Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Great Scott Project: QuestProbe #3 - Human Torch and The Thing (1985)

The Great Scott Project's tour of the Marvel Comics-based QuestProbe series wraps up here, with the last released game of the series, QuestProbe #3 Featuring The Human Torch and The Thing, also known as Fantastic Four (Part One) or (Chapter 1).  Presumably another game was planned to feature the remaining Fantastic Two, Dr. Reed Richards and Susan Storm; QuestProbe #4 Featuring X-Men, was still in development when Adventure International went out of business in 1985.  The Marvel comic book tie-in story for game #4 was finished, but published later in Marvel Fanfare, and the Quasar series wrapped up the Chief Examiner storyline.  So the Marvel story ultimately saw some closure, but the game series stopped abruptly; fortunately, this game's story is self-contained.

It's a shame the series ended here, because of all the released titles QuestProbe #3 feels the most like a proper Marvel/Scott Adams collaboration.  The first two games made errand boys of The Hulk and Spider-Man, sending them out to hunt for gems by solving arbitrary puzzles.  This adventure dispenses with the treasure-hunting motif in favor of a rescue-the-princess plot that... well, at least it feels more like a story.  More significantly, the design allows the player to switch between the two lead characters, creating new types of puzzles as Johnny Torch and Ben Grimm must work together, leveraging their capabilities as a team.  And in this one, our heroes can actually die, ending the game if either bites the dust.

I'm playing the IBM PC version once again, which uses the S.A.G.A.+ engine to support the character-switching design; reportedly, some UK releases on platforms that did not support this more advanced parser ported the gameplay to another engine altogether.  Once again, we're dealing with CGA graphics on the PC -- the Human Torch is rendered in red and white, which doesn't look too bad, but The Thing is resolutely gray instead of his usual striking orange color.  Releases on other platforms were far more colorful.

These characters were among Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's first creations for the modern Marvel Comics line, dating back to 1961, though an earlier, android version of The Human Torch dates all the way back to 1939.  That's all the information I can share without giving away aspects of the game itself, so if you plan to try this one yourself, I advise you to stop reading here and do so.  Because from here on in, True Believers, there are multifarious...

***** SPOILERS! 'NUFF SAID! *****

As we have seen previously, the opening copyright credits do some spoiling of their own, informing us that QuestProbe #3 will feature licensed, trademarked and consistently capitalized appearances by the CHIEF EXAMINER, RINGMASTER, FIRE EATER, LIVE WIRE, THE CLOWN, PRINCESS PYTHON, CANNONBALL, FLYING GAMBONNOS, BLOB, XANDU, and DOCTOR DOOM.  Most of these occur as quick, otherwise uncredited cameos in a single illustration of the CIRCUS OF CRIME, set up in a fairground just outside Latveria.  And DOCTOR DOOM... well, I'll leave that for later, in case you've been tempted to read this far but truly, honestly meant to go away and start playing.

The game starts in the CHIEF EXAMINER's office, with the player a disembodied entity as indicated by the initial, generic prompt OK, I WANT YOU TO.  It becomes specifically character-based once we TALK EXAMINER and get the story underway.  The dictionary no longer recognizes SCOTT as a synonym for EXAMINER, so it seems the character was formally being separated from its inspiration at this point.  The CHIEF EXAMINER informs us that:
In this test you must free ALICIA MASTERS from DOCTOR DOOM.  You'll have to master the powers of 2 MARVEL SUPER HEROS (TM).  You'll be able to switch your point of view at any time. Good luck!

The prompt then becomes HUMAN TORCH, I WANT YOU TO, and we can SWITCH to see THING, I WANT YOU TO.  This is an innovation -- while Infocom had done multiple-character games, memorably in Suspended, we've never seen two different character perspectives in a Scott Adams adventure before.  The "puppeteering" approach that seemed a little awkward in QuestProbe #2 makes more sense here, with the player explicitly controlling one character or the other.  It still has the effect of distancing us from the characters to a degree -- the stakes seem lower because we aren't playing as Ego -- but from a gameplay perspective, this structure works out well.

