Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Feasibility Experiment (1981)

It's time for another Brian Howarth adventure - Mysterious Adventure #7: Feasibility Experiment, co-authored with Wherner Barnes (Howarth's collaborator on #5 and #6 as well.)  This UK series was written to run on the classic Scott Adams interpreter, but Howarth's design sensibility is a bit different.

Feasibility Experiment casts the player as an unidentified Ultimate Warrior charged with recovering the treasures of the ancient ones, primarily by solving puzzles and killing mechanical monsters.  I played this game using the modern ScottFree interpreter -- while I prefer the original versions, even in emulated form, I thought it was worth demonstrating again for readers who may not be aware of its existence.  ScottFree runs on many current platforms, and Scott Adams and Brian Howarth have generously made their classic adventures freely available.


Mapping is a must.  Howarth has somehow crammed more than fifty rooms into 16K of memory, spanning several environments and time periods, and remembering where an important item was found (or dropped) requires efficient navigation.  There's a complicated Roman maze smack-dab in the middle of the map, and several important locations accessible only by traversing it, so it's worth taking the time to map it all out.

The game opens amidst a surge of strange Power with a mysterious voice intoning, Gather the *Treasures* of our Ancient Culture or we are DOOMED!  That's all the explanation we get -- whom these entities are, or why they are doomed if we don't collect ten treasures, remains a mystery.  So the plot is really just a treasure hunt, though the mysterious nature of our mission and the odd time/space warps filled with "vague shapes" between areas lend it a more metaphysical feel.  There are ten treasures in total, each worth 10 of 100 points.

Most of the puzzles are item-based, and a lot of the items are hidden -- we have to EXAMINE TREE at the lip of the chasm to find a metal block, and search the rocks on the grassy plain to find the *Ornate Dagger*EXAMINE WINDOW above the Roman-era cage gives us a peek at the pride of lions lurking below, which hints at dangers to come.  But it's wise to save frequently, as this game is unusual in that the EXAMINE verb is occasionally fatal in and of itself -- EXAMINE SCREE causes an avalanche, and EXAMINE EMPEROR before we have killed the lion causes the Imperial Guard to attack us.

Because there are so many rooms, text description is sparse.  We have to infer some of the details from experience -- I concluded that we're able to pass through the grill sealing the lions in their cage, but the big cats are not; if we OPEN GRILL while standing in the arena outside, Lions rush out and maul me! I am dead.

The mine area has an elevator capable of reaching five different floors using numbered buttons, although PUSH 3 is fatal.  To explore floors 4 and 5 we need a lit lamp - and not just the Rusty lamp, but the rusty lamp, a piece of cloth for a wick so we can FIX LAMP, a small can of oil, a flint, and a metal striking block.  This tends to make this area the last bit of new exploration.  I inadvertently discovered something interesting about the elevator implementation -- each floor's elevator is actually a separate room, with the buttons moving us from one room to another.  This means if we leave an item in the elevator, as I did, we have to go to the floor where we left it in order to find it.

As in Howarth's other games with digging involved, the DIG verb is recognized but not handled, prompting How?; we have to USE SHOVEL.
Digging in the primitive-era stone circle reveals a slab; MOVE SLAB reveals steps down to a Temple, where a worn inscription on the altar reads AM...T .N. .IA...D.  Not having found these treasures yet, I guessed (correctly as it turned out) that this might mean AMULET AND DIAMOND.  I tried to PRAY but was told I can't do that yet; doing the same with the *Golden amulet* and *Red diamond* in hand causes a *Crystal scimitar* to appear.

We can also wear the gauntlets found by the altar, which we need to do in order to pick up a flaming brazier; without them we are fatally burned, impugning our character's nervous system and reflexes.  The brazier is used to gain access to an ice tunnel and ultimately the treasure store room, but we have to explicitly WAIT after dropping the brazier in the ice cave.  We can use up moves by doing other, more productive things, but the tunnel will not appear until we WAIT.

Many items in the game have multiple uses, a naturalistic touch I always appreciate.  The brazier can melt ice in a couple of different locations; the shovel is also used more than once.  Many of the treasures also have practical uses, especially the weapons -- there are several foes that can only be vanquished with specific treasures in hand.

Retrieving the *Ivory Statuette* from the Lions' Cage requires some luck -- we can GO WINDOW from the viewing room to get there, and if random chance is with us, Lions ignore me for the moment long enough for us to get the statuette and escape to the south. In my experience, it most often happens that Lion rips me apart!  I am dead.

The USE verb behaves a bit oddly -- if no specific use case is met, it responds with [object] is useless here.  But it also does this if we don't actually have the item we are trying to use -- so USE SHOVEL in a diggable area yields a rather compressed shovelis useless here response, which can be misleading if we forget we dropped the shovel earlier.

I wasn't sure if ATTACK GLADIATOR was the right thing to do, as it caused him to vanish - but the mechanical man had been no help in dealing with the lions, and later monsters also vanish, so I concluded this was appropriate.  Most of the enemies we encounter prevent us from performing specific actions -- for example, the guard in the mine's museum room is there only to keep us from opening the display case, which he will do repeatedly and cheerfully.  He, of course, must die for his diligent, non-violent dedication to duty, because somebody or -bodies we haven't really met will otherwise be DOOMED.

After dispatching the lion in the arena, EXAMINE EMPEROR yields a different response:

The Emperor praises my courage
He's given me a prize!

The prize dropped into the room is the *Ixion shield*, but due to the existence of another, leather shield in the dictionary, TAKE SHIELD does not work; It's beyond my power to do that.  At first I thought the Imperial Guard were still being a nuisance, but then realized we have to TAKE IXION.  A similar situation occurs with the Iron and Black keys; the iron key is KEY, the black key is BLACK.

There are some nice, ominous details in the Dragon's Lair area -- a cave on the way in features a blackened skeleton (wearing the *Gold Amulet*, which we can take but not wear ourselves.) The fire-breathing mechanical dragon is dangerous -- and we can't KILL DRAGON unless we have both the *Ebony spear* and the *Ixion shield*, attempts without these items.  This required several rounds of trial and error -- I died ignominously while attempting to kill the beast with the scimitar, sword, and dagger, and also failed with the spear when I made an attempt sans shield.

When we have rounded up all ten treasures, victory is ours:

I enjoyed this one -- it was a bit convoluted, and was thoroughly unfair in the old-school tradition, but the puzzles made sense even though few hints were available in-game, and I liked the scope of the environment.  Sometimes there's a "radio play" aspect to these early adventures that allows the adventurer's imagination to fill in the gaps that text and graphics do not otherwise address -- mapping it all out on paper was a pleasure.

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