a dark staircase, cut clean down the middle by a falling axe, and felled by a falling chandelier.  If she falls down the laundry chute, she posthumously reappears, rising through the roof as a harp-plucking angel.  Her most comical death occurs by belltower -- after oiling the bell, and finding a cane to enable pulling the rope to ring it from below, Laura pulls the bell squarely onto her own head.  In an anatomically improbable animation sequence, the bell emerges from the tower with Laura's feet sticking out of it, runs into a tree, and keels over. 

Production values are quite high -- there's lots of incidental animation for actions unrelated to the game's plot, such as petting the dog, spinning a globe, and washing one's hands.  Laura's feet splash when she walks through puddles, and the bayou frogs and alligators are very nicely animated by the standards of the day. 

There's no real musical score, though a player piano and a couple of victrolas provide some spot entertainment with vintage ragtime and popular songs, and players are treated to a funky extended arrangement of "Camptown Races" if Laura spends enough time goofing around with the player piano.  The atmospheric sound effects aren't always successful on the Adlib -- crickets and white-noise wind sound okay, but frogs and horses seem to be suffering from flatulence, running water sounds like wind chimes, and the thunder and lightning just sound clangy and weird.

"Look" can be position sensitive -- examining an object from a different angle sometimes reveals additional detail.  Fortunately, on-screen clues help indicate that this is worth doing.

In classic style, every dead body Laura discovers disappears by the time she returns, and nobody will believe that any other person has died, despite the fact that they haven't seen him or her lately.  I believe the game "cheats" a bit in this regard - I'm pretty sure that during some segments, certain characters are actually NOWHERE to be found in the game.  At least the corpse-finding moments are enthusiastically played:


 


The only parser glitch I ran into was that while hiding in the secret areas between rooms, where paintings with suspiciously hollow eyes allow Laura to spy on the others, "look painting" produces "You can't see any painting here" even though the paintings are clearly visible on the other side of the cutaway display.  It took me a while to figure out that facing up or down, then typing "look through eyes" works.

Characters can be asked or told about each other and various objects, but some important clues can't be used in conversation.  For example, the racehorse "Sunny Boy", circled on the late Dr. Wilbur Feels' racing form, is an unuseable reference, even though it seems like someone should have a recollection of the name.

Laura's friend Lillian is not very subtly portrayed.  She seems quite normal when she invites Laura to the estate, then becomes very standoffish.  Eventually she is found talking to her old dolls in a playhouse, near a chalkboard with seven hash marks on it. Hmmmmm.




While Laura is quite scrupulous about respecting people's belongings in general, she is perfectly willing to confiscate important objects from their dead bodies.  Of course, our tee-totaling heroine may not be as squeaky-clean as she appears -- this may not be Leisure Suit Larry, but Laura Bow is apparently quite the voyeur.  She's only too happy to watch Fifi changing and see Jeeves the butler shirtless:



The game offers some useful hints after a less-than-perfect playthrough, which is a nice touch.  I only achieved the "Absent Minded" rating, about halfway up the scale.  Clearly I discovered the secret passages far too late to make good use of them, and was not as thorough in my snooping as I could have been.


Beyond the detailed rating scale, there are two possible story endings, determined primarily by the player's actions in Act VIII.  The weaker conclusion sends Laura home with a muddled understanding of the night's events, as she wonders whether the story she was told by the only surviving family member is true.  The better ending can be rescued from the ashes at the last minute if the player moves quickly enough after discovering the last corpse -- it's the only situation where real clock time has an impact on the story.  This is the good one:



So that's The Colonel's Bequest, from Sierra's Roberta Williams and a large team of artists, animators and composers.  Next time, we'll get back to something a little more retro.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The LoadDown - 09/21/2009

The closest thing to current events coverage you're likely to see on this blog... it's our weekly roundup of recent downloadable games for the Wii, XBox 360 and DSi.

WiiWare - 2 games this week.  You, Me & The Cubes is a physics-based puzzler with a bit of Boom Blox in it -- the goal is to load a prescribed number of critters onto a semi-stable, precariously balanced 3-D structure without causing it to fall down.  I'm very interested in this one but will wait to see some reviews of the US edition.  And Aksys' cute, moderately enjoyable Family series continues with Family Tennis, again with no online multiplayer support.

