This week, we tackle the fifth entry in Brian Howarth's series of Mysterious Adventures -- Escape from Pulsar 7, co-authored with Wherner Barnes and running on the venerable Scott Adams engine. A generous reader kindly provided me with the TRS-80 Model I/III version, distributed by Molimerx in the UK, so we're going to play the game on that platform:
I escaped from Pulsar 7 using ScottFree the first time through, again for the sake of faster save/load support; I was not actually able to figure out the SAVE GAME system on the Model I, getting a Disk I/O error every time I tried although I swapped diskettes around a bit and checked the writeable status of the disk (and the disk image.) Fortunately, the random deaths are relatively rare in this game and it was not a problem to play all the way through safely once I knew what I was doing.
At the outset, it's not immediately clear what the situation is -- but we soon realize our mission is to get off the doomed space cruiser, the Pulsar 7:
The game's map is a little bit confusing; there are some one-way passages that don't quite make sense in what seems to be a naturalistic sci-fi environment. I also had to consult a walkthrough to get past a couple of roadblocks, but all in all I enjoyed this game quite a bit.
One of my goals with this series is to document a variety of adventures in some detail, so curious readers can learn more about these games without necessarily having to play them. But if you plan to play Escape from Pulsar 7 yourself, I advise you to stop reading for the moment -- I'm going to give away some things that are more fun to discover on your own.
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
The game's dictionary makes an interesting and sometimes frustrating distinction between LOOK, SEARCH and EXAMINE, which are usually treated as synonyms in other adventure games. Right at the outset, LOOK COUCH does not return anything interesting, but EXAMINE COUCH does. And MOVE COUCH also comes in handy.
Given the 16K memory constraints under which this game was designed to run, there isn't much room for plot exposition. About the only clue we get beyond the title is a fragmentary note that reads, "... as the only surviving member of the PULSAR 7 crew....". In my first attempt, I quickly learned that we are not actually alone, as finding myself in a nice warm bunk, I opted to SLEEP, and the game informed me that I fall Asleep!! CREATURE rips my head off! I'm dead -- and the location shifted to I'm in the MANURE this time !!
There are some tricky and semi-random puzzles in this game, but they make a little more sense than the ones in Howarth's fantasy adventures. For instance, when we close the door of the crewman's cabin, a pillow appears on the bunk. But it's labeled as an Auto-dispense pillow -- so we know it's not, y'know, magic or anything. It is strange, however, that if we LOOK PILLOW we learn nothing; it's impossible to TAKE PILLOW; but if we MOVE PILLOW we find a circuit board that wasn't there a moment ago.
After getting choked by dust in an air vent the first time I went in, I was glad to find the hazard is simply random on my next attempt. But my attempt to settle the dust by pouring water in the area was unsuccessful -- it just created a puddle alongside the dust. The room should just be avoided whenever possible; it's encountered early in the game, and need only be passed through once.
The game has several places we can GO which aren't immediately obvious, like the control console and the lathe. Oddly, the ScottFree interpreter allows one to pick up the larder in the galley and carry it elsewhere -- wherever it's dropped, if one GOes LARDER and comes back out, one finds oneself in the galley. But the original game does not have this bug, so it's clearly not meant to be a space-warping puzzle solution.
I spent quite a bit of time in the Pulsar 7's airlock trying to figure out how to keep myself from getting blasted into space. Even when I was wearing the space suit and magnetic boots, the result was always the same. A much-appreciated walkthrough informed me that there's a secondary, well-hidden emergency airlock.
The map's use of doors is very strange -- sometimes we OPEN DOOR in one place, GO DOOR, and don't end up in the room where the other side of the door is actually located. In one spot, we have to both OPEN DOOR -and- GO DOOR for it to be set to an open state, otherwise we appear to go through it but it remains closed.
We are equipped with a wristwatch at the start -- we can't READ or LOOK WATCH, but have to EXAMINE WATCH; all it reveals is the current move count, so it's best to drop it and save the inventory slot. The ship's artificial daylight ends after 100 moves, and everything goes dark if we haven't found a light source by that point. The darkness proves fatal eventually, as the CREATURE attacks.
The lathe's description indicates it needs to be repaired; not so for the oven, but it has a round hole that we can fill with a square block we've turned on the lathe (TURN SQUARE). But we can't PUT ROUND or INSERT ROUND -- we have to FIX OVEN. That tripped me up for a bit.
It wasn't clear to me that the locker in the storeroom was not open -- neither LOOK nor SEARCH nor EXAMINE gave me any impression other than that the locker was open and empty. In fact, OPEN LOCKER yields I don't understand your command. I had to reference a walkthrough to learn that SMASH LOCKER (once the hammer has been found) is the way to access its contents.
The available light source grows dim and eventually goes out, so time -- efficient movement, actually -- is of the essence.
There are two points where we have to EXAMINE CEILING from a bunk to find somewhere new to go -- I missed this entirely and needed a walkthrough nudge, as the first ceiling entrance I found was clearly visible. Even once we have seen it, TAKE GRILLE and MOVE GRILLE do not work, but REMOVE GRILLE does - Grill comes away with a strong pull! (and disappears entirely.) This reveals a hole -- but we can't GO HOLE or SEARCH HOLE to find anything of interest. We have to JUMP HOLE.
In the first hidden area, we find a length of cable, and a specimen cage nearby. There's no reason to go into the cage other than to make use of the key found earlier -- the cage door slams behind us, and it's shown as a Locked door. But UNLOCK DOOR doesn't do anything, we have to OPEN DOOR with the key in hand to get back out. And if we go back in afterwards, the door now shows up as an Open door even though Door slams behind me! every time we go in. It's wise to avoid the specimen cage altogether.
A shipping crate in the same area contains a square block - we have to GET SQUARE, not GET BLOCK. Fortunately in this case, the parser helpfully suggests: Use a shape i.e. "GET SQUARE", so it isn't a gameplay issue.
We can't eat the raisins or the flour found in the larder, presumably because we need them for something else, though I kept trying to MAKE BREAD until I found a cake tin later on. I examined the Captain's bunk, while in the bunk, and found some white tablets. EAT TABLET puts us to sleep, and the CREATURE rips our head off again -- but the fatal outcome does provide a clue. We have to use the tablets, along with water, raisins and flour, to MIX CAKE and BAKE CAKE - we end up with a drugged fruitcake. But if we don't have the tablets when we mix the cake, there's no way to add them to the mix before baking it, so timing is critical.
Fortunately the CREATURE's physiology is similar to that of human beings, however unlikely that may seem. We're near the end of the game when we can GIVE CAKE and learn to our satisfaction that The CREATURE ate the lot! Then fell asleep!
The final leg of the journey is straightforward and very linear once we have finally located the emergency airlock (the second EXAMINE CEILING situation.) We PUSH RED, GO DOOR, PULL LEVER, GO CRAFT, PUSH YELLOW -- and victory is ours:
Escape from Pulsar 7 was an entertaining challenge -- not too arbitrary, and tough for (mostly) the right reasons. Maybe I'm just personally biased toward the science fiction side of things, but I had a lot more fun on the Pulsar 7 than in Howarth's fantasy worlds. I look forward to Mr. Howarth's next tale of intrigue and inventory.