Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Vortex Factor (1985)

I mistakenly believed I had covered the entire Mark Data Products series of graphic adventures for the TRS-80 Color Computer over the past few months, but somehow this one slipped through my cerebral cortex.  Bob Withers and Stephen O'Dea created one last adventure game in 1985, a time traveling treasure hunt called The Vortex Factor.

It's a good one, perhaps the best of the series, employing everything the team learned on the five previous games.  The map is much larger, the spot animations are more sophisticated, and the puzzles are more inspired and challenging.  It's a fitting end to a quality series.

Remember, if you want to experience any of this fresh, you'd be well advised to play the game yourself before reading on.  My intention is to document these games for the merely curious, and for the historical record, going beyond what a normal review would cover.  I am therefore very likely to give away some neat surprises in the remainder of this post.

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

The game is set in 2063, but like the 70's haircuts in the original Star Wars, the designers can't escape the grip of 80's technology -- the time machine is driven by cartridges!

The game starts in an office, but the building layout is logical and consistent, and a little exploration soon establishes that we're inside a museum.

The goal is to track down a number of treasures and return them to the curator's workbench for points.  Unlike many adventure games, the treasures are not scored equally -- it's not clear at the outset how many treasures there are to find, so completion is more of a challenge.  And the treasures aren't denoted with asterisks in the traditional manner, so some treasures might be difficult to recognize, especially when typographical errors interfere:

There's a large device in the mining exhibit that makes for a neat time-travel treasure puzzle.  It has two states, ALL CLEAR and PRESSURIZED, and the game won't let the player enter while the pressure is on.  The device exists in two accessible timeframes, and there's a lump of coal available...

Powering the time machine's dry battery is a puzzle in itself.  I had the right idea, based on reading some notes (containing a literary clue) found in the science exhibit:

The Cyclase Theorem - Wells was right, an enzyme is the key.

Later I found a lime, a promising source of enzymatic power generation a la H.G., but the parser tripped me up for a while.  I learned that the player is able to SQUEEZE LIME indefinitely as Nothing happens.  I needed a hint to learn that I had to SAW LIME first, producing lime halves, after which the juice would go onto the floor, or into the small vial if I was carrying it.  The puzzle makes sense in retrospect, but while I was on the right track I was missing a critical step.  I liked the puzzle being a pun of sorts, restoring the battery's "juice."

There's a small bug in the time machine logic -- we have to leave and return after filling the battery and inserting a cartridge, or READ GAUGE still returns Vortex Factor unresolved.  After that point everything works as expected.

This was one of my favorite rooms, because the graphics are nicely done, and the designers did a good job of picking personalities who might still be recognizable in 2063:

There's also a space exposition room, which references the SS Trekboer from an earlier game in this series:

I believe the aquatic exhibit room reuses some graphics from Sea Search.

The design does a good job of setting up interrelated past and future events, and doesn't take itself too seriously -- an empty room contains a sign reading:
In the curator's workroom, we finally encounter a variation on the traditional Scott Adams score notice -- this one reads, Just stack new treasures here.  The curator.
The King Tut exhibit moves to Chicago on June 12th.  Tut Tut  Tutsie, goodbye.

The office contains a wall safe, and it's a fun puzzle.  OPEN SAFE isn't a recognized command, so I guessed it would spring open when unlocked (which it later did.)  The player can TURN DIAL -- it only takes two-digit numbers, but after I ran through all the combinations from 00 to 99 it became clear it wasn't going to be that easy.  Via time travel, I finally found an old document with a date on it -- I tried 11-29-19-42 to no avail, but leaving the century out worked, yielding a blue cartridge for the time machine.

The red cartridge is used to return to the starting time period and location -- which turned out to be Detroit in June 2063.  I live in the Detroit suburbs, and it's nice to think we'll pioneer future modes of transportation here.

The yellow cartridge goes back to just before I was born -- Detroit, May 1967, when the museum was already established but not as large as it is in 2063, lacking the wings to the west.

The blue cartridge travels in space as well as time, taking us to London in April 1200.  I needed to map the dungeon maze in this area out, and the job was made more difficult by an amusing, clever innovation.  My usual approach to mapping is to gather some random objects and drop one in each new room I find, so that I can recognize when a "twisty passage" has actually brought me back to a location I've already visited.  But in this game, an unseen person wanders through the maze -- for example, A distant voice says: Who left a calendar just laying here? -- and makes off with these bread crumbs!  The maze wasn't too hard to map, fortunately, and I always appreciate a design choice that anticipates the player's possible actions and humorously thwarts them.

I got stuck again and needed a hint to learn that there was a pink cartridge in the bookcase in the past.  The pink cartridge takes us to a traditional sci-fi setting, the post-apocalyptic future:

 The news clipping informs us that at some point in our future, NUCLEAR ACCIDENT CONTAMINATES ENTIRE WEST COAST, which is kind of a downer.  It's dangerous to be in this area without the spacesuit, though we don't have to explicitly WEAR it in this game.  There's a mutant humanoid to the south, and in one of the few conventional puzzles in this game, we learn that he looks hungry, and GIVE SANDWICH to obtain the white cartridge.

The white cartridge in turn takes us to an area that's pitch black initially.  But if we wander around and inadvertently die in the darkness, the current room is displayed, revealing that we're in an Egyptian tomb, a traditional adventure treasure-hunting ground:

I needed yet another hint to learn that the bird statue I found in the wax museum room can be melted down and combined with a bit of string found in the London dungeons to make a candle so we can see in this area.  Fortunately the wax can be re-melted repeatedly if we forgot to bring the string along on the first attempt, like I did.

The candle doesn't burn very long, so efficient execution is needed to find all the treasures in the mummy's tomb.  Once we've opened the sarcophagus and taken the ruby necklace, we are unable to CLOSE SARCOPHAGUS, which made me nervous.  But giving the brass ring to the mummy reveals a secret passage in the wall and a hidden lever in the sarcophagus, both of which yield treasures.

Close to the end, I needed a hint to learn that I could TURN TORCH in the dungeon to find another treasure.

Here's a table of the various treasures and points allocated to them, only because I haven't seen this documented elsewhere -- the scores seem to be based on how difficult it is to obtain each treasure:   

platinum bracelet - 2 points
large sapphire - 10 points
gold nugget - 6 points
diamond - 16 points
jade buddha - 13 points
jewel encrusted scepter - 18 points
ruby necklace - 15 points
large emerald - 10 points
sliver [sic] cup - 10 points
After we drop the last treasure in the storage location, victory is ours!

I really enjoyed The Vortex Factor -- it wasn't frustrating, so I remained motivated to keep experimenting, but I did need several hints to get through it, unlike the earlier Withers/O'Dea games.  It's unfortunate that this more sophisticated entry in the Mark Data Products lineup was also its last gasp -- the CoCo market was dying in 1985 as the 16-bit era dawned, and this more elaborate and challenging adventure may have taken more effort to produce than it yielded in profit.  But it does exist, and I recommend it without reservation.


  1. Hi:

    I have recently played Calixto Island, Trekboer, The Black Sanctum and The Vortex Factor, and I think that Trekboer and The Black Sanctum are the best games of these because of the narrative behind the puzzles. Even if the puzzles in The Vortex Factor are better in their design (at least some of them), the lack of a story was a turn off for me.

    And great blog. I hope you'll comment about other old adventure games. If you haven't played it, I recommend Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True. I played it last week on an Amiga emulator and it's a great game.


  2. Vortex Factor was the only text adventure by Mark Data Products that I never solved (due to selling my Color Computer). Tried downloading them onto my PC but unable to play them. Would be great to see them available for Android ;)