Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Adventure of the Week: The Dallas Quest (1984)

I was never a Dallas fan, but back in the 80's the TV show was a ubiquitous, unavoidable pop culture phenomenon; even if you didn't give a rook's tuchus about Who Shot J.R.?, you knew Larry Hagman played the victim and that the character probably deserved it.  And officially licensed games were rare on my trusty TRS-80 Color Computer, so when Datasoft's Dallas Quest graphic adventure became available on the platform, I had to play it.

The game was designed by Louella Lee Carraway and Phyllis Wapner, with graphics by Kelly Day and Joe Pearson, implemented by James Garon using what seems to be the Sands of Egypt engine. One odd thing I noticed about the disk image I found online for this replay is that the boot program seems to be missing a feature.  The version I bought at my local Radio Shack back in the day had an "easter egg" mode that kicked into a looping in-store demo if the keys T, R and S were held down during boot; the key sequence recognition was handled by the BASIC launcher.  The AUTOEXEC.BAS file on this disk doesn't have any of that embedded code, so perhaps there were a couple of different releases over the years.

The game opens with a then-impressive title screen, accompanied by a rendition of the Dallas theme that sounds pretty good up until the end, when due to some technical oversight it lapses into an extended razzberry.  It looked much better on the Commodore 64 -- the CoCo's 4-color palette tends to look a little garish when it comes to skin tones:

The game opens in Sue Ellen's living room, where we, as a great detective, have presumably just agreed to help her with a matter of some importance, a quest with which J.R. Ewing will do his best to interfere.  But there's very little intrigue or mystery in the offing, and not much content of interest to Dallas fans either -- The Dallas Quest is a standard treasure hunt/puzzle-solving adventure, the details of which will shortly be revealed without so much as a cliffhanger.  In other words...


There's room on the disk to save up to 7 games, which is convenient; the game's inventory only allows us to hold six items at once, which is not.  As it turns out, we are NOT wise to hold on to the $500,000 in expense money with which we start the game; it has no practical value, and takes up an inventory slot needed for other, less obviously useful items in this universe without stores.

The parser is oddly limited, given the show's soap-opera background -- SHOOT SUE ELLEN yields only, You can't fire Sue Ellen.  And TALK and ASK verbs are recognized but not really implemented, always responding with Actions speak louder than words, disappointing any fan hoping to interact with the Dallas characters.  The parser also does not handle leading spaces with any aplomb -- an extra space tends to cause the entire command to go unrecognized.

It becomes clear early on that the story is only tangentially related to Dallas -- while characters from the series appear in key roles, they don't really participate much in the generic adventure game plot.  The player is left to the usual trial-and-error business of adventuring -- finding a pair of sunglasses to entice an owl, for example, and figuring out what to do with an important envelope from the Acme Ticket Company, addressed to J.R.  We're given precious little direction beyond a photograph in our possession as the game begins, of one "CHUGALUG" Jones, a grizzled old prospector with one brown eye and one blue eye, also known as Mr. Game-Character-Who-Never-Appeared-on-Dallas.

The game's corny sense of humor is in the old-school adventure tradition -- SHOOT RIFLE yields A little flag pops out with the word "BANG!" written on it.  A parrot wishes us a 'vine' time here in the jungle.  And a challenge to perform a Feat of Courage leads to this over-the-top gag:

Realism is also very flexible, more in tune with the Zork universe than Dallas -- in a barn at the Southfork ranch, a giant rat lurks:

The laws of physics are also highly mutable.  WEAR SUNGLASSES makes everything go dark, even outdoors by the pool in broad daylight.  We're supposed to GIVE SUNGLASSES to an owl, for some reason, who in an unusual graphical touch, flies outside of the picture window into the text area to pick them up.  Later, the game's physics somehow make the owl now perching on our arm capable of carrying off the three-foot rat

Fatalities also abound -- early on, before we even leave Southfork, we can easily get beaten up by J.R.'s hired thugs, killed by the giant rat, or run over by a cattle stampede:

There are elements of the series worked into the game, but they don't always add up to much.  In the first act, we are free to wander around, exploring the house and grounds familiar from the show.  A horse's saddle reads Lucy's Love, but the horse refuses the apples we find in the dining room.  Randomly, Lucy Ewing shows up and, the game tells us, is impressed by our character's rugged good looks.  She holds the horse steady so we can ride --  but the animal doesn't take us anywhere useful or interesting, and just dumps us unceremoniously on the ground. It's an odd little aside that doesn't affect the story at all.

Most of the game's puzzles involve pleasing or avoiding animals of one sort or another, rather than facing J.R. or any human characters directly.  We have to BLOW BUGLE to stop the cattle stampede -- for some reason the instrument that sounds discordant and nasty when played elsewhere plays Brahms' Lullaby at this moment, putting the cattle to sleep and partially revealing a buried tombstone, which contains a clue for navigating the wheat field to the north:   "...th, West, West, Nor..."  It's not a tough puzzle to crack, as an initial move S puts us back in the house.

