Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Vial of Doom (1980/2012)

The almost-lost Roger M. Wilcox adventure game archives provide us with another vintage text adventure this week, with The Vial of Doom, Mr. Wilcox's seventh game and the one he considers his first "good" adventure game.  Like the others, it was written for the TRS-80 and recently converted to Windows -- it was based on a short story written by Wilcox, which he adapted to game form after Greg Hassett's World's Edge established that the scope of the story might not be an issue after all.

All of Mr. Wilcox's adventures are freely available at his website, so interested readers are encouraged to experience The Vial of Doom before proceeding here.  It's not an easy game and there's some parser wrestling involved -- I had to peek at the source code to figure a few specific things out -- but it's not too difficult to be fun.  My comments will cover my entire playthrough, including dead ends and fatal errors, so there are certain to be...

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

We begin on a sand dune near a mysterious-looking lake, where the parser helpfully suggests that some verbs specific to this game are STICK, SWING and PLUCK (this message's earlier, irrelevant appearance in Space Traveller was an error left over from this code, corrected by the author since I played through the game.)

EXAMINE LAKE indicates that There is something big at the bottom of it.  But we can't just GO LAKE -- You would drown! What do you think you are, a god?  The sand dune naturally suggests we might want to DIG, but we have nothing to dig with yet -- fortunately there's a shovel stashed in the desert just to the west.

DIGging at the starting location drops us to the bottom of a sandy hole, where we see a pyramid with a stone portal.  We can't climb back out, though, so we need to restart and explore a bit before we do this.

We pass by a mountain top on the way to a city to the east.  There's a jewelry store here, with a Guard with a Thermos of coffee, most likely a telling detail.  There's a closed gate in front of the zoo to the south, and an airport with an empty liquid sucker and a gate attendant, who won't let us proceed into the airport without a ticket.

A pawn shop offers some solution possibilities -- the clerk offers a dagger, a turquoise gem, and a sleeping pill.  We can't BUY anything here but we can try to TAKE things -- The clerk says you'll have to pay cash.  We can't PAWN anything to raise cash, as the parser doesn't recognize that specific verb.

Can we USE SUCKER at the lake?  No, Nothing happensSUCK LIQUIDI don't know what "liquid" isSUCK LAKEThere is nothing here to suckRUN SUCKERNot YET!!!  Hmmmmm.

Well, let's go back to the pyramid -- the pyramid's portal bears a golden inscription, which our character handily translates to "Touch and go."  We TOUCH PORTAL and we are whisked away to a tomb chamber.  There's a tiny plastic container here, and a lead box.  And also an Animated mummy who appears when we take the lead box -- this must be the mummy who turns up unexpectedly in Interstellar War, another Wilcox game converted after this one.  The mummy isn't immediately threatening, but he/she won't let us leave the tomb chamber.  EXAMINE BOX reveals that it contains a Twinkling vial with thin chain attached.

At this moment, the spirit of "Law" appears to inform us that the vial is controlled by "Chaos," the bad guy.  You'd think this major evil villain could come up with a more intimidating name, but in short we must round up a turquoise gem, fire opal, cobra venom, basilisk eye, and octopus ink, mix them in an alabaster bowl, then put the vial in and *RUN* (hence the Not YET!!! message.)  So while this isn't quite a treasure hunt, it's going to be an ingredient hunt.

The Spirit of Law also mentions that the vial may give you a little strength to escape, but it seems we can't KICK or PUSH or HIT the mummy to any effect.  But if we WEAR VIAL, then we can HIT MUMMY and Baam! You made it fly apart! -- leaving some Unwound Ace bandages in its wake for comic relief.  The text suggests that wearing the vial is risky, so it might be wise to REMOVE VIAL; it was stored in a lead box, after all.

Now we can leave the tomb chamber to find ourselves back in the bottom of the sandy hole.  DIG still won't get us back out.  We can't CLIMB.  Oh, okay -- we need to WEAR VIAL again, then we can DIG and With a surge of great strength, you get back to the sand dune!

