Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Alexis Adventure (1983)

This week, we're taking a look at a TRS-80 text adventure of uncertain provenance -- I haven't been able to track down an author, but Alexis Adventure was published in the January 1983 issue of the cassette-based CLOAD magazine.  It's a fairly straightforward adventure based on Greek history and mythology.  As Alexis V of Xanthus, we must reclaim our father's crown by escaping jail, traveling to four other islands, finding the Crystal Sphere, raising an army, and battling General Tarkaan, usurper of the throne.

Alexis Adventure is written in BASIC, and competently executed, though the parser is occasionally obstructive and a few of the puzzles don't readily present themselves as such.  There's also one situation that can occur randomly and forces a complete restart, as the game has no SAVE command.  But it's not unsophisticated -- the text is in upper and lowercase (something of a rarity for the era), and there's even an unexpected twist to the game mechanics at the end.

I encourage interested readers to sample Alexis independently before proceeding with my comments, as always -- but in this case I must add an additional caveat.  This adventure is actually self-spoiling, as it displays all the locations, objects and verbs onscreen while it's building its database!  So if you really want to avoid any giveaways, close your eyes for about twenty seconds after getting past the instructions.  And if you've played the game already, or don't intend to, feel free to march your faithful soldiers into the...

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

Our hero starts out in a jail cell, holding a small pouch, which very conveniently contains a skeleton key.  The engine is slightly cumbersome -- while each room starts out with a Scott Adams-style display, the room description eventually scrolls off and does not refresh without a LOOK.  So when we OPEN POUCH, we see something interesting, but EXAMINE POUCH just tells us that It looks like a small pouch.  We have to LOOK at the room to see that the act of opening the pouch dropped the skeleton key on the floor.  And, as is sometimes the case in hobbyist-created adventure games, if we OPEN POUCH a second time the key is spirited out of our possession and back onto the floor.

There are quite a few locations in this game, but there isn't much for us to do in most of them.  We can explore the great city on the island of Xanthus, behold a valley where many battles were fought, and find the palace gates where a suspicious guard will not let us pass. But there are no objects of interest here -- all we can really do is make our way to the dock and board a sailing ship, the Xenophon, which fortunately we are free to command.

The sailing navigation is rather odd -- it seems to be semi-random, and doesn't force us to stay inside what seems to be a local 9 x 9 grid; some confusion results from the game's announcement of "Land!" whenever we're near an island, without telling us which of the game's five islands it might be or in which direction we can see it.  In general, Xanthus is to the north, Tripolis to the east, Hyklos to the far north, Skiros to the southeast, and Ikaria to the southwest .  We have to watch the weather -- we can end our journey by drowning in bad conditions, and this is somewhat random; it can even occur on our first move out of dock, so this can be fatal and game-restarting.  Other than that glitch, we are free to travel the archipelago, visiting and returning to each island at will (assuming we can find our way there and back.)

On Tripolis, we can acquire a witch doctor's mask.  There are angry natives in the village, and a cave with a portcullis and a suspiciously placed skull.  We can PULL SKULL (not TAKE or TURN it) to reveal a passage.  Inside we find a faded scroll, containing hieroglyphics (aren't those usually Egyptian?) telling of "the treasure of the shores of Skiros."  Past the scroll we encounter an angry native armed with a spear; we can do the obvious and WEAR MASK, which frightens the poor fellow into running away, dropping his spear.

The cave also contains some magical phosphorescent light which we can simply TAKE with us, and a catapult.  We can't GO or USE or ENTER or FIRE the catapult, it seems, or CATAPULT ME.  Examination reveals that it has an ammunition chamber, and a lever.  Hmmmm.

The island of Hyklos hosts a very dark cavern, so the phosphorescent light we picked up on Tripolis is important.  Inside is the river Styx, and Charon, the traditional boatman.  He won't let us on the boat -- we probably need a coin, per tradition.  We'll have to come back here.

The island of Skiros has shores populated by tropical trees.  We can CLIMB TREE and TAKE BANANAS there, but getting down is more of a challenge -- CLIMB DOWN and CLIMB TREE do not work, but for some reason going N does.  The site of a recent forest fire yields charred pottery, still full of hot coals which ought to be useful for igniting something.  A giant gorilla guards a map on the island's summit; we can't GIVE him the bananas, but if we drop them he'll take them and leave.  The map thus obtained is no help for ocean navigation, but shows us a trail through a rockslide somewhere in the game's world.  I tried to DIG for treasure all over the island, even though I had no special tools for doing so; I got no error responses, but still came up empty.  There's also a wall of vines covering a passage to the south; we can BURN VINES with the hot coals to make our way inside.  Here we find a sword of sharpness (unlike those cheap swords of dullness, apparently.)