Following the "decoded" directions brings us to an airfield, from which we cannot return, so we'd better have found the pouch of tobacco in a desk and grabbed the photograph and envelope before showing up for our flight.  The tickets in the envelope are not airplane tickets, but football tickets; after we give them to ranch foreman Ray Krebbs, he flies us to South America.  Almost immediately we learn that J.R. is closing in on us in his jet helicopter, a touch that seems more Inspector Gadget-meets-Dukes of Hazzard than Dallas.    There's a parachute hidden in the knapsack available in the plane, which allows us to land semi-safely in the jungle near a cartoon monkey and a sleeping jaguar.  The pouch of tobacco will come in handy on three separate occasions, this being the first:

Next we encounter an anaconda, and a parrot who advises us to Tickle him under the chin!   The anaconda slithers away when we TICKLE ANACONDA, as the game compliments our great detective skills in finding the anaconda's chin, pointing out again just how far we really are from Dallas the TV series.

A dinghy conveniently placed on the riverbank has a hole in it, of course.  The cooperative monkey plugs the hole with his tail if we give him some more chewing tobacco; he seems to be a happy, helpful, but pitifully cancer-prone little primate.  Next we encounter enraged hippos and a cartoon turtle, who will help us out if we play the bugle again:

Of course, there's a native trading post visible when we reach shore, per standard adventure game zoning ordinances.  The sign reads Chugalug's Trading Emporium.  Inside we find our monkey friend, looking very 1920's-cartoon-ish indeed, nothing to buy, and an arcade game we cannot examine or play.  Once again we must play the willing co-dependent, feeding our simian companion's addiction to make progress:

It's fatal to climb down the ladder with more than one item in inventory; fortunately, DROP ALL is a supported command.  But it's a one-way trip if we don't bring a light source, i.e. the flashlight hidden behind a nearby curtain -- somehow, the ladder becomes completely unclimbable in the dark.  TURN ON FLASHLIGHT doesn't work, but LIGHT FLASHLIGHT does.  It doesn't last many turns, though, so we need to round up our possessions and get them down the ladder efficiently; the knapsack helps accomplish this, and it's one of the few naturalistic puzzles in the game.

Soon we encounter another classic adventure trope - a tribe of cannibals, determined to have us for dinner.  The photo of Chugalug temporarily saves our skin, but we now have to perform a Feat of Courage (an actual one, the corny gag mentioned earlier aside.)  There are a few choices available at the Crossroads of Courage -- we can opt to face a lion, an elephant, or a vulture.  But only the vulture can really be dealt with -- the tobacco-addled monkey distracts Mama Vulture while we stealthily replace her eggs with coconuts.

Returning to the village with the prized vulture eggs in hand, we are greeted with unwarranted hostility.  We must once again rely on our monkey friend (enticing him with a mirror this time, implying a more serious addiction in the offing) to reveal the cannibal leader as none other than J.R. Ewing:


WAVE RING gets us past J.R.'s unwitting cannibal minions, allowing us to escape to a nearby cave where a giant spider holds sway.  We then have to HEAT EGGS over a flickering torch, invoking adventure game biology long enough to cause the baby vultures to hatch, summoning Mama Vulture, who kills off the spider and grants us access to this statue of Chugalug Jones, two beers eternally hoisted in ancient stone:

The ring replaces his missing eye, revealing the treasure map we have apparently been searching for all this time.  J.R. reappears once we have found the map, and offers us ten million dollars for it.  But he's the villain, so agreeing to the deal doesn't gain us anything -- if we agree, the deceitful cur drops us into a snake pit, and charges us the ten million he just gave us to help us escape (we can choose death over the second deal, if we like, ending the game.)  We are expected to turn him down, in which case we are somehow magically returned to Southfork, likely because the designers were running out of ideas.  Here, we GIVE MAP to Sue Ellen.  Immediately, a gaggle of semi-recognizable characters show up to claim their shares -- but Miss Ellie ain't havin' no truck with this treasure map nonsense:

But we already have our two million dollars from Sue Ellen, and victory is ours:

I can only imagine what kind of loose approval process Dallas producer Lorimar granted Datasoft for this project -- anyone connected with the show in any serious creative capacity would likely have rejected the entire design document, Miss Ellie-style.  But somehow this game made it to retail, replacing the high-stakes soap-opera intrigue of the TV show with a linear series of goofy cartoon puzzles.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy replaying The Dallas Quest after all these years -- strange as it is, it still has its moments, and some of the graphics are nice.  Today, it stands as an example of why brand-name licensors generally insist on approval and broad veto power over game licensees -- sometimes, developers just don't get it.