While experimenting back in the city, I discovered that if we WEAR VIAL a third time, we are taken over by Chaos.  This also happens if we DROP BOX, it appears.  So it is risky!  I was curious about this, so I checked the code -- it's not the number of times we wear the vial, but where we wear it -- near the pyramid, where Chaos' influence is strong, it is not dangerous, but we are more vulnerable elsewhere.

Trial and error establishes that we can somehow OPEN GATE -- With what? -- WITH VIAL.  The zoo is small, just one location featuring a Cobra's cage.  We need cobra venom, so the liquid sucker may be handy here.  We can GO CAGE, but the cobra is asleep.  We need one of those special verbs here -- after trying to USE SUCKER and SUCK VENOM and SUCK COBRA and ATTACH CONTAINER and MILK COBRA I finally thought to STICK COBRA -- Into where? (1 word) -- CONTAINER, and now we have a container filled with cobra venom.  This wakes the cobra, of course, and the cobra won't let us out the way we came in.

HELP suggests that we use the power of Law  -- and we can USE LAW to do so, but that doesn't seem to help here.  We seem to be stuck, so let's restore and try again.

We can SWING VIAL in the pawn shop to hypnotize the clerk and avail ourselves freely of his goods.  With the dagger, and the USE of LAW, we can KILL COBRA -- oddly, the creature vanishes in a sparking cloud of electrical smoke? -- and escape the cage after taking our venom sample.

We've got two ingredients down now, and the clerk is still hypnotized, so let's see if we can drug the jewelry store guard with the sleeping pill.  We can't STICK PILL into the thermos -- It didn't stick.  Perhaps we can play on the guard's sympathies with WEAR BANDAGE -- no, You can't wear a bandage.  But we can USE LAW -- and now The guard is off-guard!  We can't KILL the distracted GUARD.  Ack -- we have to THROW PILL -- it conveniently lands in the guard's thermos (what aim we have!), and then he drinks it and falls asleep.

Now we can just GO STORE -- no -- GO JEWELRYENTER STOREGO SHOP?  No.  Hmmmm.  Can we ROB STORE?  Nope.  This whole situation's a little odd from an ethical perspective, especially considering that we're using the power of Law to help us out.  We can EXAMINE GUARD -- Try frisking him -- then FRISK GUARD to obtain a wad of money.  Once we GET MONEY, the guard wakes up and pleads with us not to tell his boss he was sleeping on the job, and to bribe him.  We BRIBE GUARD and he gives us the fire opal from the jewelry store!  This action seems unlikely to help him preserve his job, sleeping or not, and moreover we have just bribed him with his own money.  But dang it, the fate of the world is at stake!

We have three ingredients now -- we still need octopus ink and a basilisk eye, and as we haven't run into either creature yet we have some exploring to do.  We can't KILL ATTENDANT to get into the airport -- I cannot allow you to do that, Frodo --  and we can't USE LAW in the lake area -- Sorry. There seems to be some Chaotic interference in this area.  But we can USE LAW to make the attendant much friendlier, allowing us to enter the airport and GO AIRPLANE in this pre-TSA world.

We fly through the air, and land somewhere else -- apparently the captain is rather close-mouthed about our destination -- and find ourselves at a bus terminal.  We ride for a while, then get off somewhere else, near a forest where we find a flat reflective stone, south of a basilisk residing near another mysterious-looking lake.

We SHOW STONE, and Zap!  The mirror has just transformed the basilisk to stone via its own gaze!  How do these creatures ever manage to make little basilisks?  Now we need an eye... but it's too late, it seems -- PLUCK EYE yields only You can't do that... yet!  We need to pluck the eye before we turn the creature to stone, quickly before it does the same to us.

Now we have four of the required ingredients, but we have to find our way back home.  We can USE LAW to enter the lake here without fear of drowning, unlike back home, and spy a Sleeping giant octopus in a mysterious inky lake.  SUCK INK doesn't work at the moment, as the parser doesn't recognize the noun "ink", nor can we STICK SUCKER or STICK OCTOPUS. But we can... erm... SUCK OCTOPUS -- and now it wakes up in deadly fashion, putting us in a tight bind with its tentacles.  At least we have our coveted liquid sucker full of octopus ink now.

