Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Tanker Train (1981/2013)

My schedule has cleared up a bit and I feel like I'm back on track, which makes it a good time to tackle Roger M. Wilcox's thirteenth adventure game, Tanker Train.   This one was written for the TRS-80 in 1981, and recently converted to Windows PCs by the author, allowing us to rediscover a quality adventure series that wasn't formally distributed at the time. 

This time around, the player is an FBI agent on vacation, traveling on a bullet-style train traveling at over 400 miles per hour, when we hear a nearby scream followed by quickly scampering footsteps.  (The cutest criminal ever!)  It's a SCORE-less, time-based (actually turn count-based) adventure, a format I enjoy on occasion.

As Mr. Wilcox has made his games freely available, you've really no excuse for not trying this one out yourself before proceeding into my comments below.  But I know life can be busy, and if you just want to read up on this one without having to actually solve it, I won't object.  Just remember that I'm going to document my entire playthrough here, and there are certain to be...

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

We begin in a passenger seat near a closed window, carrying a single shot pistol and an FBI badge.  We can OPEN WINDOW and GO WINDOW, as the designers of this incredibly fast train have prioritized speed over safety, only to learn that You lost your grip and fell! You're dead! in two moves.  More productively, we can GET UP from our comfy seat to find ourselves standing in the passenger car, where we see a dead body and a closed door.

EXAMINE BODY reveals that There is a knife sticking in his back.   Hmmmm... could this have been a murder?!?  We can't open the locked door with anything handy, and SHOOT DOOR just wastes our single bullet.  We can't disrupt the chain of evidence by taking the knife from the body and using it to pick the lock.  Trying to go through the window with nothing in inventory helps our grip not one bit.

HELP tells us only that "I can't help you!  This is supposed to be hard adventure!"  Which it is.  Fortunately, the author has provided his source code for us to peruse when the going gets desperate, and this suggests that a FRISK verb exists (I had tried to SEARCH and EXAMINE and MOVE and GET the body, to no avail.)  FRISK BODY yields a credit card, a note, and a leaflet.  We can't READ CARD (There is nothing on it to read, an odd but perhaps highly secure design for a financial instrument), but the leaflet promotes Mr. Wilcox's The Vial of Doom in the grand Scott Adams tradition, and the note contains an FBI agent's log mentioning a time bomb hidden on the train's tanker car before he was somehow interrupted in mid-sentence by the saboteur, while still having time to secret the note somewhere on his person.

We can OPEN DOOR -- With what? -- CARD to note that it's a Sliding door! and gain access to the train's engine room -- this seems an unusual location for a passenger compartment -- where we see a coal burning fireplace.  (That's an incredibly efficient coal-driven engine if this train is going 400 mph with nary a stoker in sight! Unless it's just for show?)

We can't EXAMINE FIREPLACE to any useful extent, but on a ledge outside the engine room we find a fire extinguisher, and now we can't USE EXTINGUISHER but we can EXTINGUISH FIRE.  And thus we learn that the train is actually electric, so the quaint old engine room's quaint old fireplace is indeed just for show.  Now we have a pile of ashes in the Extinguished fireplace (where else would one keep one's extinguished fire?) and we can DIG ASHES to find a bit of flat and deformed metal.  I hope this wasn't a key earlier in the game's timeline!

We can't GET ASHES, but we can RUB ASHES -- "Ok. You got your hands dirty." -- to enable a better grip on the train, allowing us to hang onto the outside surfaces and climb to the top of the train car.  Apparently this is a very short train, as we can only go south from here to the top of another train car, where a closed air vent blocks progress until we OPEN VENT -- With what? -- METAL (CUT VENT doesn't work, so this must be more like a key or lever in principle.)

We can now drop down into a passenger car -- apparently the one we were riding in at the start of the game can only be boarded via the window, yet more evidence of shoddy design by these speed-obsessed train designers -- and see a security guard.  We can SHOOT GUARD -- except it's "one of your own men! You lose your FBI membership!" and the adventure is over.

The guard won't let us pass when he's alive, demanding that we "Show identification please."  He's apparently ready for a break, as after we SHOW BADGE, He says, "Pass," then leaves.  Then, In the distance you hear a thud, followed by frantic scurrying.  The deadly small animal is at it again!  I  knew that Secret Squirrel was a double agent!

