Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Marooned (TRS-80 Color, 1985)

UPDATE II:  Again thanks to a diligent CoCo researcher, we have an author -- one Steve Hartford, and a confirmation on the year of publication, 1985.  The Internet is a grand and wonderful thing.

UPDATE:  Thanks to some very helpful input and research from the CoCo community, we can state (with some confidence) that this game was published by Saguaro Software circa 1986.  No author is identified yet, but Marooned did see commercial distribution.

This week, we're tackling Marooned, another obscure adventure from the rapidly fading past, with no publisher or author identified in-game, and no reliable information floating around the Web.  This is one of several unrelated adventure games published under the same title over the years; in this case, it's a simply-illustrated graphic adventure for the TRS-80 Color Computer.  I owned a CoCo back in the day, and read the associated literature faithfully obsessively, but I don't even remember this game being advertised.  It likely originated in the mid 1980's; the boot program is in BASIC, but the core executable is in machine language, so I doubt it's a magazine type-in; and it's a competently written adventure game in several respects.   But who wrote it, and marketed it, I do not know.  It's identified as MAROONED 2.0 on its graphic/color test startup screen; any information readers may be able to offer will be very welcome!

The game itself, as suggested by the title, is a straightforward escape-the-alien-world game.  The parser is very limited and most of the illustrations are schematic at best:

I played using the MESS CoCo emulator.  Even though Marooned is a machine language program, it apparently relies on the CoCo's rather slow built-in ROM drawing routines, and judging from an error message I ran into it's probably running as a compiled BASIC program.  I found that cranking up the emulator speed to 500% allowed it to play at a decent clip.  The SAVE GAME command works well, with 9 slots available on the game disk, no swapping required.

Marooned manages to be fun in its old-school way, despite its quirks.  Interested readers are advised to tackle this one before proceeding here -- it's not difficult to solve, and I will be giving away a number of details in the following discussion, followed by a complete walkthrough; I hadn't found another one published anywhere, my own is also available at the CASA Solution Archive.  In brief, I remind you, there are...

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

The engine is well-implemented in some respects, sloppy in others.  There's not much animation in the game -- in fact, only the very first screen has any movement at all, a simple flashing light visible in the distance:

The flashing lights of the UFO continue to blink even if we've gone into the INVENTORY screen, which replaces the graphic display temporarily, except for the blinking lights which somehow continue to shine through our consciousness even as we rummage through our pockets.

The first few moves of the game really leave us no choice -- all we can do is go N a few times to enter the UFO, which promptly leaves Earth.  Some designers and players prefer to keep this sort of "set piece" storytelling non-interactive, some don't.  I kind of like it -- it's a way of drawing the player into the action, even when it's a bit of a cheat.

In a break with adventure game tradition, there are no textual room descriptions, and no names given to the rooms.  This makes mapping a bit of a challenge -- I ended up drawing lots of empty boxes and noting the items initially found in the rooms, which at least helped me focus on the salient details.  The map is cooperative -- straightforward N/W/E/S navigation, with a few reflective dead-ends but no real mazes.  Some images are reused, and maddeningly a couple of important items aren't explicitly named -- guessing what the CAVE is isn't hard, but I kept trying to work with what I thought was a tray before discovering it was a SHELF.  The room illustrations are simple and don't usually provide much information, and there are often intriguing objects on display despite the evident fact that You see: nothing.  I spent some time trying to figure out if this was an alien map, or a set of globes, but never found the words to express my intention:

The parser is limited in many ways, but oddly sophisticated in others.  Its worst habit is that it responds to anything it does not specifically recognize with I don't understand, and gives us no clue about exactly what it does not understand.  I thought at first that there was no OPEN verb, because OPEN BOX doesn't work.  But later I succeeded in my attempt to OPEN EGGS, yielding (to my mild disgust) There is a red gush (which we can pick up and carry around, to my even milder disgust.)  The parser is fairly context-sensitive -- PUT GOLD is treated as a DROP in areas where there's nowhere specific to put it, but responds with a Where? query in other situations.  The HELP command is also well implemented, advising us to get rid of unnecessary objects or explore particular avenues, depending on where we are and what we are carrying.

There are four eggs aboard the UFO, which we can only really figure out by trying to OPEN EGGS four times; the fifth attempt yields They're open, signaling the end of the process.  We discover a small worm (that eats the red gush, to no apparent effect), a bee (that, as far as I know, has no purpose either), and a leather bag.

