Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Teen Agent (1995)

(UPDATED 03/07/2013:  Corrected a couple of Euro-centric errors!)

This week we're back in point-and-click animated adventure territory with Teen Agent, created circa 1994 by Polish developer Metropolis Software House.  It was originally distributed as shareware, with the first of three sections given away for free, and later sold commercially by an international hodgepodge of small publishers before the developer declared it freeware in recent times.  According to Wikipedia, it was the first CD-ROM game developed in Poland, although I'm not sure why it had to be on CD, as there are no voice-overs and the graphic style is simple; the entire game only takes up about 12 megabytes (I use the word "only" circa 2013, of course.)

This title screen really doesn't do Teen Agent justice -- it looks like it was slapped on at the last minute for the sake of a cool new VGA fire effect:

The Lucasarts-influenced design features plenty of humor, presented with VGA backgrounds and characters rendered in simpler EGA style, perhaps because the Amiga was a key target platform at the time.  We're playing the PC DOS version here, which doesn't have any problem with the color palette but struggles a bit to render the game's sample-based soundtrack -- the Amiga had hardware for such things, while this version has to emulate it for the Soundblaster and occasionally stutters a bit.   The excellent score by Radek Szamrej still comes through nicely -- it has a bouncy 1980's Commodore 64/Amiga demo-scene charm, and while the various music loops tend to be short, they don't wear out their welcome.  Some of the English text, translated from the Polish, is a bit odd, with more than the usual number of typos, but the game is completely playable and the humor still comes through well.  There are no dialogue trees, however, so character interaction is a bit limited.

As always, I encourage readers to sample Teen Agent before proceeding here -- it's one of several animated adventure games available for free at GOG.com.  It's a substantial game, but not too difficult -- at least there aren't any unfair dead ends or sudden deaths, though there are a few visible seams in the storytelling and some of the puzzle solutions are, shall we say, obscure at best.  It's still worth a play, or at least a sample, and the price is certainly right these days.  If you do intend to be a Teen Agent yourself, you should stop reading here and come back later, as the following discussion gives away everything I discovered while playing; in other words, there are...

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

The prologue establishes that the (American?) government is trying to stop an apparently supernatural band of thieves, who are causing gold to vanish right out of the world's vaults:

An efficient but addle-brained government agency called the RGB (even the acronym is a secret) is charged with solving extraordinary problems.  They need a hero, so they consult with a psychic to pick a random name out of the phone book -- as it turns out, our hero, a typical teenager named Mark Hopper.  The promise of possibly meeting girls in the line of duty is all Mark needs to go off to training camp.

Standing near the guard shack, Mark can engage the guard in conversation to learn that he can't get into the training camp without "documents" of some kind.  The guard makes no bones about the fact that he will have to shoot if we just try to sneak in, and we can't step back out of the area, so this puzzle has to be solved here.  A butterfly flitting around can't be clicked on, and the guard's magazine is not accessible either.  We don't have a variety of options, either -- no range of icons or text parser, just pointing and clicking.  This isn't even a puzzle, as it turns out -- it just took me a while to find the inventory sub-screen.  If I had glanced at the manual, I would have known that we actually have to move the cursor to the upper edge of the display.  Once we've done that, we just have to select the pass and then use it on the guard to gain entrance.  There's no verb interface here -- we can left-click to examine an item, and right-click to generically use it; at least items of interest are highlighted with text when we mouse over them, so we don't have to waste a lot of time trying to examine undefined items.

Now Mark is inside the RGB facility, where he finds a trash can, the Cantine door, and a couple of other mysterious doors.  Door 001 introduces Mark to a hardcore training officer who assigns him three trials a la The Secret of Monkey Island.  The first is an escape challenge from behind a locked door.  There's a bare bed, from which a spring can be liberated; a hanging bare light bulb, which can be pulled down, freeing the bare end of the wire; and a switch on the wall.  We can talk to some crates outside, which is really just a clickable "outside" stand-in, and yell for help until someone finally brings food.  Now we can connect the live wire to the metal food bowl, using the switch to deliver a charge.  The captain arrives, Mark automatically zaps him, and now... he's welded to the bowl?? ?  We can get the door key from him -- he's not dead, actually, just dazed -- and escape the cell.

