This week, we're going to play through Secret Agent: Mission 1, written by Barry Kolbe for the Atari 8-bit computers and published by ANALOG magazine in 1988. It's unusual in that it was written in machine language, but still published as a type-in with lots of DATA statements and assembler code; I am indebted to whomever preserved it in executable form for the archives. It was apparently Mr. Kolbe's only adventure game, though I did run across a completely different, apparently unrelated Secret Agent - Mission One illustrated adventure for the Apple II computer as well.
Secret Agent: Mission 1 employs a text-compression technique of some technical note in the original magazine article; it saves memory space and also makes it harder to cheat by looking at the code. The display uses a cursive font that isn't always easy to read, and adopts an Infocom-style status bar with the player's location and current score shown at the top of the screen. The parser design is interesting -- many common commands are only available as abbreviations, like I (for inventory) and L (for looking at the room again.) It's also not strictly a two-word parser, as it implements WITH and INTO prepositions. Unfortunately, it doesn't emulate the assumptions the Infocom parser makes, leading to a lot of misleading responses until the player realizes these details are required inputs, and a lot of extra trial-and-error typing afterward.
This isn't a game I'm going to insist anyone play -- it's not hard to solve with patience and persistence, but few clues are provided in the text and it's probably the most egregious example of try-everything-with-everything-else design I've encountered in quite a while, maybe ever. But I also won't suggest you shouldn't give it a try before reading my comments below. As always, I'll be documenting my Secret Agent: Mission 1 experience in detail, for history's sake and in this case so that others may be spared its frustrations; in short, there are bound to be...
****** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
We begin Outside the Hanover-Tyler research facility, visible to the west, with no other exits available. We have nothing in I ; heading west leads to an Entrance, with a desk in the corner of the room and a steel panel blocking the east door (sealing the entrance we just came through, apparently).
We can OPEN DESK to discover a badge and a nailfile, though we can't seem to discover much detail about them. To the north is a Reception area, with another desk that can't be OPENed just yet, for reasons not explained by the parser. To the west is a Security area, where we can see a metal cabinet with a slot before Suddenly laser bursts cut through you, ending our game before we can react.
Restarting, avoiding the security area for now, we head south of the entrance to a conference room, containing a pad, which we must GET before we can READ it to learn that "The blue button turns off the lasers." This seems good to know, and the Storage room south of this area contains red and blue buttons. Having PUSHed BLUE, and heard a reassuring if vague Click, we visit the security room... and once again, the lasers cut through us. The pad is a lie! So we decide to PUSH RED instead, and we can proceed safely.
The security room cabinet's metal slot yields no immediate information -- chances are we need to put something in it -- but we can explore more of the map. A Kitchen to the north features a food cabinet, though we can't open it yet either -- this place is pretty well locked down, though apparently deserted. A Cafeteria west of the kitchen contains chairs, tables, and a vending machine; we can't tell what it vends, though it will probably demand a coin of some sort if this is a standard adventure game universe.
There's another metal cabinet with another slot in the Hallway west of the security area, and we can to further west to the West end of hallway with a knob on the wall. We can TURN KNOB, hearing another Click, though any result is not apparent.
North of the hallway's west end is a Stairwell with a decorative plant in one corner; before we go upstairs or downstairs, let's finish exploring the main floor. South is an Animal room with another knob on the wall and an albino ape in a cage; we can't OPEN CAGE, but we can visit the Experiment room nearby to find a folder labeled "The Effect of Bio-Agents on Mammals," so maybe we don't want to get too friendly with our fellow primate. There's a Storage room to the south, containing a box with a gas mask that may come in handy. (We have to GET GAS, GET MASK isn't recognized; the parser's grammatical conventions are not always consistent.)
Just for fun, we'll try TURNing the KNOB in the animal room, and of course, yes, now The ape is charging at you! and one move later The ape crushes yourbones [sic], and it's time to restore again (I'm using an emulator with save state capability, but the game does have well hidden save and restore commands of its own -- X to save, R to restore.)
Now that we've mapped out the main floor, we'll head downstairs to discover another security area, this one guarded by a robot. We can't seem to leave this area after we've entered -- the robot fires every time we try to go anywhere, randomly missing or connecting and killing us. A knob on the wall just outside the room seems to have no impact on the robot's functionality, so we'll avoid this area for now.
Upstairs is yet another security area, this one with an electrified floor that zaps us as soon as we enter. Turning the knob on the lowest floor deactivates the electrified floor, as it turns out, and while we can't open the eastern door, we can visit an office to the south where a memo reads, "Tighten security on all floors," which is not exactly news at this point. We can MOVE a PICTURE on the wall to discover -- shock! -- a safe, which we can't open just yet. South of the office is a storage room with... scuba gear? It seems there will be some water in our future, then, and it also develops that we have a six-item inventory limit, so we need to start getting rid of some extraneous items.
What now? The robot doesn't seem to respond to any of the knobs on the map we've explored so far. We can learn that pushing the blue button turns the lasers back on, so that's not a good thing to do. We can't run fast enough to lead the ape to the robot. The safe doesn't seem to have a combination lock, so we probably can't crack it by trial and error. We can't seem to INSERT BADGE in the mysterious metal slots, or INSERT anything in the vending machine. Trying to SHOW BADGE occasionally produces different responses in different locations -- What for? or You can't do that -- but they don't seem to be meaningful. But WAVE BADGE produces Nothing happens -- so we can guess it's a separate verb (and maybe SHOW is actually being interpreted as SHOOT.)
