Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Black Hole Adventure (1981)

Last week I tackled the fifth entry in the long-running SoftSide Publications disk magazine adventure series, jumping ahead to game #5 due to a lack of free time.  I promised I'd go back and cover #4, the one I'd skipped over, before moving on, but I lied.  So this week I'm jumping ahead yet again, to tackle 1981's SoftSide Adventure #7 -- Black Hole Adventure, again for the sake of playing a game with a published solution.  As it turned out, this was a straightforward adventure, and I did not need to reference a walkthrough.  I was able to finish it honestly in a couple of hours, a more pleasant scenario that also worked out fine for my schedule.

As was not uncommon in the wild-and-woolly early days of the game industry, Black Hole Adventure turns out to be a completely unlicensed and entirely unabashed ripoff of the 1979 Walt Disney science-fiction feature, The Black Hole, from a time when creators of these newfangled computer games could fly under the legal radar with some degree of safety.  The intro text sets up the basic plot, informing us that Deep-Space One, the Cygnus, is sitting at the edge of the black hole.  We land on the Cygnus in the USS Palomino, and as in the movie, we discover that the larger ship is now a ship of robots, a ship controlled by its only human survivor, Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  So this is an escape-the-domestic-spaceship adventure, for a slight change from the usual.

The intro text also introduces us to several robot characters -- the menacing Maximillian, the cute VINCENT, and the cute, vintage Old Bob -- just in case the Disney lawyers happened by and needed further evidence of this game's "inspiration."

No author is credited onscreen, and the code comments indicate only that the final version was completed on 2-Jan-1981.  The prose style resembles some of the other SoftSide games, but the simple two-word parser is not very friendly -- no I or INV shorthand is allowed, INVENTORY must be fully typed.  And so must the navigational directions, so we can't simply N, but must go NORTH.  Once we get used to battling the parser, however, the game is straightforward -- there are few descriptive details to discover, the puzzles are simple, and it's mostly a matter of collecting objects and using them in the right locations.

As always, I urge interested readers to sample the Black Hole Adventure before proceeding here.  In the interest of documenting the game's design and quirks, there will be plenty of...

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

The game starts out with a rather annoying issue -- I thought at first that some navigation directions are only in the room descriptions, and are not listed in the OBVIOUS DIRECTIONS ARE: section.  But this turned out to be a different problem at root -- a bad room description here indicates that the door to the south is OPEN before it actually is! 

So we start in a docking bay, where we find a small gun and an identification pin and a red button.  It's frustrating that we can't READ PIN or EXAMINE PIN or USE PIN or WEAR PIN; I don't know how to do that is the hapless engine's only response.  We can't EXAMINE GUN either, so it seems we will not be gathering a lot of subtle details in this game; signs also prove unREADable, with their messages listed in the room descriptions instead.  So we have to rely on action more than our investigative skills.  As it turns out, PUSH RED doesn't follow the usual convention; we have to PUSH BUTTON, which initially yields There is no fuel for the palimino [sic].  The parts the palimino [sic] has are bad.  Therefore, I can't blast off.  It sounds like the program is checking a couple of flags here, and not providing any real detail, but our basic mission seems clear -- fuel up, and replace those darn ol' bad space parts.

Since the button won't do anything, we can try to OPEN DOOR, which yields I don't have any key to unlock the door!  Is there even a locked door?  It's not mentioned in the room description.  We can't GO SOUTH through the apparently OPEN DOOR, nor can we ENTER DOOR, or GO DOOR, or S, or SOUTH.  Okay, now this is getting frustrating.  Fortunately, we don't have a lot of options yet, and I at last managed to SHOW PIN (I didn't need to reference the CASA walkthrough, but it was a close call) to get the door to actually open.  After doing so, the door is still (now correctly) described as being OPEN, but now there is an obvious exit available to the south.

To the south, if we're carrying the gun, A BURST OF LASER FIRE WHICH COMES FROM AN UNKNOWN SOURCE DESTROYS MY GUN.  That didn't seem like a good thing when I was playing, so I restarted and left the gun behind; as it turned out, I didn't need that gun at all.

The map is quite open, and we are free to explore most of the ship.  Below decks, we find some humanoid robots ejecting body-like objects into space, which is disturbing but doesn't really come into play in the game's plot.  A LARGE BEAUTIFULLY DECORATED DINING ROOM contains ALL SORTS OF FOOD.  We can GET FOOD and EAT FOOD here -- all of it in one go, apparently -- but this seems to be optional.  An Air Car travels back and forth in a long glass tunnel, but doesn't take us anywhere we can't otherwise reach -- the map is large but fairly circular, and most areas connect back to others, with no required routes, substantial mazes, or serious navigational challenges.

The main obstacle we encounter is that occasionally we are told: HOLY SMOKES! An armed robot just walked in!  And then, suddenly, ARMED ROBOTS ARE EVERYWHERE. I'VE BEEN CAPTURED. NOW REINHARDT CAN COMPLETE HIS EVIL PLANS.  Another room contains AN EVIL LOOKING ROBOT, and suddenly we are captured again.  So we need to avoid these robots, it seems.