The second trial is an interrogation challenge -- we must obtain a secret password from our captive, the captain again.  The room contains some promising items, but blunt swords and model guns aren't going to work on this tough guy.  We can leave the room and pick up some rope from the trash can outside, as well as do a little more exploring of the grounds.

A camouflage tent isn't of much use, but we can see a mysterious object outside the fence.  A bird hangs around near the mud pool that comprises part of an obstacle course.  A brick climbing wall provides for a Pink Floyd joke, but is not good for much else at this point.  The Cantine's bartender indicates there are only three men on the base, and no women, "no cry" (the game is full of random pop culture jokes like this.)  There's also a door at the back of the bar Mark can't currently open.

Some crumbs from one of the bar tables seem like they might have something to do with the bird, but we can't use them with the bird or throw them onto the pole or into the mud pool to attract its attention.  And Mark doesn't have the upper body strength to get all the away across the rope suspended over the mud pool.

We can stick the bedspring in the solid ground in front of the brick wall, and acquire a shovel on the other side of the wall (why we couldn't just walk around behind the wall is never explained.)  We can also take a branch from a plant near the wall.

The branch can be used to tickle the captain, who drops his swiss army knife.  With the knife we can cut the fence near the tent, and discover that the tantalizing mysterious object is... stuck in the ground.  Mark can dig it up with the shovel, to find... a kaleidoscope?  It was apparently confiscated from the guard at the entrance -- we can give it to him to get his Soldier News magazine... and steal his grenade while he's playing with the 'scope.  No wonder the RGB is in trouble!

We can't scare the captain with the grenade, or use it to blow open his desk or locker, but if we offer him the magazine he'll give up the password, COFFEE -- these guys are apparently hard up for entertainment.  Saying the password to the tea-drinking barman gets us to the third task, playing hide-and-seek to find the captain.  We also get to take the empty coffee cup along with us.

It looks like the guard in the shack at the entrance might be the captain, but how can we confirm that suspicion?  If that's not him, and he's hiding in the tent, we can't try to frag him by throwing the grenade in.  We can tie the rope to the grenade, leaving it attached to the pin, and use this unexpected combination to blow open the desk drawer in the captain's office, pocketing a... some medicine.  (One annoying thing about Teen Agent is that the protagonist often picks up revealed items without saying anything at all about what they are, so we have to go into the inventory screen to find out what's just been acquired.)

We can mix the medicine with the bread crumbs, and use the mixture on the post where the bird is perching to drug the poor creature into a more portable form.  We can also get some mud in the mug, after falling into the mud pool yet again.

The mug looks a lot like the barman's tea mug, but we can't just replace it (nor is it clear why we would want to.)  The medicine is used up, so that's not what we want to do.  But we can get the bird to perch on the radio's coat-hanger antenna in the Cantine [sic?], and then swap the mugs out, so apparently we want to do that for some reason.

The bartender drinks the mud and drops off for a moment -- I'm not sure why -- and we can now access the storeroom at the back of the bar.  The boxes and barrels are generally unsearchable, and a locker here is secured, but there's somebody or something blinking through a hole in one of the barrels.  We can't poke the hole with the tickling branch, but we can just click on it to poke the captain in the eye with a finger, revealing his whereabouts and completing the training and the first act of the game.

The second act takes Mark Hopper to a small village where a wealthy local man is acting suspiciously -- he may have something to do with the mysterious thefts.  We have nothing in inventory but a small tube of super glue.  (This was originally the pay-to-play portion of the game, starting from a clean slate after the shareware first act.)

A boy in the village is playing basketball against a wall; we can't determine his name, unless it's literally "Sonny" and he's just having us on.  We can steal a comb from a car nearby.  Sonny is too weak to get the ball high enough to put it through the basket; if he does manage it, we learn, his grandfather will take him to the zoo, so we probably want to make this happen so we can poke around the homestead uninterrupted.  Inside the house, grandpa is smoking and won't let us borrow his fan on such a hot day, or take his shotgun.  But he will let us take a single handkerchief from the mostly empty drawers in a large bureau.

