This week, our regular adventure series returns to the vintage TRS-80 era, with Thunder Road, an adventure game created by the father-and-daughter team of Don and Freda Boner. Billed as A TRUE LIFE ADVENTURE, this one has a refreshingly different theme -- we're runnin' moonshine and avoiding the sheriff in the hills of Kentucky.
I'm playing the original version, though the BASIC code I found in the archives seems to have been typed in by an anonymous benefactor, as there are a few textual differences between this version and the one published in the Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures. The game was commercially published by The Programmer's Guild in 1980 before appearing in print form, and has also been ported to the Commodore 64 and IBM PC.
The player's goal is simple -- we must DELIVER WHITE-LIGHTNING (MOONSHINE)
FROM YOUR FARM IN GEORGETOWN THROUGH THE HILLS AND HOLLOWS TO
KNAWBONE. (The original source code refers to POSSUM HOLLOW instead of GEORGETOWN, which may be a clue about where this version originated.) The intro tells us that is the player's official last run, trying to raise money
for college before going straight, but warns us that IF THE LAW DON'T GET YOU, THE MOUNTAIN WILL.
Thunder Road is somewhat unusual among adventure games, as it has very few
inventory objects, and no command for listing our current inventory. It's a linear story, with lots of dead-ends and single-choice scenarios, but the simple plot moves along quickly.
I always encourage interested readers to explore the games I cover here before reading my detailed comments; Thunder Road isn't difficult, as long as it's approached with persistence (and ideally an emulator with good save-state support.) I'm trying to capture these in detail for posterity, so I will have no qualms about revealing the plot, the puzzles, and the ending. In other words, beyond this point you'll find plentiful...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
We start out down on the farm, with a classic '57 SOUPED UP CHEVY LOADED WITH WHITE-LIGHTNING, along with an old barn and our faithful still. We can't GO BARN, but EXAMINE BARN suggests that THERE IS SOMETHING THERE. We have to ENTER BARN instead -- this may turn out to be an old-fashioned parser struggle in places.
The barn contains two spare tires and some parts for the still. GET PARTS is ineffective -- YOU NERD- WHAT WOULD I DO WITH IT -- but we can GET TIRES. Any unsuccessful GET, even for items that don't exist in the game, returns the default response, so we can't trick the parser into revealing clues about the dictionary.
We can't go N unless we're in the car; unlike the navigation systems in most adventure games, we'll be spending most of our time in our car. Immediately after leaving the farm we see that THE REVENUERS (horrors!) are ABOUT 10 MILES BEHIND ME, and we are approaching 3 FORKS IN THE ROAD. Going S does not take us back to the farm, but downhill on Dead Man's Curve, where we shortly perish; E takes us back to the farm.
Going W at the fork instead runs into a narrow road where DUMB OLD DEPUTY EARNEST HARDLEY has a roadblock set up. We can't JUMP ROADBLOCK -- the standard adventure game navigation system doesn't really capture the feel of speeding along mountain roads, I must say. If we hang around too long near the Deputy, though, we're arrested and the game is over.
North of the fork is a dead end where the revenuers shortly catch up with us, so we'd better see if we can talk to Deputy Hardley and get past his roadblock somehow. Any contact seems to lead to arrest. I tried to STEER CAR on Dead Man's Curve, revealing that we are ill-prepared for the task at hand, as apparently I NEVER LEARNED HOW TO 'STEER' SOMETHING. We can't HIT DEPUTY or AVOID ROADBLOCK, nor does it help to SPEED UP, PUSH GAS or DRIVE FAST. HELP just tells us that DEPUTY HARDLY DOESN'T HAVE ENOUGH SENSE TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN. But we can RUN ROADBLOCK to get past it, smashing through it and leaving the angered deputy in the dust.
Past the roadblock, we come to a "T" in the road. Heading north takes us to some woods, where we find out that SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THE CAR. We can EXIT CAR to find a FUNNY LOOKING BOX containing... A FORTUNE COOKIE. We can't GET COOKIE -- but OPEN COOKIE helpfully yields DON'T BE FUNNY. TRY, BREAK COOKIE. We BREAK COOKIE and WHAT DO YOU KNOW, A FORTURN! [sic -- but this isn't the Boners' fault, it's a mistype.] The fortune reads, cryptically, "HE WHO ABANDONS HOPE WILL BE CLOSED OUT." But if we dilly-dally too long here, the law soon catches up with us.