The game starts off with an immediate puzzle -- we can explore the world a little bit as the Human Torch, but the map isn't large, favoring more complex puzzles over a sprawling landscape.  And there isn't really much time to explore -- The Thing begins in an uncharacteristically helpless situation, sinking in a tarpit while the Torch tries to find some way to help him.  There's a small shack near the tarpit, and the Human Torch can GO IN SHACK or ENTER SHACK to find a candle; the S.A.G.A.+ engine alters the old Scott Adams convention, as GO SHACK now stays in the current room and places the character "at the shack," a capability that doesn't come into play in this game.

I tried a number of ideas here without much success.  As The Thing sank progressively up to his knees, waist, chest, and mouth, I was running pointlessly around as Johnny Torch.  We can see The Thing out there in the tarpit, sinking, and if we don't rescue him in time, he drowns in the tar.  We can take out our frustrations by BURNing the SHACK, which leaves the chimney standing, but it's not a recognized object and we can't use it to rescue our teammate.  The Thing is wearing a REED RICHARDS watch, which isn't pictured or described in detail, but I like to imagine his stretchy arms grasping each of the numbers firmly instead of simply pointing like those Mickey Mouse timepieces.  READ WATCH reveals the number of moves used, and the health status (of the character carrying it) on a 100% scale.  This doesn't mean much to The Thing, but the Human Torch needs to keep his health (read: flame charge) up and a number of puzzle solutions depend on his ability to FLAME ON LOW, HIGH or NOVA at the right time.

EXAMINE SELF reveals some interesting detail -- HUMAN TORCH is not flying and is not burning.  This was useful in my playthrough, as I had forgotten he can fly!  We can FLY OVER PIT, and GRAB THING by the arms, yielding I've got THING. I'm flying.  We can try to FLY OUT, to learn Sorry, I can't budge THING.  This is a nice puzzle, not too contrived beyond the premise (how did THE THING get into this situation in the first place?) and there are quite a few options to explore.  We can LIGHT CANDLE and DROP CANDLE, and see it get sucked down into the tar, but it doesn't cause any kind of explosion or otherwise help free our teammate.  We can BURN TARPIT, with FLAME ON HIGH, but that kills the tar-coated THING and ends the game. If we are still holding The Thing's arms when he drowns, the Torch goes down as well.  If we switch characters to become The Thing, we can't KICK or JUMP or EXIT the tarpit.  If, as the Torch, we LIGHT CANDLE and GIVE CANDLE TO THING, the tarpit doesn't react in any interesting way when he goes down.

I finally had to resort to the CASA walkthrough to find a solution.  Ben Grimm has a pretty strong constitution, given that he seems to be made of orange rock, and he can HOLD BREATH for a loooong time, perhaps even longer than Guybrush Threepwood.  Enveloped by the tar with his mouth closed, he does not drown -- from the Torch's perspective he sinks into the tar, but the game does not end.  The WAIT verb is useful here, and supports several specific increments -- we can WAIT 5, WAIT 10, WAIT 15 or WAIT 50 turns to help pass the time (arbitrary numbers are not accepted).  Eventually the I'm being sucked down by something! messages cease, and FEEL AROUND yields I feel machinery.  Now, as The Thing, we can CLOBBER MACHINERY -- he smashes his way through and breathes fresh air at last.

We still can't see anything in the dark, and can't seem to SWIM in any direction.  But we're actually not in the tar anymore -- The Thing finds himself in an underground cavern, and can walk around.  Fortunately, in this game Scott Adams abandons the neck-breaking falls that usually result from moving in the dark, so we can map out the available exits blind.  At last we reach a room with a glow visible to the east, and emerge in a section of the cavern near a Wall of Fire.  On the other side of the flaming barrier we can see a *Bio gem accompanied by a Natter energy egg, as seen in the previous QuestProbe games, but in this case we don't have to retrieve the gem, just avoid the egg's explosion later on.  The Thing can't penetrate the wall of fire, but he can LIGHT CANDLE in the wall of flame and go check out the map in more detail.