The island of Ikaria contains the massive rockslide the map is supposed to help us with.  The tidepools along the coast contain a huge oyster.  We can simply OPEN OYSTER (with the sword of sharpness, apparently) to reveal a giant pearl, and leave the poor creature as an annihilated oyster.  There's also a pickaxe available along another shore.  With the map from Skiros in hand, we can... well, we can't GO ROCKSLIDE, or walk N into it, or USE MAP or FOLLOW MAP.  But we can GO TRAIL to find a sheltered cove, where the fabled Cyclops lives, though perhaps not particularly lavishly, as he looks hungry.  We can't KILL CYCLOPS -- no real surprise there -- and he doesn't want the oyster.  And if we hang around too long, our hero gets eaten, so that's not useful for our purposes.

Going back to Xanthus, we can try to KILL GUARD outside the place, which gets us thrown back in jail... though none of our possessions are confiscated, it appears.  Can we use the catapult on Tripolis?  Yes, we can INSERT SPEAR - In 1 word, where will you insert it? - CATAPULT to load it into the long, narrow ammunition chamber.  We PULL LEVER, and it fires but... hits nothing.  At least we can retrieve the spear, now lying on the ground, and re-load.  I assumed it would have more range... aha!  The catapult is itself portable -- I was picturing something more substantial, I think the author is actually thinking of a crossbow.

Now we can kill the Cyclops with the catapult and spear, and take his eye as a trophy.  We can't go anywhere beyond the Cyclops' lair, though, so what else is there to do?  We can go back to Tripolis to check out the angry natives.  We can't SHOW EYE or WAVE EYE or DROP EYE to impress them.  What about the treasure on Skiros mentioned by the faded scroll?  Now that we have the pickaxe, we can DIG and get a different response at our landing site -- we find a collection of gold coins.

Let's see if Charon will take a coin now, in the cave on Hyklos.  It's a bit of a parser struggle, but GO FERRY takes care of the details, and we soon find ourselves on the other side of the Styx, where a three-headed wolf (probably a relative of Cerberus) blocks the way south.  We can KILL WOLF, and the sword of sharpness handily dispatches the creature.  To the south we find ourselves in Hell, where Pluto holds reign and the crystal sphere is visible. 

It gets a little bit interesting here -- I think the author was trying to design an unpredictable puzzle, but if we've inadvertently anticipated that by carrying both the eye of the Cyclops and the oyster from Ikaria, the logic gets a little muddled.  If we try to TAKE SPHERE, Pluto sees that you have the eye of the Cyclops, so he wants you to bring him the giant pearl of Ikaria instead.  These underworld figures are always so deceptive and demanding!  And even after we open the oyster we've been carrying, he still sees the eye and won't accept the pearl.  We have to DROP EYE and then TAKE SPHERE, at which point the Lord of the Underworld will ignore the alternative lying on the ground, at last allowing us to give him the pearl in exchange for the sphere.  The generic EXAMINE handler is disappointing here -- EXAMINE PLUTO yields only, It looks like Pluto - god of the underworld.

Now we must pay Charon for passage back to the other side of the Styx, and work on raising our army.  The valley on Xanthus now shows 144 soldiers under General Tarkaan's command.  They seem to be waiting for us to join the battle, but we have no soldiers and can't recruit any here.  Back to Tripolis we go, where the formerly angry natives are now bowing and worshipping us as we have the fabled Crystal Sphere in hand.  They happily join the cause, and we now (in my playthrough) have 174 soldiers in inventory -- let's hope their greater numbers are a match for Tarkaan's well-trained and equipped troops.

Somehow all of our Tripolean fighters fit on the Xenophon, and we can return to the valley on Xanthus.  And suddenly, the game shifts modes -- it's no longer an adventure game, but a simple strategy exercise:

We can choose from four different tactics -- Defensive fortification, Frontal attack, Flanking maneuvers, and Encirclement of the enemy.  Option #4, Encirclement, seems like a good choice, and it is -- since we have more soldiers, and can apparently move into surrounding positions quickly, Tarkaan's forces are quickly disposed of.   If a tactic isn't working out, we can retreat and change our approach before we lose any more soldiers, but in truth the battle's development seems pretty random and the outcome is largely determined by the size of each side's forces.  I retried the battle several times, and all four options worked fine for me with the numeric advantage I had.  The code randomizes the number of soldiers on each side, between 125 and 225, so I may just have lucked out when the digital dice were rolled.

With Tarkaan's forces defeated, Alexis can walk through the unguarded palace gates, TAKE CROWN, WEAR CROWN... and victory is ours!

The length of Alexis V's reign is based on how long it takes us to finish the game -- I only got 8 years out of him, but the ocean navigation tends to take up a lot of moves while we try to find our way to the right island.  I'm content with eight good years -- after all, that's as much as any U.S. President can ever get.  The CLOAD adventure games don't have the consistency of similar series, like the SoftSide adventures, but this one provided good value back in the day, and was fun to revisit through in 2012.

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