Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Death Dreadnaught (1980)

UPDATE 02/09/2011:  I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Bob Liddil, and among the many interesting items he shared was the information that Biff Mutt and Spud Mutt, also known as The Dog Brothers, were in fact the official credited authors of this game.  They were based in Texas, they endorsed their royalty checks as Biff and Spud Mutt, and their true identities remain mysterious to this day.  Mr. Liddil also mentioned that the game's dark and gory imagery inspired some controversy (and a spike in sales) after The Programmer's Guild was forced by the publishers of 80 Microcomputing magazine to label the game as "Rated R" in its ads.

This week, we're tackling Death Dreadnaught, an old escape-the-alien-spaceship adventure published by the Programmer's Guild in 1980 for the TRS-80 Model I.  The programmer isn't identified, but the title screen refers to this game as RIDER FANTASY CREATIONS' ADVENTURE # 4.  One online source credits the work to "Biff Mutt and Spud Mutt," but those sound like made-up names.  My guess is that Bob Liddil (of the Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures, and still writing pencil-and-paper adventure material for the still-operational Rider Fantasy Creations in recent years) was involved with this one, though it bears some stylistic similiarities to Alex Kreis' The Domes of Kilgari from the same publisher.  I've attempted to contact Mr. Liddil via his website, but haven't received any confirmation one way or the other.  But on to the game itself:

This is a dark science fiction adventure, full of organic, viscous, messy, stinky stuff, with little in-game violence but plenty of leftover gore strewn about from alien massacres past.  The game itself is fairly straightforward -- there are almost 50 rooms, but most locations are just there for atmosphere, and the game's limited vocabulary and fairly small number of items offsets the complete lack of any SAVE GAME feature.  Almost, anyway -- there are a number of fatal, warning-free traps, including a tempting puzzle which proves fatal once solved, and the online image floating around the Web has one buggy (or corrupted) room where exploration and experimentation tend to crash the adventure.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to play Death Dreadnaught independently before proceeding, as there are going to be comprehensive...

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

The game's map is fairly open -- we're free to explore the ship, with most of the locations accessible from the start.  There are lots of instant-death traps, though, and we soon learn to avoid one color in particular -- blue levers tend to get us sucked out into space, while turning the blue knob kills us off with a sudden influx of nerve gas.  The player's main objective, per standard convention, is to locate the shuttle and prepare it for blastoff and a safe journey home.

The game's parser has a very limited vocabulary -- fewer than twenty objects and twenty-one verbs, with no PUT verb despite the title screen's claim that such exists -- and its responses tend to be terse, as in OPEN FOOD - NO.   There are also no You can't go that way messages - attempting to navigate in an invalid direction just returns us to the current room, which makes mapping the air duct maze a bit of a challenge.  Most of the limited memory is devoted to detailed (albeit typo-ridden) text descriptions of rooms and actions.  And most of the information must be taken at face value, as there's no EXAMINE verb and LOOK just repeats the current room's description.

Death Dreadnaught's nastiest characteristic is that, while it's a brief experience, the requirements for completing it successfully are revealed only at the very end of the game.  The player can locate and enter the shuttle right from the get-go -- it even has a convenient FLY button.  But PUSH BUTTON can result in a number of unfortunate endings should we have missed any of the victory conditions.  As it turns out, we need to:

  • Open the shuttle bay doors (lest we slam into them)
  • Fuel the shuttle (oddly, even without any fuel we can take off and slam into the bay doors if they're closed)
  • Bring a workable O2 supply (not the rusty tanks, either, though if we don't bring any tanks at all, something odd occurs: due to the order in which the game checks these conditions, we reportedly survive a lot longer without oxygen if we also forgot to bring food)
  • Bring fresh food (so we don't get food poisoning from eating the upholstery, or the botulism-tainted food, which the game calls BOTCHULISTIC)
  • Bring shuttle batteries (so we don't end up drifting in space and dying a cold and lonely death)
I like the game's evocative text, despite the wide variety of misspellings on offer (WIDINING, ARROUND, AMOINIA, UNCONFORTABLE, CHARTRUESE...)  The alien ship's engines, for example, LIE NOW IN DISUSE AS A FUSED LUMP OF METAL HOPLESSLY RUINED.  (HOPLESSLY...)  And a number of elements are included just for creepy atmosphere -- in the shuttle bay, A CREWMAN IS HUNG BY THE NECK FROM THE RAFTERS; the aptly-named Barracks of the Dead has THREE OR FOUR BODIES WORTH OF PARTS CRAMMED BETWEEN THE SHEETS; and here's some nastiness for the adventurer of a paleontological bent -- Computer Room "B" has walls OF PURE COPROLITE (i.e., fossilized poo.)