The neighboring house has a large panting dog who looks a bit like Scooby-Doo and blocks access to a valve on the outside of the building. The old lady who owns the house won't let Mark borrow her feather duster or a wax apple.  But with one sight of the young girl of the house, Anne, Mark is completely smitten.

Another path leads to a cave whose entrance is blocked by a thorny bush.  In the other direction lies a field with a scarecrow -- Mark can find a needle in a haystack here, with surprising ease, and pick up a rake and sickle.  There's also time for some animal abuse, as we kick a hen to obtain a feather from its tail, consider catching a mouse, and realize we can't steal the diving fins from the scarecrow's feet because of the large crows perching on his shoulders.  The sickle is too blunt to cut the thorns away from the cave.  The boat at the lake has a broken paddle, and we can't seem to restore it to working order with the superglue and/or the rake; there's an island visible in the middle of the lake, and an old-fashioned well with no bucket or rope.

There's a forest area with another house nearby.  A large nut hangs in a tree, but we can't reach it and the squirrel keeping himself busy nearby seems disinclined to assist.  Inside the house we can acquire some rotten cheese, and a chainsaw with no fuel.  There's also a cupboard with a suspiciously notable heart-shaped hole in its doors, and a sooty fireplace.

The mansion is watched over by a guard; this must be the place we are here to investigate.  Branching paths here also lead to a meadow where bees prevent access to another valve.  At the back of the mansion, a hollow tree looks interesting, if we could climb it -- some sort of creature keeps tickling Mark when he tries to do so.  We can pick a potato from underneath a nearby plant, grab a rock, and attempt to pick up a hedgehog, though it's too spiny for Mark's bare hands; it has a pine cone stuck to its back.

We can't throw the rock at the crows, or grab the mouse using the cheese (at least not just the cheese.)  The mansion guard has dropped a wrapper reading "LOVE CANDY," with a heart design.  The mansion's owner is one John Noty, who has been consulting with a mad scientist, according to the guard, who also gives Mark a chocolate candy.

Now maybe we're getting somewhere -- Mark can trim the candy into a heart shape using the cupboard door in the cottage, then wrap it in the discarded wrapper to produce an impressive-looking gift.  Giving it to Anne yields her ribbon as a gift in return -- she doesn't want to get fat, but Mark insists she take the candy, saying that even Obelix has friends (he's the rotund viking Gaul from the European Asterix comics.)

I needed a walkthrough here -- my sticking point turned out to be a waiting/timing puzzle of the sort that always give me trouble.  If we hang out near the mansion guard for a while, he'll eventually drink and drop a partially full bottle of whiskey.  We have to catch him in the act -- while he's actually taking a swig -- to get him to hastily drop it so that it lands far enough from his post that Mark can grab it.  The walkthrough also indicates that the whiskey can be used as fuel for the chainsaw, which I wouldn't have guessed, necessarily. 

We can talk to the squirrel to get him angry enough to throw the nut down, though it immediately gets lost in the grass and we have to repair the rake -- not by tying or gluing the comb to it, but by using the ribbon to force its ragged teeth into a more useful formation -- to recover the nut.  The chainsaw can't be used on the thorns blocking the cave -- they're too thin for it to be useful, apparently -- but we can use it to saw a branch off the hollow tree in back of the mansion, and then superglue that to the broken paddle to make a useable oar.

Rowing out to the island (which features a very Monkey Island-esque Caribbean musical theme) we can pick a couple of flowers.  Giving one to Anne's grandmother allows us to borrow the feather duster.  We can also give a flower to Anne, though this doesn't accomplish anything new.

The next walkthrough hint I needed was to help me find a lever inside the open car door at Sonny or whatever's house.  We can use this to open the trunk, finding a toolbox containing a car jack and a wrench.  Mark can use the spanner to lower the basketball hoop, getting Sonny's basket and trip to the zoo taken care of.  With grandpa out of the house, we can borrow his fan and shotgun.  Threatening the crows and then firing the shotgun sends them flying off so we can grab the diver's mask and fins from the scarecrow.  Diving near the shore doesn't produce anything interesting though... ?