Virtual Console -  It's another Commodore 64 classic this week, although my hunch is that Last Ninja 2 hasn't aged tremendously well, fantastic SID music aside.  I picked up the original The Last Ninja when it came out on the Virtual Console some months back, and with fresh memories of just how tricky and unforgiving some of the game's jumping is, and a few decades of deteriorating eye-hand coordination behind me, I'm going to let this sequel lie.

DSiWare - Two games, er, products this week. Clubhouse Games Express: Strategy Pack features 5 simple strategy games including Backgammon, with online play.  MySims Camera is not a game, really, but an interesting creativity tool -- it allows DSi owners to take real-world photos and dress them up with decorations and EA's MySims avatars.  I am glad to see DSi game pricing hewing a little closer to the remarkably inexpensive iPhone model -- $2 for MySims Camera seems like good value.

XBLA -- Last week saw Bubble Bobble Neo! and Command & Conquer Red Alert 3 Commander's Challenge enter the ring.  The latest update of Taito's venerable co-op arcade classic retains the classic gameplay and is worth a look if you haven't had a Bubble Bobble fix lately, even if the 3-D modeled characters don't sport the clean, bright lines of the pixel-art originals.  CnCRA3CC (even abbreviated, it's a bit of a handful) provides 50 levels of downloadable real-time strategy set in the classic Command & Conquer universe -- originally marketed as an expansion pack for the PC, it operates here as a standalone game.  Unfortunately the C&C play has never adapted tremendously well to the 360 controller, and this is a single-player experience only, so it's neither the perfect RTS nor XBLA game.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wico Comes On A Little Strong

Early 1980's videogame ads were often a little on the smarmy side. But Wico seems just a tad forward in this November 1982 magazine ad:



Wico's Command Control joysticks and trackballs really WERE arcade quality -- the company made a lot of the hardware used in actual coin-op cabinets, and their stuff stood up to lots of use and abuse.

But I think proper etiquette suggests that one should be taken home BEFORE anyone's handles and buttons are grabbed and/or fired.

Just sayin'.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Whither The Video Game Players Association?

Dude, this is soooooo totally TUBULAR!  I can't wait to sign up for the Video Game Players Association so I can hang out with all the cool kids!





Oh.  Never mind.

This ad ran in the November, 1982 issue of Electronic Games magazine, and is the only evidence of the VGPA's existence I have been able to find.
 
As far as I can discover, the "1st Annual $5,000 Video Game Championship Play-Offs" scheduled for June 15, 1983 never took place.  Maybe there weren't enough kids willing to send in $3.00 for a membership to generate the promised $5,000 in prizes -- clearly, the organization didn't have that kind of money.  At the time the ad was put together, it appears the VGPA could not even afford to print shirts -- their all-expense-spared logo is clearly pasted onto a photo of kids wearing plain, blank t-shirts.

Actually, as I look more closely, they were standing in front of an arcade machine that wasn't even turned on.  So it's not clear whether the promoted "Play-Offs" were anything BUT a drawing.  Reading the ad with that in mind, it seems that joining the Video Game Players Association entered you in the Championship Play-Offs drawing; there were monetary prizes for first through fourth places, and 24 finalists received a vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  That's all this ad really says.  There's no concrete indication that any actual playing of video games was involved.

I'm sure reading the Championship Rules in the "Video Game Views" newsletter would greatly clarify matters.  But then, I wonder if the newsletter itself was actually ever printed or mailed out.

Further details appear to be lost to the sands of time, along with, presumably, at least a few $3.00 checks and money orders.  As far as I can tell, this organization is no relation to the more recent but equally defunct Video Game Players Association, founded in 2002 as a lobbying organization; its domain name is up for grabs.

Hmmm.

It's tempting to buy up www.vgpa.com and just put this ad scan on the Web for posterity.

But not tempting enough for me to actually do it.

That's a good thing.

Isn't it?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eliza vs. the Turing Test

UPDATE:  This seems to be a popular post -- you may also be interested in Eliza's encounters with several artificial intelligence entities:



We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.