The Thing discovers that most of the rooms are barren of interesting detail, until we find a room with a hole in the ceiling and a panel with fifty tiny holes in it.  The candle flickers here, so we can surmise that there's a draft passing through.  The hole in the ceiling is Adamantium lined, so even The Thing can't SMASH HOLE to any effect.  We can PUT TAR IN HOLE - the tar gets sucked away, but produces no interesting result, though it's no loss as we don't need it for anything else.  Now that The Thing has saved himself from drowning, no thanks to Johnny Torch, we can switch back to his super-colleague and continue at a more leisurely pace.

Whoops.  If the Human Torch has neglected to FLY OUT of the tarpit after handing the candle off to The Thing (and ideally grabbing his watch as well), we return to find that his flame has gone out and he's now stuck in the tarpit, with no hope of holding his breath as long as The Thing (nor would that help us finish the game.)  If we had the presence of mind to FLY, or have a good save game for backtracking (this edition supports 4 save slots), we can fly up into the sky to observe some hills, Dr. Doom's castle, and a fairground, and we can explore the world a bit.

We find that the BLOB (clearly, his parents christened him with the hope that he grow up to be some sort of professional thug) guards the entrance to DR. DOOM's castle, and to the south is a fairground outside the village of Latveria.  The BLOB is resistant to the Torch's flames; we can DIG here to find a purple worm (shades of Adams' Adventure #8!) but I never found a purpose for the creature.  We won't be able to do anything here until The Thing is back above ground, but it's a good opportunity to point out that Kem McNair's artwork in several locations uses comic-book panels to present multiple perspectives and detail views within a single display -- it's a clean, simple effect that works well and captures the right Marvel Comics atmosphere.

The fairground contains a circus tent, occupied by the RINGMASTER, FIRE EATER, and the other members of the CIRCUS OF CRIME.

Apparently this is a dastardly criminal organization that finds it convenient to conduct its nefarious business under camouflage as itinerant showpeople, yet fails to realize that calling itself the CIRCUS OF CRIME is a bit of a giveaway.  As in our previous encounter in QuestProbe #2, the RINGMASTER can command us to leave, but we can CLOSE EYES to negate his powers.  Most adventure games feature a circus tent when a cannon is called for, and such is the case here.  As the Torch, we can FLAME ON and attempt to LIGHT CANNON -- but FIRE EATER swallows the low-level flame.  If we FLAME ON HIGH and try it that way, the circus tent burns and the cannon melts, which does us no good either, though it does appear to rid the (game) world of the CIRCUS OF CRIME.  The Human Torch's fire has a way of burning other things in general, with the game responding Sorry, [something] is burning! at the least convenient times.  Johnny Torch would have been a terror in preschool, although if memory serves he wasn't bombarded with cosmic rays until later in life.

The game has an odd limitation in that we can't really TALK to anyone after the CHIEF EXAMINER at the start; even the Thing and the Torch have nothing to say to each other.  HELP yields Sorry, I can't but order a HINT BOOK!  Call (305)-862-6917, which provides precious little assistance these days.

The Human Torch's ability to reach the hills visible from above is initially blocked by DOCTOR DOOM's castle, which fires a deathray at him every time he tries.  But now that the Thing is safely underground, we can BURN TARPIT with a high flame, creating a smoke cloud that prevents Doom's raymen from firing.  This allows us to FLY HILLS and ENTER CAVE.  The engine displays Wooooooo, which confused me a bit at first -- I wasn't sure if the Torch was making that noise just for fun, or if it was natural (or supernatural) in origin.  But it soon becomes clear that it's a repeating sound, and EXAMINE BOULDER reveals that wind is whistling under the rock.  I thought perhaps we could send fire through the gap, moving the boulder or somehow signaling The Thing, but discovered instead that if we CAST FIRE AT BOULDER with FLAME ON HIGH, it chips! and creates a pebble.  We can DROP PEBBLE UNDER BOULDER, and SWITCH to see it show up where we left The Thing waiting, underneath the hole in the ceiling.

Now that we have our bearings, it's time for The Thing to take over again.  We ask him to THROW PEBBLE UP HOLE, and he responds I gently toss it up. I see it fall back., which seems rather out of character.  If we tell him to THROW PEBBLE UP HOLE HARD, then Dust falls downSWITCHing back to the Human Torch establishes that the boulder is now gone, and Going down the shaft's a virtual hurricane!   Why The Thing, who is made of rock, had to wait for The Torch to toss him down a pebble, rather than, say, clipping his big toenail, remains a mystery.