OPEN BAG yields a gold coin; we can't TAKE COIN, but we can TAKE GOLD, and later PUT GOLD, but it's not immediately clear where we should do this.  We need to find the glass rod and EXAMINE CHAIR in what appears to be a control room; PUT ROD / Where? / IN CHAIR opens another passage to a room containing lead coins.  Again, we can't TAKE COINS, but have to TAKE LEAD.

And here's where I got stuck the longest -- HELP in this room hints that we should replace the lead coins with the gold coins, but it's not at all clear how we can do that.  In fact, once we've taken the lead coins, we cannot discover the right phrase without sheer guesswork.  I had to start over and EXAMINE LEAD before taking them, to discover that originally the coins are on a blue shelf, which is pictured but not otherwise mentioned or described.  PUT GOLD - Where? - ON SHELF produces the... well, it may not seem like a desirable result, but it causes the UFO to crash-land on an alien world so the game can continue with part two:

(One minor bug here -- the part two legend at the top of the screen gets updated as we exit the alien lifeboat.  But if we start over at the beginning and LOAD GAME, the part one legend from startup remains in place even if our restored game puts us straight into part two.)

A glass box found aboard the UFO glows, but does not provide sufficient illumination to explore the ruins on the alien planet -- we have to learn that some glowrocks found a few "rooms" south of the ruins are bright enough to solve the problem.  We don't need to find or carry the lone silver glove found aboard the UFO, at least not for any reason that I could discover, but it does provide supporting evidence for the game's 1980's origins.  WEAR GLOVE yields You feel like breakdancing, a probable if somewhat inaccurate reference to Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

As was often the case when graphics were added to standard text adventures, the pictures unintentionally make the alien planet easier to map, as the image doesn't change when we try to move past an invisible dead-end.  The alien planet is fairly sparsely dressed, actually - there are some ruins to the northeast, an alien with a white sheet to the south, and some vines and logs further south/southeast of our starting location.  Traveling all the way south, we encounter an alien sea -- and it's not a safe area to explore, as if we attempt to leave the area, we learn that Playing in alien fish-waters has gotten you killed.

The solution is hinted at by the raw materials available -- the vines and logs imply that we can MAKE RAFT, but are not sufficient, as we are told You don't have the materials.  We also need the white sheet guarded by the alien, presumably for a sail.

There's a nasty bug that occurs if we enter the alien ruins without a light source -- if we enter and RUB BOX or otherwise spend more than a turn in there, the game crashes unceremoniously out to the operating system. With the glowrocks in hand, we can see hieroglyphics on the wall and retrieve the ancient statue sitting there, yielding You have a [sic] ancient statue.  We can then GIVE STATUE to the alien to obtain his white sheet, which doesn't seem like much of a bargain considering the risk we went through to obtain said statue, but at the moment we're just trying to survive (fortunately the alien planet has breathable air).  We can only grumble and hope that a Bed Bath & Beyond will open nearby and put the extortionate alien fabricmonger out of business..

Now we can build the raft -- I wandered around the beach area for a while trying to DROP RAFT and USE RAFT, before learning that we can simply GO RAFT.  In fact, a handy bug ensures that we can GO RAFT from any location on the map and find ourselves on the raft in the water.  Traveling S on the raft leads us to an alien island, which is laid out as a simple 4 x 4 square of 16 rooms, one of which contains a cave.

We can enter the cave, where we inexplicably discover a screen door.  GO DOOR puts us back outside the cave, and I suspect it's actually treating it as GO OUTSIDE.  But if we OPEN DOOR, we discover that...


Rather abruptly, we've finished the game!

The game can be solved in about 60 moves, actually, as shown in my walkthrough below the fold.  Next week... well, who knows?  Maybe I'll tackle something a little more mainstream and well-known.  Maybe not.


Monday, November 29, 2010

The LoadDown - 11/29/2010

Post-Thanksgiving week arrives, and the holiday ramp-up continues with plenty of new downloadable titles for all the console platforms, especially the PS3.

WiiWare -- Two new games and a demo this week.  Airport Mania: First Flight is a time-management game including air traffic control and travel planning tasks.  HB Arcade Disc Golf is a disc (frisbee) golf game starring cartoon animals, with two courses; more are apparently planned as downloadable content.  And a free demo version of Cave Story hopes to get more people to purchase this excellent retro-style adventure.

Wii Virtual Console -- The Neo-Geo platform has been pretty active lately.  This week brings Data East's 1996 arcade puzzler, Magical Drop II, to the Virtual Console; companion game Magical Drop III was released for the Wii as part of the Data East Arcade Classics disc compilation earlier this year.