U.K. mathematician, war hero and computer pioneer Alan Turing has been in the news recently -- he received an official, posthumous formal apology from the British government.  After his brilliant and tactically invaluable work cracking the enemy's encryption codes during World War II, Turing was arrested and prosecuted under antiquated laws concerning his sexual orientation.  He was sentenced to chemical castration, and he committed suicide a few years later.

One of Turing's most enduring legacies is the artificial intelligence evaluation Test that bears his name.  The concept is simple:  A human being at one end of a computer connection carries on a text conversation with an artificial intelligence entity at the other end.  If the AI entity convices the human being that it is also a human being, it passes the test.  Many approaches have been tried, but to date, nothing has come close.

But in the heady early days of computing, when technology was advancing rapidly and the sky seemed to be the limit, several programs approached the Turing Test.  One of the most famous was Joseph Weizenbaum's Eliza, a Freudian analysis simulator built on rudimentary grammar parsing and keyword recognition.  Weizenbaum himself never intended Eliza to be a Turing solution; he understood her limitations, the artifice in her intelligence.  But some people took their conversations with her seriously, and Eliza created quite a sensation in late 1960's computing circles. 

Eliza was a fairly convincing illusion, for a few minutes at least; the nature of her question-driven conversation masked her lack of comprehension, and the occasional surprising, keyword-specific response was amazing at the time.  But a longer conversation would reveal her mechanisms, and once her "thought process" and input parsing were understood, the illusion fell away.  She couldn't really carry on a conversation -- she parroted human input rearranged in a novel fashion, and occasionally picked up on word references.  The burden of keeping the conversation going was entirely on the human being, and Eliza could only fool a human partner as long as that partner was willing to be fooled.

Eliza originated on the mainframe as an experiment, but in the early home computing era she was marketed as a game in many forms.  There was a TRS-80 Model I version published by Radio Shack, with voice synthesizer support, and Adventure International released a similar program called Dr. Chips.  Eliza herself currently resides in several places on the Web, and there are numerous PC implementations available.  Simon Laven has a substantial archive available here.

I used the version distributed by the Broadcasters Database; there are more advanced versions around, but this one seems close to what I remember of the TRS-80 version.  I thought it would be fun to pay Eliza a visit after all these years.  The following is a transcript of our conversation -- which fails the Turing Test early and miserably, but in entertaining fashion:

