Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Graphic Mars (1984)

This week, we're tackling the rather obscure Graphic Mars, an illustrated version of an earlier text adventure, updated in 1984 by Aardvark Ltd. (a.k.a. Aardvark International, among other names.)  The company's founder Rodger Olsen designed the original Mars, and Roderick Smith programmed this graphical version for the TRS-80 Color Computer.  Note that nobody takes credit for the graphics, for good reason; in fact, the title screen is notably devoid of them:

I've only played one other Aardvark adventure, Derelict on the Commodore 64, and I found that game to be a bit sloppy on the technical side.  Graphic Mars is, I'm sorry to say, no different -- the display engine does not handle wraparound neatly, with text getting broken mid-word.  The crude graphics are in half-vertical resolution, presumably to conserve storage space, and not a very sophisticated solution.  The parser recognizes only two significant characters in the verb and noun, which limits the game's vocabulary in some annoying ways; movement in an invalid direction does not specifically respond to that effect, but just leaves the player in the current room; and there's no save game support, so if we die, we have to start over.  There are some other story-related bugs afoot, which I will describe in more detail later on.

Storywise, this is yet another escape-the-alien-planet adventure -- the player is once again stranded on Mars, and must solve some puzzles to refuel his/her ship and escape.  There are a few marginally interesting puzzles, but nothing too obtuse, and I was able to finish the game without much difficulty aside from numerous battles with the limited and often uncommunicative parser.  To save others these headaches, I have compiled a full walkthrough, available at the bottom of this post and also submitted to the CASA Solution Archive.  As always, I encourage interested readers to try this week's game out before continuing here; there are certain to be...

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

Graphic Mars begins, as so many of these adventures do, in the control room of a one-man space ship, where we can see a PILOTS [sic] CHAIR, control panel, and viewport.  We can LOOK VIEWPORT to see a statue of a flute player, some AIR ROCKS (whatever those might be) and a sandsled.  And we can only go D from here.

The parser makes its limitations known early and often.  There's no EXAMINE or USE verb, and the engine shrugs with a HUH?? if it does not recognize the verb.  It also refreshes with no response if the verb is recognized but it has nothing to say about it; this sometimes happens when the command is effective, as well.

We can SIT CHAIR in the control room to access the control panel; but USE PANEL, LOOK PANEL, EXAMINE PANEL, and READ PANEL get us nowhere.  There is a textbook lying nearby; READ TEXTBOOK from the control chair displays: THIS SHIP WILL FLY ON EITHER: HYDRAZINE OR ALCOHOL (and we can probably guess which of those will be more readily available.)  We can't TURN PAGE, so this is among the briefest of textbooks.  There's no real-time, heads-up status display here; instead, PUSH BUTTON yields COMPUTER REPORTS / NO FUEL / NO INJECTOR PUMP.  So clearly we need to round up both of these important spacefaring items if we hope to escape.

The game tells us I AM BEING WATCHED after a while, but I never really figured out why.  My best guess is that the friendly Martian we encounter later on is keeping an eye on the new visitor.

The cargo hold below the control room contains nets, a recharging station, a fuel tank, and a locker.  A sign reads BRING FUEL HERE; there's also a LOW-OXYGEN WARNING-GLOWING RED.  A certain amount of information seems to be worked into object names, rather than descriptions, which helps in the absence of an EXAMINE verb.  OPEN LOCKER appears to have no effect, and LOOK LOCKER yields NOTHING SPECIAL, but if we LOOK at the room level again after opening the locker we find several additional items -- sneakers, a timepiece, a bill of materials for a still, an oxygen bottle, and some CRATES-CLOSEDOPEN CRATES only indicates, tersely, GLUED.  We should GET OXYGEN to obtain the oxygen bottle, as GET BOTTLE doesn't work (HUH??).

East of the cargo hold is a BARREN FIELD, the same location visible through the viewport inside our ship.  I was surprised to see that objects dropped or taken here are properly reflected in the cockpit view.  We can get a closer look at the flute player statue here -- LOOK STATUE produces a closeup image, with the legend HNWVG RNCAGT on its base.  North and south of the barren field is a WATER FILLED MOAT, which wraps around to the barren field when we go north or south from it, and returns to itself if we go east or west.  We can GO SANDSLED, but only to fetch a JEWELED CLUB; there's no way to use the sandsled for transportation, apparently.

The bill of materials should come in handy for fueling the ship; it tells us that to make a still, we have to gather water, a pot, tubing, fire and grain in the same spot.  So yes, I guess we'll be fueling the ship with alcohol, then.

The plaza contains a (but not the) HOLY GRAIL, and a sign reading GCTVJA IQ JQOG.  There's obviously a code we need to work out here, and if past adventuring is any indication, it's probably a letter-substitution cipher.  It's not a simple reversal, apparently, as the statue's legend translates to SMDET IMYZTG if we go that route, and IQ from the sign doesn't seem to work as IN or ON or AT.  There aren't many of these bits of text around in the game, so it's not going to help us to build up more examples.  Playing around with the alphabet a little bit establishes that HNWVG RNCAGT is literally FLUTE PLAYER -- the code shifts letters two positions to the right, with appropriate wraparound (A = Y, and B = Z).  So the code is not hard to break, and makes absolutely no sense -- why would the Martians have a language so arbitrarily and closely related to English words?  At any rate, this effort isn't really worth it -- the sign translates to EARTHY GO HOME, which is, after all, what we are trying to do anyway.

