Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Polarware's Transylvania

I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Great Scott Project, although the pace was a bit of a killer, and it appears that a number of readers found it worthwhile as well.  So I'm planning to continue in this vein by taking a look at a vintage adventure game every week.  So here's our first installment of a new feature -- Adventure of the Week!

This week we're looking at Polarware's Transylvania, by Antonio Antiochia, an illustrated text adventure that owes a stylistic debt to the Scott Adams series.  The design approach and generic/error messages are similar, although the memory requirements are higher, allowing the Polarware games to feature more descriptive text than the 16K Adventure International games.

Polarware started life as Penguin Software, no relation to Penguin Books, and changed its name later to avoid any legal confusion.  Transylvania was originally written specifically for the Apple IIe, but  Polarware eventually created its own platform-agnostic technologies to simplify marketing and reach the broadest possible audience in the fragmented home computer market of the mid-1980's.  Their Comprehend story system handled the game logic implementation and command parsing, while Graphics Magician provided a vector-and-fill graphics system that stored images efficiently and allowed them to be rendered on different platforms.  Transylvania was converted to this interpreter format for its later releases.

Unlike many illustrated adventure games, Transylvania expects the player to identify objects in the images that aren't mentioned at all in the accompanying text, so the simple graphics are absolutely critical to completing the game.  Most objects can be dropped and will be displayed in any room, although there are places where other overlays (like the open cellar doors, drawn on top of the closed cellar doors) also obscure dropped objects -- it's easy to lose track of items in such rooms if the player isn't careful.

The IBM PC at the time was hardly a gaming powerhouse -- its 4-color CGA graphics (below left) weren't much competition for the Apple IIe (below right).  The Apple had lower resolution graphics, but cleaner fonts, and more colors and dithered/aliased pseudo-colors than the PC could muster.  It appears that the graphics may have been tweaked for each platform -- note the goblin's red tunic and gray leggings on the PC, blue tunic and leggings on the Apple IIe.

I ended up playing the game to completion on the IBM PC, using DosBox to revert my Vista laptop to the appropriate technology timeframe.  The graphics don't look as good as on the Apple, but they don't really look great on either machine, and the screen painting is a lot faster on the PC.

The plot concerns the player's quest to rescue the King's daughter Sabrina from the vampire's castle.  I found the game a bit maddening -- there are many red herrings, inventory limits are tight, and the puzzles are highly nested, so when I got stuck, I was good and stuck. I had to track down a walkthrough to get myself rolling again and finish the game -- I have attempted to play this game a few times in the past without successfully completing it, so I was ready to get through it this time.  There are several puzzles where the post hoc depends on a propter hoc that seems incredibly ad hoc.  But the game has a good sense of humor, which often helped ease the sting of its challenge.

As always, my comments past this point may give away too much, so if you plan to play the game yourself, go do that now.  Transylvania and other Polarware adventures are freely available here, courtesy of the copyright holder.  Recently, a company named Roe Mobile Development has announced a port to the iPhone, expected in fall 2009.

******* SPOILERS AHEAD *********

In this game, feeling around in the dark trumps trying to get hold of a light source.  Wish I'd realized that sooner.

There are funny promos included for two additional Polarware games -- the graphical update of Michael Berlyn's Oo-Topos (billed as "far out"), with the ad written in a spider's web, and the medieval-themed The Coveted Mirror, mentioned by a troupe of penguins discovered in mid-rehearsal in a vault within the vampire's castle.

Uncovering the clues takes more work than implementing the required actions, in most cases.

The wandering werewolf is a big nuisance.  Letting the three ravenous mice escape once discovered is a bigger one, potentially fatal, as the clock keeps ticking toward dawn, and a little a priori knowledge and prescient inventory management is necessary to avoid this move-eating distraction.

There's one clue that's not within the game itself at all -- the wizard ZIN's business card was included in the original package, and summoning him requires a few bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Fortunately Polarware has released the game for free download and play, and the Internet distributions of the game include a text file reiterating the content of the original card.

There are quite a few red herrings which turn out to be unnecessary to completion of the game:  The rock slide apparently can't be moved, dismantled or dispelled.  The ghost, rustling and witch's cackle are just for atmosphere.  The willow tree can't be climbed, even though it appears climbable.  The loaf of bread is edible and doesn't taste very good, but seems to have no effect or use otherwise.  The broom seems like it would be useful if one could get it before dealing with the mice or the cat, but that's not possible.  The garlic clove seems to help ward off bats, but isn't required to avoid the attentions of the vampire.

After all the puzzles have been solved, the player is able to reach the sleeping Princess Sabrina and rouse her from her long sleep.  Her "wide-awake princess" graphic is of a much higher quality than anything else in the game -- I suspect she was rotoscoped, the 80's hair and outfit are a dead giveaway:

From this point on, she's out of danger and will follow the player anywhere, making it a simple matter of navigation to get her onto the boat and safely back to the King.

I love the ending -- after returning Sabrina to safety, the King thanks the player and announces his intention to send the player on to Africa to rescue his OTHER daughter.  One wonders whether the rest of his kingdom is as poorly guarded or out-of-control as his daughters appear to be.  Fortunately, the player character takes matters into his own hands, rescuing Sabrina from the King and eloping happily ever after:

So that's Polarware's Transylvania.  Next time... um... something else!


  1. Antonio Antiochia and myself (Ken Roe) have just completed a remake of Transylvania for the iPhone. The iPhone version was just submitted to the App store a few days ago and should be available any day. Check out www.roemobiledevelopment.com/Site/Transylvania.html for more information.

  2. Ken,

    Thanks for the update! I did find your website and mentioned the upcoming iPhone port (prior to the SPOILERS section above.) Glad to know it's close to release!