Fortunately, the crew barracks area contains two very useful items -- some ammunition and a blaster.  We can't GET AMMUNITION first, as I don't have a blaster to put it in, but if we do things in the designer's expected order, we end up with a loaded blaster.  Now, or at least until we run out of ammo, we can SHOOT ROBOT whenever one shows up -- ZZZAP! No more robot!

There's no SAVE GAME or RESTORE support for this brief adventure, but we're free to QUIT at any time, though it's a rather drastic decision, as the game informs us that I HAVE FAILED TO ESCAPE FROM CYGNUS.  I AM DEAD. before asking if we'd like to play again.

We're free to visit the Cygnus' bridge, which features the imposing crimson robot MAXIMILLIAN, the evil DR. HANS REINHARDT, and just so we know we're playing a futuristic sci-fi game, a FLOPPY DISKETTE.  An attempt to SHOOT REINHARDT gets us killed by Maximillian's whirring chest blades.  We can't SHOOT MAXIMILLIAN either, as the blaster shot just bounces off of his shiny, angular surface.  But as it turns out we can just walk through the bridge unmolested to visit the engine room.

The engine room looks like a maze, but we can't actually get anywhere except by going east to the HYDROPONIC SYSTEM room, where a humanoid robot carelessly drops AN ELECTRONIC KEY.  How convenient for us!  We want to GET KEY, but we don't want to continue east into the HYDROPONIC GREENHOUSE, because as soon as we enter the room, a huge meteor breaks through the glass ceiling, and I AM SUCKED UP INTO THE VACUUM AND I DIE.  It's best to avoid this location, which is also accessible from the south, as this fatal meteor appears to have it in for us personally, and won't impact the Cygnus unless it sees us wandering among the hydroponically-grown plants.  Perhaps it's actually an alien ship on some sort of anti-marijuana mission.

With the key in hand, we can visit the ship's only locked door.  However, we can't UNLOCK DOOR -- I don't know how to do that. -- but we can OPEN DOOR -- OK.  The door is unlocked.  This aggravating sequence of events gains us access to a SUPPLY ROOM containing ALL SORTS OF THINGS.  We can't GET THINGS or SEARCH THINGS or EXAMINE THINGS or EXAMINE SORTS or EXAMINE ALL, however, so it's not immediately clear what we're supposed to do here.

If we wander around enough, we will discover that the blaster only allows us to SHOOT ROBOT a limited number of times -- and the code's event sequencing is odd, as when we run out of ammo, we are told My gun is out of ammunition.  ZZZAP!  No more robot!   Before that happens, we need to SHOOT the non-wandering evil looking ROBOT to gain access to some new areas.  We can GET VINCENT in this area -- if we DROP VINCENT in the supply room we can't see him, but we can still GET VINCENT again.  He doesn't do anything in this location, like, say, hunt for something useful, but I had to try it.

A DIMLY LIT ROOM contains a humanoid robot and an ID Bracelet.  We can't learn anything about it, of course, but SHOW BRACELET apparently does something somewhere, just not here. While we can carry VINCENT around, we can't GET ROBOT -- He's too heavy to carry and too stupid to follow me.

At this point, it seems we are out of puzzles to solve and new areas to explore.  So are we supposed to be working on getting the Palomino running somehow so we can escape?  Yes -- if we try to do so, we readily discover that in the supply room we can simply GET FUEL and GET PART, and taking INVENTORY reveals that we now have FUEL SUITABLE FOR THE PALIMINO and SPARE PARTS NEEDED BY THE PALIMINO Hopefully these off-brand items will also be suitable for the PALOMINO .

With these critical, if vaguely defined, items in hand, we can go back to the docking bay, DROP FUEL, DROP PART and watch as VINCENT takes the fuel and parts and repairs the ship.  A final, more successful attempt to PUSH BUTTON, and we are victorious!

I didn't actually need to reference the walkthrough, as the game only took a few hours to play through to this ending.  But there seemed to be a few loose ends here -- I never did run into Old B.O.B., the floppy diskette seemed to have no purpose, and possessing the ID bracelet didn't seem to do anything (though I thought it might have protected me from running into further random armed robots late in the game.)  I took a look at the BASIC source code, and discovered something intriguing -- there's apparently a more dramatic alternative ending available, which involves piloting a ship through the black hole, riding B.O.B. to safety when the meteor crashes through the ceiling, destroying Maximillian with VINCENT's help, and ending the game successfully by beginning a new life in a new universe.  Or something like that.  But I'd rather go home to Earth, personally, so I'm glad the more rewarding ending is also the easiest one to achieve.

Black Hole Adventure is definitely one of the simplest adventures I've played in a while, alternate ending aside, which was fine with me given my schedule of late.  Maybe I'll finally make time to take on something more challenging for next week.

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