Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Great Scott Project: QuestProbe #1 Featuring The Hulk (1984)

The Great Scott Project enters new territory this week -- the classic Adventure International series has come to an end, and we find Scott Adams applying his talents to the brand new QuestProbe series, developed under a licensing arrangement with Marvel Comics.  This was planned as a twelve-game series, but industry circumstances in the mid-1980s meant that only three titles were actually released.

The first, unofficially known as QuestProbe #1, was 1984's QuestProbe Featuring The Hulk.  It features the familiar two-word Scott Adams parser engine, with more emphasis on graphics, as closeups and slideshows are used to illustrate key events.  Marvel published its own tie-in QuestProbe comic books, with a backstory about an alien civilization under threat seeking to gather the powers of the Marvel superheroes, but the game is standard adventure material -- Bruce Banner and/or The Hulk must round up 17 gems to satisfy the mysterious Chief Examiner.

I'm playing the IBM PC version, which appears to have inherited the Apple II graphics, complete with pseudo-color artifacting.  Unfortunately, the CGA PC is limited to a fixed 4-color palette, so our hero is rendered in blue, looking like a cross between the original gray Hulk and his better-known green incarnation:


This was the first computer game to feature Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's popular creation, The Incredible Hulk.  And to everyone's credit, it isn't just a case of licensing a popular franchise and slapping it onto a generic, pre-existing design.  The illustrated versions feature artwork by Marvel legend John Romita Sr. as well as Mark Gruenwald and Kem McNair -- the images are solid and evocative in the Mighty Marvel Manner, despite the limited display technology of the era.  The story outline was developed by Scott Adams, working with John Byrne and Bob Budiansky, with Adams handling the implementation.

I am pleased and relieved to report that the difficulty level has taken a step back from the last few Scott Adams games we've tackled -- while not as straightforward as his earliest adventures, the puzzles of QuestProbe #1 are generally logical, with enough information provided to allow completion without too much reliance on hints.  As always, I encourage interested readers to play for themselves before continuing with this discussion, as there are...

***** HULK SMASH! *****

Sorry... just getting into character...

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


As we might expect, transforming Bruce Banner into the Hulk at will is key to solving most of the game's puzzles, but the game has a way of turning him back into poor, weak Bruce at the worst possible moments. We start out as Banner, tied in a chair, and must find a way to become the Hulk.  GET ANGRY yields the perfectly reasonable How?  CLOSE EYES isn't useful at this point; mild peevishness and introspection is clearly not the key.  Physical self-abuse does the trick - we can TIP CHAIR, BITE LIP or BITE TONGUE to convince Bruce's inner Hulk to emerge, breaking free of the chair.  But then the room is flooded with a strange gas, per the text -- the graphics imply that those tacos at lunch did not sit well -- and we're Banner again: 


Note the Hit-Return lines -- this sequence is illustrated with a number of drawings, which the player must acknowledge to continue.  The quality artwork makes this feel like a true Marvel adventure.

Potential revelation:  I found myself wondering if the Chief Examiner, a Marvel Universe character created for QuestProbe, is actually meant to be Scott Adams himself.  If we examine what he's doing in his office, he is writing the next QuestProbe computer program.  And Wikipedia tells us that the Chief Examiner's home planet is called Scadam, per the comic books.  And while we never see his face, and he doesn't appear to be wearing glasses, the hairdo certainly resembles Scott's as pictured in the old Adventure International catalogs.  And... aha!  Smoking-gun puzzle tentatively solved -- the parser recognizes SCOTT as a synonym for the CHIEF EXAMINER, which would seem to confirm my suspicions.  Here he is in-game:



While the game was released on some platforms without graphics, and the illustrations aren't strictly necessary to playing the game, they support the action well.  The INVENTORY screen is graphical, as in the Scott Adams Graphic Adventures, and LOOK MIRROR is illustrated appropriately:


The Hulk actually has two levels of anger -- he can be very mad, or very very mad -- but only one illustration:



The opening credits, copyrights and trademark statements are forced to give away any casting surprises -- we will clearly be encountering ANT-MAN, HULK, the CHIEF EXAMINER, ULTRON, DR. STRANGE, and NIGHTMARE somewhere in this adventure.  Questions of continuity and canon are addressed by a sign near the beginning of the game, indicating that this is simply a computer simulation, intended to see if we can master the powers of the Hulk.  And neither Banner nor the Hulk ever actually die -- we just get sent to Limbo, where conveniently-placed stairs descend back into the game.  We even get to keep all of our inventory items, making this a forgiving game by adventure standards.

 
Did I say this game was easier than some?  That was not my initial impression, because I got stuck fairly early in the game.  Turning into the Hulk is only part of the battle -- BITE TONGUE only works briefly indoors; within a few turns, and sometimes instantaneously, Some gas fills room & permeates my skin!  I'm Bruce Banner now!  We can't use the fan to wave the gas away, and it isn't possible to hide from the gas or HOLD BREATH.  I found a button that turns some sort of delay on and off, but I wasn't clear on what it really meant.  I wasn't able to GO OUTSIDE, JUMP OUTSIDE, or RUN OUTSIDE without succumbing to the High Gravity time and time again.  There weren't many inventory items or locations available for experimentation at this point, and I finally had to resort to a walkthrough to learn that I was doing the right things -- I was just not reading the text closely enough, and the artwork didn't help.  I had mistakenly concluded that Some gas fills room and permeates my skin! always meant I was transformed back into Bruce Banner, and was not reading closely enough to realize that (with the button pressed) I had an extra turn during which I could get outside and remain Hulked out.

Now that we're the Hulk, we can DIG without benefit of a shovel.  There are three diggable locations, and each eventually yields a *Gem if we dig deep enough (but not too deep, or the Hulk dies in the Earth's molten core shortly after a Getting warm! warning message.)  The hole itself isn't directly illustrated, but I like this better -- it sounds and looks like some sort of geeky revolutionary organization advertising itself on the Marvel Bullpen pages:


The parser is relatively kind to novice players -- GO INSIDE yields Try ENTER DOME, which is actually helpful.  And the Hulk's o'erweening Rage is represented as an inventory item -- we can force a transformation back to Bruce Banner if we simply DROP RAGE, though I didn't run into any puzzles that required this.

There's not much of a plot structure here -- the gems are really just scattered around the world, often lying in plain sight.  Solving a puzzle sometimes yields a treasure directly, but more often provides access to new locations where we can find additional gems.  The "fuzzy area" operates as a warp zone with some nice Escher-esque illustrations.  It's a bit of a mapping challenge, as it appears there are several Warp locations with identical descriptions but different connections.  But there are only a few locations we need to visit, and it's not hard to find everything simply by wandering around.  What we really need to notice in the warp zone is the sign --  READ SIGN upholds adventuring tradition, as in:  I see leave gems here: SCORE.

One potential dead end exists, in the form of a small, dangerous underground room.  A natter energy egg stored there explodes within two turns, killing us and worse, destroying the *Bio gem we need to collect in order to finish the game.  It's also a physical dead end if we come in the wrong way, though if we wait around, poison nerve gas strikes and sends us to Limbo, from whence we can get back to the main map.  The wall in this deadly room has scratch marks on it -- we can't COUNT MARKS, which was my first idea, and we can only SCRATCH MARKS as the Hulk, we're too weak as Bruce.  It's best to come in here after we've had a good talk with Dr. Strange.


A puzzle I found challenging but fun involves a colony of alien army ants.  We need to GET ANTS to help rescue Ant-Man from Ultron, whose pressor beam otherwise keeps us at bay.  But even the Incredible Hulk isn't invincible against these rampaging arthropods from another world.  They emerge from tiny holes in the ground -- and PLUG HOLES yields only Sorry, too many.  The ants can attack the Hulk's eyes, fatally -- and if we CLOSE EYES, they attack his nose.  We can PLUG NOSE / USE WAX, but it works much better if we HOLD NOSE and PLUG EARS with the wax instead.  Mapping is important here, as having obtained the ants, we still have to travel blind to deliver them to Ant-Man, rescuing him and gaining a *Gem for our trouble.