The carjack can be used to... um... lift up a rock near the cave entrance to recover a bone underneath it.  Giving the bone to the dog per established adventure game tradition lets us access the cellar beneath grandma and Anne's house, though we find it's too dark to see clearly and there's no light switch handy.  Aboveground, we can use the fan to dry the laundry hanging outside the house, and then take the clothesline rope after telling grandma she can collect her dry laundry.

We don't need a lamp -- there is a switch in grandma's cellar, but it's not visible until we have closed and reopened the cellar door; the slamming shut apparently knocks some grime off the walls below, revealing the presence of the switch (and also getting rid of a spiderweb on a shovel -- trying to get the shovel prior to this results in a rather lengthy and funny stretch of Spider-Man fantasy/nightmare text from Mark.)  The axe inspires a Jason Voorhees daydream, but we can't take it with us even though it seems like it could be very handy.

Walkthrough time again -- we can use the handkerchief to block the mouse hole and trap him with the cheese!  I had the right idea but the handkerchief didn't seem like the right tool for the job.

Okay - and this is one I would never have gotten without the walkthrough.  Remember the well with no rope?  We're supposed to turn the handle to sharpen the sickle.  Yep.  Now we can cut the thorns in front of the cave away, and look in a hole with a message above it concerning gold at the end of the road.  This puzzle is also pretty obtuse -- we have to put the mouse in the hole, and then before he comes back out, glue the rock over the hole, forcing him to use an alternate pathway, pushing a gold nugget out in the process.

We can use the feather duster in the cottage fireplace to gather coal dust, then use it on the wild potato to end up with a painted potato that looks a lot like a grenade.  This next bit makes no sense at all -- we can now toss it into the hollow tree, it gets thrown back a few times, and finally an owl emerges from the tree as the painted potato explodes in Mark's face.  Trying to climb the tree now isn't quite successful, but triggers a cutscene as John Noty's guards try to inform him about suspicious activity concerning a young man trying to enter the mansion grounds, which Noty doesn't want to hear about right now.

As the number of unsolved puzzles shrinks, paradoxically it seems I need more and more hints.  We can swap the nut for the wax apple at grandma's house, and then... trade it to the hedgehog for the pine cone stuck on his back, even though in the end he doesn't want the fake fruit.  We can then... combine the pine cone with the needle to produce something of as-yet-undetermined purpose.

The diving equipment is difficult to use -- while we can see some objects worth investigating underwater, Mark can't stay down very long and he can't talk.  This seems like a puzzle, but it's really just an artificial roadblock imposed by the story structure.

We can use the pine cone/needle with the feather to produce a dart -- throwing it at the bee hive summons a bear, who distracts the bees as they chase him offscreen.  Now we can enter an underground passage -- too dark to see -- that leads to a trapdoor just outside the mansion, triggering another cutscene as Noty's staff tries to warn him about the boy trying to get inside the mansion.

Now we can get back to one of those things that I find aggravating in adventure game designs -- we can't grab the anchor while diving until we have triggered that second cutscene.  It has nothing to do with whether we have the proper diving equipment, we don't have to find a way to increase Mark's air supply -- we just aren't allowed to interact with it until the story is at the right point.  So now we can pick it up, and tie the rope to it to create a makeshift grappling hook.

Trying to use this improvised climbing gear to get over the wall triggers a third cutscene -- Mark reportedly "may be dangerously [sic]" - but Noty just tells the guards to keep him out of the mansion.  We also see a giant robot guard/servant of some kind meandering about.

Trying to bribe the guard with a gold nugget is unsuccessful, but triggers yet another scene -- Noty is getting impatient as Mark keeps trying to get in.  We can also try to dig under the wall with the shovel, and now Noty himself steps outside to take Mark on, attempting to bribe him off with a hundred dollar banknote before going back inside the mansion.  It turns out to have "NEVER! ANNE" written on it -- apparently a returned payment for a proposition refused?  Asking Anne about it confirms Mark's suspicions, angering him enough to punch out the guard and break down Noty's front door, gaining access to the inner courtyard and the climax of the game.