Now the ball is back in the Human Torch's court.  We can ENTER SHAFT, but the strong draft tends to make Johnny's flame go out, so he can't FLY back up and he starts falling, getting fatally smashed a few rooms further down the shaft.  I still don't understand how this puzzle is supposed to work -- a walkthrough informed me that we have to FLAME ON NOVA and FLY DOWN from a point partway down the shaft.  Why flying faster towards the floor of the shaft is safer than falling remains unclear -- perhaps we are breaking through the Adamantium-lined hole and enlarging it, but the description doesn't indicate that.  Maybe it's just a controlled landing (in the pitch dark) instead of a crash landing.

I had to wander around a bit before recognizing the map layout -- I had extinguished the Thing's candle while he was waiting, as the strong draft tends to make it go out in this room anyway, and in the dark I didn't realize that the Torch had landed in the room directly below the shaft.  Reunited, and it feels so good! (Peaches and Herb, 1980)

As the Human Torch, we can ABSORB FLAME (thanks, CASA!) from the Wall of Flame to restore health more quickly.  We can't ENTER WALL, but we can ENTER FLAME to enter the room with the *Bio gem, and keep moving E immediately before the Natter energy egg explodes -- in this game, we don't need the gem at all, and these items appear to be here for consistency's sake.  Away from a strong draft, light is never an issue for the Human Torch, but we definitely need to FLAME OFF before reaching the dark rooms at the end of the long east-west tunnel -- even on low, the HISSSSing we hear yields the informative but fatal:  BOOM! Gas explodes and tunnel collapses causing small earthquake in castle above! HUMAN TORCH dies!   The castle earthquake is important to note, though we don't want to do this until later -- still, it's not a bad time to figure out that we can THROW FLAME TO EAST from the adjacent room to set it off safely.

What we need to do here is FEEL AROUND some more in the dark to find a hole leading to a maitenance [sic] area.  Here, we can FLAME ON LOW for light and find a lever with HIGH and LOW positions, currently set to HIGH.   I learned a little bit about how the parser works (or does not work) by trying to THROW SWITCH LEFT -- this did a SWITCH.  I was able instead to MOVE LEVER LEFT.  This reduces the virtual hurricane flowing down the shaft to a strong wind.

This next bit is a little tricky -- the Human Torch barely has enough energy to fly back up the shaft with The Thing in tow, but can do it with full health and FLAME ON HIGH.  Now we can apply a little Mighty Marvel Team-Up force to the remaining puzzles.

Or at least we think we can.  CLOBBER BLOB doesn't affect our doughy nemesis.  But The Thing can CLOSE EYES, ENTER TENT and TAKE CANNON while the criminal circus performers presumably stand around, helplessly gawping.

Either character can ENTER LATVERIA near the circus tent -- technically, Latveria is a country per standard Marvel mythology, but this is an adventure game, and it's easier to implement a populated area in limited memory if Houses & shops are mostly locked & boarded up & people have fled, and one makes liberal use of ampersands.  In the village, we can ENTER SHOP and GET GUN POWDER, which seems an odd moral lapse -- while neither The Thing nor The Torch will KILL people, or BREAK objects except as necessary, both claim I Don't know how to BUY something!  My conclusion is that neither of them has a good place to carry a wallet, and under normal circumstances Reed Richards generally picks up the tab.

Dealing with the BLOB remains a challenge.  THROW FLAME AT BLOB doesn't faze him, but THROW HIGH FLAME AT BLOB does, causing him to step aside momentarily into an alcove.   Knowing this, we can PUT POWDER IN CANNONAIM CANNON AT BLOB, ENTER CANNON as The Thing, LIGHT FUSE as the Torch, and THROW HIGH FLAME AT BLOB.  If we've done everything correctly, we are treated to a brief animation of the BLOB stepping aside while The Thing gets propelled into the castle entrance by the cannon.

