Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Adventure A - Planet of Death (1981)

I have been neglecting an entire -- what's the word?... range?... collection?... whatever, a whole bunch of unique text adventures written for the Sinclair home computers.  Spectrum!

These machines from Sir Clive Sinclair's company were very popular in the UK, but the 8-bit Spectrum never gained a foothold in the US, after Timex tried and failed to market the original, primitive ZX-80 on our shores.  But the emulation era has arrived, opening up a fresh world of vintage games for us Yanks to explore.

To celebrate our contemporary good fortune, I'm playing through a seminal adventure game for the Speccy entitled Adventure A: Planet of Death, first in a series published by Artic (not Arctic, mind you) Computing in 1981.  The author of this game remains anonymous in all the records I have been able to find -- there's some online speculation that it may have been written by Simon Wadsworth, who created several adventure games for Artic, but precious little confirmation.

Unlike many games of this vintage, this one kindly gives us some general guidance about our objective at startup:

Planet of Death, as the title suggests, is yet another escape-the-alien-planet-in-your-presently-disabled-ship story, but it's pleasantly executed in the classic two-word parser style, with some interesting puzzles and a colorful sense of fantasy.  If you plan to play the game yourself, which I always encourage, be aware that there's no in-game SAVE command; only when we QUIT are we given the option of saving.  It's a cumbersome approach, given that there are several deaths and dead ends that are impossible to anticipate, so I recommend taking advantage of modern times, and playing on an emulator with save state capability.

There are also numerous red herrings, parser roadblocks, dead ends and bugs, most of which I will discuss in some detail, as we enter the realm of...

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

The Artic parser is rather primitive even by the era's standards - few synonyms are recognized, and there's not a lot of feedback given when we mistype a word or otherwise fail to satisfy the computer.  The game's text engine also appears not to support esoteric characters, such as the apostrophe.  At the game's start, we find ourselves on a mountain plateau near a handy piece of sharp flint, where the game and I had this frustrating exchange: 


In an adjacent room, we find a rope hanging from a tree, and frustration ensues again:


Or ever, as it turns out.  Eventually we learn that EXAMINE and TAKE don't work, though LOOK and GET often do.  And USE covers a range of complex activities, like affixing a rope to who-knows-what -- certainly, as my best efforts established, not the stalactites a few rooms to the east -- and using it to climb down into a pit.
At least in the latter case a cave drawing provides a hint, showing a man climbing down into a pit using a rope --it's not much of a tip, really, but at least we know we're on the right track in attempting to obtain the rope.  GET ROPE - HOW? - WITH FLINT does the trick; actually, WITH FLINT alone will suffice, but GET ROPE WITH FLINT is a no-go.  After the rope HAS FALLEN TO THE FLOOR (presumably the forest floor) the room description still shows that it's hanging from the tree.  And there's a potentially game-breaking bug here -- if we WITH FLINT a second time, the rope gets removed from our inventory and returned to the floor, but the internal item counter doesn't get adjusted, permanently reducing the number of items we can carry.

The game's location and object model occasionally makes things easier, and occasionally misleads.  A strange house contains a pair of boots, and A FLOOR BOARD, rather calling attention to itself.  We don't actually find anything by executing a MOVE BOARD or GET BOARD, but it's handy for crossing the ravine nearby.  It must be quite a long floorboard, as JUMP RAVINE yields only ITS TOO WIDE. I FELL AND BROKE MY NECK., but USE BOARD gets us across with no muss or fuss.

This is an old-school adventure game, so once again, I AM IN A MAZE. THERE ARE PASSAGES EVERYWHERE.  We can map the maze in the usual manner by dropping objects, and must take careful notes as we go, because LOOK flouts tradition and does not repeat the room description or its contents.  If we do not know about the REDESCRIBE verb, which does what LOOK usually does, we have to leave and reenter to confirm that we are where we think we are and actually dropped what we think we dropped.  As it turns out, the maze is relatively linear -- most directions out of each room take us back to the first room, while heading N, S, E, W in defiance of real-world geography gets us to the ice cavern at the end of the maze.  There is a block of ice here, which melts in a few turns if we take it with us; I never actually needed it or the resultant undroppable pool of water for anything, so it was rather a waste of time exploring the maze.  There also seems to be a bit of randomness in the maze's behavior, though I was not able to nail it down; a second try from the starting room always sufficed when I seemed to have gotten myself lost.

Similar design oddities persist throughout Planet of Death, giving the game an unfinished feel, as though puzzles were planned but only partially executed.  We can't GO LAKE initially, as BRRR. THE WATERS TOO COLD in this land without proper punctuation.  But if we WEAR BOOTS, we can enter the lake once -- a gold coin is added to our inventory without comment from the game, and subsequent attempts to re-enter the lake yield I CANT DO THAT YET.  And, of course, I found no actual use for the gold coin after going to the trouble of obtaining it, making it the reddest of herrings. 

