Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Adventure of the Week: The Abyssal Zone (1984)

I've been sorting through the Apple II archives of late, and ran across an adventure game I hadn't heard of in its day -- Jeff Gray's The Abyssal Zone, published by Salty Software in 1984.


Penguin's Graphics Magician was becoming a common tool by this time, and supports this game's simple vector-and-fill illustrations.  The design uses a simple two-word parser, but supports arrow-key editing of command inputs, better than the usual backspace-and-try-again behavior.  The game's text is simple and contains a few typos, but the design is fairly substantial for its time -- at least it's not the usual treasure hunt I was expecting at the outset.

I encourage interested readers to visit The Abyssal Zone for themselves before reading about my experience here.  It's not a lengthy or difficult game, but its design is logical and there are a few interesting plot developments along the way.  Beyond this point, as always, there are certain to be...

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

We are asked to sign the Divers [sic] Logbook as the game begins, though it's not clear whether our name will come into play at all.  The initial image is of a beach with a sign, a starfish, and an animated shark fin passing by.  The text description tells us that the ocean lies to the north, but doesn't give us any other detail, so it seems we're going to have to pay attention to the pictures to figure out what objects are available.

READ SIGN yields "BEWARE OF SHARKS!" in case we hadn't noticed the fin.  The sign is immovable, and so is the starfish, and we can't LOOK MOUNTAINS or LOOK SKY.  We can't GO WATER or SWIM, either, but if we travel N as suggested, we find ourselvs snorkeling over a coral reef.  THERE IS A LARGE MAN EATING SHARK HERE, though, so we'll make haste back south.

Our INVENTORY is empty and clumsily presented at the moment -- YOUR GOODIE BAG CONTAINS A: -- so we'll try wandering around.  To the south, we find a vast tropical rainforest, with some apparently erupting volcanoes in the background.  Continuing south, we can enter the forest where a toucan is perched.  LOOK TOUCAN reveals that HE IS PREENING HIS MOLTING FEATHERS, and we're free to GET FEATHER; we'll do so, as these sorts of things tend to come in handy in adventure games.

I'm in initial mapping mode, so I'll continue south into the Middle of the Forest, surrounded by trees covered with vines.  We can CLIMB TREE here -- to encounter a poisonous snake that SINKS IT'S [sic] DEADLY FANGS INTO YOUR SKIN!  And we're dead, of course, so that was a bad idea.

Restoring (the game supports named SAVEs to a separate data disk, though I'm using the AppleWin emulator's save states here) and trying again, I continue to the southernmost part of the forest, where an active volcano is visible to the south.  We can travel south onto the active volcano, but are engulfed with molten lava on the next turn as THE ISLAND'S VOLCANO ERUPTS VIOLENTLY.

Restoring again, I start exploring east and west of the main strip, finding myself immediately LOST IN THE FOREST with a chattering monkey as I head east at the southern edge of the forest.  LOOK MONKEY reveals nothing of interest, but TALK MONKEY yields surprisingly coherent advice from our fellow primate: "IF I WERE YOU, I WOULDN'T MONKEY AROUND ON THIS ISLAND! IF THE SNAKES DON'T GET YOU, THE VOLCANO WILL!"

It becomes apparent we're not really lost in the jungle, as these locations still map consistently.  North of the monkey is an area with trees (snake-infested again) and vegetation.  We can explore east through a very humid part of the forest, but there's not much to do here aside from traveling north back to the beach.

The beach runs east/west along the northern edge of the forest, it appears, and the area immediately east of our starting point indicates that SEA LIFE OFTEN WASHES ASHORE HERE.  It looks like there's another ungettable starfish here, and to my surprise DIG is not a recognized verb.  But EXAMINE BEACH reveals that what I thought was a starfish surrounded by some white sand is in fact a SAND-DOLLAR, which we can GET.

I think I've explored the eastern side of the map now, so we'll check out the western areas.  The western part of the beach contains a bottle of suntan oil.  As I reach the west end of the beach, SUDDENLY, THE ISLAND BEGINS TO TREMOR.  This isn't sounding good; I suspect we'll be dead before I can finish mapping.  But we'll persevere for the moment -- which is only a few more turns, as the volcano erupts and kill us.

Retrying, I finally find a climbable TREE COVERED WITH BEAUTIFUL VINES in the southwest corner of the forest, where we find something obviously useful - a can of Shark Repellent!  Maybe we can travel off the island before the volcano erupts now.

I return to the beach and try to OPEN CAN, which isn't recognized, and USE REPELLENT proves to be less effective than I expected, as the cloud of fluid disperses quickly in the water without getting rid of the shark.  But we're not allowed to use it on the beach.  Hmmmm.  Trying to simply swim N is prevented -- YOUR BRAVERY IS ADMIRABLE BUT WILL SURELY CAUSE YOU DEATH!