Less germaine to the Marvel license, and more typical of the pure Scott Adams tradition, is a puzzle involving some wax guarded by killer bees.  Getting stung by the bees turns Bruce into the Hulk, but gas immediately turns him back, so that doesn't help.  Considering the room's wire mesh with bee-shaped holes, we discover that GO MESH returns Sorry, I'm Too big!, which for a while made me think Ant-Man's help was needed here.  But what we actually have to do is go outside, and (as the Hulk) WAVE FAN / AT MESH to blow the bees... somewhere?  It doesn't quite make sense, but the bees inside the dome are gone now, and we can obtain what I assume is killer beeswax.

We need the wax to plug the Hulk's orifices as noted above, and also because, in another of the three domes dotting the Chief Examiner's virtual landscape, we can see an astral projection of Dr. Strange while we're in Hulk mode.  He's not nearly as loquacious as in the comics -- instead, he points silently to the baseboard, where we find a Small gas outlet and can PLUG OUTLET / USE WAXTALK STRANGE sounds like it means something else, but yields this advice from the good Doctor:  Remember your worst enemy NIGHTMARE.

Taking this literally, REMEMBER NIGHTMARE makes the Hulk very mad, or per the Mirror, very very mad, which buys us an extra turn for staying in Hulk mode indoors.  The extra move allows us to PULL RING on the floor in the first dome, and we can carry out more extensive actions as the Hulk, as long as we remember to refresh the Hulk's memory every other turn or so.  The REMEMBER verb does not work until we have talked to Dr. Strange, and we must still conserve moves; even the SAVE GAME operation consumes a turn, something I hadn't noticed in Adams' previous games.

Further conversation with Dr. Strange establishes that we ought to Look for Scott Adams' next Marvel Adventure at your favorite store!  After a third round, Dr. Strange apparently tires of the Hulk's limited conversational skills and vanishes in a puff of arcane magic, leaving a *Gem behind.

I like the Bruce/Hulk dichotomy, but game design and license restrictions compromise the Hulk's characterization to some degree.  CRUSH [object] yields I don't know how to "CRUSH" something!, which seems highly unlikely.  SMASH WALL produces Sorry, The Incredible Hulk (TM) is no vandal!  I also did something wrong at one point while maneuvering with eyes closed that I was unable to reproduce -- the parser told me I had lost control of the Hulk, and he rampaged off, creating an out-of-body vibe that was momentarily disorienting.

This must be a new maximum treasure count for a Scott Adams game - I found that storing 12 gems yielded 70 points out of 100, indicating there are 17 gems total.  I thought I had solved or at least discovered most of the puzzles, and I had -- but a walkthrough informed me I could LIFT DOME as the Hulk, yielding a gem underneath each.



The last puzzle I had to solve involved the Natter egg, which is not a standard part of Marvel mythology but was invented for the QuestProbe games.  As the Hulk, we are not killed by the exploding egg, but it still destroys the *Bio gem, whether it's on the ground or in our possession. Examination indicates that something is alive and moving around in the *Bio gem, and that the egg is the size of a chicken egg but glowing, but this information doesn't help us.  I tried to COVER EGG - with what? - but had nothing in mind, and no time to WITH anything anyway.  SMASH EGG reiterated that the Hulk is no vandal, though one would think this might be an acceptable exception.  I resorted once again to the walkthrough, and learned that the Hulk can simply be directed to EAT EGG, with no ill consequences.  (This, it would seem, is further counter-evidence regarding my earlier taco hypothesis.)  We must be careful when carrying the *Bio gem around, as the alien ants can eat it right out of our hands, so it's best to move this item last and wrap up the game with it.

Having rounded up and delivered all 17 gems, we find the Chief Examiner pleased.  He gives us a password, ARIA, which I presume is related to some larger series-level goal as yet undiscovered, and confirms our winning score.  Victory is ours!



I enjoyed QuestProbe #1 Featuring The Hulk -- it's good clean fun in the classic Scott Adams tradition, and while I needed a few hints I was able to figure out a satisfying majority of the puzzles on my own.  I wish the design did more to balance Bruce Banner's brains against the Hulk's brawn -- I think some interesting puzzle and storytelling opportunities were missed.  As it is, only Hulk mode seems required or desirable -- there's nothing that Banner perceives more clearly, for example, or any place he can go that the Hulk cannot.  There's no exploration of the Jekyll/Hyde conflict that makes the Hulk an interesting character, and no character interaction or internal conflict of any substance -- we spend most of the game trying to achieve and maintain Hulk status, in service of a standard treasure hunt.

But as the first game in a then-new series based on an established property, QuestProbe #1 met my expectations.  It takes its comic-book inspiration seriously, if not to the fullest possible degree, and I look forward to tackling QuestProbe #2 Featuring the Amazing Spider-Man.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The LoadDown - 08/30/2010

Well, load me down!

WiiWare -- Just one new game this week, Tales of Elastic Boy - Mission 1, which presumably is the start of an episodic series.  It's a physics-based platformer with some interesting mechanics.



Wii Virtual Console -- The crickets resume their chirping.

DSiWare -- Relatively quiet here this week, with just three new titles, only one of which is a game.  myNotebook: Pearl continues the utility/doodle series.  Music on: Learning Piano teaches simple piano keyboard skills using a touch-screen interface; the DS screen can't pick up chords, unfortunately, as it only detects one touch point at a time, so this is no replacement for a real keyboard and piano lessons.  And Cosmos X2 is a space shooter with some strategic weapon-balancing elements.




XBox Live Arcade -- The Summer of Arcade, when Microsoft releases the year's purportedly biggest XBLA titles, is officially over.  So we're back to a normal schedule, with two new games last week -- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a cute River City Ransom-inspired scrolling beat-'em-up based on the recent movie, which debuted a few weeks ago on the PS3, and Shank, a more "serious" yet completely over-the-top take on the side-scrolling brawler.

Game Room -- We're up to Game Pack 009 this week, with four new titles unlocked: Activision's Checkers and Tennis for the Atari 2600, Pinball for the Intellivision, and another obscure Konami arcade title, the 1987 car combat game City Bomber.

PS3 on PSN -- Two games last week, the game show adaptation Press Your Luck, and Shank (see above).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mattel Electronics' Athletic Supporters

It's 1978, and when generic athletes of diverse backgrounds come over to show off the latest handheld electronic games, it simply won't do to serve warm beer and circus peanuts, or bogart the fondue pot, or fail to supply the batteries which are not otherwise included.

Mattel Electronics is throwing quite the party here, featuring stereotypes tailored to everyone's sporting tastes:



The party must be going well, because everyone's in a festive mood.

The football player is proud to have carried Mattel's Football II handheld through the opposing line of scrimmage -- clean, safe and in good working order, unlike last year's Football I fiasco.

The basketball player ensures we can recognize him by carrying a basketball everywhere he goes, and being noticeably taller than everyone else, even the other black dude.

The baseball player is cheerfully repressed, smiling politely but not meeting our gaze as he puts his official stats on display and keeps his deepest, darkest secrets locked out of sight where they belong.

The hockey player is keeping his mouth full of missing and broken teeth closed to preserve polite decorum.

The race car driver is in full regalia with gloves, helmet and padded fireproof suit, ready to "crash" the party (har har -- but not really, that would be impolite!) 

And the vaguely Franco-British-Icelandic footie player looks like he just got done making love to the missus.

Your missus.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Take Out a Contract on your ATARI!