Act III takes place inside the mansion's grounds, with a very Axel F.-style theme playing as Mark tries to get inside the main house.  Our inventory has been reset, stripped back down to nothing but the ever-useful tube of super glue.  There's a window that can't be opened, a strange sculpture near the front door, and nothing else... except as it turns out we can just open the unlocked front door.

The kitchen features a rotund chef, and Alex can't mess with anything in here while he's around.

Another room contains the robot we glimpsed earlier -- Mike the Robot speaks bad rap-speak, or a Polish white person's impression thereof, revealing that he is a robotic safe that can be opened only by his owner, identification being based on view, scent and "da voice."

The mansion's luxurious bathroom has a tub, a sink with a hole that's pointed out though we have no immediate use for it, a dusty mirror, and one of Noty's dirty socks, which Mark refuses to touch with his bare hands.

A study/rec room of some kind features a large TV and a bottle of cognac -- Mark considers drinking it, but decides he doesn't want to "deprave the kids."  Reading a newspaper discovers the remote control hidden in it, and examining the fashionably round couch turns up a cork hidden underneath it.  Oddly we can't use the cork with the bottle, or the remote with the TV (it just plays static when we click on it, and using the remote on it seems to make no difference.)  Trying to use the hi-fi system notes that we have nothing to play.  There's a VCR, which has no record function, that the remote does work with -- but it has no tape in it, apparently.

Upstairs is Noty's large study, and his six desk drawers appear to constitute a puzzle.  Each drawer has an interior of a different color, and adjacent drawers can't be opened.  The trash can contains a piece of paper, which has nothing interesting written on it but can be... combined with the cork to make it larger?  Okay.  One drawer has a dictaphone in it, but it has no batteries; another has a polaroid camera, all set to take a picture (probably of something incriminating as the story develops.)

So it appears we have some puzzles to deal with, after exploring a bit.  I missed seeing a pair of pincers in the cognac bucket earlier -- tongs, essentially, which we could use to pick up the sock, except we need something to store it in.  We can stuff the augmented cork in the sink, and fill it up with hot water, so that must be a useful thing to do.  We can steal a bottle of chilli [sic] (this is the European spelling, I have learned!) in the kitchen that looks a lot like the cognac bottle, and try to swap it with the cognac -- but Mark is pretty sure it won't fool anyone.  We need to use the hot water in the bathroom to remove the OLD MEXICAN CHILLI [sic] (wouldn't that be pronounced Chee-Yee in Mexico?) label, dress up the cognac bottle, and switch it.

After we put the cognac in place, Mark suggests that the cook try spicing up the stew -- the poor man puts the cognac in, instantly gets drunk, realizes the stew is ruined, and leaves the room in disgrace.  There's a little Inuit hiding in the refrigerator when we open it, prompting Mark to conclude he's going "slightly mad."  With the cook out of the way, we can grab a rolling pin and beat the batteries out of the radio... though they appear to end up above the kitchen somewhere?  No, that's just suggested by the debris animation -- they're still there in the wreckage of the radio, two 1.5 volt batteries perfect for powering the dictaphone.  There's nothing recorded on it, but it's working now.

I needed to reference the walkthrough again to find out that there's one special book in the study upstairs -- not really visually distinguishable, and only discoverable by hovering the mouse pointer over each of the dozens of books on the shelves.  This particular book can be examined to find the title "Charlie Brown and company."  While we can just luck into the dictaphone discovery by opening all six of the drawers, we have to leave the brown drawer open and tug on the book (it's noted that it's stuck in place earlier) to reveal a secret compartment on the shelf below, containing an unlabeled videocassette.

Playing the video reveals footage of John Noty singing Singin' in the Rain to the camera -- it's incredibly annoying, and we're grateful this is not a "talkie" game, but we can record his voice with the dictaphone and snap his picture with the polaroid camera.  Now we just need the sock to convince Mike the Robot to open his, er, himself, it would seem.

