A few weeks ago I was reminded of Sierra On-Line's Troll's Tale, from 1983; it's another game for younger adventurers, using the same menu-driven approach as the company's Dragon's Keep and Gelfling Adventure. It's almost identical in structure to Dragon's Keep -- instead of collecting animals held captive by a lonely dragon, we're collecting treasures stolen by an evil troll. If the troll appears in the same picture as the treasure, we can't acquire the treasure at that time and must wander off to another location and hope the troll has moved on when we return. We're playing the Apple II version here, but the game also appeared (with improved color) on the Commodore 64 and Coleco Adam computers.
One technical advance visible in Troll's Tale is that its graphics were implemented using Penguin's The Graphics Magician, a step up from Ken Williams' homegrown fill-and-vector graphics tool used for the early Hi-Res Adventures. It provides more variety in fill patterns, has some simple animation capabilities, and appears to be more space-efficient, with all the illustrations fitting on a single-sided disk. Programming was handled by Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame, with text and graphics by Mike MacChesney, and the design presages the Macintosh Hypercard game The Manhole with its simple and imaginative exploration-based style.
Troll's Tale does not take long to play -- there are no real puzzles, just a world to explore in search of the unhidden but scattered treasures, and no fatalities or dead ends. I was able to finish it in about an hour while making notes, and I didn't even need to draw a map, although if I'd had to leave and come back it would have been handy for memory-jogging purposes. It's clearly aimed at young players, and I can't say you're missing any great challenge if you opt to read on into the...
****** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
The game begins with an optional tutorial demonstrating the menu system -- we use the space bar to iterate through the available options (they are numbered, but we can't just hit the key corresponding to our intended selection), and RETURN to select. We are informed that THE EVIL TROLL HAS HIDDEN ALL THE TREASURES OF MARK, THE DWARF KING. The F key is used as an inventory command, showing the treasures we have already FOUND.
We're also given a handy list of treasures to find -- a flashlight, a candy sucker, a bag of gold, a chest of jewels, a diamond ring, a copper penny, a fiddle worth a fortune, a treasure chest, a silver shell, a gift for the guard, a lovely necklace, a gold brick, a pot of money, a silver cup, a bag of pennies, and "a dollar and a cent" -- sixteen in all.
The game proper begins with the player facing a dark cave, and we can choose to 1) GO INTO THE CAVE or 2) GO SOUTH INTO THE FIELD. I'll follow my usual habit and poke around outside before taking the obvious route into the dark cave.
In the field, I find the flashlight -- one treasure down already, and the narration tells us this item will be useful inside the cave as well. Next, we'll head west into the mountains, where we can read a stone tablet that reiterates the very basic plot with a note from King Mark about his stolen treasures, then head back toward the field.
We run across a tree on the way back to the cave, where a nearby sign again advertises the Dwarf King's plight; this monarch is starting to sound a bit whiny. We can't always go back the way we came using the game's limited menus, so gameplay consists primarily of exhausting the available options. A rare instance of genuine player choice occurs here as we enter the cave -- we can choose to turn on the flashlight before we enter the cave, or turn it on afterward when we find ourselves in the dark.
With the lights on, we can see a dwarven guard who, we are told, IS AFRAID OF THE TROLLS. We have three choices at this point -- we can take one of three tunnels to the west, the north, and east. I'll go west for now.
Here, we find ourselves LYING DOWN IN A NARROW HALL, with further crawls to the right and north and a door on the left, in an odd mixture of relative and cardinal directions. I'll try the door on the left, where I run into the TROLL, though there's no treasure here so he really isn't a nuisance at the moment, beyond the fact that it takes several additional seconds for the engine to overlay his fearsome visage on the illustration.
There are three sets of stairs here -- left, center, and right -- and I'll keep exploring to the left. There's a long winding road up here, and we can choose to GO DOWN THE ROAD, where we find the DOLLAR AND A CENT treasure, then turn around to come back the way we came. The center staircase leads to a large area with two dark spots faintly visible to the north -- one is a doorway, the other proves to be an open safe containing the BAG OF PENNIES treasure.
At the door near the safe, we can either go through it or travel east to part of the Troll Underworld. We can travel east again here, pausing to LOOK DOWN THE WELL, promptly falling in with a little bit of animation. We can retrieve the FIDDLE WORTH A FORTUNE here before climbing up a rope to escape.
I'm going to go back and check the door to the north before continuing past the well -- it leads into a Troll's Room with a bottle and a fireplace. In an implied bit of safety education, we're advised against -- and actually prohibited from -- drinking from the unlabeled bottle, but we can find the SILVER CUP in the fireplace. We're down to 11 treasures already!
Returning to the well, I head east, where we find two huts. The one on the left contains a treasure chest, which provides an easy way to carry our accumulating treasure load in addition to counting as a treasure itself. We can also enter the fireplace, where hot coals flame in a nice bit of animation; here, we can go left to exit the fireplace or continue to the right. Going right takes us into a room with THREE MAGIC POTS, and we're allowed to put our hand in the left, middle, or right one. The left one beams us back to the narrow crawlspace near the entrance, forcing a fairly long journey back but also providing an escape from this area; the middle one takes us to the location outside the huts; and the right pot seems to contain a treasure, though in my playthrough the troll randomly shows up. I have to leave and return to claim the COPPER PENNY.