A temple north of the plaza has a torch, a STATUE ON DIAS [sic], and a drywell.  The sign in the empty garden east of the Temple reads "USE FASTGRO" onscreen, but if we READ SIGN we get the content of the sign in the Plaza.  Sigh.

If we wander around long enough, eventually we start getting OXYGEN LOW - RECHARGE NEEDED messages.  Returning to our ship allows us to breathe, but despite the handy recharging station there, we cannot successfully RECHARGE OXYGEN, INSERT OXYGEN, or RECHARGE to any visible effect.  If we ignore the messages, eventually, and suddenly, we get GASP GASP NO AIR DEAD and the game is over.  And it's frozen -- there's no ability to restart without reloading.  This all happens a lot faster if we don't take the OXYGEN BOTTLE along in the first place, though.  As it turns out, to recharge we have to LOOK RECHARGING to get a clue about how this works, then PUT OXYGEN -- IN WHAT? -- RECHARGING -- RECHARGED, and then GET OXYGEN or we'll be in trouble shortly. 

XPTLS SHOP OF MATING SCENTS lies south of the plaza; we can get some flasks here, and learn that proper names apparently don't translate to anything meaningful (XPTLS translates to VNRJQ.)  There's a MARTIAN KITCHEN available upstairs, which has an OVEN and a KETTLE we cannot take.  So we will probably need to do our brewing right here.

A DESERTED ROOM east of the plaza has a mirror, a pipe organ and a rug.  LOOK MIRROR reveals a RUGGED PERSON IN POCKETED SURVIVAL SUIT.  (But no space helmet, according to the illustration; silly rugged person, sucking on an oxygen bottle everywhere he goes!)

I don't know if the description of the player is meant to be a hint, but we can GET RUG - AHA! -- revealing a trapdoor.  But if we try to GO TRAPDOOR, we learn that I SLIPPED DOWN AN INCLINE AND DIED.  That's quite an incline!  We have to GET SNEAKERS first; suitably equipped, we can reach the BOTTEM [sic] OF A DRY WELL, but it's too dark to see if we don't have the torch.  East of here leads into a MAZE OF HALLWAYS.  Oh, joy.  Let's come back here later.

Back in the deserted room, we can GET ORGAN and carry it around to no real purpose.  The mirror is breakable, if we are willing to fight with the parser a bit; BREAK MIRROR - WITH WHAT? - AIR ROCKS -- NOTHING YET, which is not the most appropriate generic response.  Using the club yields no response, but a LOOK now shows a BROKEN MIRROR in the room.  However, if we LOOK MIRROR, we still see our reflection.  Sigh.  But we can go U into a dark, narrow secret passage and make our way to an observatory, and a rooftop where we can GET ROPE (and knock down the EARTHY GO HOME sign hanging below.)

We have to LIGHT TORCH explicitly, I guess it's a flashlight UK-style torch.  The cellar maze contains an injector pump, some tubing, and tempting gold bars.  But I found myself carrying too much to climb the ramp back up from the dry well.  We have to TIE ROPE TO STATUE and enter the dry well via the temple, then we can just go up to return to the temple.  Is this alternate path a bug?  I don't think so, but there's a related issue -- we don't even have to have the rope in inventory to TIE ROPE - TO WHAT? - STATUE and thereby create an up/down path between the temple and the dry well.  So we can save ourselves the whole trip to the roof, as the rope will magically appear when we try to tie it to the statue.

We can't GET WATER - IN WHAT? - FLASK, because when we try do so we learn that IT DISSOLVED.  That's strong water!  And the vanished flask seems to be counted against our inventory limit permanently, so playing around with this is a quick way to make it impossible to carry anything!  We apparently need some other way to carry the water.

The MAZE OF HALLWAYS is an interesting implementation --  it's really one room, with exits that randomly change.  This becomes evident when we realize that LOOK acts as though we have navigated to a new location!  We can also travel in directions that aren't advertised as being available, which makes the maze easier to solve -- repeated moves E always get to the DARK, DANK CELLAR, and U always gets us to the  BOTTEM OF DRY WELL.

We have come across a jeweled club, a Holy Grail, and some gold bars, so are we supposed to be rounding up treasures in this adventure?  There's no SCORE command.  And if we try to take off with treasure onboard, we're too heavy to do so.  So that would be a "no."

We can take the TABLE from XPTLS shop, but I'm not sure we need to.  Once the injector pump is put in the rack, now the ship's computer reports NO FUEL / TOO HEAVY FOR TAKEOFF.

