I ran across the prolific output of UK adventure publisher Zenobi Software quite a while ago, but haven't played or written about any of their games until now. Zenobi published a ton of independently-developed text adventures for the Spectrum and the Atari ST in the 1980s and 90s, and the Balrog himself created a website reminiscing about those times. Picking a title at random, I came up with the 1990 illustrated adventure, Alien Research Centre, by Ian Smith, Shaun G. McClure, and Tom Smith.
The 48K Spectrum had a distinct advantage over many of its competitors, with enough memory onboard to support tape-based adventures with graphics, and these illustrations are nicely handled with very little evidence of the "color clash" occasioned by the Speccy's graphics system.
It's a fairly standard escape-the-alien-spaceship plot, though in this case we are out to recover an Earthly craft (the off-planet Alien Research Centre) where something has, presumably, gone horribly wrong. It's distinguished by a solid, relatively bug-free design and detailed graphics, with some obscure but ultimately logical puzzles and many ways to die. It's easily as good as many of the commercial adventure games of the Spectrum's heyday.
As always, I encourage interested gamers to visit the Alien Research Centre before proceeding here, as I will be documenting the game in detail. In other words, there are necessarily going to be...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
We start out in the Docking Bay. To the south is Doctor Goebbler's office, with a desk and a hole in the ceiling. EXAMINE DESK yields a doctor's ID card. Above the office is a vent with dust and rubble covering an exit. We have a decimator cannon in hand, but it's ineffective against the rubble, so its name seems to be a bit of an exaggeration.
The Biolab to the north of the docking bay contains a titanium scalpel, and to the east is a corridor occupied by a Giant Maggot. Trying to GET MAGGOT is fatal, but we can saunter past the deadly maggot to visit the crew quarters, where we find evidence of violence and death. We also pick up a matter disrupter (UK spelling) and some pliers.
Is the disrupter any good against the rubble in the vent? We can't DISRUPT RUBBLE. EXAMINE DISRUPTER reveals that ON THE FRONT THERE IS A SMALL SWITCH MARKED 'ACTIVATE'. But ACTIVATE DISRUPTER only yields I DON'T KNOW HOW TO ACTIVATE DISRUPTER. Maybe we should PUSH SWITCH? No, that blows us up directly; the matter disrupter seems to be more of a bomb than a gun.
Can we use it on the Giant Maggot? No -- if we stay in the area for more than one turn, trying to prepare the bomb, THE BEHEMOTH FLOORS ME AND SUCKS AWAY MY LIFE'S BLOOD. And while the decimator cannon is modified to only target life forms, this juvenile monster is too fast - IT DODGES IT.
We can, however, drop the matter disrupter in the vent, push the switch, and immediately exit to the office below -- the explosion clears the rubble away but leaves the vent otherwise undamaged somehow. Now we can travel through the vents -- there's a small door and an air grill halfway along the passage, and some bits of paper along with a Freeze Beast at the southern end. The Freeze Beast is also shockingly good at dodging the decimator cannon, which we've lugged halfway across the galaxy and is now starting to seem like a gag gift.
We can OPEN DOOR in the vent to access a small storage room, where we find a void-suit and a soldering iron, both of which will probably come in handy. This is a very classic adventure design -- we are clearly required to assemble some tools to solve the puzzles ahead.
The Freeze Beast is not as aggressive as the Giant Maggot -- we can read the bits of paper without being attacked, seeing that one of them contains scrawled numbers (2749 in my playthrough.) We can't take the time to CUT BEAST with the scalpel though, it still attacks.
The attractive graphics don't include takeable objects, and often depict things that aren't accessible -- for example, the storage room shows a door, but the parser doesn't recognize it -- but at least we don't have to guess at the names of any objects seen but not mentioned at the text. Can we open the air grill in the vent? OPEN GRILL, PUSH GRILL, KICK GRILL, and TAKE GRILL don't seem to do anything.
I seem to be a bit stuck, so I consulted Dorothy's walkthrough at CASA to discover that while we can't CUT MAGGOT, we can STAB MAGGOT with the scalpel. The parser tells us that IT VOMITS BLOOD AND SHRIVELS UP. I CAN NOW GO EAST.
This slightly-necessary violence allows us to reach the Chemilab, where there is some flux, good for soldering; and a broken Vac-Tube transport, conveniently disabled by a single, easily visible broken wire. It's a good thing we have a soldering iron and flux! We SOLDER WIRE, and now we hear a whoosh of air; but we can't USE TUBE or GO TUBE or RIDE TUBE or ENTER TUBE. But if we try to leave the room to the west, we discover that it has already transported us, and will shuttle us between two floors any time we enter the Vac-Tube room.
We can find a smashed Droid and a wall-mounted cable in the engine room. Examination of the Droid establishes that it WAS PROBABLY PULLED APART BY A GARGANADON! It doesn't sound like we want to run into one of those. The southern part of the engine room smells of ammonia, and a pool blocks a western exit, apparent evidence of a serious janitorial mishap. If we try to enter the pool, or the western exit, or even just hang around too long, the pool draws us under and we are again dead. So the pool seems to be sentient, but we can't SHOOT or STAB it; not that we would expect to be able to.