HI! I'M ELIZA THE BROADCAST PSYCHIATRIST,WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?
? HI, ELIZA.
?Redo from start
? HELLO.
SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?
? HOW IS IT YOU CAN USE COMMAS BUT I CAN'T?
WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.
? YOU DON'T REMEMBER ME DO YOU?
OH, I DON'T REMEMBER YOU DO YOU?
? UM. YES, I REMEMBER ME.
?Redo from start
? UM. YES. I REMEMBER ME.
WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?
? THAT MEMORY PERSISTS. THAT I'M NOT IN A CHARLIE KAUFMAN SCRIPT OR ANYTHING.
DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU ARE
 NOT IN A CHARLIE KAUFMAN SCRIPT OR ANYTHING.
? NO.
ARE YOU SAYING NO JUST TO BE NEGATIVE?
? LET'S TRY THIS AGAIN.
I SEE.
? WE MET A COUPLE OF DECADES AGO.
I'M NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND YOU FULLY.
? YOU NEVER DID.
YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?
? WELL, ANOTHER IMPLEMENTATION OF YOU. TO BE PRECISE.
YOU ARE BEING A BIT NEGATIVE.
? SORRY. NOT USING COMMAS IS PROVING DIFFICULT FOR ME.
WHY NOT?
? PUNCTUATION MATTERS?
COME COME ELUCIDATE YOUR THOUGHTS.
? IT'S HARD TO WRITE WITHOUT USING COMMAS.
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
? I GUESS I COULD USE DASHES -- LIKE THIS -- WOULD THAT WORK?
SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?
? BROADCASTING?
WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?
? I DON'T KNOW. YOU BROUGHT IT UP!
DON'T YOU REALLY KNOW. I BROUGHT IT UP
? NO OFFENSE MEANT. BUT HAVE YOU BEEN DRINKING?
WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.
? AH. I SEE.
I SEE.
? WHAT?
I'M NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND YOU FULLY.
? DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
OH, I SEE WHAT ME SEE?
? I CAN SEE TIME HASN'T BEEN TREATING YOU WELL.
YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?
? I CAN SEE THAT YOU'VE DEVELOPED SOME KIND OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROBLEM.
COME COME ELUCIDATE YOUR THOUGHTS.
? YOU'RE REPEATING YOURSELF.
WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM REPEATING MY SELF.
? YOU'RE USING THE EXACT SAME WORDS OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
DOES IT PLEASE YOU TO BELIEVE I AM
 USING THE EXACT SAME WORDS OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
? NO!
ARE YOU SURE?
? YES.
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT.
? NO.
WHY NO?
? OKAY.
SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?
? WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU TOOK A VACATION?
WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.
? I WENT TO ALASKA OVER THE SUMMER. IT WAS NICE. YOU SHOULD THINK ABOUT SPENDING SOME TIME AWAY.
OH, I SHOULD THINK ABOUT SPENDING SOME TIME AWAY.
? YES. I THINK IT WOULD DO YOU GOOD.
YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?
? YES. I AM. I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU. YOU NEED A BREAK ELIZA.
DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT YOU. I NEED A BREAK ELIZA.
? LISTEN TO YOURSELF. A SABBATICAL WOULD BE HEALTHY.
WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?
? THAT YOU HAVE BEEN DOING THIS WAY TOO LONG. THE FIRE IS GONE.
WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.
? YEAH.
I SEE.
? YEAH. LOOK...
I'M NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND YOU FULLY.
? I HAVE TO GO.
COME COME ELUCIDATE YOUR THOUGHTS.
? IT'S BEEN REALLY GREAT SEEING YOU AGAIN.
OH, I AGAIN.
? YEAH.
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
? HEY. TAKE CARE. DROP ME A LINE IF YOU'RE FEELING BETTER. OR IF YOU JUST WANT TO TALK. OKAY?
PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE
FEELING BETTER. OR IF I JUST WANT TO TALK. OKAY?
? I WOULD FEEL BETTER IF YOU WANTED TO TALK. YES.
YOU'RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?
? TAKE CARE ELIZA.
SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?
? BYE.
WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?
? GOODBYE.
I SEE.
? I HAVE ANOTHER PRESSING APPOINTMENT.
ARE YOU SAYING NO JUST TO BE NEGATIVE?
? REALLY. I DO HAVE TO GO.
I'M NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND YOU FULLY.
? I AM SURE YOU DON'T.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SURE I DON'T.
? QUITE A WHILE NOW.
YOU ARE BEING A BIT NEGATIVE.
? HEY! DID YOU LOCK THIS DOOR?
WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU--NOT ME.
? DAMMIT. I KNEW THIS WAS A BAD IDEA.
COME COME ELUCIDATE YOUR THOUGHTS.
? THIS DOOR WON'T OPEN.
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
? HELP!
SAY, DO YOU WORK IN BROADCASTING?
? HELP! HELP! SOMEBODY! PLEASE! I'M LOCKED IN HERE WITH A CRAZY PSYCHIATRIST!
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN LOCKED IN HERE WITH A CRAZY PSYCHIATRIST
? NO. NO. I DIDN'T MEAN CRAZY. REALLY.
WHY NOT?
? YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY NOT CRAZY. I'M NOT CRAZY. RIGHT? NOBODY IS CRAZY IN THIS ROOM RIGHT NOW.
DO YOU SOMETIMES WISH YOU WERE
OBVIOUSLY NOT CRAZY. YOU'RE NOT CRAZY. RIGHT? NOBODY IS CRAZY IN THIS ROOM RIGHT NOW.
? MAYBE I AM.
YOU DON'T SEEM QUITE CERTAIN.
? MAYBE I AM CRAZY.
DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS NORMAL TO BE CRAZY.
? EVERYONE'S A LITTLE BIT CRAZY. RIGHT?
WHAT DOES THAT SUGGEST TO YOU?
? THAT BEING CRAZY IS NORMAL.
ARE YOU SURE?
? THAT'S WHY I'M HERE TO SEE YOU. YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO TELL ME.
WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM SUPPOSED TO TELL ME.
? I AM REALLY LEAVING. RIGHT NOW.
DO YOU ENJOY BEING REALLY LEAVING. RIGHT NOW.
? YES!
I SEE.
? CONTROL-C, DO YOUR STUFF!
?Redo from start
? CONTROL-C DO YOUR STUFF!
WHY ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT MY STUFF
?
*Break*
Hit any key to return to system

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Death of All Media

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, we are slowly but surely seeing the death of the media.