Back in the day, if your Atari 2600 or 5200 broke down you were looking at a potentially expensive situation.  Your neighborhood TV repair shop wasn't likely to know what to do with these newfangled videogames.  And they weren't cheap to replace in 1980s dollars.

But in truth, the solid-state Atari machines didn't break down that often, compared to today's part-moving, disc-spinning, overheating console beasties.  Atari took advantage of its systems' reliability to sell profitable, low-risk (to Atari) official Service Contracts.  The brochure featured 9 purported Question-and-Answer items, transparently intended to steer the new Atari 2600 (or 5200) owner toward plunking down twenty (or forty dollars) a year for a little artificial, generally unnecessary peace of mind.


I like the excessive precision in this discussion -- coverage begins an arbitrary "Ten days after Atari receives and processes your completed Application Form with payment."  Just in case we were wondering, game cartridges are not covered, and it's just too bad if you have somehow connected non-ATARI hardware to your system and fried it.  A full question is devoted to the burning issue of whether Atari takes credit cards.

I also like the mental image evoked by "service professionals who have been specially selected, trained, and equipped by Atari" -- one imagines the candidates rappelling down the side of a silicon monolith, with the weak and the unskilled tossed aside like so many unsaleable E.T. cartridges.  The lucky survivors are presumably given gold-plated diagnostic cartridges and high-tech laser soldering tools.  

I wonder if any of the 1500 Factory Authorized Atari Service Centers are still in the business today?  And did they use up all of their spare parts when the industry crash arrived?  Somewhere, not all in one place, certainly, there must be stocks of those little rubber joystick gaskets and replacement STELLA chips.  And maybe some 2600 paddle mechanisms that still work smoothly through the full range of motion.

And... and... dare I even say it?...

Atari 5200 joysticks in good working order.

I can dream, can't I?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Oddities Of Import: Batman (PC Engine)

A few weeks back, we took a look at Sunsoft's Mega Drive/Genesis version of Batman, a side-scrolling affair similar to the 8-bit NES version.  But Sunsoft took a completely different tack with this version for the Japanese PC Engine:


The NES and Mega Drive titles sent the Dark Knight into side-scrolling platform action territory, kicking and punching his way through a collection of street thugs to reach the Joker.  But for the PC Engine, Sunsoft produced... um... a maze game featuring enemy mimes:


It's not exactly a clone of Pac-Man or Lock'n'Chase, but the collect-'em-up gameplay is noticeably similar.  Batman must pick up a fixed number of objects in each level, a task which requires traversing most of the territory.  Along the way he encounters various enemies who can be stunned with his Batarang, then dispatched by running into them.  Eventually the white-faced thugs rematerialize in their original locations, rather than in a centrally-located mime pen, but the inspiration seems obvious.

There are various icons that change the way Batman's weaponry works, and several different types of mimes to battle or avoid -- standard wanderers, cyborg mimes that rush toward Batman whenever they see him, and armed mimes firing those pecular videogame bullets that travel so slowly they can be outrun.  Batman's usual transportation options are nowhere to be seen here -- he has to rely on crosswalks to get across the city streets, dodging the trucks that zoom by in flagrant disregard of Gotham's traffic signal; Batman is best advised to ignore the useless Walk/Don't Walk signage.

There's also a bomb icon that temporarily blows all the mimes away when Batman touches it; the respite is temporary, but it's always good for a laugh:


Batman on the PC Engine isn't a terrible game, it's just undeniably odd.  The background tiles are nicely drawn, the sprites decently animated, and the gameplay challenging enough.  The title tune makes excellent use of the PC Engine's sound chip, with sampled orchestra hits of a quality rarely heard on the console, and the in-game music features some nice percussion effects.  But Batman just doesn't feel much like a Batman game, with the Dark Knight spending his time running from mimes and being hit by passing trucks.  I played through ten levels, but eventually making a choice on this screen became a matter of some debate:


At least, even if we haven't gotten anywhere near his lair, we can get a glimpse of the Joker in sprite form on the password screen:



The Batman games debuted around the time that Japanese imports were becoming of interest to US gamers, and I remember ads in Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine offering this PC Engine version at exorbitant prices, accompanied by murky screenshots that in retrospect seem designed to obscure the nature of the actual gameplay.  This version never came to the US, and if Sunsoft had to choose between releasing a Genesis cartridge or a TurboGrafx-16 HuCard, I believe they made the right choice.



This one should be easier to find than it is, but it occasionally turns up for sale here or here:

Bat Man PC-Engine Hu

Thursday, August 26, 2010

At Random: Shadow of the Beast (TurboDuo)

After the Japanese electronics giant NEC gave up on marketing the TurboGrafx-16 in America as a competitor to the Genesis and Super NES, the product was handed over to Turbo Technologies, Inc., a joint venture (if memory serves) between NEC and Hudson Soft.  TTI's flagship product was the TurboDuo, a high-end console based on the Super CD-ROM configuration of the Japanese PC Engine.

TTI wasn't particularly successful in the marketplace either, but they gave it a credible shot.  Focusing on the TurboDuo allowed them to focus on relatively inexpensive CD-ROM media, even adopting the Japanese SUPER CD-ROM spine logo for game packaging, but the product mix remained resolutely Western, and didn't benefit much from the PC Engine's huge popularity overseas.  One TTI game was a port of Psygnosis' popular Amiga title, Shadow of the Beast, which appeared on many platforms including the Atari LynxI bought a discounted copy during the Turbo's waning years, and it's high time I played it.



The conversion was handled by a little Scottish company called DMA Design, which is still around and currently known as Rockstar Games, developer of the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series.  The game opens with an animated intro in which our hero becomes the titular Beast.  It's nicely done in the old-fashioned computer style -- a small window, with minimal pixel-shifting to conserve storage -- but doesn't take special advantage of the CD format.




Beyond the suitably gothic intro, Shadow of the Beast features impressive audiovisuals throughout -- the TurboDuo version loses some of the Amiga's twelve-layer parallax scrolling, but is otherwise intact and looks great.  The manual cover features great artwork and logo design by the legendary Roger Dean, whose polished, otherworldly style graced several Yes albums and virtually defined Psygnosis' image.  Best of all, David Whittaker's soundtrack has been remixed for CD audio and sounds absolutely fantastic.

Once the game gets underway, our monstrous hero jogs across an impressive scrolling landscape, with freedom to explore in either direction and varied, imaginatively designed enemies and obstacles.



But most of the real action is underground, where the game becomes more of a platformer.



There are endless beasties to fight, and puzzles to figure out with the help of artifacts including teleporters, switches, and golden keys.  The locked doors are helpfully labeled, in this case after we have spent what seems like fifteen minutes climbing to the bottom of this shaft:



There are also power-ups to find, though they are generally temporary, designed to help with a particular situation and dissipating as soon as their purpose has been served.  There are formidable boss monsters to battle, and one of the things I like about this game is that the design isn't completely linear -- we can explore for a while before deciding which major enemies to take on.  This one is vulnerable to a wave beam we can pick up nearby -- actually, if we don't grab the wave beam and take this monster out, we're stuck, as one of the ladders that brings us to this area cannot be used to climb back up:


The bosses don't sport much in the way of animation, but each presents a unique challenge.  The same cannot be said of the miscellaneous random enemies -- they all look very nice but behave more or less the same, throwing themselves against our fists as quickly as possible.  And they continue to respawn, making backtracking a tedious chore as we constantly pause to dispatch our attractive but brain-dead foes.



Shadow of the Beast is one of those games that's specifically of its era, but misses true classic status on the gameplay front.  There just isn't much to do -- our hero runs across the beautiful landscape, climbs around the gorgeous subterranean tunnels and castles, and punches an endless army of detailed, shaded enemy creatures in the nose.  But our objective always seems vaguely defined and off in the distance somewhere, and after a while there doesn't seem to be much point in continuing, so the game-over screen comes as something of a relief:



Ultimately, the best reason to own this game may be the options menu, available by hitting SELECT on the title menu, where we can listen to the evocative CD redbook audio score at our leisure:


MAN, that's good stuff.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elsewhere: William Shatner Shills For The VIC-20

Next week, a new podcast.  (I hope!)  In the meanwhile, here's something visual...