Some of the graphics are reused; to the south of the pool we find a fire axe in the Maintenance Room, which looks exactly like the small storage room. We can't CHOP BEAST with the axe, but we can SMASH GRILL.
Going down through the smashed grill takes us to a dusky uninhabited alien containment room that seems to have suffered some acid damage. There's also an airlock, with a hand rail, an outer hatch, and a lurking Vapour Wraith. If we do the wrong things, the Wraith attacks us with electricity. If we open the hatch, we are sucked out into the void. But if we wear the void-suit and HOLD RAIL and then OPEN HATCH, the wraith is sucked out of harm's way (our harm's way, that is) and now a southern passage is open.
The second alien containment cell contains a corpse we may wish we hadn't EXAMINEd (THIS MAN HAS BEEN RIPPED ALMOST TO PIECES AND IS ALMOST UNRECOGNISABLE), and a jar of acid. We can POUR ACID in the pool, but the chemical combination explodes and takes us with it. We see this rather downbeat death screen a lot in this game:
The acid proves to be more useful on the Freeze Beast (though the bits of paper are also destroyed, so we'd better have noted the code before using it), allowing us to go down to a Hydroponics Garden... where the Garganadon lurks. It is also very good at dodging a blast the decimator cannon, and I am beginning to wonder if we are going to get to decimate anything at all.
It's walkthrough time again, to obtain a few key details. We can CUT CABLE in the engine room to obtain... A USEFUL ROPE. How did that happen, exactly? It's explicitly useful, anyway, so we'd best take it along. And we can KICK FLOOR in the acid-damaged alien containment room to access a lower passage. (After this point, any time we enter the alien containment cell we fall through the floor -- that was quite a kick! Winners don't do acid.)
This claustrophobic lower passage runs east-west, and here I notice a dead woman. EXAMINE WOMAN reveals that BITE MARKS OF A HUGE RADIUS ARE THE CAUSE OF DEATH, which neither surprising nor reassuring.
The Medi-Centre has complicated equipment that did nothing to save the lost crew, in case we were not already feeling wary and depressed about Her Majesty's half-arsed space programme. We find an access panel and a blue chemical here. I am finally running up against the game's nine-item inventory limit, so I drop the soldering iron and flux, assuming I only needed them to repair the Vac-Tube wiring in the great adventure game tradition. We can open the access panel and make our way (a mysteriously one-way traversal) back into the air vents above the doctor's office.
Another corridor west of the medi-centre contains a mutant Land Shark. (Candygram?) We can't POUR CHEMICAL or SHOOT SHARK to any productive effect, so we chalk up another failure for the decimator cannon, which apparently fires too slowly to intercept anything but a sedated elephant. What else can we use the chemical on? I don't know what it was, but pouring it on the sentient pool informs us that THE POOL HAS VAPOURISED (though the ammonia smell lingers.) Now we can go west to the Engineering Supplies room; I was expecting a slide rule, maybe some graph paper, but all we find here is a net.
This seems like it would be useful for capturing a water shark, but is it effective against the Land Shark? Yes, we THROW NET, THE SHARK IS IMMOBILISED and we can travel south. Here we find the Communications Room, but the equipment has been sabotaged. There is an SOS Transmitter here, with a start button. Pushing the button doesn't do anything, but if we examine the transmitter, we spot and remove an IC (an integrated circuit, I assume.) It's not clear if we can repair the chip or use it somewhere else, but examination indicates IT'S THE VITAL COMPONENT TO MOST TRANSMIT-RECEIVE DEVICES. Hmmmm.
The IC won't go into the smashed Droid. We can, however, return to the Hydroponic Garden and SHOOT the GARGANADON; the first try fails, but we just have to be persistent and something is finally decimated as advertised. Now we can travel east to a huge Agri-Dome. There's a ledge here, which is probably where we need to use the odd cable-born rope... and yes, THROW ROPE does the trick.
Climbing the rope (U) takes us to the Bridge. A Security Droid loitering around in lieu of providing actual security says, "State Access Code." I hope that random bit of paper we found earlier is the real deal! We can goof around with unsuccessful responses -- STATE 1111, SAY 1111, 1111 -- until we get serious and SAY 2479. The droid leaves and now we can access the actual Bridge controls.
The Bridge's touch-pad can be examined -- basic ship systems are reportedly operational, but I NOTICE THAT SOME OF THE IC SOCKETS ARE EMPTY. We only have one IC -- and we can INSERT IC, but some of the sockets are still reportedly empty, and still only basic ship systems are up. But we have no need for fancy flight lessons -- we just TOUCH PAD, and we are off to victory! If only there were a victory illustration instead of this variation of the death screen:
I enjoyed playing Alien Research Centre -- it has a nice sense of atmosphere and a design that's open enough to allow some experimentation and head-scratching, though it's still fairly linear and without a walkthrough handy I would likely have gotten terminally stuck at a couple of points. I will definitely be looking at more of the Zenobi library as time goes on.