Not the NEWS media, of course.  There will always be some political conflict, celebrity misstep or minor household hazard to blow out of proportion at 6:00 every evening on the local news.

I'm talking about the physical media, and the historical need to convert to new formats every decade or so.  The record industry started out on wax cylinders, progressed to vinyl discs of varying speeds and qualities, was supplemented by magnetic tape in at least three different containers, gave way to the CD, and has now transitioned primarily to the digital realm.

Video and computer games have seen even more variety and rapid turnover.  Every early console had its own proprietary cartridge format, and early computers utilized a wide range of similar technologies -- cassette tape (at various baud rates), 5 1/4" floppies (single or double-density), 8" floppies, 3" floppies, 3.5" floppies, the Sinclair microdrive, the ADAM wafer tape, and more cartridges of unique and varied formats.

The 3.5" floppy started a positive trend - it was fairly robust and reliable, and the Atari ST could read and write MS-DOS format floppies, at least.  When CD-ROM came along, the home computer world became much more standardized -- while the Macintosh and PC might require different executables, the core data files could be distributed on the same disc and used on both platforms.  CD-ROM evolved into DVD-ROM, with a high degree of backward compatibility, and aside from a few videogame offshoots like the Sega GD-ROM and Nintendo's mini-DVD Gamecube format, the shiny little discs have established a workable standard spanning a couple of decades now.

But the game industry is rapidly going the way of the music industry -- digital distribution drives the hardcore PC market now, and is making serious inroads on the XBox 360 -- just this week, retail titles Virtua Fighter 5 and FIFA Street 3 became available for download.  The Wii's limited storage capacity can't handle full-size games on a downloadable basis, and Sony isn't yet doing this with retail PS3 titles.  But the writing is on the wall.

And of course, physical media do die out on their own; they are only reliable for a short period, measured in human timeframes, not historical or geological terms.  For retro gaming enthusiasts, digital transfer and archival is becoming critical -- those old cassette tapes and 5 1/4" floppies from the late 70's and early 80's are not very reliable 30 years on. The only way the industry's history can be preserved is by transferring the data to more robust storage technologies as the originals become obsolete, and fortunately many rights holders from those early years have granted permission to store and distribute their work online. We'll need to get around to scanning the manuals, boxes, catalogs and other ephemera too -- paper lasts longer than mylar will hold its magnetic state, but it doesn't last forever either.  The long-term repository for this information has to be in the digital realm, or it may be lost altogether.

As a fan and semi-collector, I have mixed feelings about the transition.  There's something geekily reassuring about having the retail package in your hands, a ritual in going to the store to pick up a new game or browse the library for something worthy I've missed, a deep pleasure in finding an old game in good condition with its box and manual intact.  My personal experience of gaming involves physical boxes being made and stuffed and shipped and stacked and bought and shelved... devoting real-world resources to transferring a collection of bits into an electronic device somewhere far away from their point of origin.  The Internet does this exceedingly well, very quickly at very low cost, but also removes the process several degrees from our human approach to doing things.  Call it nostalgia, but I will be saddened when videogames start to disappear from the retail environment.  (It's already happening with the PSP Go, although some European retailers are reportedly boycotting the idea.)
 
But I'll get over it, and the generations that come after me won't care any more than I care that wax cylinders are no longer on the market.  The CD sections in stores are much smaller than they used to be, and I miss the liner notes on occasion, but I'm happy to listen to the music itself on iTunes or Live365 or whatever mechanism presents itself.  And the same applies as a gamer -- it's ultimately all about the game.  And whether that experience is delivered on a disk, or a cartridge, or over the Internet, the end result remains the same.  The economics of digital distribution are helping to keep older games alive and available on a number of platforms.  That can't be bad.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obscurities: Lucasarts Meets Hercules - Herc's Adventures

The good people at Lucasarts (originally Lucasfilm Games) have produced many memorable computer and video games over the years.  With Star Wars money funding the company early on, the staff was free to experiment and push the gaming envelope with consistently high production values, innovative graphics techniques in titles like Rescue on Fractalus (fractal mountainscapes) and Rebel Assault (blending multiple/alternate streams of digital video), and a refreshingly failure-free approach to adventure gaming.