South of the T is a dark wood leading to a BUMPY ROAD where we see A CUTE BLOND LADY HITCHIKING [sic]. We should probably stay focused on the task at hand, but for history's sake I'll stop and... PICK UP BLOND? PICK UP LADY? GET LADY finally hints that we should TRY PICK-UP LADY. And after all that trouble, we see her take off in our car, with our precious cargo of moonshine. Restoring and just driving past her, we're still stuck; smoke pours out of the hood, the engine's blown, and we're arrested. There's nothing we can do to prevent this, it's just the wrong choice to make; Thunder Road's designers provide us with lots of choices, but in general only one is correct at any point.
Trying the northern route again, we see on closer examination that the problem with the car is that it has two flat tires. We CHANGE TIRES, using the spares we took from the barn at the start of the game, and we're automatically back on the road.
We soon come to another T intersection, this one branching east and west. W puts us IN D [typo] DARK TUNNEL, and continuing west brings us to where we see A STRANGE LIGHT UP AHEAD. I hope it's not a train! It's not, but going W again leads to another dead end, where we discover SHERIFF BUBA WITH A GUN AT MY HEAD. Man, I bet that guy would like to buy a B.
S leads to an UNKNOWN ROAD -- we're apparently not a very well-oriented ridge runner -- and driving west at that point leads to a lightning strike that sets the car on fire, destroying the moonshine and the player. Going south instead leads to a bridge... that's out, as helpfully noted by a sign. We can get out of the car to find an old pipe, which I never found a use for, and some bushes and tree limbs. We can't HIDE CAR or JUMP BRIDGE, but EXAMINE TREE discovers AN OLD ROAD BEHIND THE TREES! Fortunately we have time to MOVE TREES before the law catches up again.
Backtracking to check out more of the map, I learned that heading E of the east-west T leads to a gravel road, where the revenuers take a wrong turn; roads here lead east to a church parking lot or south back to the bridge area. We can get out of the car at the church, where we see AN OPEN DOOR; we can't ENTER DOOR but we can ENTER CHURCH to find a LARGE PIPE ORGAN. It's unplayable, it seems, but closer examination of the instrument yields A SET OF KEYS. These always come in handy in adventure games, so we'll take them with us.
Past the church is a GAS STATION, with paths leading back to the bridge area and the church. Taking the hidden road by the bridge leads to another dead end with a locked gate, and unlocking the gate is complicated by the LARGE MEAN LOOKING BEAR here. HELP suggests, perhaps unwisely, that we FIGHT IT! - and, to my great surprise, FIGHT BEAR actually works: OH NO ** WHAT A FIGHT ** YOU KILLED IT (though we can also randomly fail.) But then the law catches up again, while we were distracted beating a bear to death. This plays out much faster if we just UNLOCK GATE immediately after pulling up to it -- this seems to be a bug, actually, as afterward we just "GET BACK IN THE CAR," without ever having to deal with fighting the bear or even exiting the car.
Now we're driving across FARMER BROWN'S PASTURE, where we again have a few choices about which way to go, only one of which is a good idea. Driving south gets us permanently stuck in FARMER BROWN'S LAKE; the western route leads to a BULL PASTURE where bulls charge the car and we're dead again.
Going east gets us back on to the main road, where a sign indicates we're now just 2 MILES SOUTH OF KNAWBONE. Of course, another bridge between here and there is closed for repairs. The game's parser again reveals a refreshing sense of humor -- if we try to JUMP BRIDGE, we're told DON'T BE RIDICULOUS. WHAT I NEED TO DO IS JUMP RIDGE. That works, and after we JUMP RIDGE we find ourselves on the other side. One quick move north to Knawbone, and victory is ours!
These people must really like our moonshine -- they're prepared to give us ALL THEIR MONEY, which ought to cover the player's college education (at least, circa 1980.) It takes a village to raise a child, as they say --in this case, a booze-loving village with minimal living expenses and no sense of irony.
I hadn't played any of the Boner family adventure games before -- they created at least four titles for the TRS-80, working with Bob "Captain 80" Liddil's The Programmer's Guild. Thunder Road was a quick little game to play, something I appreciated after tackling more substantial adventures in recent weeks. The design is very linear, with numerous unpredictable fatal dead ends, but it has a sense of humor and with a modern emulator (and frequent saves) it's much more playable than it was back in the day. Good, albeit brief, stuff.