DSiWare -- Three new games this week.  The excellent Cave Story arrives on the DSi.  Frenzic is yet another intense puzzle game.  Spot It! Challenge brings the popular seek-and-find books to the DSi as a timed hidden object puzzle game.

XBox Live Arcade -- Just one game last week, Sega's Crazy Taxi, which arrived on PS3 earlier.  I've gotten a look at it now, and I can report that the graphics and gameplay are faithful to the original, with higher rendering resolution but the same maps, models and textures, and the game controls fine with the 360 pad.  Unfortunately, licensing considerations mean that the recognizable brand trademarks are gone from this genericized re-release; even worse, The Offspring have been replaced with generic rockers trying unsuccessfully to ape the original soundtrack's anarchic energy.

Game Room -- Game Pack 012 arrives, bearing a number of interesting new titles.  Konami leads the way with two classic-era coin-op arcade games -- Blades of Steel will be familiar to many from its 8-bit NES conversion, and Trick Trap: 1771 is a tongue-in-cheek sword-and-sorcery tale with Commando/Ikari Warriors-style gameplay.  Activision antes up Pitfall II: Lost Caverns for the Atari 2600, complete with Yamaha music chip emulation, and Vectron arrives for the Intellivision -- maybe now I can actually learn how to play it, my original copy's manual was missing several pages back in the day.

PS3 on PSN -- A plethora of Playstation playables plop plentifully into our plaps (sorry) with SEVEN NEW GAMES.  Auditorium HD is a music puzzle game, an indie game competition winner.  Beat Sketcher is a neat draw-the-music creativity tool/game for the Playstation Move controller.  Dragon's Lair allows Digital Leisure to re-release this golden laserdisc oldie on yet another platform.  Hudson Soft's Dream Chronicles is a casual hidden-object "adventure" that hit the 360 a few weeks back.  Magic: The Gathering - Duels of The Planeswalkers offers more online card game/RPG fun.  Namco Bandai's Pac-Man Championship Edition DX just plain rocks.  And Tozai Games' long-awaited Spelunker HD updates Irem's classically difficult NES title for the PS3.

PSOne on PSN -- Another quiet week here.  Don't tell me I just started covering this platform in time for it to cease updating...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

1989 meets 1979 meets 1959

The cover of the May 1989 issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine asked, IS THE JOYSTICK A THING OF THE PAST?

The question is prompted by Brøderbund's U-Force controller for the 8-bit NES, which was meant to revolutionize the videogame controller with its high-tech cube of infrared motion detection.

It did not, primarily because it didn't actually work very well.

But this VG&CE cover seems behind the times even for its era -- the Atari-style joystick was already becoming a thing of the past, as the greater flexibility afforded by the NES and Sega Master System's D-pad-plus-buttons style began to shift the entire industry's approach to the human-machine interface.  Asking whether the "joystick" is a thing of the past seems seriously out-of-date.

Even more seriously out-of-date: putting a Caucasian dude beating up an African-American dude on the cover of your magazine.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pac-Man Watches

Once upon a time, the Greyhound Bus company's parent entity embarked upon a diversification initiative.  In the 1980's, Diversified Greyhound apparently acquired or started a watch company called Paxxon.  And as far as I can tell, the only Paxxon products the Internet knows about are its Pac-Man wall clocks and watches, based on Namco's classic coin-op arcade game.

They certainly went all-out for the license -- even the Paxxon logo at the bottom of this watch ad from Electronic Games magazine resembles the famous Pac-Man arcade cabinet font:

A few questions naturally arise here:

-- What exactly does it mean to say that "We Make Watches That Tell More Than Just The Time"?  Telling the world, "I Am A Big Video Game Nerd"?

-- Did some kind of companion Sega licensing deal fall through, so that Paxxon's Zaxxon watches never came to market?

-- Did Paxxon also plan to produce workout equipment and snack foods, so they could run a proper trilogy of ads:  Pac-Man Watches; Pac-Man Weights; Pac-Man Hungers?

-- Where did Pac-Man get the ghost-style googly eyes from?  The cabinet artwork featured 1920's cartoon-style eyes, and this version doesn't have the red hat or boots of the Hanna-Barbera TV series version.  I bet the old Pac-ster stole Clyde's eyeballs, which explains why Inky and Pinky look so freaked out in the artwork here.