We've got 40% of the treasures in hand now as we exit from the hut on the right, the fireplace apparently connecting the two huts. There's also a back door leading out of the left hut, to a tree with a hole in it, near a cave. The hole in the tree leads into another branching cave, with paths to the upper and lower left. The path to the upper left contains the QUEEN'S NECKLACE, and the other takes us to a large globe containing three levers we can choose to pull.
The left lever simply exits the globe. The middle one takes us to a nondescript room containing a gold brick. It sits on a box that is too heavy to roll out the door; we can take the brick, and are advised that it is heavy and we need to finish the game soon, though this warning doesn't seem to manifest in any concrete way. The only exit from this room leads to a barrel floating in the water; we aren't allowed to go south into a dark, scary area, but we can walk east back to the globe. The right-hand lever in the globe takes us back to the barrel; before we ride it, I'm going to look behind the globe using the available menu option, where someone is throwing rocks at the screen, forcing us back to the globe.
Riding the barrel down the river, we can acquire the POT OF MONEY on a stretch of beach to reach 60% of our goal. The river currents are weird and shifting things, it appears, as getting back on the barrel takes us back to the place where we found it. Returning to the beach again, we wander east to find a SILVER SHELL. This location is a dead end, but we are invited to close our eyes and think about a TUNNEL or a TREE. The former takes us into the cave near the tree we hadn't explored yet, while the latter takes us to the tree standing outside this cave. Pulling a ring inside the cave transports us back to the globe room -- this map is nothing if not self-referential -- so I'll take the opportunity to head west of the pot of money area to find a door set into the dirt bank. This door leads, one-way, back into the Troll's Room, closing one of the map's many loops.
Making my way back to the cave by the tree again, I head through a lighted exit to find a small house, where we acquire a GIFT FOR THE GUARD, i.e. the dwarf we saw standing at the main cave entrance earlier. I've finally exhausted this section of the map, so I'll go back to the well and head south into a room with a tile floor. To its west we enter another tunnel area, with the BOX OF JEWELS claimable, and a passage south leads back to the narrow crawlspace. East of the tiled room is the DIAMOND RING, which we must retrieve from its current installation as adornment for a troll statue.
We can go south from this point to reach a crawlspace with a door on the east end, where we find the CANDY SUCKER treasure hidden in an assortment (we are not allowed to take any of the other suckers which don't belong to King Mark.) A flashing text and rising musical tone alerts us that we have only one treasure left to retrieve! If we STAND UP in the eastern passageway, we harmlessly bump our heads, triggering a parser joke implying the physical presence of the omniscient narrator, who bumps his/her/its head as well. Doing this also clears that menu option, introducing another so that we can travel west out of this tunnel, back to the guarded cave entrance.
I haven't taken the staircase on the right yet, back at the western crawlspace area -- but it just leads back to the main cave entrance. The only treasure we're missing now is the bag of gold, and I'm hoping to find it somewhere in the northern tunnel. And... yes, there it is, in the very first place we look! We're told that YOU HAVE FOUND EVERY TREASURE and instructed to TAKE THE TREASURES TO THE GUARD. I could just back out to the south, but I can't resist going north through another exit to make sure I've explored this world thoroughly. This path just leads back to the tiled room, and I take the roundabout western path to get back to the tunnel system entrance.
We can choose to 1. TALK TO THE GUARD now, and he asks us to leave the cave with him, promising a "SMALL SURPRISE." Outdoors, with the troll's tail conspicuously visible at the left edge of the screen, the guard thanks us for the treasures, and tells us to "PULL THE TROLL'S TAIL AND WE END THE TROLL'S TALE!" This action reveals (to almost no one's surprise) that the troll-phobic guard is really King Mark, with perhaps the least dramatic prose possible:
And that's about all I can say about Troll's Tale -- victory is strictly a process of elimination, and tackling it in one sitting meant I didn't have to stack unexplored paths too deeply. There's no real challenge here, but its open structure makes it a lot less linear than many "more sophisticated" games, and as an intro to the art form I'm sure it introduced a lot of kids to the joys of adventuring.
***** BONUS FADEOUT RANT *****
Whoops. Sorry, Mark! Yes, I am being sarcastic. You didn't have to tell me the secret either, you know. It's not like you gave me any kind of real reward or anything, and knowing you used to dress up as a guard for personal reasons I'm too polite to speculate about won't buy me a cup of coffee. Maybe you should hire some security personnel or something to prevent your treasures being stolen all the time. Sorry, your "treasures." I left out the air quotes. I hope your currency is staying stable on the candy sucker standard, there, King. Yeah, yeah, you've got a bag of gold and a silver cup. I had no trouble carrying your entire national treasure through a bunch of caves, if you hadn't noticed. I also note that naming me an Honorary Dwarf costs you nothing at all, and to tell you the truth it actually feels a bit insulting. You think I'm a coward? A layabout who expects other people to clean up his messes? Maybe a troll-phobe like your royal High-horsedness? You know what? I don't care that I told everyone your big secret. Not one bit. I had other things to do today, you know. Maybe you should get your mom to sew name tags on your treasures, maybe that would help. While you're at it, ask her why she named you Mark. Didn't she know you were going to be King someday? "King Mark"? Really? Does poor planning run in your family?