This week, my TRS-80 Color Computer adventuring binge continues, as we tackle Chris Hawks' Mystic Mansion, published in 1983. It's a menu-driven illustrated adventure, with no parser per se, written in BASIC with picture files loaded from disk. I've been reading some old issues of the CoCo magazine The Rainbow lately, and this game was being advertised for sale circa early 1983, but I hadn't run across it in my travels until just now.
The opening instructions tell us we must escape the mansion, which was built by AN EVIL MAN!!!, and escape the island where the mansion stands as well. It's pretty standard escape-the-house fare.
I'm not going to recommend that anyone else tackle Mystic Mansion, as the design really doesn't play fair -- the puzzles are straightforward, but the game is very strict about how and when we do things. There are invisible triggers that make no story sense, and I had to dig into the code several times to figure out how to finish it even when I knew what I was trying to do. It is entirely possible to complete the game without cheating, but it's not easy to pull off without a lot of tedious repetition. So to save humanity the pain of actually playing Mystic Mansion, I invite everyone to jump straight into the...
**** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
We begin in the Mystic Mansion's Drawing Room, and can choose to go through the green door (G), the red door (R) or (U)p the stairs. The game is entirely prompt driven, with a limited menu of choices provided in each location and the occasional Y/N question. For the sake of brevity (I know, not my style!) I'll omit listing the menu options and just discuss the actions we can take along the way.
The green door leads to the Master Bedroom, where we can examine a picture, look out the window, check out the closet or go back through the green door. The picture depicts a sun, with text suggesting THE WAY OUT IS A LOWLY ONE -- LOOK IN AN UNKNOWN PLACE FOR THE KEY. The window provides a view of a lake with a sailboat. The closet contains another small door -- we can enter, it's not locked, but it's too dark to see inside at the moment.
The drawing room's red door leads to the Parlor, and it appears we can't go back directly, at least at first. A window here is painted over, or is just a painting, the text isn't very clear; the picture on the wall depicts a sunrise, with no visible text or other details. A green door here leads to the Kitchen -- windows look out on a tree-speckled hillside, and examining the cabinets turns up a lamp, always helpful. And the parlor's blue door leads back to the drawing room -- the door is just painted red on one side, blue on the other. Whew!
Let's head upstairs before we try our luck in the closet with the lamp. A picture in the Upstairs Hall looks very much like the one in the parlor. A red door provides access to the Study, where we find a book called "FALL OF ROMAN EMPIRE," apparently abridged or written by the Incredible Hulk. The window offers the same view of the hillside we saw from the kitchen -- it seems the uncompressed picture file approach has its limitations. A closet in the study is locked, so we'll return to the hall and take the blue door into a Small Bedroom, sharing the view visible from the master bedroom; a box here contains a gold chain.
It seems we're rapidly exhausting the options here, so let's take our lamp through the closet's little doorway. This is a Secret Room! There are two items here we can examine -- a chest and a sack. The chest offers -- !!!!SPIDERS!!!!, whose bite puts us to sleep for a while, presented as a lengthy pause in the gameplay. When we examine the sack, we find a key. So let's go upstairs and try the key on the locked closet in the study.
The spider bites persist, it seems, so we're forced to sleep every now and then though it seems there are no fatal side effects... oh, wait, that was apparently only temporary. We eventually do die, so next life we'll avoid opening the chest at all.
Now this gets interesting -- my second venture suggests that some things are randomized? The box in the small bedroom upstairs is empty this time, although the lamp is where it was before, in the kitchen cabinet. The sack is also empty, but the chest contains spiders again, dang it. Or... wait, things are randomized each time we look? Trying the box again, I find the gold chain again. And the sack now yields a key. Strange. But I again die of spider bites while trying to reach the closet to try the key, so I'll restart from a fresh run this time.
Even with freshly initialized variables, the sack can be empty when we're expecting to find a key based on previous experience. And it seems to stay empty now. So some event must trigger the sack to contain the key. Interesting. Trying the locked closet door doesn't seem to be a factor, nor does finding the gold chain. Well, this is a fine kettle of arachnids -- it seems we have to get bitten by the spiders in order to find the key!