Before the Commodore 64 made its indelible mark on the 8-bit computer gaming scene, William Shatner was hired to push its predecessor, the Commodore VIC-20:




Note that while Shatner's presence did not bring with it any rights to the Star Trek property, the ad still does its best to imply a connection, including "beaming down" Shatner to the TV and a kid to the VIC-20 keyboard, using cheap 1980's video effects.  Note also that while the ad begins by talking up the machine's keyboard and "Wonder Computer" capabilities, most of the displays shown are games -- we see a slot machine and Space Invaders, and the ad ends by promoting the upcoming home versions of Bally-Midway's GORF and Omega Race.

The only productivity application shown appears to be a random graph that resembles a... random graph displaying numerical percentages and 2-character codes.  Maybe it's a spectrographic analysis of chemical elements.  I can't quite make out the text on freeze-frame, but whatever this kid is analyzing appears to have a lot of gold (AU) and chlorine (CL) in it.  Maybe it's William Shatner himself!

Oh, wait, it's even more amazing!  The numbers shown add up to more than 100%!  It must be analyzing William Shatner... OF THE FUTURE!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #14A (1984)

The revived Great Scott Project continues this week, with Scott Adams' Adventure #14A, Return to Pirate's Isle, also known as Return to Pirate's Island, the first of two eventual sequels to the classic Adventure #2: Pirate Adventure.  We're about to lose the trail of the original Adventure International numbering sequence -- licensing considerations established a brand new series for the Marvel Comics-based QuestProbe games, and the movie-based Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was treated as a stand-alone title.  Even this number, #14A, is kind of unofficial, but at least it has one.

Return to Pirate's Isle was originally released exclusively for the TI 99/4A home computer, and unlike the other Scott Adams Adventures on that platform, it did NOT rely on the solid-state Adventure cartridge containing the standard interpreter.  Instead, it shipped as a supersized cartridge containing 8K of program code and a whopping 40K of GROM graphics content.  The graphics were constructed differently from the disk-based S.A.G.A. series, with a library of fixed shapes and patterns combined to create each screen display.

I spent considerable time trying to get an emulator up and running to play the graphical original, but after fiddling around with several TI 99/4A emulators and cartridge loading addresses I finally settled for playing the text version using the ScottFree interpreter.  As far as I know, the illustrated version only appeared on the TI, with all other computer versions presented as text-only.



Be forewarned at the outset that detailed knowledge of Adventure #2 is a must -- the reasons for this will become clear about halfway through #14A.  So if you're going to play Return to Pirate's Isle on your own, dig out your Pirate Adventure maps and notes, or play it if you haven't.  When you've conquered it, or had enough, come back here and continue.  Because, matey, thar be...

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

This is still the vintage Scott Adams adventure engine at its core, and its tried-and-true approach is being stretched a bit.  We start out in a room where the engine displays the standard I can't see. It is too dark! message, but the startup text clarifies that this is not precisely the case:  Everything is not exactly dark, but it's too FUZZY to see! 

At this point, we can FEEL to discover a mattress but nothing more; we have to GET UP and FEEL to obtain... something unidentified.  This happens quite a lot as the game goes on, but at this moment our vision is so poor that we can't even take INVENTORY; it takes a lucky guess to WEAR GLASSES and discover we're in a ship's cabin.

The tie-ins to the original Pirate Adventure are initially subtle -- I expected to start out in the familiar London flat, but instead we begin aboard a pilotless modern ship, already docked at Pirate's Isle.  And the island landscape isn't familiar at first, which is confusing until we find a sign reading, Welcome to Backside of Pirate's Isle!  (The sign can be picked up and carried -- I thought at first this was an oversight, but it's a subtle hint for a later puzzle.)  And eventually we find our way to a familiar hilltop with a crack in the rock, though if we try to descend, we are mystically blocked by the author's message:  Sorry, to explore Pirate's Isle you'll need Adventure #2.

For once, I was glad these games don't have sound effects -- there's a ringing alarm clock at the start that persists even after we get up.  LISTEN tells us I hear it's on the ship somewhere.  But it's not readily accessible -- we can't find it (and shut it off) until we discover a secret smuggler's hold below deck, accessible only from the water.  It's a good design choice, giving the player a reason to investigate and track down its whereabouts, and providing a little background on our treasure-hunting character, assuming we were responsible for setting and hiding the clock in the first place.  Of course, that also implies that some sort of temporary amnesia set in overnight, so perhaps it's best not to examine this too closely.

One major early puzzle involves our character's poor vision, which makes several important areas inaccessible.  Trying to GO PORTHOLE, for example, causes our glasses to slip off; we also can't SWIM DOWN without losing them in the drink.  A better solution is in order, it would seem.  Incidentally, the ocean features a Strange current that seems to follow us wherever we go; it never seems to factor into anything, though GO CURRENT yields I am.  I think it's just there to account for the fact that all of the sea rooms are actually the same location in the database, so if we drop an item in one room it appears in the others.

The Helm in the cabin is not a helmet, but a ship's helm.  We can try to GO HELM, yielding only Sorry, I'm no sailor!   We can also go back to the Bunk bed, but attention to detail becomes important here.  GO BUNK takes us back to the bottom bunk where we woke up at the start of the game.  GO TOP takes us to the top bunk, where we find a *Diamond Watch* and a diver's face mask.  GO BOTTOM yields only Give me a direction too.

The face mask ought to come in useful, but we can't wear it over our glasses, so we can't see anything while wearing it.  Trying to put it on underwater notes that My mask's full of water!, but we can still breathe if we SWIM UP again, though we can't see.  This conundrum leads to a fairly complicated series of actions in which we have to GET (an invisible but logically present) ROCK from the rocky beach, examine it to discover some algae, read a rare book to learn How to make glue from Funori, take a break from the game to look up funori on Google and learn it's a type of seaweed, find a screwdriver in the ship's engine room, disassemble our spectacles (losing the little screws in the process, which fortunately we do not need), MAKE GLUE from the algae, and GLUE LENS - In 2 words tell me to or in what - IN MASK.  I can't quite picture this, or the flexible focal length required to make it practical, but it solves a major problem.

From the ocean, we can see our boat described as a ship with floodlights lit not at all!  The awkward phrasing implies that the floodlights can be lit -- which they can, but running the floodlights is part of the game's nastiest puzzle.  It took me a while to work through this, even with a walkthrough handy.  It all started with my silly attempt to GO FAN - yielding the response, Good idea! But ... the fan's turning.  So I tried to STOP FAN, which was met with the customary How?  I tried to BREAK FAN, learning only that BREAK is not recognized but is a synonym for BREATHE.  I finally learned (thanks, CASA!) that we can LOOK CEILING and find a Small button there.  Pushing the button turns on the floodlights, and the power diversion stops the fan -- eventually -- after running the ship's battery down from 20 amps to 4 or 5, at a rate of one amp per move as revealed by LOOK BATTERY in the engine room.  On the stopped fan we find a *Diamond Brooch*, and with the screwdriver we can REMOVE BLADE, providing a substitute shovel.  But if we neglect to turn the floodlights back off, the ship's battery runs down completely and can no longer be recharged by starting the engine.  So while we're off trying to solve various related puzzles, and wondering why the floodlights have suddenly gone off, we have in fact marooned ourselves.  It's critical that the battery be kept healthy, and the ship's fuel is limited as well, so recharging is not a complete solution.  For safety's sake it's best to take advantage of a good map and do much of our maneuvering in the dark, so we don't have to turn on the floodlights unless absolutely necessary.