Aha! We can't MOVE PLANT, or SEARCH PLANT, or DIG PLANT, but we can LIFT PLANT to find a small key. (I had to peek at the binary file and find the verb list to figure this out.) It's apparently no use for the food cabinet, the locked desk, or the safe, though. We can also try to, for example, UNLOCK CABINET WITH SMALL KEY, which seems to be recognized but still doesn't work. We can't INSERT SMALL KEY INTO DESK or FILE KEY to change its shape, either.
Here's something new -- when we TURN KNOB and free the ape, an exit south into the cage opens up, and he doesn't necessarily crush our bones right away. We can acquire a disk in the cage, but there's no way to get the ape caged again. It seems we have a random (or non-random but impossible to predict) chance of escaping the ape's charges, and he stays in the animal room, so with a little trial and error we can make it out with the disk in hand. Whew! Though, as with the small key, there doesn't seem to be any place we can INSERT DISK at the moment.
Aha! We can OPEN DESK WITH NAILFILE -- the WITH and INTO prepositions are not only supported, but required, it seems, and now things are starting to make more sense. Doing so reveals a card... and yes, INSERT CARD in the security area yields only It won't fit while INSERT CARD INTO SLOT in the same location produces a gun. (This consumes the card, but the card can't be used in the other slotted cabinet anyway.)
Properly armed now, we feel much more capable of secretive agency! In practice, this means we can SHOOT ROBOT -- though success is random and he shot me back the first time I tried it -- to disable the lower level security system.
Past the robot is an Electronics Lab, with an electronic device and a flashing ball visible; an adjoining office contains another desk and another cabinet. We can OPEN CABINET WITH SMALL KEY to reveal... a large key... and then we can OPEN DESK WITH LARGE KEY to discover a coin and a combination.
We can INSERT COIN INTO VENDING (INSERT COIN INTO MACHINE fails) to obtain ... a formula? Presumably this is part of what we're here to retrieve. But we can't OPEN SAFE WITH COMBINATION or READ COMBINATION. Hmmm; this is odd -- we can open the food cabinet in the kitchen using the combination, revealing a vial of... what? Hmmm again. We can INSERT BADGE INTO SLOT in the hallway to produce a baton in exchange... it's one of the few items we can EXAMINE, learning that It has a gravity controlled switch. Meaning... ?
South of the robot room is another storage room, this one with a 36 inch high cabinet. Its diminutive stature seems to be a clue that we can MOVE CABINET to reveal a passage down to a small room with a blue button on the wall. PUSH BLUE seems to rotate the room, as now there's an exit to the east; going east leads us to a watery doom, however, unless we WEAR SCUBA before entering. So this must be an airlock, and after we WEAR SCUBA we head east again to escape the lab -- but we have failed the mission, so we obviously have missed an objective or two (or three) along the way, probably having to do with that darn old safe upstairs.
The electronic device we found in the downstairs lab has an on/off switch. If we FLIP SWITCH in the safe room, the safe opens to reveal a rod. Not quite the game-winning object I was expecting. We can also WAVE BATON in the upstairs security area to open the eastern door, leading to the Chemical Lab.
There's a switch by the door here, and chemicals lying around. There's an X-Ray Lab to the east, where danger is hinted at, and traveling south to yet another Security area leads to death by poison gas. Wearing the gas mask allows us to live long enough to reach another Stairwell, where a coat hangs on a hook. We can't EXAMINE COAT, nor can we GET it; going down the stairs is a one-way trip back to the storage room with the red and blue laser control buttons near the entrance.
Returning to the task at hand, we try flipping the switch in the chemical lab -- and now Deadly radiation melts your flesh in the X-ray Lab, so that's a trap too. There's a hole near the west door (currently closed, apparently) in the security area, and if we... ahem... INSERT ROD INTO HOLE, the door opens allowing passage to a Photo Lab.
The photo lab contains a photo-enlarger, and nothing else. We can't seem to insert anything handy into the enlarger. Why are we here? The parser recognizes it as ENLARGER, not PHOTO, and trial and error has been productive so far -- and yes, as it turns out, we want to INSERT MEMO INTO ENLARGER to yield... a microdot.
We still have this disk from the ape's cage, too... but we've seen no computer equipment yet. What about this coat on a hook? We can't LIFT or PUSH or MOVE it, and the parser doesn't even recognize the coat, but we can TURN HOOK to open a passage into a Computer Lab. Here, as was common in games of this era, the player's hardware is celebrated -- this highly secure lab is doing its advanced work in nefarious science using an ATARI 130XE computer. We INSERT DISK INTO COMPUTER -- whoops, no, we INSERT DISK INTO DRIVE -- to yield a program. (Probably printed on the attached printer, in this pre-Internet/thumb drive era; apparently our secret agency can't afford an Atari 130XE with disk drive, so we need hard copy.)
I now notice that we have been scoring points when we pick certain things up, and we're up to 4 points as we take the program. We seem to be out of obvious puzzles, so maybe we have everything we need for a successful mission now? Yes! Victory is ours on both counts -- lab escape and mission success!
I can't say I didn't enjoy working my way through Secret Agent: Mission 1, despite the mundane storyline, but it suffers badly from its trial-and-error design. The player isn't given enough information about items and equipment to make many logical predictions, and so we spend most of our time inserting objects into other objects at random until something interesting happens. The engine is also a little too enamored of its own implementation of WITH and INTO, without the helpful assumptions of the Infocom Z-machine it's attempting to emulate, and that makes it more of a slog than might otherwise have been the case. Onward to the next adventure!