We're almost there.  The Thing can travel S to the castle great room, where we find XANDU the magician, a RUBY OF DOMINATION, and the captive ALICIA MASTERS, along with a partial statue of DR. DOOM, whose busy schedule does not permit his putting in an actual appearance in this game.  XANDU commands The Thing to leave, and in this case CLOSE EYES is no defense.

Now it's a job for the Human Torch to go back to the underground caverns and create a small earthquake in the castle above, as we discovered earlier.  Once that's done, the statue collapses on XANDU, and The Thing can safely GET ALICIA (who appears to be fleeing the room, recognizing that it's simply dumb luck the statue tipped over onto XANDU instead of herself.)

The Chief Examiner brings us back to his office to offer brief congratulations and give us another password -- MAEGEN!  One might speculate that these passwords are the names of Adams' children, but I don't know that he has twelve of them.

Whew!  We've completed QuestProbe #3, ending the published series on a high note with some solid teamwork-based puzzles.  The series was cut short in its prime, it appears, and we may never know what purpose the entire set of 12 (or 11, maybe) passwords would have served.  Next time we'll look at another licensed Scott Adams adventure game, based on the MGM movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.


  1. Is it just me or was this game considerably more difficult than the previous two?
    I'm looking forward to Buckaroo Banzai; yet another text game I never knew existed.

  2. I would say it was more difficult than the first two, certainly more involved. The team dynamic allowed for more possibilities, so I spent a lot of time barking up the wrong trees, and the puzzles were more complex and detailed than the gem hunting of the first two games. I certainly enjoyed this one the most of the three, and wish the QuestProbe series had been able to continue.

  3. Wonderful review! For those interested I have some tidbits about this game. I don't think I have shared these anywhere else.

    First off I am afraid I have lots of spelling errors in my game's history so: maitenance [sic] area. LOL no spell checkers back then :(

    You got it right! When flying Torch can indeed do a controled landing. With flame out though he just crashes.

    I would love to have allowed speaking to other characters but memory constraints vetoed that.

    A lot of the game was setup so you could use the powers of the characters but not be able to run amok in the game and do things unintent. Lot of thought went into this problem and I had to structure the puzzles around them.

    Thanks so much for the key about Quasar and the Chief Exmainer. I found out via wiki how they eventually tied up the character's ending. Not what I envisioned but was glad to see it handled some way. I had a lot of fun inventing him and the other characters int he series so its nice to my work as part of Marvel lore now.

    "But The Thing can CLOSE EYES, ENTER TENT and TAKE CANNON while the criminal circus performers presumably stand around, helplessly gawping." Hey they thought you were a new act :)

    "My conclusion is that neither of them has a good place to carry a wallet, and under normal circumstances Reed Richards generally picks up the tab." - Never really thought about it at the time but your explanation works for me :)

    "One might speculate that these passwords are the names of Adams' children, but I don't know that he has twelve of them." - Ha you guessed it but I am afraid that paticular series stopped at 5. Not sure what I would have used past Questprobe #5!

  4. Kem McNair here, Thanks Guys For the positive Art comments! I did this art so long ago I don't think I was born yet. What a wonderful boss Scott was,and and over the top genius. To see some of my art mow go to the website below.

  5. Scott, Kem -- thanks to both of you for stopping by! Always good to hear more behind-the-scenes stories from the Adventure International era. Readers, you can reach Kem McNair's website by clicking on his name or going straight to http://kemmcnair.com/

  6. Don,

    I have not -- I have had people ask about it here but had not been aware of any discovered code. #4 had been announced as an X-Men game, and was about 75% completed, that was the latest a couple of years ago.

  7. So that's how you save the Thing. I remember playing this game when it was new on a friend's Amstrad, and we spent *ages* trying to get the Thing out of that tarpit. No internet walkthroughs in those days! Well, perhaps there were some on USENET. But you needed more than an Amstrad for USENET.

    I wonder if this man has written any other interesting post (checks sidebar) yikes, that's a lot of stuff to read. On a tangent, the Questprobe Hulk game was a very rare occasion where the ZX Spectrum's graphics were better than all the other systems - it has a bold, cartoony look that belies the Spectrum's limitations.