I try to find some usage directions on the can, but neither EXAMINE REPELLENT nor READ CAN produce any new information.  We can THROW REPELLENT, but it just perches neatly on the shark's back (this is because it is drawn in its original onscreen location designed for a different background -- illustrated adventures of this vintage don't often manage this well.)  I try to swim north again, past the shark, and this time we're viciously attacked, ending the game after I've ignored the earlier warning.

Can we USE OIL?  Nope, the game reacts vehemently to this suggestion -- ARE YOU CRAZY? THIS SHARK IS 25 FEET LONG. USE FEATHER produces the same reaction, so I guess the repellent is what we should be using.  We can't WEAR REPELLENT, though, so I'm at a loss as to how to make it work better.

I wander around some more, and learn that we can EXAMINE TREE in various locations to see any large poisonous snakes hanging there before we climb up.  This means we have to check out more trees, I think... and yes, the ones with snakes seem to reveal their occupants, while the upper reaches of others are concealed by a thick canopy of foliage.  I discover a spear up the tree next to the one with the shark repellent, though I die again a few times due to the erupting volcano while I'm examining more of the trees.  And I actually get killed by a hidden snake in the forest's southeastern corner, where the thick canopy thwarts the very precaution I'm trying to take!  But I think we've done all the exploring we can here for now.

It does prove more effective to THROW SPEAR at the shark -- we miss, but the creature heads for deeper waters, though we can't retrieve the spear.  The volcano erupts just as we head north (for drama's sake) and we find ourselves at Eli's Reef, one of the more colorful locations in this game:

We can EXAMINE FISH -- it's JUST A SMALL RED HERRING with which we can't do anything -- and travel north to a sandy portion of the reef.  We see a sea-fan here, and a reef shark lurking about.  We can EXAMINE SEA-FAN to look at its base, where we spot a bottle with a note.  We can GET the BOTTLE, but READ NOTE indicates the bottle is unbreakable.  As I return to the reef by traveling south and north again, the reef shark seizes and dismembers me! So I guess I need to USE REPELLENT first -- well, maybe not, on my retry the shark isn't hanging out here, so I'll save it until next we meet.

East of the sea-fan, we see some spiny sea-urchins, and east again brings us to the lair of a large spotted moray eel named Eli.  Trying to enter Eli's cave indicates that only Eli's friends may enter, but TALK ELI isn't an effective way to introduce ourselves.

It seems we just have to keep moving whenever we encounter the reef shark, though if we run into dead ends this doesn't always work, and if he stays on our tail too long he eventually attacks and kills us.  I discover some more underwater sea-life -- coral and sponges, mostly -- and find a diver's flashlight inside a vase sponge.  The northern edge of Eli's Reef is bounded by stinging jellyfish, and I find a giant clam to the northeast.  We can't OPEN CLAM or EXAMINE CLAM to any effect, though.

What can we do with our inventory items?  It doesn't seem that we can LIGHT the flashlight or SWITCH it or TURN it ON.  Can we TICKLE CLAM with the feather?   Yes!  It opens and we find a freshly dead fish inside.  But I'm being harassed by the reef shark -- and discover that we can't USE REPELLENT against it! 

Hmmmm.  Exploring to the west, we find an incongruous object on the reef -- THE INFAMOUS LOCKER OF DAVEY JONES.  THE HINGES ARE COATED WITH RUST, and we can OIL HINGES -- WITH WHAT? -- WITH OIL to allow us to OPEN LOCKER.  It contains an anti-shark mesh suit, and (with a retry to be efficient about it) I manage to GET SUIT and WEAR SUIT, and while the shark still follows us around it doesn't seem to attack as readily.  It will, however eventually, but it gets frustrated by the suit and swims away.

GIVE FISH gains us access to Eli's cave, and we can EXAMINE CAVE to see that the tank visible onscreen is a tank of helium.  We'd better take it with us, as Eli is a demanding host and he won't let us just walk in again after we exit his cave to the south.

What can we do with this tank of helium?  I think we've mapped out most of the area here.  Can we use it to get through the stinging jellyfish somehow?  Ah -- we can't go upward as I was thinking, but we can go down: AS YOU DESCEND INTO THE OCEANS [sic] ABYSS, THE HELIUM MIXTURE FREES YOU FROM THE INTOXICATING EFFECTS OF NITROGEN.  Does that really work?  I think it takes more than just randomly mixing helium with oxygen, and earlier indications are that we're equipped only with snorkeling gear. 