We can't KILL TENTACLE or KILL OCTOPUS -- but the latter returns Be more specific -- a hint?  THROW DAGGER lodges the deadly blade in the octopus and allows us to escape north, finding ourselves back at the sand dune.

Now Law and Chaos materialize as giants and begin to battle it out, with Law conferring great strength upon us in the process.  We seem to be getting close to the story's finale, but we still need the alabaster bowl to put all the ingredients together, and we haven't done anything with the ace bandages.

I tried to THROW the lead BOX at Chaos, which did nothing, but when I picked it up again the re-Animated mummy appeared and would not let me go anywhere else.  Restore and retry time!

We have great strength, eh?  We can't THROW MOUNTAIN -- let's not be silly here -- but we can GET PYRAMID below the sand dune and THROW PYRAMID at Chaos!  It knocks Chaos down, ending the fight, and Law says: "Make the mixture here!" with Mr. Wilcox adding P.S. Why not look at the debris of the pyramid?

Doing so, we find an alabaster bowl atop the mountain now.  We can't MAKE MIXTURE or MIX INGREDIENTS or CAST SPELL... but, ah, we just have to drop all the ingredients in the sand dune area, at which point The mixture has begun to glow deep red

Now we can DROP VIAL -- and The vial vibrates, getting ready to explodeOh, by the way -- **YET**!!  Do we have to SAY YET?  Maybe not, it explodes anyway... ohhhh, right!  Now it's time to RUN.  Even to RUN SUCKER.

And that's not all -- we run to the mountain, where we see a wishing rock and a rapidly approaching fireball from the Chaotic mushroom cloud rapidly expanding on the horizon.  Can we just WISH?  Yes, this transports us to a safe spot on the other side of the mountain, and victory is ours!

The Vial of Doom is definitely a more sophisticated adventure than Wilcox's earlier games, and could easily have passed commercial muster at the time it was written in 1980.  I'm very glad this series hasn't disappeared entirely -- thanks again to Roger M. Wilcox for making his adventure games, and their history, so readily available.


  1. Do a Google image search on "milking a cobra" to see what I had in mind by sticking the cobra in the container.

    I must say, Stillgaming is doing my old TRS-80 adventures a world of good service. Not only is every one of his reviews basically free advertising for these games, his play-throughs have provided me with some valuable playtest Q.A.. In the 30 years since I wrote this game, I'd never thought of picking up the Unwound Ace Bandages -- so I never realized my code for determining when the Mummy should come to life was bugged. (Picking up the box didn't animate the mummy ONLY IF the bandages were left alone in the Pyramid. I've just fixed that bug, and now the mummy won't appear if picking up the box when the bandages exist ANYWHERE.)

  2. Well now I'll have to download this little gem and play it. I would love to tell my kids that they have to drop the iPad and start playing something where they have to use their imagination a little, as well as ... type! :)

  3. Incidentally, I've just transcribed the original, 25-page short story I wrote in May 1980 that was the inspiration for _The Vial of Doom_. It's at http://www.rogermwilcox.com/stories/vial_of_doom_1980.html , if you're interested. WARNING: This was written on a mechanical typewriter by a 14-year-old boy, and isn't exactly the pinnacle of literary perfection.

  4. A little credit-where-credit-is-due is in order here:

    It's true that Greg Hassett's _World's Edge_ -- or rather, a review I read of _World's Edge_ in a magazine somewhere -- was the direct inspiration for me to forge ahead and write this adventure.

    But, Greg Hassett also deserves credit for getting me started writing adventures to begin with. In July 1980, _Creative Computing_ magazine published an article of Greg's called "How to Write an Adventure". It was this article that showed me the nitty-gritty details of writing adventure games in BASIC. Without it, I probably never would have attempted to write one.

    Twenty-one TRS-80 text adventures of my own later, the words of Hassett in that article were more true for me than I could have imagined. He said: "If there's anything more addicting than playing adventure games, it's writing them."