So we need to make some fuel, probably using the still.  We have access to water, a pot, tubing, fire and grain.  We can PUT AIR - IN WHAT? -- KETTLE to put the "air rocks" in the kettle.  So there must be some reason to do that.  And we have a few more puzzles to solve.  What can we carry the water in?  Where do we get grain?  The empty garden seems worth exploring; we don't have any FASTGRO, so can we use something else as fertilizer?  Is it already in place?  Just add water?  Well, we can't carry water in the Holy Grail, because IT LEAKED OUT - IT IS A HOLY GRAIL.  Har har.  But LOOK GRAIL does reveal some SEEDS! (and if we GET SEEDS and DROP SEEDS, and later LOOK GRAIL again, the SEEDS warp back into our possession!  Truly this man is the Son of God!)

LOOK POCKETS (hinted at by our mirror reflection) yields a harmonica and a lighter.  If we PLAY HARMONICA in the deserted room, we notice that THE RUSTLING SOUND IS GETTING LOUDER.  Repeated PLAYing summons a cheerful-looking Martian:

Now we are forced to abuse him for our own adventuring gain.  If we try to TALK MARTIAN - IN WHAT? - ENGLISH - then he GOT AWAY.  Which is odd, we seem friendly enough.  Then we realize that the parser assumes TALK is actually TAKE... so do we need the NETS?  The hapless local soon becomes a NETFUL OF MARTIAN if we are successful; oddly, GET MARTIAN does not seem to trigger the IN WHAT? prompt, only TA[ke] MA[rtian].  We can now GET HELMET, and use that to GET WATER!

We know we need the water to brew alcohol, but can we also water the seeds to make grain in the empty garden?  Hmmmm... POUR WATER and WATER SEEDS do not work.  We can PUT WATER but that apparently does nothing; we can easily GET WATER in the helmet again, fortunately.  Especially because after we have taken the WATER and moved it elsewhere, GET WATER in the WATER FILLED MOAT now yields I DO NOT SEE IT HERE.

So let's try a different tack and assemble the still... we seem to have a kettle, tubing, grain (seeds) and water.  No luck yet, we can PUT everything in the kettle but that doesn't seem to do the job.

Going W where there is no such direction in the Temple apparently puts us down the well -- I FELL IN AND DIED.

Back in the garden, we can't PLANT SEEDS because PL is reserved for PLaying the harmonica and organ.  We can't HEAT KETTLE, or HEAT OVEN either; the game reads it as HELP.

Can we BREAK CRATE - WITH WHAT? - CLUB ?  Yes!  Though it leaves us with SPLINTERS, and DROP SPLINTERS yields only DO NOT HAVE IT.  So there goes an inventory slot, but at least the crate contained the FASTGRO mentioned in the garden.  Okay.  Dropping the Fastgro and seeds in the field doesn't seem to do anything, immediately.  We also have to PUT WATER - IN WHAT? - SEEDS to produce WHEAT.  And now we can get more water in the moat.

We're missing something still -- literally.  I think I have assembled everything.  Do I need to make a fire somewhere, instead of just carrying the torch?  LIGHT FIRE in most locations yields NOT HERE - AINT SAFE.  Okay.  We're probably on the right track then.  LIGHT FIRE in the kitchen produces NOT ENOUGH WOOD.  We can't DROP SPLINTERS, but the TABLE from Xptl's shop works. Now we find out there's NOT ENOUGH AIR.  So we need the mysterious "air rocks" too.  When we LIGHT FIRE now, IT BUBBLES!  I'm not sure what's bubbling, exactly, but we have to put the wheat, water, and tubing in the kettle.  Then, at last, we can GET ALCOHOL, put it in the ship's fuel tank, sit in the pilot's chair, and push the button to get this rather inconclusive victory message:

I will assume this is the sound of a successful takeoff, and not the sound of our spaceship going up in a giant alcohol-fueled fireball.

Graphic Mars is not a difficult game, puzzle-wise, but the parser is its own special brand of challenge.  I enjoyed fighting through this one, but if it had been a more difficult game I might have gotten frustrated.  There are more Aardvark adventures out there -- I'm in no hurry to play more of them, really, but I will probably do so for history's sake anyway.  My walkthrough is below the fold.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

PLAY HARMONICA (4 times, repeat until Martian shows up)
W, W, N
S, E, N, E

STATUE (this works even though we don't actually have the rope yet!)
E (repeat until you reach the dark, dank cellar; ignore the MAZE OF HALLWAYS visible exits)
U (repeat until you return to the bottom of the dry well; ignore the visible exits again)
U (back to temple)
S, W, W, D (to Engine Room)
E, N
E, S, U, N

S, D
U, N
S, D, N, W, W

PUSH BUTTON (Escape and victory!)


  1. Great review! 100 thabk yous for doing this project and this game in specific.

    Reading through brought back a pile of memories for me plaing this game (TEXT version) on my Pop's PC in 1982-3. I guess I never managed to find that secret passage to the observatory and therefore could not finish. I remember being most frustrated at the game and from the looks of yor walk through was only a couple key strokes away from completing it.

    Thanks for doing this - it made me quite happy to know at least 1 other person out there actually played this game.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for the kind words -- it's always great to hear from a reader with true vintage memories of a vintage game. And I find myself in the situation you describe a lot -- so close to the end of a game, with so many of the puzzles solved, but just missing... something... that's preventing me from actually finishing. Glad I was able to fill in those gaps and bring back some fond memories for you!