Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Black Sanctum (1984)

This week, we enter The Black Sanctum, written by Stephen O'Dea and Bob Withers as a remake of Ron Krebs' earlier text version.  Published by Mark Data Products in 1984 for the TRS-80 Color Computer, it's not well known today, but it's a very good game in the classic style:

The Mark Data Products games were technologically interesting as graphic adventures -- they loaded and ran entirely in 32K of RAM, which made them suitable for tape as well as disk-based users.  This approach meant that graphics had to be reused as much as possible, but the programmers still found room to squeeze a few bytes of animation in here and there for effect.

The game itself is well-designed, using a basic two-word parser with simple graphics, but managing to avoid any serious word-wrangling or picture-guessing headaches for the player.  As with many games of the era, a strong Scott Adams influence is evident, but there's also some Infocom-style text that provides richer detail for important plot turns.  It also has a good sense of character and plot development, by the standards of the time.

The story concerns the player's journey to a haunted monastery, where he/she must defeat a band of evil monks.  I played and completed this game at the time of its release, without too much trouble, and revisiting it was straightforward -- the map has a few confusing turns, but the puzzles are logical (even cliched at times) and while inventory juggling becomes important near the game's climax, most objects only have one purpose and can be dropped after being used.

As always, I encourage interested readers to take a crack at the weekly adventure before proceeding with this article -- in the interest of historical documentation, I'm going to spoil a few surprises below.

Playing The Black Sanctum today takes a little maneuvering -- the game also came out for the IBM PC early in its life, but that release is even rarer in the wild than the CoCo version.  Developer Bob Withers graciously made his complete series of six games available on his own webpage once upon a time, but his site is no longer online.  Fortunately, the good people at The TRS-80/Tandy Color Computer SuperSite have preserved them for posterity.  There's also a solid CoCo emulator available there, though this game requires booting up with the F1 key pressed to shift the artifact colors into the correct range -- getting the timing right can be a bit of a game in itself!

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

The game opens with an attractive and atmospheric display -- the clouds float by with parallax scrolling, and smoke pours from the cabin's chimney.  Later indoor rooms have very little animation, or opportunity for it, so it's nice that the limited available memory is used to kick things off right:

The player can explore the countryside, but there's no real reason to do so.  Once the player is inside the cabin, a beautiful young woman in a trance is discovered.  It's a clever setup -- she has a note in her hand that establishes the plot and provides important magic words, and having "met" her here, the stakes are raised nicely by later events:

A well-worn adventure trope soon follows -- there's a mirror in the bedroom closet, and we GO MIRROR to be transported to the evil monastery.  Magic mirrors are incredibly common in adventure games.

We shortly encounter another "familiar" puzzle -- the initially-steadfast but surprisingly bribe-friendly guardian.  In this case, the grumpy old caretaker, who refuses to let us take any of the attractive items here, happily abandons his post as soon as we give him a jug of wine.  The next time we see him he's sleeping it off, allowing us to reclaim the jug for another purpose.

The plot setup is well handled by discovery -- a plaque on the wall reveals that we are inside St. Sebastian Monastery, [founded] 1739; a message found in a bookcase establishes that the Bishop was killed by the Plague, emphasized by the rats that occasionally scurry through the rooms.  When we later find the Bishop's coffin, it's very creepy, but his ghost proves to be a valuable ally:

Listening to the voice yields an evocative bit of text, which gives us a typical adventure game shopping list to deal with:

The image of a figure in white vestments appears and says: "You must exorcise the evil that now lurks here.  I will help you turn the devil's power against his disciples.  You will need an altar crafted by your own hand, a white cloth to cover it, pure water to consecrate it, pine needles, a lock of a maiden's hair, a black feather, and salt.  Return with these things and I will be here." The apparition then disappears.
This is an old school game, if not a particularly difficult one, and there are several places where the player can get stuck.  If the shovel is not brought into the cabin, a snowdrift that later appears will prevent retrieving the pine needles.  If the maiden's hair isn't cut early enough, there's a dead end when she is kidnapped by the evil monks.  If the player isn't wearing the black robe, the monks turn him/her into a statue -- the magic words INVOCARE EPISCOPUS allow a return to normal, with a nod to Scott Adams ("Everything spins around and suddenly I'm elsewhere"), but it's very difficult to proceed if the robe was dropped in the monastery.

The lantern has a time limit once lit, of course, and it's important to UNLIGHT LANTERN when it's not needed, as it's randomly fatal to travel in the dark even if the player doesn't make any invalid moves.

The original text adventure is preserved intact in this graphical update, so available memory for graphics and animation is limited.  Animation is rare after the opening -- there's a fire in the cabin's fireplace, and the evil monks' eyes flash when we encounter them in the halls.  Otherwise, most visual changes are dedicated to depicting doors and passages as open or closed, and all the hallways tend to look the same.  The graphics are laid out so that each object has a standard drawing position, which produces odd overlaps on occasion but generally works very well.

At last, we have rounded up all of the necessary items and the Bishop has given us final instructions.  We execute, and victory is ours!

It's a bittersweet win, however, as the beautiful young woman remains a statue.  At least we haven't joined her in eternal paralysis, as happens in the UNsuccessful ending at this point. And I like the look of the demon -- there wasn't enough spare memory to support a full-body apparition, apparently, but he puts in a floor-level appearance and looks quite happy to be there.

So that's The Black Sanctum.  It's not a well-known adventure, but it's a decent one -- not too tough, not too easy, and well-plotted and presented.


  1. loved the text version of the game when i grew up with a coco 1

  2. Thanks for the information! My mind kept reminding me of this game for weeks from when I was little and this was the first thing that came up when I finally remembered to look. Its good to recall all this again, especially the grumpy caretaker! Peace.

  3. I played this game (me and my brother) till the end on a Brazillian TRS-Color Clone known as CP400 Color II. Good game, good story!
    Good old times that never will come back.
    I'm a DINOSAUR computer maniac!

  4. This was the game that gave me the most grief, based one simple conditional flag that took me ages to crack (thanks to a little hint from my computer club president). Tried downloading them onto my PC but unable to play them. Would be great to see them available for Android ;)

  5. cool, my folks played this in 81. Theyve mentioned it on multiple occasions and how hard it was to figure out some of the conditions.

  6. I was addicted to this game when i was 10 years old or so. I also played calixito island

  7. Apparently, there was a parody version of this, for the TRS-80 Color Computer, which was quite sexual in nature, well before Leisure Suit Larry, and the Misadventure series, by Softcore