Another oddly incomplete puzzle involves a small green man sleeping on a mirror we apparently would like to have (it actually serves a purpose in helping us get through a security force field nearby.)  GET MAN yields UGH! HE IS ALL SLIMY.  I didn't realize at first that, despite the game's protestation, the small green man actually does get put into inventory; a second try yields THE GREEN MAN AWOKE AND THROTTLED ME, indicating that waking him is not a good idea.  So it's best to just GET MAN, GET MIRROR, and DROP MAN.  There are some slimy green gloves in a room to the east, which seem like they should be related to this puzzle, but I never found cause to do anything with them.

Similar confusion resulted when I encountered a security area, featuring a force field and a loudspeaker emitting dance music.  My instinct to DANCE caused me to fall, knock myself out and wake up in prison.  We can also enter the prison cells of our own accord in several locations in this area, with the door locking behind us, leaving us facing a barred window with no apparent hope of escape.  In my playthrough, I simply avoided entering or getting thrown into these rooms as I found them, reverting to a saved game as necessary; there's nothing in the cells we need to finish the game.  But subsequent research indicates that LOOK UP reveals that THE BARS LOOK LOOSE!; pity that LOOK BARS yields only I SEE NOTHING SPECIAL.

Returning to the problem at hand, I discovered a computer room with a working computer, a keyboard and a key.  Thinking I might be able to turn off the loudspeaker and/or the force field, I tried to PUSH KEY and TYPE COMMAND and SWITCH COMPUTER and BREAK COMPUTER, all to no avail.  I eventually realized that the key is actually a physical key -- it doesn't work on the prison locks, but can be used to unlock the lift control room later; the computer has no apparent use.  I had a laser gun, but SHOOT SHIELD was not productive.  Neither was BREAK FIELD.  But SMASH FIELD works, as long as we have the gun, a combination I had to rely on a walkthrough to discover.  Once the force field has been weakened, we can DANCE right through it as long as we have the mirror in hand.

We emerge into a HANGER [sic], where our small but powerfull [sic] ship resides.  There's a sleeping security guard here, but he was an extremely sound sleeper during my playthrough.  The Tall Lift (a huge elevator) is out of order, indicated by an OUT OF ORDER SIGN that we can't actually READ or LOOK at, an apparent triumph of alien technology over basic literacy.  There's a starter motor in the lift, which we need to start up our spaceship, but we have to get the lift back into working order to facilitate our escape.

Fortunately, the Lift Control Room has three switches which can be used to activate the lift.  In my first attempt, PUSH SWITCH 2 blew a fuse;  I restored and found that PUSH SWITCH 3 succeeded.  Experimentation establishes that we actually have to PUSH 3, PUSH 2 and PUSH 1, in that order, to activate the lift.  Hindsight enables us to make some sense of the cryptic sign posted nearby reading, 5, 4 NO DUSTY BIN RULES.

We're almost there at this point.  We enter our ship, which has a MAIN switch and an AUX switch.  I made the mistake of PUSHing MAIN first, and THE SPACE SHIP BLEW UP AND KILLED ME.  Restore, PUSH AUX, and our ship flies into the lift, enabling us to reach four buttons that were previously untouchable.  PUSH 1 or 2 or 3 alerts the security guard, ending the game.

PUSH 4, however, gets us safely to a plateau and victory:

I enjoyed playing Planet of Death more than this post might lead one to believe; even though a lot of my exploration had no ultimate purpose, I still enjoyed wandering around the world, fiddling with items, teasing the parser and taking it all in.  I might have had difficulty finishing it without a walkthrough for emergencies, but the design is open enough to encourage play in the more traditional sense, regardless of concrete progress, and that's not a bad thing in an adventure game.


  1. This was the first adventure I ever played, on the ZX81.

    IIRC the ice in the maze could be used for an alternative way down to the lower level instead of using the rope at the pit.

    The green man/gloves/force field puzzle was properly implemented in the original ZX81 version, which makes it even odder that it was changed in the later Spectrum release! I've never understood why they did that.

    Dusty Bin was the name of a character on a British TV show at the time called "3 2 1" so the sign wasn't as cryptic as it appears nowadays. (And a LOT less cryptic than the "3 2 1" show itself.)

  2. Thanks for the clarification on the origins of Dusty Bin. I knew the term "dustbin" but that didn't seem to be helpful here -- the relation to "3 2 1" makes this joke/hint much more relevant.

  3. I've just released an updated version of this adventure for the iPhone; it is one I was particularly fond of. It also had different ways of completing the adventure, which wasn't so usual back then.
    The app has a new UI to allow a text adventure to be played without having to use the virtual keyboard or guess the verbs and nouns available. It also follows a more coherent storyline with the puzzles updated to make more sense in context.

    As someone who has played a lot of text adventures, would be stoked if you were able to try it.


  4. Hi Roddy, I can't find Planet of Death anymore in the AppStore,
    can you help me ?

  5. Hi. Just one minor correction: Timex tried to market the ZX81 (as the "Timex/Sinclair 1000" in the US, not the ZX80.

    As for Anonymous' AppStore question, maybe you have an iPad, and the app doesn't have an Universal version, so, after you search, you need to go to the iPhone tab.

  6. Thanks again! Second one complete, thanks to some hints from you. I am making maps as I go along.