Loose ends:  In the cabin, we can OPEN PORTHOLE but can't CLOSE it again.  The *Diamond Watch* gives us a move count if we look at it, but this isn't strictly necessary.  We can swim under the boat and come up in a sea location with flotsam and jetsam.  If we haven't actually discovered the floodlight button, the game knows it exists but nothing happens when we push it.

There's a painting in the cabin, but to my surprise there was nothing hidden behind it and I needed some hints to figure out what to do with it.  The painting itself is the basis of a couple of puzzles -- it's a portrait of Blackbeard to begin with, but with the screwdriver we can REMOVE FRAME, then LOOK PAINTING to discover a map documenting a Sailing route to TREASURE!  And if we examine it a second time, we discover that there's another painting hidden beneath the visible image.  In my case, I had carried the painting into the sea while exploring, so all I had was a Ruined watersoaked painting. But if we have kept it dry, it's revealed as a *Rembrandt painting*, which fortunately survives the world's most casual restoration process:  I see by edges other picture is visible beneath! I cleaned top one off!


We can MOVE BED in the ship's cabin to find another treasure, the *Diamond Ring*.

Digging with the fan blade discovers a bottle of rum, and pirates like rum very much, if memory serves from Adventure #2.  The pirate is napping atop a nearby hill -- we have to CLIMB HILL to reach a ledge, then JUMP UP a good eight feet, yielding I made it, fortunately.  Here, we are back in familiar territory for a moment.  LOOK PIRATE adds a Box to our inventory, which contains *Rare stamps* that should not be uncovered until we've gotten the box into the hold.  It also introduces a bit of a paradox -- in our previous Pirate Adventure, we dug what appears to be this same box up at 30 paces and claimed the stamps.  But here they are, back in the box, ready to be SCOREd again.

At any rate, we have to LOOK PIRATE again to claim his *Gold earring*, and then be careful with our next set of actions.  It does us no good to WAKE PIRATE, planning to GIVE RUM -- he wakes up, exclaims "Matey, you be forgetful for sure!", and leaves in a huff before we can act.  We have to DROP RUM, then WAKE PIRATE to establish that Pirate drinks rum and heads to work, just as in the original game -- he takes up his post at our ship's helm, ready for a little alcohol-enhanced piloting.

What's critical at this point is that we played the first Pirate Adventure and accurately mapped the area beyond the narrow crack.  Without benefit of a light source this time around, we must find our way into the familiar Shed and retrieve the Hammer; the water wings are nowhere to be found and are not needed in this adventure.

Getting back down from the hilltop can be frustrating -- if we try to GO DOWN, we are forbidden from entering the world of Adventure #2.  If we JUMP DOWN, we fall too far, fatally.  This sent me stumbling around in the crack and shed area again, breaking my neck repeatedly, until I figured out that we have to JUMP LEDGE to get back down.


Finding the smuggler's hold isn't easy -- and the *Rembrandt painting* can be ruined by the underwater journey.  We have to drop our glasses or mask, GO PORTHOLE blind, TAKE RAINCOAT, then return to the ship's cabin by way of the sea to regain our vision. Here we can WRAP PAINTING / IN RAINCOAT to make it waterproof for the time being.  I didn't think there was a way to pull this off without a hint, as I didn't discover any legitimate way to see or find the raincoat by feeling around, but the SQUINT verb reveals the room temporarily but clearly.  We have to FEEL BOAT to discover the large opening leading to the hold, and the opening does not visibly appear on return visits so good mapping is essential.

The treasures are scattered around Pirate's Isle, sometimes hidden, sometimes just in places we haven't yet thought to look.  A beam found by swimming under the dock leads to two more treasures, the *Diamond Pin* and *Silver Dollar* (if we think to LOOK BEAM.)

Technical aside: I could not get the SQUINT verb to function in the ScottFree interpreter version 1.02 for Windows, but the DOS version works properly.  The problem appears to be one I've run into before -- SQUINT is meant to reveal the current room's details briefly, but the time delay is far too brief on a modern computer.

Remember the sign on the beach?  Mr. Adams has a little fun with one of his own conventions here.  There's another sign hidden in the ship's hold -- but it's impossible to read it in the dark, as the crawlway leading to it is very narrow, and squinting doesn't give us enough time to read the sign.  We also can't get the treasures through the narrow passageway, so even if we could read the sign, it doesn't do us any good until we have picked it up and moved it to the smuggler's hold.  And until we have placed the sign in the room, we can't actually Leave *TREASURES* here -- that is, we can, but they don't count for SCORE!

Again, a good walkthrough is a huge help, if not an absolute necessity.  There's an invisible PILING underwater, which logically exists in the ocean, but I would never have thought to look for it.  EXAMINE PILING yields a Snail, of no apparent value, until we FEEL SILT elsewhere to find an Oyster, and then extract a *Pearl* after we OPEN OYSTER / WITH SNAIL.  Come again?  Ah, the snail is an Oyster Drill, a predatory species with a specialized raspy tongue, not known for its ability to open oysters in the traditional sense.

We have to SAIL SHIP in this one, rather than SET SAIL as in #2; perhaps this is because our ship here is motorized, rather than wind-powered.  Assuming the pirate has been properly rewarded, he takes the helm and takes us to the location indicated on the treasure map.  Here, we need to use the floodlight, stretching the capacity of the ship's battery and fuel, to take a quick dive and find a very well-sealed chest inside a sunken ship.  Inside the chest is a *Rare book* -- READ BOOK reveals that I see it's on Ophthalmology. Squinting can help with Myopia, which is the only in-game indication that the SQUINT verb exists.  Oddly, after we have taken this trip (with our piratey pilot, or piloty pirate) and returned to Pirate's Isle, we can no longer STOP ENGINE.  There doesn't seem to be any need to do so, though.

It was an arduous journey, but we've accomplished the usual goal -- acquire 13 treasures, drop them in the appropriate location, and say SCORE:


Playing the later Scott Adams adventures, including this one, I can't help feeling that as Adams' games became more difficult and complex, they may have been reaching a narrower market.  There were also major industry changes afoot, obviously, exemplified by Texas Instruments' decision to get out of the home computer business shortly after this title was released.  But I miss the simpler pleasures of the early Adventures, where hints were useful but not necessarily required.

Pirate Adventure clearly holds a special place in its author's heart -- we will eventually tackle the second sequel, Return to Pirate's Island 2, released by Scott Adams in the year 2000.  But first, we'll venture into the Marvel Comics-Scott Adams collaborations known as QuestProbe.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The LoadDown - 08/23/2010

What's new, Internet?  Whoa-oh-whoa-oh-whohhhh-oh...

WiiWare -- A much-anticipated quality title this week -- the physics-based indie rotating platformer, And Yet It Moves.

 

Wii Virtual Console -- At least the reconstituted Sunsoft is bringing new titles to the VC, and this week's a good one -- the import NES title UFOURIA: THE SAGA, never released in the US.



DSiWare -- Four titles up this week.  Rytmik is a musician's composition tool with an emphasis on sampled percussion, and it's interesting to note that it's published by CINEMAX.  G.G. Series NINJA KARAKURI DEN is an action game based around the traditional disappearing-platform challenge.  Absolute Reversi is -- you guessed it -- a Reversi game. And My Farm simulates livestock farming, with pleasant cartoon graphics.



XBox Live Arcade -- The Summer of Arcade wraps up with a new take on a long-running franchise -- Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, with puzzles, co-op play, and a new Robotron-style twin-stick shooting gameplay style.  Critical reaction has been very positive.

Game Room -- No coin-op arcade games last week.  Microsoft's going to need to line up some additional publishers and/or consoles soon, as at the rate this is going the available Atari 2600 and Intellivision libraries will soon be exhausted.  Last week saw the release of Intellivision games Snafu and the rare Chip Shot Golf, and Atari 2600 games Maze Craze (by Atari) and Activision classics Freeway and Seaquest.