  1. That was interesting... I'd hate to give TV producers too much credit for forward thinking, but ... 1984, the series wasn't quite at the midpoint of it's run which probably looked like forever at that point. Computer games were still generally children's entertainment. So... gateway drug for the upcoming generation of viewers? :) Do you know if the game was pitched to soap-viewers? Or did the devs/producers think they were targeting a totally different audience who needed the cartoony plot?

    I was too young to be interested in the show at the time (and probably not allowed to watch it anyways in the 80s) but I do remember thinking the theme song was great when I was a kid.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment -- there may have been some ideas about promoting the show to a younger audience, but given the result I don't think anyone at Lorimar was thinking about this product in much detail. Licensing at the time usually meant "take an existing product and slap some imagery from the property on it" -- so the contract may have been set up the same way dolls and posters and puzzles were handled, with the royalty rate the primary focus. The computer game industry was still quite small and not really a big part of mainstream culture, so my guess is Lorimar just didn't care (or know) enough to seek approval over the details of an interactive product. They may have approved the box art and left it at that.

  3. I think you're right on with the licensing comment. This looks like some animal-themed game that was dragged out and had some Dallas stuff slapped on it in an effort to cash in on the show's gravy train.
    Strange game, great article. I hope you can dig up some more weird text games to review!

  4. There's certainly no shortage of old adventures to cover -- text, graphics, and animated. The genre flourished for a long time, then almost completely died until recently, so there are many weird and obscure games to consider.

  5. I've never played it on my A2, but goddamn! what awesome graphics :). Screwed up storyline!

  6. I find it odd that you can complete the other two feats of courage yet there are no ways to deal with the spider then. The game has rope in it that when you try to use it tells you "how?" implying it has some use, but I can't find a verb to do anything with it (lasso spider would have been cool and let the other two feats work, for example). You can feed the apple to the horse and it will move its tail, but has no other effect there. If you eat the apple, you will get an apple core, which once again implies it has some use, but I cannot find any use for it (making cyanide from the seeds to poison the spider would have been cool for example). In the end, the game is one-note and unforgiving (you cannot even leave the airport and go back to the house if you forgot something. You are just trapped there. Save and save a LOT, apparently. It's almost as irritating as trying to battle that thief in Zork I where even if you do everything right, you STILL sometimes get killed. WTF is the point in "puzzles" like that? OTOH, Lucasarts went overzealous after Zak McKracken with absolutely NO possibilities of getting killed and no alternate endings after Maniac Mansion (which was its most cool feature and yet they NEVER repeated that kind of do it your way option EVER again...well maybe in Jedi Knight series as you could become evil or good, at least. Actually, this is where Dragon Age Origins AMAZED me, which so many sub-plots, romance options and alternate endings (could have gone further still, but at least it was heading in the right direction to adventure game re-playability and so it is that Dragon Age Origins is the ONLY D&D style game I ever played through more than once so I could see all the different endings and awards). Sadly, they blew it with the sequels so far....

  7. There's definitely an unfinished feel to a LOT of vintage adventures; there are often items that don't quite seem like intentional red herrings, and I would guess in most cases the designers just ran out of time or memory, or couldn't make a puzzle work as intended given the limited technology. I've seen all kinds of weird bugs where the puzzle only works one way and other plausible scenarios lead to strange behavior -- objects disappearing from the world entirely, or appearing when needed even if the player hasn't fetched them. Sometimes the groundwork for something more interesting was laid but never got cleaned up when an idea was abandoned, and I would guess that was the case here.

    P.S. You may have forgotten was possible in Lucasarts' "The Secret of Monkey Island" to drown Guybrush Threepwood, simply by keeping him underwater longer than he can hold his breath. But given that it takes ten minutes, it's an extremely deliberate act of suicide! And Indy was subject to fatalities (or at least game-over defeat) in at least one of the Lucasarts Indiana Jones adventures.

    1. I remember playing this when it first came out. I got stuck at the cannibal scene. There was no Google back then. I spent days and days trying to figure out what i needed to do without any success. I was just about to throw the computer out the window when I angrily pressed the reset button half way. The computer hung up displaying indecipherable machine code and the words, "wave ring". Without that error I would still be in front of my Trs-80, 30 years later cursing the screen trying every verb in the dictionary over and over.

  8. Played this with my mom on our Commodore 64. It was the only game I really could get her interested in at the time...before Myst and 13 Guest. She was and English Professor and Dallas Fan, so when I showed her this we spent to next 4-5hrs playing, had a great time, and made a treasured memory for me now that she's with the Lord.

  9. I remember that my grandmother had this on her Apple IIc, because she loved Dallas, but she found the game to be too hard. I remember giving it a go on one visit with no luck. Two or three visits later, I think I solved it as a ten year old with much amazement on her part. Reading back through the solution though, I can't imagine how I figured it out...