Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Circus (1983)

This week, we return to Brian Howarth's Mysterious Adventures series, written in the U.K. to run on the Scott Adams interpreter, with series entry #6: Circus.

This one lies somewhere between Howarth's fantasy adventures and his more naturalistic sci-fi games -- there are some fantasy elements here, but most of the puzzles are realistic in nature.  I played Circus on the ScottFree interpreter to work my way through the game, then replayed it on the Commodore 64 to capture some of the simple, space-efficient vector-and-fill illustrations.

As the story begins, we find ourselves standing outside a circus tent with an empty gas can, a set of car keys, and a penknife in hand.  Clearly our goal is to find some gas and get ourselves out of here, but there's more to the situation than meets the eye.

There are some definite British-isms to work around in this title --and some differences between the original text version and the later Commodore 64 edition.  For example, the gas can is referred to as a Petrol Can in the original edition, and a Petrol Tin in the graphical version.

As always, I encourage interested adventurers to stop reading here and go play Circus independently before continuing.  I'm interested in documenting the history and evolution of interactive fiction, in some detail, and as a consequence any specific game I cover is bound to suffer from a few...

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

Before we enter the circus tent, it's a good idea to explore the surrounding area.  We find a generator to the east, and can EXAMINE GENERATOR to learn that It needs fixing - a cable is missing!  This is useful information, and more explicitly laid out for us than the fix-it puzzles in some of Howarth's earlier games.

Circus in general seems to be a bit easier than Howarth's other adventures.  Some of the puzzles are almost given away -- just to the east of the generator, we find a shovel and can DIG right there to discover the machine's critical Starting Handle.

We can also revisit our vehicle to obtain a few useful items and take notes for future reference during the game's hectic climax.  The dimensions of the game's "rooms" are flexible, as the front and rear of our car are treated as separate locations.  We can also OPEN TRUNK to find a spanner (wrench) and a flashlight.

Circus is more straightforward than Howarth's fantasy-themed Mysterious Adventures like Arrow of Death, but there is some magic in the air.  We can don the clown's costume in the storeroom, and a clown appears.  He points to the floor, where a note sets out a secondary goal:
You must destroy this place
We are Spirits - Doomed by Evil
Doomed forever to this Circus
He will continue to point to the floor every time we look at him for the rest of his time with us, but that's just a minor bug.  The clown follows us around, and can be put to work helping us set up a safety net for our tightrope walk, if we can figure out how to please the parser.  I found that USE NET, DROP NET, ARRANGE NET, and STRETCH NET do no good, and needed a walkthrough to learn that the magic words are ERECT NET.  After this is done, the clown runs off, his purpose fulfilled.

There are numerous ways to die, of course; the game announces Send in the Clowns! I'm DEAD!  if we try, for instance, to MOVE (sleeping) TIGER.  We also die if we get into Marvo the Human Cannonball's cannon and pull the lever before cutting an appropriately placed hole in the tent and/or donning the crash helmet.  And trying to walk the tightrope without wearing the slippers is fatal if we haven't set up the safety net.

I ran into one dead-end navigation issue in the game -- once in the cannon, there doesn't seem to be any way to get back out; no cardinal directions are available, and neither LEAVE CANNON nor EXIT CANNON are of any use.  There's a more appropriate navigational challenge when we WALK TIGHTROPE -- we can ostensibly go in all four directions, but trying to go E or W drops us off the wire.

The puzzles aren't hard, but there is some time pressure involved as Circus develops.  The flashlight doesn't last long, so we need to get the generator going, which requires solving most of the game's puzzles.  I cheated a bit here by playing with ScottFree, which doesn't quite handle light sources correctly in the Mysterious Adventures series -- once the LIT Flashlight goes out, it's supposed to be replaced with a Dead Flashlight object, but in ScottFree the lit flashlight also remains in inventory, happily casting light.  There are no such bugs to save us later, when we have barely enough moves to escape the circus before it blows up and takes us with it.

The circus is apparently a more permanent installation than the norm -- the classic travelling circus is generally not supported by an underground bunker with a control panel and a self-destruct mechanism.  It's a bit contrived, though it does make for some effective endgame action.

The control panel opens a hatch, beyond which lie two terminals.  A blueprint in a nearby alcove reads, Detonation primed when terminals on control panel are shorted.  Which was useful information, as I was visualizing a pair of computer terminals and thought I'd be encountering some robots or aliens before too long.

Another difference between the text and graphical versions turns up when we go for a SWIM in the large tank -- in the text version, a Sea-Lion appears, but it's a Seal in the illustrated edition.  In either case we can FEED SEA with a fish we've found in the freezer, causing the animal to toss us a Snorkel.  The snorkel is useless for swimming, but is quite useful for something else.

I spent some time trying unsuccessfully to open a chest, finding that I could not OPEN, MOVE or TAKE it.  We actually have to KICK CHEST to get it open.

When, taking the clown's word for it, we're ready to blow up the circus, we have merely to SHORT TERMINALS with the spanner and the pressure is on to make our escape:

Bells and sirens are sounding!


One thing I like about this game is that some items, like the spanner and the metal bar, actually have multiple logical uses -- this is surprisingly rare in adventure games, and it's a nice touch here.

Having launched myself out of the tent using the cannon, I thought I was in the clear, but apparently being anywhere in the vicinity is dangerous when the explosion detonates, so we need to get some gas and make an efficient escape.  FILL CAN yields only an unhelpful I need Petrol!  It makes sense there should be some gasoline in the generator, but we can't OPEN GENERATOR or otherwise confirm this.  I needed a walkthrough to tell me that SYPHON PETROL is the magic incantation -- with the snorkel in hand as a necessary accessory.  While the game does recognize both OPEN BOOT and OPEN TRUNK as a nod to us Yanks, SIPHON GAS does not work.  And once we've returned to the car, we must FILL TANK, not PUT PETROL, FILL CAR, or FILL HOLE.

Having prepared transport for our hasty departure, we ENTER CAR and DRIVE CAR to emerge victorious in the nick of time:


I enjoyed playing Circus -- it's not particularly difficult, aside from the trickier verb-guessing moments, and I like the way the plot develops, nonsensical as it is in many respects.  We will return to Mr. Howarth's series in the not-too-distant future, to explore his Mysterious Adventure #7: Feasibility Experiment.


  1. I remember playing this when I was about 12. How can I play it now!?

  2. There are a couple of ways -- the ScottFree interpreter available for most modern platforms runs all the Scott Adams and Brian Howarth text adventures. You can also set up emulators for specific older systems, though that's usually a little more complicated.