-- Telling Time Was Never So Much Fun!, in what way, exactly?  And why should we ever expect telling time to be fun?  Watching the minutes tick away as we slog mindlessly toward the grave, gobbling up every last dot, only to discover a new screen, filled with yet more dots to consume, under the most dangerous of working conditions...

Man, this ad is depressing.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Of Import: Neo Nectaris

One of my favorite games on the American TurboGrafx-16 was the turn-based strategy title, Military Madness.  It brought a modern, fast-paced interface and cool-for-the-era animated sci-fi graphics to the kind of hex-based military games long popular among pencil-and-paper wargamers.  The game was known as Nectaris in Japan, and it spawned a number of remakes on various platforms over the years.  But Hudson Soft's only true sequel to the PC Engine original, Neo Nectaris, never saw release in the US, and it's high time I gave this Super CD-ROM game a spin.

The game conveniently includes the complete, original HuCard Nectaris, under the Nectaris.1 item on the main menu.  There's also a handy Sound Mode that allows us to listen to the PSG (chiptune) and CD audio music tracks from both games.

Beyond the format, it must be said that Neo Nectaris is more of an expansion pack than a full-blown sequel.  It's very similar to the original game -- the units, movement rules and general approach are almost identical, though there are several new unit types.  Considering that five years passed between the first and second game, I was surprised to see that even the level maps are very similar -- that is, the maps are new, but the strategic considerations "read" and progress in much the same way.  Still, there are plenty of new and tactically interesting challenges ahead -- for example, on the third level ("DOLLAR"), one side is equipped only with infantry units, while the other has only long-range missiles, making for a close battle pitting intrepid troopers against sheer firepower.

There are, of course, some cosmetic changes afforded by the expanded CD media capacity.  The game opens with a brief but evocative animated introduction that sets the stage nicely:

The inter-level progress map screen is a little fancier now, though the map itself is almost identical, save a little additional texture detail added to the landscape image:

Neo Nectaris is not difficult to play with limited knowledge of Japanese, at least for anyone who's spent time with Military Madness in English, though the screen layout is a little bit different here.  Most screen displays are partially in English, and the four most-frequently-used menu options are ordered the same way as in the original - move, fight, inspect, and end turn.  It's not hard to jump in and play, but for serious players, I should mention that details on the subtle changes to familiar units and the newly-introduced unit types can be found at the excellent BASE NECTARIS website.

The new CD-audio music tracks sound nice enough, but the classic themes have been replaced with new tunes altogether, and I was really hoping for orchestrated renditions of the original tunes.  Still, the themes do change to reflect players' current status, so that familiar emotional driver hasn't been lost in the process.

The battles are rendered in a new, isometric perspective, though oddly some units are less animated than they were in the original game -- I was disappointed that the "Charlie" infantry units no longer run around in confusion as the long-range missiles fly in.  Still, the newly detailed backgrounds look quite nice:

Oddly, the animated factory invasion victory sequences are missing from Neo Nectaris.  All we get is a congratulatory screen of text:

Followed by the, er, Conbat Result Graph:

Even though much of the game feels a bit too familiar, it's nice to see that the challenge has been ramped up a bit -- even on levels 2 and 3, I occasionally found myself facing the very nicely-drawn defeat screen, my blue forces lying broken, but never rusting in the oxygen-free lunar atmosphere:

Then it was back into the fray, fighting for... whatever it is we've been fighting for all these years.  Oh, yes.  Resources!  On the MOON!

Die-hard Military Madness fans will find Neo Nectaris very worthwhile, though the Western Playstation version of the game and the recent downloadable remakes are easier to get hold of.  Fans may be able to pick up a copy here or here, depending on available supply:

Neo Nectaris PC-Engine SCD

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Let's Make Us A Game! -- Fixing The Bugs

It's Thanksgiving Day!  And time to wrap our adventure game development series up with some finishing touches.  Our simple Riley's Adventure game is functionally complete -- it has a map, some objects, an independent character (Mom), a couple of puzzles, and a victory condition.  Riley can enter the house, get onto the dinner table when Mom isn't looking, steal a leg of turkey, and escape to enjoy his ill-gotten snack.

Our game also has a number of bugs and gameplay issues that we ought to fix before calling this project done.  As simple as this brief bit of interactive fiction is, it still has plenty of room for errors, inconsistencies and misleading player feedback.  So to finish this project off, I'm going to list the issues I have discovered (note that this is almost certainly not a comprehensive list!), and document the code additions and modifications required to address each of these problems.

* LEAVE PUDDLE and EXIT PUDDLE do not work, only GET OUT and EXIT.