But at any rate, we're headed downward toward the area's outer sloping reef, where we meet a beautiful mermaid who appears to be wearing clown makeup and has a very flexible neck:

TALK MERMAID informs us that this is Melinda, Queen of Atlantis, and she volunteers: "COVERED BY MY HAIR IS A PENDANT WHICH YOU MUST NEVER LOOK AT."  She commends us on our bravery thus far, and allows us to continue descending to the Deep Abyssal Plains, with seamounts visible to the north.

I choose to avoid the obvious path and head east instead, getting LOST IN THE BLACK DEPTHS OF THE OCEAN.  This is a maze of dark rooms occupied by phosphorescent plankton, and eventually I emerge from its western edge to find a surprisingly intact underwater plane wreck site near a rocky ledge.  It's EASTERN AIRLINES FLIGHT 401, A PLANE MISSING SINCE DECEMBER 29, 1972.  But there's no sign of the plane's crew or passengers.  (This sounded slightly familiar, so I looked this one up -- there really was such a flight that crashed in 1972, but there was no mystery about it; it crashed in the Florida Everglades and some of the crew and passengers survived.  Some sensationalist accounts were published that suggested hauntings related to it, so maybe the game's designer misinterpreted some of the attendant "ghost flight" hoopla.)

Traveling N takes us into the plane's cockpit, where EXAMINE COCKPIT reveals the flight recorder.  PLAY RECORDER produces several indistinguishable words before it stops.  Exiting the plane and heading south, I find myself back at the deep abyssal plains, so I think the detour into the plankton was unnecessary.

I explore west of the wreckage, and suddenly A LARGE GROUPER IS ABOUT TO SWALLOW YOU.  I try to flee back east, but the creature swallows us and dives deep into the ocean, before spitting us out into the plankton maze... and confiscating some of our inventory items.  I find my way back out to the wreckage, and thinking that we just don't want that to happen, I restore to our pre-grouper state.

What about the mermaid's pendant?  We're allowed to GET PENDANT -- if we LOOK PENDANT, we see the image of an eye on its surface.  Melinda's warning is genuine -- we do in fact fall into a trance of sorts and drift into the dark plankton depths once again, but it's not fatal.

Can we use the pendant on the grouper?  SHOW PENDANT doesn't work, and we can't flee before we're swallowed.  I confirm that N, W, W seems to be the quickest way out of the plankton maze, and I find that the grouper is no longer interfering with travel west of the wreckage, so I'll continue this time.

We're in a deep east-west trench here, another maze of sorts.  The trench adjoins two northward passages -- at the west end is a small, purportedly DANGEROUS cave.  Fortunately, our belongings that were confiscated by the grouper can be reclaimed here -- but we have to remember what these things are called, and it takes me a while to realize that a small object a few pixels across is the mermaid's pendant.

The other northward passage leads into another trench, where a frog creature with a human torso guards the passage with his weapon as well as his generally unsettling appearance.  He won't let us travel north, but if we WEAR PENDANT he looks at it and falls asleep as we approach.  And now we must turn the disk to side 2!  This is a bigger adventure than I expected.

We continue up the north/south trench, and find a small lobster boat on the ocean floor, though we can't explore or examine it.  An intersection to the north contains more small boats -- this leads us into another maze, until we discover a larger sunken ship to the east.  A FISH DARTS FROM THE CABIN as we enter -- we can also read the Captain's Log-Book here (we have to READ BOOK): "A DOLLAR A DAY KEEPS THE GUARD AWAY."  This entry is signed by Melinda, which seems odd.  I check my inventory and discover that I've neglected to claim the sand-dollar from the beach in my current save!  So I'm going to have to replay quite a bit of the game, but I'll keep going for now until I learn more about this guard.

I explore the trench maze some more, and encounter AN ATLANTEAN GUARD along a northward passage.  So that's what that was all about then.  I ignore him for now, opting to explore the maze to the west where we come upon a house made from a large shell.  Inside is a table with a knife on it -- a diamond-bladed knife, actually.  We'll take that along.  I also see some scary-looking deep sea fish, but it emerges that THEY ONLY LOOK MEAN.

I think I'm going to need that sand-dollar.  I make a half-hearted foray back toward the island in case the volcano hasn't completely destroyed the shoreline, but find my air supply running out on the way and the island is now inaccessible.  Time to restart!

It takes me about ten minutes to replay to this point.  I can't GIVE SAND-DOLLAR to the guard, or PAY GUARD, and BRIBE GUARD returns YOU DON'T HAVE IT.  Drat.  This guard is immune to the pendant, and is refusing us entrance to the "LAND OF THE 'BLUE HOLES'."  Is this bribe meant for the other guard?  Nope, YOU DON'T HAVE IT here either.