PS3 on PSN -- One new game last week, the latest iteration of the weirdly long-running Top Gun videogame series based on the 1986 Tom Cruise movie.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Automated Simulations, 1982 vs. Epyx, 1988

Epyx was an early computer game publisher, originally known as Automated Simulations, Inc., that managed to survive for a couple of hardware generations and produce quite a few classic titles.  I recently tracked down a couple of their old game catalogs from 1982 and 1988.


Apologies for the small size of these scans -- what I want to point out here is that between 1982 and 1988, the computer game market changed quite a bit but also stayed the same in surprising ways.

In 1982, the Apple II, Atari 400/800 and TRS-80 Model I led the charge, with memorable Epyx titles like Temple of Apshai and Crush, Crumble and Chomp!.  Only a few SKUs were available for minor platforms like the IBM PC and Commodore's VIC-20 and PET.

By 1988, the Apple II was still a viable platform, but the IBM PC and Commodore 64 had taken a strong position in the market share sweepstakes as well.  Powerful new machines like the Mac, Atari ST and Amiga were seeing some tentative support, during what ultimately proved to be a narrow window before the PC matured as a gaming system.  The TRS-80 was long gone, I was surprised to see that the Atari computers were fading fast, and oddly enough several cartridges (the popular Games series) were made available for the Atari 2600 during its brief revival.  It's also worth noting that Epyx's software lineup in 1988 is almost completely different from 1982, with the exception of the Temple of Apshai Trilogy still hanging around as a combined discount package, and The Movie Monster Game as a spiritual successor to CC&C.

Hardware cycles are getting longer today -- the XBox 360 is approaching five years of age, with no sign of a successor, and while the PC "standard" continues to evolve, it's much easier to bridge or skip generations than it was with the machines of yore.  I'm certain publishers today are glad they don't have to deal with six or nine competing platforms like Epyx did once upon a time.

A chart like this would be incredibly boring to look at on the wall of Gamestop today, and its publisher would likely be on the verge of bankruptcy and/or insanity with so many titles shipping.

But I do miss that era's freewheeling diversity.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

SwordQuest Launches! SwordQuest Gets Cancelled!

The timing of the industry crash in the mid-1980s was such that many projects were left unfinished.  One such casualty was Atari's SwordQuest series for the Atari 2600, a set of proto-action/RPGs.

Atari ran two-page magazine ads to launch the four-game series, along with a contest offering up to $150,000 in prizes for the first person to complete the entire saga:



According to the ad copy:

EarthWorld, the first SwordQuest cartridge, is here now.  FireWorld is coming soon.  WaterWorld and AirWorld will be out by Fall, 1983.

But only the first two made it to market in substantial numbers.  WaterWorld did come out, but not in large quantities; it's fairly rare today.  And AirWorld is not known to exist in any form beyond preliminary design ideas, nor was the accompanying comic book started, according to Wikipedia.

Oh, and per the same source, the WaterWorld contest was canceled.  In the end, only $32,000 in prizes were actually awarded, to the winners of the EarthWorld and FireWorld contests.  UPDATE:  Correction -- $82,000-plus in prizes were awarded.  I wasn't counting the two $25,000-value jewel-encrusted prizes awarded for the first two games.  When the whole thing was canceled, Atari gave $15K to each of the previous winners, as there was no chance anyone would win the ultimate prize, and gave $2000 to each of the Waterworld preliminary round winners, however many there were.


All together, now, in our best Christopher Plummer-picking-up-a-few-quick-bucks-with-some-voiceover-work style:

The legend of the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, and the arduous Quest associated with its recovery... shall remain forever untold.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Of Import: Gomola Speed

I often pick up cheap, random Japanese PC Engine games in the hope of finding a hidden gem.  Such experiments are usually rewarded with yet another mahjong game, wrestling contest or incomprehensible RPG, but occasionally I have the pleasure of discovering a game like UPL Company Limited's Gomola Speed:


UPL, a.k.a. Universal Play Land, began its life as the Japanese division of American coin-op game producer Universal Entertainment (Space Panic, Mr. Do!).  The company went bankrupt in 1992 after producing a number of arcade games, and dabbling directly in the home market on occasion.

Gomola Speed is a deluxe take on the growing-snake games popular on the early 8-bit platforms, with a dash of Gauntlet thrown in for good measure.  The player starts out as the head of a cyberworm, and must pick up additional segments while avoiding contact with enemies.  Maximizing our worm's length is important, because our only offensive capability involves encircling enemies to destroy them, occasionally revealing powerups and special items.  If we touch an enemy with any part of our worm, we lose our segments from the point of contact on down, and must collect them again.

The game opens with a well-designed unguided tutorial mode, introducing us to the basic mechanics of collection and encirclement, without giving the details away before we've discovered them for ourselves:


When all the enemies are eliminated, the level exit appears and we can move on to the next Act:


The difficulty ramps up fairly quickly -- the early levels are open, player-friendly designs, with slow-moving enemies we can easily run circles around with a little practice.



But by Act 4, we are maneuvering in close quarters, trying to avoid instant death from one creature while wrapping our tail around another:


This is as far as I was able to get after a few hours of casual play.  Continue credits are limited, so I will have to develop some skill if I hope to reach Act 5 and beyond, in keeping with the publisher's arcade focus.  But I had fun anyway -- Gomola Speed is fast-paced and challenging, running at a solid 60 frames-per-second with echoey, sine-wave-based music in the best PC Engine style.  The metallic graphics are nicely-shaded, and the game's essential simplicity holds up well a few decades on.



Given UPL's demise in 1992, I don't think we're going to see this one in officially emulated form any time soon.  Interested gamers may be able to purchase an original copy at this affiliate link.

The new adventure game documentary GET LAMP is out!

UPDATE:  This is actually old news, it turns out, as the documentary has been available since July 28th.  But it was news to me! 

Jason Scott's GET LAMP, an extensive documentary about the classic text adventure that's been years in the making, is finished and SHIPPING as a 2-DVD set!  I haven't seen it yet myself, but will be ordering a copy ASAP.

It features interviews with a number of important contributors to the genre, including Mike Berlyn, Steve Meretzky, Marc Blank, Lance Micklus, Dave Lebling, Brian Moriarty, Don Woods and and of course, Scott Adams.

What should I do now?
ORDER DVD.

The director has several live screenings planned at select gatherings over the next few months.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

At Random: Budokan - The Martial Spirit (1990 - Genesis)

For someone who isn't particularly fond of, and definitely not very good at, fighting games, I sure seem to have a lot of them in my collection.  At random, I've retrieved a loose copy of Electronic Arts' Budokan: The Martial Spirit for the Sega Genesis from a box in the basement.  This was one of the company's initial, unlicensed releases, in an oversized cartridge with distinctive yellow tabs, reputed to work only on the early Genesis models.  EA later joined Sega's licensing program, but this early release strikes me as somewhat experimental, a quick port from the PC/Amiga title to test the market waters.



Budokan predates the colorful, over-the-top antics of Street Fighter II and its imitators; it has more in common with Data East's Karate Champ, with the naturalistic animation style of Jordan Mechner's Karateka. The player is cast as a street brawler, encouraged to study martial arts by a mysterious stranger in a brief text introduction:


Suitably outfitted and transported from the mean streets to the Japanese Tobiko-Ryu Dojo, the player has the option of studying four martial arts disciplines -- bo (staff), kendo (sword), nunchaku, and karate.  The player navigates the dojo by walking around the map, seeking training or joining the Budokan competition in the upper left-hand corner.  This screen features understated Asian music by the legendary Commodore 64 composer Rob Hubbard; his contributions are sadly missed during the actual contests, which are silent aside from digitized grunts and impacts.