We can get another piece of paper from the study's trash -- I thought at first this might be a reappearance bug after we've used it with the cork, but we actually do need a second piece of paper.  We can ignite it using the hot plate in the kitchen, and... what?  The fridge now contains something normal in place of the phantom Eskimo -- some meat, frozen to the shelf -- which we can free with the burning paper to end up with some veal in a plastic bag.  Now we can put the veal in the stew, for the sole purpose of freeing up the plastic bag so we can get the sock!  (Using the bag on the sock or trying to combine the bag and the tongs does nothing useful -- we still have to use the tongs on the sock, and now Mark can carry it using the bag in inventory, instead of refusing to do so.)

Now we can get Mike's safe open, revealing a jar and a book.  Now a cutscene ensues, in which some kind of mad scientist tries to visit Noty, trying to talk his way past the guard who calls him a "filthy terrorist."  Noty's not happy with his work either, but he says his new invention is tested and can be demonstrated.  It's a shrinking potion -- no, wait, that's just a side effect.  The scientist demonstrates that he can now pick pockets easily, with "THE TIME PILL!"   It speeds someone up to one thousand times normal speed for a few seconds -- but he doesn't quite know how he made these pills; he isn't much of a scientist, apparently.

The story breaks down a bit here, as the jar Mark found in Noty's office seems to contain these same pills already and Noty has apparently been using them.  The scientist still wants Noty to build him a new lab, offering the time pill patent in exchange for his financial support.  It's time for Noty to do a Day of the Tentacle-inspired "TAKE ON THE WORLD!" joke, and then Mark must hide as he comes into the study.  There's a nice surreal visual gag here, as the only safe hiding place turns out to be the "lower left edge of the screen," dangling Mark briefly outside the game's reality.

This next puzzle is odd -- Noty leaves a door handle behind in Mike's room, and while the bathroom door can be opened with its knob as usual, there's a second hole on the far side of the door, causing it to open "backwards" and leading to a completely different room.

There's a huge whirling fan in here, which can be handily bypassed using the jar of time pills we took from the safe earlier, and now we catch the villain and his scientist ally plotting.  Unfortunately, Mark's entrance is none too discreet -- his attempt to attack Noty using the time pills is blocked by an invisible force field.

Fortunately, as Noty is about to kill our Teen Agent hero, the military arrives to save us.  Mark's unknowingly been carrying a hidden camera in his hat, so they knew what was going on (and provided very little help along the way.)  The RGB doesn't really care about capturing Noty, but Mark wants a little revenge before he hands over the time pills to his employers.  We find Noty in the rec room, inside the wardrobe, packing up his ill-gotten money before fleeing.

We have to hit him on the head with the chili chilli bottle to knock him out.  As the ending unfolds, we learn to Mark's dismay that lovely Anne was just another agent, here to keep an eye on Mark's progress and give him motivation.  But Mark gets made an official RGB secret agent, and victory is ours!

There was never a sequel to this 1994/95 game, though it seems we're being set up for one as Mark finds one last time pill that accidentally got left in his pocket:

Teen Agent is a competently executed point-and-click adventure game, and I hadn't heard of it back in the day so it was fun to discover it a few decades after its release.  It's got a good sense of humor, and while many of the puzzles are silly they're not quite aggravating.  Good fun from our friends in Eastern Europe!


  1. Viking!?! Viking!?! Obelix is a Gaul, not a Viking! I suppose all foreigners are the same to you Americans!

    (Oh, BTW, "chilli" is the standard British spelling, so no need for that patronising "sic".)

  2. D'ohh! Corrected as noted. Thanks very much! (In my defense, I note that my first exposure to Asterix was seeing his mustachioed visage on a licensed soda bottle during a childhood trip to Norway when I was 9 or 10. Longstanding confusion has apparently ensued!) I still think that the Americanised spelling is closer to the original word, but I'll see your chilli and raise you an -ised. :)