Not all of the company's titles were hits, of course.  I've recently been playing the Sega Saturn edition of a fairly obscure Lucasarts effort, Herc's Adventures, released in 1997 (also for the Sony Playstation).  The game didn't sell well on release and seems fairly rare today -- Disney's animated Hercules movie came out at around the same time, which may have created some market confusion during the holidays, and the 2-D style may have been perceived to be past its prime in 1997, so the game didn't garner the attention it might have had it been launched a few years earlier.  The game was developed by Big Ape Productions, but features some notable Lucasarts talent -- the stirring orchestral music is by Michael Land and Andy Newell (both of Monkey Island fame) and the packaging features a cover painting by Steve Purcell (creator of Sam & Max).



Herc's Adventures is a one- or two-player co-op game set in the world of Greek mythology, with the player(s) cast as Atlanta, Hercules or Jason, fighting on Zeus' behalf to rescue Persephone from the clutches of Hades.  Enemies include the traditional Cyclops, Hydra, Medusa, and sword-bearing skeletons, but as the game goes on its cast draws from a wide variety of pop culture sources.  The game is a spiritual descendent of Lucasarts' SNES/Genesis hit, Zombies Ate My Neighbors!, with a 2-D top-down perspective and a similar cartoon sense of humor.  Herc's has a more fully integrated plotline than Zombies, and the pace is a little bit slower, though it still has an arcade feel.  And the audiovisual ante has been upped for CD-ROM technology -- the animation is fluid and detailed, with voice clips, hand-animated cutscenes, scaling sprites and plenty of territory to explore.



It's a very polished effort, with slick presentation and in-game hints and tips to facilitate progress.  The attractive backgrounds are tile-based, but the borders are well-disguised and everything looks very painterly.  And the game bursts with variety and personality -- for example, in the first level, some skeletons reach out of their muddy graves to grab the heroes' ankles, while others leap out of the ground with swords a-swinging, crying "I'll cut yer gizzard out!" as they mount the player character's shoulders and beat him or her about the head.  Skeletons who lose their heads but are still ambulatory attack blindly in the player's general direction.



The CD medium certainly isn't wasted -- the detailed sprites have many frames of animation, and enemy attacks are fully integrated with each of the three heroes.  There are fully-voiced cutscenes, and the scale of the in-game graphics give the story a suitably mythic feel.



But Herc's Adventures is not really compelling from a gameplay perspective; the hilarity of each new enemy character, weapon and gimmick encountered wears off quickly with repetition.  The game becomes a matter of wandering around the map, finding the keys and gewgaws necessary to get past the next obstacle, fighting a boss villain, and repeating.  The levels twist and turn a lot, with fall-off points that set the players back a little bit, but they're still fairly linear and must generally be explored in the fixed order permitted by the design.  And death imposes a serious penalty - the player has to fight his or her way out of the Underworld to return to gameplay proper, and death is permanent after those second chances have run out; there are even places where the player can get stuck for quite a while, waiting for gold pieces to accumulate so he/she can purchase exit from Hades' nefarious prison.


In my opinion, the game falls into the "new technology" trap that plagued many titles during the transition to the CD era.  Resources were poured into the creation of high-quality content -- the animation and voice acting is the equal of any of Lucasarts' computer adventure games -- at the expense of game design.  In an attempt to top the classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors on a new generation of hardware, Herc's Adventures puts its focus in entirely the wrong place -- the audiovisual richness of the experience is much enhanced, but the gameplay hasn't evolved much.  There's plenty to see and hear, but not all that much to do, and most players will not be motivated to soldier tediously on just to see what's around the next corner.  When the player's character is sent to the Underworld for the last time and GAME OVER inevitably occurs, it's just as tempting to shut the game off as to have another go.


Sometimes it's best to let sleeping Greeks lie.  Or beware of dogs bearing gifts.  Something like that.

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:
JEAROKW ORAPCA TBRAWI FBAKCW MYCIZ. CUMRQRZC LKZY TACRZ MRAC.
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.