The controls are reminiscent of System 3's 8-bit classic International Karate -- while all 3 buttons on the Genesis controller are active, they all do exactly the same thing, so this is essentially an old-fashioned stick-plus-button control scheme.  The D-pad provides most of the meaningful input, with jumps, blocks, kicks and sweeps all activated by different patterns of pad movement and button timing.

The graphics are nicely done, with detailed sprites and fairly fluid animation.  But the game's 16-bit computer origins are evident -- most of the screen is static, with only the combatants, the stamina and ki bars, and some incidental animation visible outside the window moving at all.  The game runs fine on the Genesis, but doesn't take particular advantage of its hardware.



One nice touch is the animated, transparent shadows -- I thought at first that the floor patterns were rigged so canned scan-line-based animation could be used, but the kendo training area isn't conducive to such tricks, and makes it clear that the game is displaying the shadow transparencies dynamically, a simple but effective trick not often seen on the Genesis.



Budokan is intended as a serious fighting game and is meant to be difficult to master.  After each match, the game provides feedback about the player's speed, accuracy and choice of attack moves:


Budokan is a hardcore game in the classic tradition -- mastering its subtleties requires considerable investment of time and effort that modern players are likely to find unappealing.  I found it entertaining for a little while, and appreciate its depth and naturalistic approach to the subject, but I wasn't motivated to take on the official competition against twelve increasingly difficult foes.

I find Budokan historically interesting because the computer and console markets were going through a shift in the balance of power at the time of its release.  Electronic Arts was founded during the early videogame era, but focused on computers and survived the mid-80s industry crash.  EOA (still the company's official logo abbreviation on this game's opening screen) began publishing console games with the Genesis, after licensing conversions of its titles to other companies for the NES, but was playing a conservative, rather tentative hand here.  Ultimately, Budokan feels like what it is -- a computer simulation title masquerading as a console game.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Elsewhere: TRS-80 Color Computer TV Ad

Podcast episode 39 is still lingering in production, as my free time has been very limited these past few weeks.  So once again, I am scouring the world (i.e., running a YouTube search) to fulfill my editorial obligations and give you something to gander at this week...

Ah, stereotypes.  Where would advertising be without them?



Note that Elliot's book report is being composed under conditions of sheer torture using Radio Shack's Color SCRIPSIT.  The CoCo's odd inverted-color convention was used to denote lowercase characters, which the hardware could not otherwise display.  Ah, those were the days!

(Yes, I was more of an Elliott back in the day.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Great Scott Project: Adventure #13 (1984)

It was one year ago today that we embarked upon The Great Scott Project, in which we played through the first twelve of Scott Adams' highly influential microcomputer text adventures.  I had a great time, and positive reader response inspired the regular Adventure of the Week feature that keeps me mapping out worlds and scratching my head on a regular basis.  So it's high time I got around to playing the rest of the master's works.

To pick up where I left off last year, this week we're looking at Scott Adams' Adventure #13: The Sorcerer of Claymorgue Castle, published by Adventure International in 1984.  In this adventure, we must collect 13 stars hidden away by an evil wizard, by solving puzzles and mastering a variety of spells.  Ad copy of indeterminate origin describes it thus:

Long ago, in times passed beyond remembrance, Solon the Master Wizard and wearer of the Secret Cloak lost the 13 Stars of Power. The grasping Vileroth believed the Stars to be the only source of Solon’s expert wizardry. But, unbeknownst to Vileroth, it was the Secret Cloak that controlled the Stars and protected the wearer from their awesome powers. Unable to master the Stars, Vileroth was undone.

In his final days, as Vileroth’s strength slipped from him, he concealed the 13 Stars of Power within the Castle of Claymorgue, determined that no one save he should possess them. Solon, learning of Vileroth’s destruction, despatches his faithful young apprentice Beanwick to retrieve the Stars.

“Tread carefully, O Beanwick! Would that I could assume this quest myself, but alas, I can only send with you these few spells. Claymorgue Castle harbors further spells, but beware — one unskilled in the arts cannot predict their outcome.”
 

As with most of Adams' adventures, #13 was released for a wide variety of platforms thanks to a highly portable data format; I played it using the modern ScottFree interpreter.  The game opens outside what I can only assume is the fabled Claymorgue Castle:

There isn't much of a plot here, but many of the stars are well-hidden, and it takes some experimentation and luck to find them; the official Adventure International hints are likely to come in very handy.  As always, I urge interested readers to cast themselves as The Sorcerer of Claymorgue Castle before proceeding here, because in the interest of documenting the game, there will of necessity be...


**** SPOILERS AHEAD! ****

We start out standing in a field with nothing in our inventory but a handful of spells, most of which can only be cast once.  Much of the game's challenge involves learning what the spells do, AND finding the most appropriate opportunity to use each of them.  Almost all can be misused or wasted in various ways, so it's best to save early and often before experimenting.

We can't do very much outside the castle, and there's not much territory to explore, so it soon becomes clear that getting inside is our first real objective.  While we're working on that, we can GO MOAT, HOLD BREATH, SWIM DOWN, GET TOWEL, SWIM UP and BREATHE.  We can't swim north or south, as the moat is enchanted, and walls block movement to the east and west; nor can we climb up.  It seems we're stuck here, but if we attempt to WAKE the handy sleeping moat monster we are ejected with this Adams-esque quip:

I've been de-moated in the field!

We can DIG in the field to find one of the thirteen *STARs.  We can also SQUEEZE TOWEL to turn the soggy towel into a damp towel, but I never really figured out what it was for.  I tried to THROW TOWEL, yielding Sorry, I can't throw that!, which at least eliminated throwing the towel as a possible solution for anything.  Or as a synonym for QUIT.  I suspect the towel gave me some protection while crossing a lava field later on.

It's a pleasure to be back in a world where the punny Adams sense of humor reigns.  To lower the castle's drawbridge, we can CAST SEED, yielding Open SESAME SEED!  Spell works!  Of course, as I discovered later, this is not the best use for the seed spell.  But using it in the proper place omits the corny pun, so I was glad I took the side trip.  The best way to get into the castle is to enter the moat and swim further down, then east, coming up in the castle's kitchen.  We can lower the drawbridge for future use by using a fragile lever on the interior side.

I wasn't able to figure out what to do with the magic large water fountain with 2 story centerpiece encountered early on.   We can GO FOUNTAIN to pick up another *STAR, but learn that I feel very odd!, a condition that shortly proves fatal without adequate preparation, or any real explanation.  This puzzle can and should be left alone until near the end of the game -- apparently, what's happening is that the fountain is a Fountain of Youth, which de-ages us into oblivion in short order.  We need to find the METHUSELAH spell to survive its influence.

The moat also has a *STAR at its bottom, but escaping before drowning after we EXAMINE BOTTOM proves to be a challenge.  We can't survive long enough to come back up the normal way, so we have to CAST YOHO (a nod to Adams' classic Adventure #2: Pirate Adventure), or CAST BLISS if we've found the Spell of Bliss.  This second option works better, as we need to use YOHO's two-way travel capabilities near the game's finale.

The puzzles in Sorcerer of Claymorgue Castle are fairly intricate.  For example, inside the castle is a ballroom, with a hanging chandelier tied up with a rope -- of course, the obvious UNTIE ROPE sends it crashing fatally down on our heads.  So does CLIMB ROPE.  We can CAST FIRE - in 2 words; at what? - AT ROPE; this causes the rope to burn slowly, giving us time to leave the room before the chandelier falls.  But I couldn't initially figure out what purpose this action serves --  it doesn't open the wooden crate if we leave it in the room during the crash.  Neither does CAST FIRE / AT CRATE, as it turns out.  I figured out we can CLIMB CRATE and get to an "on a box" location; we JUMP to return to the room where the crate is residing, but that didn't help.  But if we LOOK UP in the ballroom, we can see an inaccessible loft, so it seems we should try to get up there...