This requires a little dictionary modification to recognize these verbs as applied to the puddle, because normally EXIT does not require or accept an object.  But the player might try to phrase it this way, so we'll adjust the parsing as follows:

Understand the commands "leave" and "exit" as something new.  Egressing is an action applying to one visible thing.   Understand "leave [container]" and "exit [container]" as egressing.  Instead of egressing something, try exiting.

* The player is told there's a tree in the backyard, but LOOK TREE produces "You can't see any such thing."

Inform handily understands the concept of scenery, for objects that can be referenced but not otherwise manipulated.  We'll add some description, and also foil any unnecessary attempts to climb the tree:

The tree is scenery in the Back Yard.  "A tall tree looms over the yard.  It's probably full of intriguing creatures you would enjoy barking at, if you could see them."

Instead of climbing the tree, say "Even the lowest branch is too high for you to reach with a jump.  And the bark is too vertical to climb."

* When we enter the puddle, we aren't immediately given a description to indicate the presence of the collar, which is the only reason the player needs to go into the puddle in the first place.

So we'll modify the puddle entry to mention it, if it's there: 

After entering the Mud Puddle:
    say "SPLASH!  Mud, glorious mud!  It squishes delightfully between your claws.";
    now the player is muddied;
    if your collar is in the mud puddle:
        say "Your collar is here, lying in the mud.  Now how did that happen?"

* Also, Riley can't see the collar until he's actually in the mud puddle.

So we'll expand the exterior perspective to hint that the player should investigate further:

Instead of examining the Mud Puddle:
    if the player is not inside the Mud Puddle:
        if your collar is in the mud puddle:
            say "Something is lying in the mud.  It seems familiar.";
            say "It's full of mud."

* The Kitchen text mentions that the floor is always worth checking for treasure, but CHECK FLOOR produces "You can't see any such thing."

This is a quick fix:

The floor is scenery in the Kitchen. Instead of examining the floor, say "You sniff hopefully around the linoleum, but find nothing tasty at the moment."

* Navigation is unclear -- directions are not mentioned in room descriptions.

I meant to do this early on but never got back to it -- I drew the map myself, so of course I knew where everything was!  I expanded the room descriptions and modified the puppy door details to make it easier for the player to get his or her bearings.  See the complete source code below for these changes.

* Mom isn't seen to be doing anything in the Dining Room unless she's delivering the turkey.  If Riley is there to observe her, we should see her actively setting the table.

To handle this, we add a general case for when the turkey is NOT being delivered:

            if the player is in the Dining Room, say "Mom puts something on the dinner table, but it doesn't smell interesting.";

* The player doesn't see Mom take the turkey from the Kitchen, or notice that she has it in the Hallway.

This requires some additional checking of the turkey countdown counter, to describe Mom's actions appropriately at this moment, based on the player's perspective.  See the complete source code for details, below.

* Mom's debugging output is still exposed.

While this was handy for testing during development, we don't want players to see Mom talking about her various timers and countdowns.  But just in case we need to explore this again, I'll comment out the old material and add something more appropriate:

Instead of talking Mom, say "Mom replies with your name, followed by some gibberish, followed by your name."

* Score is reported as "x of a possible 0" at the end of the game.

To fix this, we just need to define the maximum score, by adding:

The maximum score is 2.

* Riley can repeatedly GET TURKEY on the dinner table, earning a point each time for retrieving the same old turkey leg.

To fix this scoring bug, we can use Inform's concept of whether an object has been handled:

            if the turkey leg has not been handled:
                say "You pull, and pull, and pull some more... and are rewarded with a turkey... leg!";
                move the the turkey leg to the player;
                award 1 point;
                say "You already pulled off a turkey leg.  What did you do with it?"

* If Mom catches Riley on the dining room table, while he still has the turkey leg in his unconcealed possession, she throws him outside but doesn't take the turkey leg away from him.

To fix this, we'll send Riley outside but leave the turkey leg on the dinner table; apparently Mom is none too fastidious about these things, and it allows the player a retry.  We have to be careful with the phrasing, though, as the sequence of events actually moves the player visibly to the Back Yard before moving the turkey leg back to the dinner table.  So I'll write this so the player notices that the leg is gone after Riley is already back outside:

            if the player has the turkey leg and the turkey leg is not inside your collar:
                say "Gasp!  Your hard-won turkey leg is gone!";                move turkey leg to the dinner table;

* If Riley pulls on the turkey, "Nothing obvious happens."  It should act like getting the turkey, based on the result.