I never did figure out what the star painted on the wall in one of the Equipment Rooms was supposed to be hinting at.  An inscription there begins with THE KEY IS..., but we are told THE REST IS UNREADABLE.  Below the star is a chartreuse lever -- PULL LEVER replaces the swollen, botulism-ridden food containers with fresh food.  It will do this even if the bad food is in another room or in inventory, and will gladly restore the fresh food to its original location anytime we care to pull the lever.  Oddly, we can EAT FOOD, yielding YUMMY!, but the food stays in inventory for the long trip home.

The designer has provided a number of instantly fatal actions in the old-school tradition; more annoying are the situations that seem like puzzles but aren't ultimately productive to pursue.  An elevator chair in one ladderway allows us to SIT CHAIR and PRESS BUTTON, but it's an instant death whether we're sitting in the chair or not.  This is particularly annoying because whenever we die, the game hangs and we have to reset the machine and reload to try again (similar to the same publisher's Domes of Kilgari.)

There's also this eerie bit of time-wasting nonsense -- A DECAPITATED BODY COVERED WITH DRIED EXCREMENT SHRIEKS OUT 'WASH ME!!!'  WASH BODY yields THANKS, presumably from the headless corpse, but provides nothing of game-solving value.  We can TAKE BODY and move it to the sanitary facilities room, but WASH BODY produces the same result there.  We can try to SHOOT BODY with the strange weapon -- THE BODY SAYS 'OUCH!, WASH ME!'.  I never did find a reason to WASH the poor undead thing, and it participates in the story in only one other, equally useless, manner -- if we take it to a room with a fingerprint lock, OPEN DOOR helpfully tells us YOUR FINGER PRINTS DO NOT ACTIVATE THE LOCK. THE BODY'S WONT EITHER.

Toward solving that particular puzzle, we can find a DISMEMBERED ARM in a small air lock, complete with vintage references to frustrated adventure gamers and Radio Shack TRS-80 computers:

The severed arm does indeed allow us to open the fingerprint lock -- at which point the door opens to reveal the traditional HUGE MULTILEGGED FLAT-FACED ELEPHANT-NOSE ONE-EYED CREATURE, which upon being freed, we are informed, kills us and wears our head on a string around his neck as a good luck charm. This is a different creature than the similar one lurking in another room, and in the end it's clear we should just leave this locked doorway alone.

The puzzles actually worth solving are few -- another creature guards the controls for the shuttle fueling system, and a mass of goo prevents access to the shuttle bay door controls.  Dealing with the creature took quite a bit of trial and error on my part.  Once we've found the weapon, SHOOT CREATURE or FIRE WEAPON only yields YOU SHOT THE CREATURE. YOU MADE HIM MAD. HE REDUCES YOU TO A WET SPOT ON THE FLOOR.; again, similar to the creature's behavior in Domes of Kilgari.  I tried to ATTACK and KICK CREATURE with similar results.  We can't FEED CREATURE, and if we DROP FOOD, BODY or ARM he just ignores the offering.  SHOOTing the oxygen TANK in the creature's room only causes the tank to vaporize harmlessly.  I finally tried THROWing every item I could find at the monster, and my last-ditch THROW WEAPON led to the monster examining the pistol, flipping a switch and blowing it (and himself) up.  Beyond this point we find a red knob and a blue lever -- we TURN KNOB to refuel the shuttle, making a nicely onomatopoeic PXHSLDK noise deep in the ship.  (It's best not to PULL LEVER here, as it's blue, and just blasts us into deep space to suffocate.)

The goo room is more problematic -- I'm not sure if this is a bug in the original game, or just corruption in the extant digital disk image, but LOOK GOO produces a screen full of garbage and hangs the game or errors out.  So does trying to navigate S or N from the goo room.  But we can just SHOOT GOO (as long as we do this before dealing with the creature) and then go further D the ladder to access the shuttle bay door controls.  Opening shuttle bay doors apparently sound like this: GHAPHLX.

