Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Time Machine (1981)

This week, we tackle another of Brian Howarth's series from the UK, running on the classic Scott Adams interpreter -- Mysterious Adventure #2, The Time Machine, originally published in 1981.  I played the game in text-only mode using the modern ScottFree interpreter to begin with, then captured screenshots from the enhanced 1983 version with graphics for the Commodore 64.

The game is dedicated to Howarth's wife and son, Liz and Michael, and opens in the midst of a dense fog on the Moors...

I found this game a lot more accessible than Howarth's first effort, The Golden Baton.  The puzzles were logical, and in two spots where I got stumped, I was on the right track conceptually and just hadn't satisfied the parser's (rather narrow) expectations.  The game presents a nice variety of locations, and it's a straightforward little adventure.  My only disappointment was that it doesn't really do much with the titular Time Machine... it's simply a transportation mechanism for the game's different areas.  There are no puzzles involving the passage of time, unlike last week's adventure, The Vortex Factor.

This one's not likely to challenge veterans, but it's a good one for novice adventurers to try, as the player can accomplish quite a bit without getting too stuck in any one spot (once past the initial fog maze -- see below.)

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

The game opens in a maze of dense fog -- and no available inventory items with which to map it out.  But a little exploration establishes a safe route through -- it's N, W, S, N from the starting point.

One interesting difference between Scott Adams-format interpreters -- Howarth's own C-64 interpreter reports the contents of empty inventory in colorful UK fashion as Not a sausage!, while ScottFree returns the more conventional Nothing.  I also noted that ScottFree implements a DROP ALL command, but will not drop worn items or the glass prisms in this game, while the original interpreter does not support DROP ALL.

My main challenges with this game were in the parsing area -- some synonyms did not follow conventions seen in other adventure games.  Early in the game, a wrong turn finds the player sinking in a quagmire near a small bush -- TAKE BUSH is beyond my power to do that, but GRAB BUSH is successful.  READ is not recognized, with EXAMINE serving the purpose, and, surprising for a game with a crowbar in it, PRY is not a valid verb -- CROWBAR is the expected command.

The game is fairly gentle on the player in terms of unpredictable deaths, but breaking a window without wearing gloves early in the game proves instantly fatal:

The game feels like an old dark house mystery early on -- we enter a study with a painting, and soon find a pistol, crowbar, and key.  But we soon run across a cassette recorder that plays back this message:
Find the 3 Prisms that control my Machine. Rescue me!

We soon locate the Time Machine promised by the title, and entering it, find it has three sockets and 2 buttons marked FOR and REV. The machine is a bit temperamental and doesn't seem to move consistently forward and back in time -- it sometimes takes several button pushes to get to the expected "next" location. 

There are five locations to visit - an Egyptian Sphinx, a sailing Brig, a fetid Swamp, a Time-Warp, the Cellar in the area where the game starts, and a Grassy Plain.  None of these seem to be geographically related, i.e., presenting the same area in a different time period -- so the Time Machine is really just a transportation portal.  The five areas contain some interrelated puzzles, and most of the accessible areas are easy to explore and map.

In the Sphinx area, I got stuck for a bit trying to figure out how to escape once I had entered the dark passage.  I was able to PULL LEVER, causing a strange noise to no apparent effect; I could even take the lever, though I could only pull it in the room where it originated.  I backed up and explored the desert south of the Sphinx, with no productive discoveries.  I couldn't DIG in the area, which was a bit surprising, nor could I PUSH or MOVE LEVER to change its behavior.  I couldn't pick up and move the portal for reentering the time machine to a different location, which was not surprising.  I got closest to a solution when I unsuccessfully tried to JAM OPENING, JAM CROWBAR and JAM SHOVEL, but needed a walkthrough to tell me I had to JAM LEVER using the rock in the adjacent room.  Past this point, I encountered a classic adventure game trope -- a savage, hungry guard dog can be distracted with food found on the sailing brig, though GIVE BEEF did not work, while FEED DOG did.

The Brig was easier to handle, with no real puzzles, just quite a few rooms to explore.  The ship's log reads MA.Y .EL.STE .OV 18.1, revealing the vessel as the legendary Mary Celeste.  There are lots of useful items onboard, but no serious challenges.

The swamp area contains a small maze, but like the other mazes in this game it doesn't take a lot of effort to find the interesting areas.  We here encounter a brontosaurus, which is -- wait for it -- hungry, and vegetarian, and can be fobbed off with some sea biscuits.  (From a paleontological perspective, the brontosaurus' appearance in this game is a bit surprising, as the identification mixup was discovered in 1975.  But the game calls it a brontosaurus, rather than an apatosaurus, and so must we.)

Past the saurian of questionable provenance, we find an old boat that we must repair with several specific items in hand -- the game responds to FIX BOAT with My repair kit is incomplete! if anything is missing.  Finally, we can GO BOAT -- which includes boarding and sailing in one simple step -- to reach an island, where we can DIG for a prism.

Once all three prisms are INSERTed in the Time Machine, we can reach the Grassy Plain, where there's nowhere to go and nothing to do but contemplate a metal plate in the ground.  I got stuck again here on a parser issue -- a walkthrough informed me that I could CROWBAR PLATE, my attempts to PRY PLATE and USE CROWBAR having been rebuffed by the game.  We climb down the revealed shaft and turn off the robot guard (sadly unseen in the illustrations) with a simple BREAK GENERATOR (not STOP GENERATOR or TURN OFF GENERATOR, mind).

Past the now-defunct robot, we find the good Doctor, and although initial impressions of his status are not promising based on the illustration, victory is close at hand:

I've certainly played more complex and challenging adventures than The Time Machine -- this one only took an afternoon to polish off and document.  But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and look forward to further Howarth adventuring as our series continues.


  1. In British English to "pry" usually means to "snoop" or to "spy", so it's not surprising the game didn't recognise it!

  2. Ah! And just when I thought using a spanner and torch instead of a wrench and flashlight was all I needed to know... :) Thank you!

  3. Gracias!, lo compré cuando tenía unos 13 años allá por el año 1984 y siempre fue un misterio para mí saber de qué mierda se trataba el maldito juego. Un saludo grande. Otra vez gracias.

  4. I used 'prise metal' which worked. Another great write up thanks. I had exactly the problem with the corridor. Good fun though. No updates lately, but I hope you'll be back.