Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Worst Text Adventure Ever

Back in the late 1970's/early 1980's, text adventures were the state-of-the-art in computer gaming. They could be adult and engaging and literate, and they sidestepped the limitations of the era's graphics technology by ignoring it altogether.

Infocom really perfected the form, with rich, evocative text and a sophisticated parser that required a disk drive to hold each game's dictionary and content. Games like Zork and Planetfall are still richly rewarding and fun to play through today, and in its waning years the company continued to experiment with genre and form in titles like Nord & Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Unfortunately, as home computer graphics improved from crude and blocky to slightly-less-so, the mass audience moved in that direction, and the text adventure market ceased to be commercially viable.

The first text adventure I really played, however, nearly turned me off the genre in its prime. Published by Radio Shack, Haunted House (no relation to the Atari 2600 game of the same name) attempted to bring the text adventure to life on an extremely limited platform -- the 4K TRS-80 Model I. The effort was not successful, as fitting both the game program and its text/data content into 4 kilobytes of memory induced severe constraints in every imaginable way.

This nearly unplayable game was split into two loads -- one for the ground floor and one for the upper floor, with no way to go back downstairs after finishing the first section -- and even then, text and items were severely constrained. If memory serves, there were only a handful of rooms on each floor, a couple of items, and very simple puzzles made incredibly obtuse by the lack of description or suggestive responses to player actions. The game actually required invocations of the vintage adventure magical words PLUGH and XYZZY, but there were few hints in the game proper that might actually lead the player in such a direction. There was also a cryptic maze section in the time-honored drop-an-item/find-it-again/work-out-the-map style, but there were not enough items available in the game to allow efficient employment of this strategy.

After beating my young head against this maddening game for several weeks, I finally resorted to calling the Radio Shack customer support line, twice, in order to finish the game. They mailed me a map of the maze and gave me a solution to another vexing puzzle over the phone. I appreciated the assistance, but I wouldn't call the experience fun.

The good kind of text adventure bug didn't really bite me until I played a much better game: Pyramid 2000, also published by Radio Shack for the TRS-80, which shamelessly rips off a chunk of the classic Crowther/Woods Adventure, recasting the Colossal Caves in Egyptian terms and cramming it into 16K. It was no touch on Infocom's Infidel or even Scott Adams' Pyramid of Doom, mind, but it was infinitely better than Haunted House.


  1. Well, I always assumed Haunted House was written by Robert Arnstein who also wrote Pyramid 2000. Haunted House is not the best of the games he wrote (that's Raaka Tu for me) but it's still fun. I still have a copy for trs-80 somewhere if you would like to check it out again. You could replay it as part of your ongoing project!! That or the classic Brian Howarth games (The Golden Baton) etc!

  2. Raaka-Tu is definitely on my list to tackle -- I played it back in the day and really enjoyed its atmosphere and the semi-RPG-style of the monster encounters. I think Arnstein wrote Bedlam as well, for the Model I and the Color Computer. I may track down Haunted House and play it again at some point. And the Brian Howarth games are on my list as well. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Not sure if you remember any text adventures on the Commodore PET, but I recently re-implemented Miser (or "Miser's House"), originally released for 16k PET in 1981, I think.

    I am considering tracking down a copy of Pyramid 2000 (which I spent many hours playing over a friend's house) and giving it the same treatment...

    If you're curious: http://jmrtech.com/Misers_House_Text_Adventure