Fighting our way through spider-sleep, we at last unlock the study closet, and fall down into the darkness... saved by the snagging of our gold chain on a root! We can crawl through a hole here to find ourselves in the BASMENT [sic].
A box on the floor is nailed shut, but a shelf contains a prying bar so we can open the box. Inside is a trap door, which we can choose to enter or not. It leads into a tunnel with light at the end, but we find a note saying we have to touch the mystic medallion to the door, a gewgaw we do not have, so we're forced to turn back. And now I'm dead, yet again, of spider bites.
This time I'll do a full reset of the virtual CoCo before I start, in case the code doesn't properly initialize memory. And... the sack is empty, again, until I open the chest and take my spider bites, at which point the sack magically reveals the key. And this time, the box is empty, so I don't see any way to keep myself from falling eternally down the closet hole. Ack!
I think it's time to peek at the code -- I feel like the designer is being unfair, so I'm going to return the favor. We can only survive four spider bites, and yes, the key cannot be found until we have been bitten once. And the gold chain only appears if LP = 1 -- meaning it's only available after we pick up the lamp but before we pick up the key; I just lucked into the right order the first time I played. (I'm also going to edit line 1920 to increase the spider bite survival time -- I'm hoping there's an antidote somewhere in the game, but since we can't save a game in progress I'd like to survive a little longer while figuring this out. I also edited line 1940 to shorten the spider bite sleep time, which can be up to a minute normally and really slows down the gameplay.)
After getting back to where we were the last time we succumbed, I check out the drain hole in the basement again -- and it seems every time we do this, we get bitten by a spider, so it's a very easy way to die quickly. Going through the door leads us back into the house, apparently. I check the pictures and windows again while we're here to see if we can find that medallion the note mentioned, to no avail. And when we fall through the closet a second time, the chain no longer saves us, and we fall to our doom... or, at least, we are advised to WRITE WHEN YOU GET TO CHINA!
Another try... avoiding the door in the basement this time, we'll explore the trap door in the box. This is just the tunnel where we need the mystic medallion to proceed. And it seems we can only pry the box open to go through the trap door one time, as well, so we really need the medallion before we enter the closet. Aggravating. Ah, wait, we can look at the shelf again to regain the prying bar and reuse it. So this one isn't so bad, then... although it seems we still go into the tunnel, whether we answer Y or N to the prompt asking us if we want to when we open the box. And we also learn that the basement door actually transports us to a random location in the mansion.
Before I die this time, I examine the painted window in the parlor -- and lo and behold, this time we find the fabled medallion! How odd, I'm sure I checked this earlier. And the box upstairs no longer holds the gold chain, and as there's no visible inventory I'm not sure if it survived the earlier fall, so I'm not quite sure how to approach that issue. I fear it's time to cheat some more... the code indicates that we can only find the medallion if DR=1, a variable set when we approach the end of the tunnel but don't have it with us. No a priori knowledge allowed.
I'm fed up enough with this game's demands that I'm ready to seriously cheat, breaking out of the code and setting DR=1 manually in the early going so I can get the medallion. With that simplification, all we really have to do is reach the basement and go through the tunnel to the waiting sailboat -- victory is ours!
Feeling more than a little guilty, I spent some additional time poring over the BASIC code and experimenting with the game, trying to figure out if I had missed some more natural solution. It actually is possible to win playing by the rules, but we have to do everything exactly as the game demands. The key is to avoid traversing the spider bite locations more than once -- they are not timed, but location-triggered -- after we've examined the chest, and to be lucky enough that the magic door doesn't drop us in the wrong location. Passing through the door resets the bite count to one, but if we land in the drawing room (as I did my first time getting that far) we'll get bitten three more times, twice in the drawing room and once in the study, and thus die before we can make it back to the tunnel. We also have to be careful with the chain due to a bug that I didn't realize I was running into -- if we already have the chain, but we examine the box in the small bedroom, we'll be told the box is empty; but when we leave the room, we'll actually lose the gold chain!
This was more of a meta-adventure than a legitimate experience; I think I spent more time examining the source code than actually playing the game. Perhaps it's a meta-reference, and the game itself was also written by AN EVIL MAN!!! In the end, the most mystifying thing about Mystic Mansion is that the game retailed for $29.95 back in the day.