I had to use more than a few of Mr. Adams' encrypted hints at this point, to learn that we need to find and CAST an UNRAVEL spell, saving the FIRE spell for another use; then climb on the fallen chandelier, CAST LIGHT SQUARED to cause it to rise temporarily (LIGHT LIGHT punnily translating to unheavy lamp), and finally reach the loft above.  From here we can obtain a potion, and are suddenly empowered to THROW CRATE, after previous attempts to throw the crate in other locations yielded only Sorry, I can't throw that!  We can't get down from the loft unless we have cast BLISS; assuming we are prepared and can thus get down safely, we can climb back onto the crate to find a newly-made hole, enter the crate and find a metal hook.  Whew!

I couldn't figure out why I would want to CAST PERMEABILITY for a while; if we cast it at the moat bottom, it puts us into a dark location, where attempts to navigate in the dark prove fatal in the traditional fashion (I fell down and broke my neck!).  CAST YOHO should and does take us out of there, but a second use puts as back at the moat bottom, where we drown.  Until we have a light source available none of this is a useful course of action.

The coyly-named plain room presents some interesting puzzles -- EXAMINE ROOM reveals it has 3 odd walls & floorEXAMINE FLOOR yields the text-intensive small cracks around edges & empty icon niches.  I thought I would have to find some icons to put into the niches, so I put off dealing with this room for a while, but eventually referred to the official Adventure International hints to learn that we can actually PUSH [direction] to get to additional locations to the east and south.  And later, much to my chagrin, that we cannot PUSH but can instead PULL WEST to find a couple of important spells!  We can also PUSH DOWN -- darn you, Scott! -- but we fall and serve immediately as dragon fodder.  We can avoid this fate if we DRINK POTION beforehand, in which case the old dragon doesn't do anything to us, though we need to take one star and LOOK DRAGON to get a second one.


To the south is a storeroom with a sign reading STAIRWAY CONDEMED [sic].  We can go down the stairs to discover some rabid rats.  We can WALK UP, but can also CAST LYCANTHROPE to scare the rats away, presumably with our new werewolf visage.  We can also CAST FIRE / AT RATS, but we burn up too, so that's not an option; besides, we need to save the FIRE spell for casting AT TREES in the enchanted forest, to obtain another * STAR.  We can THROW BRICKS / AT RATS, but that doesn't scare them off either.  If we leave the rats alone, CAST PERMEABILITY here puts us under the stairs, where we find another * STAR, but then we're stuck there -- it's better to scare the rats away and use their hole as a means to reach this star and escape again.

The Adams parser engine allows some flexibility, apparently -- this game requires an unusually lengthy 5 letters for dictionary noun recognition, so GET PERM is not recognized, but GET PERME is (which made we wonder if this choice was intentional, so that we think of the spell as conferring PERME ability!)  It also means that the magic fountain's 2 story CENTErpiece is referred to as a CENTRepiece in the UK editions of the game, so walkthroughs may not quite work as written.  And Adams' parser is smarter than some others of this era -- we can't just use the AT clause as a shortcut, but must set up the CAST or THROW command properly.

For the first time in my experience, Adams' Adventure #13 feels like it's starting to outgrow his classic microcomputer interpreter, which was five or six years old when this game was written.  It feels similar to Infocom's Enchanter series, with complex puzzles and multiple uses for spells, but the memory constraints mean that descriptions are sparse and the player has to guess at possible solutions, with very few in-game clues or subtle hints.  Even the official hint book format has to stretch -- after some situation-specific questions and hints, a number of catch-all, detailed solution items follow. 

Some critical objects are not explicitly listed as objects where they are found, and there just isn't room in 16K of memory for much description, which means we really need the hints.  There's no direct way to tell that there are cabinets in the kitchen, for example, as EXAMINE KITCHEN only mentions the usual things.  We have to OPEN CABINETS to find the Spell of Bliss, and while it makes logical sense that kitchen cabinets exist, I don't think I would have guessed this without help.

Similarly, there are BATTLEMENTS accessible but not visible from the drawbridge; we can learn of their existence if we think to LOOK CASTLE, but since by this time we've explored the castle fairly thoroughly it's not the first action that comes to mind.  And while it makes perfect sense that we can GET DUST in the dusty room, it makes less sense that we need to do that so we can BLOW or THROW DUST at the old dragon to make him sneeze.  (Note also that BLOW is implemented as a synonym for THROW, which makes no sense at all until we know this!)

The Wicked Queen's Spell is a Snow White allusion that transforms the broken glass from the chandelier into a mirror.  It gives us quite a bit of information - age, health status, and elevation above the surface (if we have cast BLISS).  But I was disappointed that the LYCANTHROPE spell produces no change in our countenance as reported by LOOK MIRROR.

It took me a while to find the traditional treasure storeroom inside a hollow tree, and we must navigate carefully, as we can't carry all the stars at once, and can only visit it twice.  We must CAST PERMEABILITY to get there the first time, with an inventory slot reserved for the FIREFLY spell to light the darkness; we can then use CAST YOHO to exit and return a second time with the remaining stars in tow.  Unless we have already used it once, in which case we're stuck.

In the end, the detailed backstory gives way to victory achieved the old fashioned way, by gathering all 13 stars in the hollow tree:


I enjoyed the journey, and there are some fun fantasy ideas here despite the occasional obtuse puzzle -- Scott's setups are much less arbitrary than Brian Howarth's, but I still relied heavily on hints and walkthroughs to finish this one.  I was expecting more of a plot -- there's not much tension or time pressure to deal with, as all we're doing is rounding up the thirteen stars and dumping them in a hollow tree.  Vileroth failed to master the power of the stars, but I was kind of hoping to show him up or at least battle him for the future of the kingdom.  Oh, well.  I guess I'll just have to CAST BLISS and go about my business.

Next time, we'll tackle Scott Adams' first-ever sequel, Adventure #14A: Return to Pirate's Isle, which was originally released exclusively for the TI 99/4A home computer... just in time for TI to get out of the personal computer business.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The LoadDown - 08/16/2010

When there's nothing interesting at GameStop, there's always something new to consider online.  This past week...

WiiWare -- Two titles this week.  A Monsteca Corral: Monsters vs. Robots is a strategy game pitting farmers and their herds against invading robots.  Space Trek is a 3-D shooter which breaks with low-budget game naming tradition by actually NOT being a ripoff of Star Trek; the graphic style adopts an interesting N-64 vibe to make the most of the WiiWare size constraints.



Wii Virtual Console -- Yet another dead week.  Nintendo seems to have lost interest in this platform now that most of their big franchise titles are available.

DSiWare -- Four titles this week.  myNotebook: Carbon is another personal note/creativity tool, with export to the DSi Photo Album.  3D Mahjong is a mahjong game.  Just SING! National Anthems was clearly meant to come out in time for the 2010 World Cup but didn't quite make it; it's a karaoke title featuring stirring (and conveniently public-domain) national anthems. And Konami's Divergent Shift is an innovative platform/puzzle game that uses both DS screens in parallel, with one set of controls affecting both situations.



XBox Live Arcade -- The Summer of Arcade continues with Monday Night Combat, an online third-person multiplayer shooter with class-based RPG elements.

Game Room -- Another full set of releases, though there's not much here that serious retro gamers won't already have played.  Atari's Dodge 'Em, Activision's Dolphin and Dragster, and (post-Mattel, non-NHL) Hockey and the semi-rare Super Pro Decathlon for the Intellivision.  I miss Konami's arcade titles these past few weeks.

PS3 on PSN -- A PS3 exclusive arrived last week -- the downloadable game adaptation of the recent comic book movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which also has fun with a number of familiar videogame conventions.)