Traveling south (fortunately it seems this moving train is traveling along a straight line) to another passenger car, near the tanker car door, we again see a Security guard.  Acting on a hunch that it's probably not the FBI guard we just met, we can SHOOT GUARD -- "BANG! Got him!" seems positive in response, and the game continues with a Dead guard impostor now lying on the ground. 

We can FRISK GUARD, having learned from experience, and find a security key, though it's not clear whether this belonged to the original guard or the impostor.  At any rate we can use the security key to open the sliding door into the tanker car, which is large enough to occupy two locations on the map.

At the north end is a ladder; at the south end is the Time bomb we've been expecting to find.  We can also go to the caboose, where there's a corroded ladder leading to an upstairs laboratory, though the ladder isn't useful -- trying to CLIMB LADDER establishes only that The corrosion couldn't hold your weight, though I guess there could be other reasons for that.  I am also learning (in my playthrough) that we're now at the "Final countdown! 20 seconds remain."  So I am likely going to have to start over and make up for wasted moves next time through, especially because my panicky SAVE consumes a turn and now I have only 19 seconds left.

Soldiering on, we find that we can't bring the ladder from the tanker car to the caboose to substitute for the corroded ladder, as it can't be moved, but we can climb it in the tanker to discover a large valve on top of the tanker car.  Examination indicates that It's open slightly; we can't OPEN VALVE in a single turn, but we can TURN VALVE to subsequently find that It's closed completely.  We can only toggle between these two states; I'm going to gamble that we want it closed, only because otherwise there's no reason to do any of this.

Returning to the caboose, we see that trying to climb the corroded ladder produced a rod -- though 0 seconds remain on my first try, and ****** B L A M ! ******"; The adventure has ended.

Trying again, being more efficient, I get to the caboose again, with what should be plenty of time to spare.  Trying to GO LAB after the ladder gives way indicates that it's Too high up.  But the ladder extends from it.   Taking the hint and attempting to GO LADDER says You don't see it here, but ignoring that misdirection and trying to JUMP LADDER succeeds, in part because The rod helped! -- though it's not exactly clear why.  Perhaps it's radioactive?  Corroded by steroids?  Rod Stewart?  Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plus typos?

Anyway, now we are in a miniature laboratory, which may explain the scurrying sounds made by the saboteur -- he or she is apparently a tiny little villain.  There are 3 test tubes and an empty beaker here; the tubes contain water, a slippery substance, and a volatile acid -- time for a little chemistry experiment it seems.  But I can't GET 1 or GET TUBE or POUR TUBE 1, or MIX CHEMICALS.  I had to peek at the source code again to learn that we have to use the MAKE verb, which brings up a dialogue allowing us to combine tubes 1, 2, and/or 3 with handy Windows checkboxes.

Combining test tubes 2 and 3 gives us a beaker full of unstable solution, which, as it turns out when I tried to POUR SOLUTION on the bomb, is nitroglycerin.  But while I thought we were dead, it actually  caused the bomb to fly apart, sending flaming bits of it off in all directions! -- fortunately on a much slower, smaller and gentler scale than that description might otherwise imply.  Victory is ours!

(Because I lucked out here, I went back to a save and retried this puzzle to discover that some combinations don't work at all, allowing us to try again; the only real alternative option is plain water from test tube 1, which short-circuits the bomb, causing it to explode.  So nitroglycerin is safer than water in this case!)

I enjoyed my ride on Roger M. Wilcox's Tanker Train; sometimes a quick, simple adventure is absolutely perfect for a lazy afternoon.  I intend to be back on a regular schedule now, though at this writing I have no idea what I'll be playing next.  Stay tuned!


  1. Welcome back to the land of the living!

    If you examine the rod you get from the ladder, the game tells you: "It's spring-loaded. Weird ladder!".

    This was supposed to be how the rod helped you jump such a great height. My own personal theory, though, is that the player is a really good pole-vaulter.

  2. Incidentally, I went back and made sure that in all my adventure games with a turn-count limit (including this one), saving the game does not cost you a turn when the game is restored. (It costs you a turn when you do it, but if you load the saved game you're credited with an extra turn.)