I find myself on reserve air supply again as I revisit the shell house -- odd, as I have spent fewer turns this round than before, so the timing must be triggered by something else we've done, maybe flipping the game disk.  Where is the guard referred to in the ship's log?  We can't swim up from the trench maze, but we can do so from the room by the shell house, leading us to another tropical island.

All we find on dry land is a single palm tree -- we can CLIMB TREE and GET COCONUT here. EAT COCONUT is possible, even without the knife, but we can't get another one so I'm not sure if that was a smart thing to do.  East of the island is a small reef flat, where a barracuda with razor sharp teeth resides, adjoining an angelfish's area to the south.  These locations appear to be scenic in nature; they don't cause us any trouble or provide anything new of note.

Oh!  Can we PLAY RECORDER here?  Yes, on the island the words are intelligible -- a female voice says, "SAY HIPPOCAMPUS TO LUCIA, MY LOYAL AND TRUSTY SEAHORSE."  Okay?  When I visit the shell house to get the knife, I also find my helium tank here.  I also notice this time that the second guard is wearing shaded glasses, which is why the pendant isn't effective.  And he is riding a seahorse -- SAY HIPPOCAMPUS doesn't work, but HIPPOCAMPUS alone does, sending his steed into an uncontrollable state that allows us to slip north past the guard to the region of the "BLUE-HOLES."  These are, literally, blue-colored holes in the ground, and not some sort of pejorative describing the local residents.

There's really only one Blue-Hole we can explore -- a large one directly north of the entry to this area.  We can travel down to an ancient limestone cave, leading into yet another maze we have to navigate, and the most complicated one.  There's only one destination we need to reach, though, as we emerge at the "TONGUE-OF-THE-OCEAN" (designer Gray tends to hyphenate object names consisting of multiple words), which is a downward passage leading to the ledge of a deep trench.

Traveling north here takes us to an area with a large crystal enclosed by a transparent dome; the illustration is oddly colorless, suggesting that disk space was tight and the fills could not be defined, or that this illustration simply shipped out unfinished.  There's another shell house to the west, which proves to be the ENTRANCE TO THE ATLANTEAN MONITORING SYSTEM, guarded by another, perhaps BRIBEable GUARD... well, not quite.  BRIBE GUARD still returns YOU DON'T HAVE IT -- a quirk of the parser's priorities, it appears -- but GIVE SAND-DOLLAR works; even though we're told the GUARD EXCEPTS YOUR SMALL BRIBE, he takes no apparent exception to it and even offers us some advice: "WHEN IN THE MONITOR ROOM, PRESS '1 IF BY AIR AND '2' FOR THE ZOO, '3' and '4' WILL BE UP TO YOU."  Then he abandons his post, no doubt off to spend his ill-gotten dollar of corruption.

I'm once again on reserve air supply as we reach this point, so time may be of the essence.  I can't seem to EXAMINE MONITORS, so I just try to PUSH 1, revealing a display of a plane flying over an island.  PUSH 2 reveals humans locked in cages -- must be those vanished flight passengers.  PUSH 3 shows us the domed crystal area we saw just a while ago, with a cable extending from it that we didn't see when we visited earlier.  And PUSH 4 shows us the strange creature from the game's title screen, apparently AN ALIEN.  So this is all some sort of alien/Atlantean plot?

Can we CUT CABLE at the crystal?  Not at first -- we have to EXAMINE CABLE to find it, and then we can CUT CABLE.  It's not clear why we want to do this, really, but somehow, the deep-sea alien installation explodes, we manage to inflate our life vest and rise to the surface without getting the bends, and we very shortly wake up in a hospital, where we are attended by a nurse in an unprofessionally low-cut blouse who looks very much like Melinda the Queen of Atlantis and appears to be wearing the same pendant.  Apparently we've freed our fellow humans from alien captivity, instead of blowing them up along with the facility, but the whole situation raises certain questions about our sanity, methinks.  Ah, well -- victory is ours!

Apparently, The Abyssal Zone was the only adventure game ever published by Jeff Gray and Salty Software, whose products were apparently not nearly as salty as the company name suggests.  It's not a bad effort -- there's quite a bit to do, the map is extensive if a little maze-heavy, and the puzzles aren't too cryptic thanks to some handy clues available through exploration.  It's not a lengthy game by any means once the puzzles are figured out, but getting there is a pleasant experience and it's a decent example of its type.  I'm glad I discovered it -- while I know this blog attracts more readers when I tackle something well-known, I have more fun playing the games that nobody really talks about.

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