The remaining requirements for departure are not immediately clear in-game, but they're also simple to satisfy.  TURN KNOB in the clean equipment room with the rusty oxygen tanks pushes us into another room where we find clean, full tanks.  We can take both varieties of tanks if we like, as long as we pick up the CLEAN tanks first to avoid confusing the parser.  If we have the RUSTING TANKS in inventory, then GET TANKS in the presence of the clean ones yields OK, but they actually stay in the room.  So it's easiest not to bother with the rusty ones.

There's a handy but potentially fatal shortcut available, making use of two rooms, each of which has a silver lever and a gold knob.  PULL LEVER in the western room transports us fatally into a bulkhead.  So does TURN KNOB in the eastern room.  But if we do the opposite, we can quickly move from one side of the ship to the other.

The shuttle craft batteries are hidden in an air duct maze which eventually takes us to a room containing large quantities of inedible plastic food (which we don't need) and the batteries (which we do).  From here, we can either work our way back out of the maze the way we came in, or take a one-way exit to the ship's engine room.

With everything taken care of, we can blast off for a safe trip home:

No word on whether the other ship is, in fact, any safer than the one we've escaped.  But it sounds like victory to me, and as far as I know no sequels have materialized.

Despite all the technical oddities, I enjoyed the handful of hours it took me to map out and play through Death Dreadnaught.  The game takes only minutes to solve once we know our way around the ship and which puzzles can be completely ignored.  My official walkthrough, also available at the CASA solution archive, is below the fold:

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

D, D, D, D
E into DUCT: then E, N, E, E, S, E, E, GET BATTERIES.
W, S, W, S (to emerge in ENGINE ROOM.)
N, D, SHOOT GOO, D, PULL LEVER. (shuttle bay doors are open)
U, U, E, THROW WEAPON, E, TURN KNOB. (shuttle is fueled)
D, D, D, S.
PUSH BUTTON.  (Huzzah!)


  1. While I wandered here by virtual accident (I was doing a Google search on "Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures," which I actually still have a copy of!), I wanted to pop in and add credence to your suspicion about this game's authorship, if not outright confirmation: "Domes of Kilgari" was explicitly advertised as the sequel to "Death Dreadnaught."

  2. Chipotle,

    Thanks for the insight! Promoting it as a sequel certainly explains the similar monsters in both games -- and might make it more likely that the first one was written by an uncredited Alex Kreis.


  3. Unless I am mistaken, this game is sometimes credited to Robert Arnstein (Raaka Tu etc) - Any truth in that do you know?

  4. No truth in that that I'm aware of, but it's possible that Robert Arnstein was one of the Dog Brothers, who have remained anonymous all these years.

  5. Yea! I remember a friend and I playing this on his TRS-80. Not the first, but one of the first text adventures we played.

    The corpse screaming "Wash me!" is what stuck with me.

    And, maybe I'm mixing it up with another text adventure, but didn't the source code for this once appear in some magazine? I remember, with some text adventure, my friend and I laboriously took turns typing in the code from the magazine, he'd do a page, then I'd do a page. Amazingly, since at that time I doubt we had much in the way of debugging skills, it worked when we ran it.

    I say amazingly, because today, when I'm pouring over some TEACH YOURSELF A NEW PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE IN 24 HOURS book, I can't type 3 lines of code without ending up with 3 typos that take me an hour to debug.

    I can only chalk it up to our enthusiasm at age 14 to play whatever text adventure this was to obsessively type in the code without making any mistakes.

  6. This was a machine-language game, but it's possible it was published as a BASIC type-in and then later commercially released in a speedier improved version; that happened with a couple of TRS-80 adventures. But it's also very possible that a couple of your memories are conflating themselves -- if I've learned one thing writing this blog it's that human memory is a lot more malleable and less reliable than we think it is. :)

    I remember typing in programs on the TRS-80 very well myself -- before modems were commonplace, it was the only way to publish software, so we'd get books and magazines and type the programs in ourselves. It actually taught me a lot about programming in the process. And yeah, today I'm grateful that the Java compiler has such strong typing and checking -- when I've made a change and it won't compile, it's usually not too hard to find the hyphen that should have been an underscore. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I recall this game very well. It had a "bad reputation" -- so of course, I had to play it! Part of the appeal is actually the fact that it was so capricious, with no save game at all... and not nearly as well-done as the Scott Adams games. So, of course, you ended up seeing the same territory over and over again as you learned every little way to die. Completing this somewhat dysfunctional game gave me great satisfaction at the time.