Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Derelict (1982)

This week, we're playing one of the more obscure text adventures of the early 1980's -- Derelict, from Aardvark Software, written by Rodger Olsen and Bob Anderson.  It's a treasure hunt set aboard an abandoned alien ship -- we must find ten treasures and escape the derelict vessel whose tractor beam has ensnared our small spaceship.  It was released for a number of 8-bit computers, including the TRS-80 Color Computer, OSI, Timex/Sinclair, Vic-20, and TI99/4A -- here, we're playing it on the Commodore 64.

Derelict opens after the alien ship's tractor beam has drawn us into its landing bay.  The game was advertised as the "Toughest Adventure at Aardvark" back in the day, and it's certainly difficult -- but not for the usual reasons.  As the game gets underway, the game's quirky, non-standard, highly uncooperative parser immediately begins to make our lives difficult:

The game has no separate dictionary entries for items as displayed and referenced in the game -- adjectives are taken as the proper name of objects, and the parser grabs the first word and the last word, ignoring anything in between.  So TAKE BOOTS and TAKE MAGNETIC BOOTS both fail; TAKE MAGNETIC works.  Furthermore, verb recognition is based on the initial characters, so while there's no actual CLIMB verb implemented, the word is accepted and interpreted as CLOSE.  Derelict also has a tendency to respond with nothing at all when it doesn't have anything interesting to say, and it's not always clear whether actions like WEAR have had any effect.

So I really can't recommend this game as anything but a historical curiosity.  Aardvark used to advertise that its adventure games contained 30-50 hours of gameplay, but that seems to be because the parser is so terribly frustrating to deal with, and there are random deaths afoot.  Making matters worse, there's no SAVE command at all, so I took full advantage of modern technology, relying on an emulator with save state capabilities to work my way through this game.

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

Usually the DROP TREASURE HERE-TYPE SCORE signs can't be taken in adventure games, but this one allows it, though there's no practical reason to do so.

An interesting implementation choice is that exits dynamically change -- rather than OPEN IRON (door) and GO IRON, we have to LOOK and see that a new exit direction (DOWN) has become available.

Death without oxygen is fairly abrupt, with a flashing YOU DIE - NO OXYGEN screen.  But the game doesn't require us to have the oxygen until we actually leave the ship -- we can open the airlock and breathe perfectly normally in the vacuum until we set foot in the next location, outside.  There is a handy ATTACH/DETACH OXYGEN note on the bottle -- but there's no gauge, although it does eventually run out.

More parser oddness -- we don't have to WEAR MAGNETIC - carrying the magnetic boots counts them as being worn - but we do have to explicitly WEAR NYLON (spacesuit).  However, WEAR SPACESUIT returns YOU ALREADY ARE WEARING ONE, without that actually being the case.  So does WEAR SPACESHIP, which likely explains the confusion.  Wait, no.

One nice science-fiction touch -- in the rotating alien ship, we travel in directions including AFT, FORWARD, SPINWARD and ANTISPINWARD.

The game's ad copy promised that we would have to learn an alien language, but as it turns out it's just a simple letter-substitution cipher disguising plain old American English text.  And the alien code is really easy to crack -- after visiting a couple of [something] ILLN locations, I speculated that ILLN must mean ROOM and worked from that premise.  It didn't take long to discover that the alien "encryption" code is simply an inverted English alphabet, so A = Z, B = Y, and so forth.  So it becomes very easy to translate, although the aliens are apparently not great spellers, judging from the CAPTIANS CABIN and LABROATORY.

The game features a pretty large map; to save memory, a number of rooms seem to be coded with variations of floor/wall color and location sign within a standard template.  It works well in this context to expand the size of the game.

Objects that can be opened appear to be designed consistently -- or it could be a bug, as LOOK TRANSMITTER in the communications room and LOOK OVEN in the kitchen both return A LID.  When we do successfully OPEN something, the game just responds O.K., and we have to LOOK again to see if anything's been revealed.

I had to resort to a walkthrough to get the safe open.  I was trying to learn something useful from the captain's log, but READ LOG returns nothing, while LOOK LOG returns:

     HZUV: #!!!-#!##-#!!!

It translates to SAFE: -- uh, something.  The walkthrough informed me that it was a binary code, but of course that could still be evaluated as 7-4-7 or 8-11-8, depending on which character is taken as 0 and which as 1.  Even past that hurdle, the syntax required to open the safe is not clear - when prompted for the combination, 7-4-7 does not work, and 7,4,7 yields ?EXTRA IGNORED (in the C-64's BASIC interpreter, at least.)  747 is the required syntax.

The parser continued to get in the way as I tried to PUT SHIELDING and INSERT SHIELDING with no luck; PLACE SHIELDING finally yielded an IN WHAT? prompt, and LARGE (for large machine) turned out to be the only target that works.

There are ten treasures worth 9 points each -- some can be found easily, others must be discovered or created aboard the ship.

Pushbuttons on the Control Deck are labeled RED, GREEN, and BBLUE [sic]; but again the parser doesn't quite behave as expected.  PUSH RED yields THAT'S NOT HERE; we have to PUSH PUSHBUTTONS, and respond to the WHAT COLOR?  prompt with RED.

The ship has glass teleportation booths, each with a keyboard and keys numbered 1 through 99.  Learning which keys correspond to which rooms is a process of trial and error -- at least that's how I approached it; a chart of colors found in the communications room might have mapped mathematically to the floor/wall colors somehow, but I didn't think about that until after I'd found my way around.  This process requires frequent save-state restores -- as button 1 yields:



Buttons 2, 3, and 11 also lead to this fatal result; buttons 4-10 go somewhere interesting, as do several values above 20. Room 10 is a location otherwise inaccessible, which is the major point of this vexing puzzle.  Actually leaving the glass booth was a bit challenging -- the game tells us, OUTSIDE YOU SEE: VERTICAL SHAFT, but GO SHAFT returns THAT'S NOT HERE; GO OUT works.  (Incidentally, the glass booths adjoining each room appear to be distinct locations, as objects we leave in the booth do not transfer with us.)

At one point, we find a phaser, which should offer some defense against the ship's numbered, laser-armed droids -- but again the parser gets in our way.  SHOOT DROID fails, SHOOT #5 also fails -- BLAST #5 is the accepted syntax.

The game does give us a little guidance on our status -- SCORE with all ten treasures stored reports 90 points, and the message GOOD-BUT YOU'RE STILL STUCK HERE.  We have to actually take off to score the remaining ten points.

The game is written in BASIC, but utilizes an encoding trick at the start of the code to prevent LISTing of the source code.  I'm glad I found a walkthrough online, as I couldn't figure out what the GRAY BOX-WITH KNOB was for.  It turns out it's a remote control for what the GREEN pushbutton in the control deck does.

After much exploration, puzzling, and hair-tearing word-guessing, victory is ours:

So that's Derelict, from the Aardvark adventure game series.  It's not recommended -- and I can't say I really enjoyed the trip.  But I'm happy on occasion to play certain games so others don't have to.

1 comment:

  1. Great game...solved it recently on Vice...snapshots helped ;)

    Vindication at last...30 years later!
    Thanks for bloggin this great game...check out www.getlamp.com if you haven't already...i'll probably buy a copy...