 Instead of pulling the turkey, try taking the turkey.

And with all this patching of known bugs in place, our work here is done.  The complete, final source code is below the fold.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Elsewhere: Atari 5200 TV Commercial

The Atari 5200 was a pretty impressive piece of hardware in its day, its notoriously less-than-durable joysticks aside.  This vintage TV ad came out at a time when the system was (purportedly) in short supply, and prominently features the system's innovative PAUSE button, a feature we now take for granted.

My favorite part:  When Mom yells from offscreen and the young man pauses his Atari 5200 to run to the telephone, apparently managing to down a few shots of vodka for courage before slurring, "Helloooo, Judy?"

I also have to give Atari credit for the A/B comparisons of Centipede and Defender -- the 5200 versions are clearly not arcade-perfect, and noticeably less smooth.  But facing strong competition from the fairly accurate Colecovision port of Donkey Kong, Atari made an effort to step up to the plate here.

News - Splatterhouse returns!

I had heard about this, but completely forgot it was in the works, and suddenly it's available for sale here in North America -- Namco Bandai's updated entry in the classic retro series, Splatterhouse, is out for the XBox 360 and PS3.  And it's not even a downloadable title, it's a full-blown retail experience.  The original coin-op arcade game has also been ported to multiple mobile phone platforms, including the iPhone.

The update is fully-polygonal 3D, and features a metal soundtrack by a bunch of bands I wish I was hip enough to have heard of, like Terrorizer and Lamb of God.  The basic plotline is the same as before -- Rick's girlfriend Jennifer is kidnapped by forces of evil, and he must beat up various gooey creatures with various random implements of doom.  It's a beat-'em-up, sure, but it has character, and the update has more realistic physics-driven gore than ever before.  Because, you know, this game is a veritable house of splatter.

More info is available at the official website:  http://splatterhousegame.com

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Fahrenheit 451 (1984)

This week, we're looking at a Telarium/Trillium adventure adapted (loosely) in 1984 from Ray Bradbury's dystopian 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, about a world where books have been made illegal in a woefully misguided attempt to preserve social harmony. 

To limit the scope to something that works in a game, the story picks up near the end of the novel along an alternate storyline, with a new introduction by Mr. Bradbury and a more optimistic ending.  Byron Preiss Video Productions, Inc. developed the game, with technical direction by Lee Jacknow, writing by Len Neufeld, programming by Michael P. Meyer and illustrations by Robert Strong and Brian Humphrey.

I'm playing the IBM PC version, which features 4-color CGA graphics apparently converted from the Commodore 64 version, with wider pixels than the PC norm.  The graphics looked much better on other platforms, but the PC version does its best, shifting its palette when the red-blue-white color set fits the artwork better than the red-orange-green palette.  It also plays music and sound effects, sort of, using the original PC speaker to generate simple monophonic tones.

The player is cast as Guy Montag, a former Fireman and protagonist of the original novel; the adventure begins as he tries to meet up with the literary underground seeking to restore literature (and, by extension, ideas, initiative and freedom) to a world where Firemen are called upon only to burn books and the homes containing them.

Fahrenheit 451 is a flawed but engrossing piece of interactive fiction.  The game's world is limited to a handful of city blocks, but is richly detailed, depicting an alternative American history that is sometimes amusing, sometimes horrifying.  Character interaction is well-handled; conversation is minimal, but the Bradbury-esque prose and use of literary quotes as passwords brings a variety of interesting human beings to life.  The game takes itself, and its inspiration, seriously, and that is to be commended. 

On the other hand, there aren't many puzzles in the traditional sense, and the clues are sometimes too obvious, sometimes too subtle.  It's not always easy to find the information needed to progress, or guess what the parser is expecting, and the game's open world feels naturalistic but confronts the player with too many options and opportunities, some of which can be easily missed.  The CASA walkthrough will get you through the game efficiently, but unfortunately skips most of the interesting details.  So I strongly recommend that interested readers spend some time with Fahrenheit 451 before proceeding here, for the sake of discovering its world and some of its secrets.  I can't say I've discovered all of them myself, but in the interest of historical documentation, I warn you that I will reveal everything I know.  In other words, there are...

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

As the game begins, we find ourselves standing in New York City, in Central Park, near a suspiciously adventure-ish pile of dead leaves.

The grating is indeed the most desirable path to take; our only other options include getting dragged underwater and killed by some unseen creature in the pond in the park, or being fatally mauled by a roaming tiger along the path to the north.  The tunnel below our starting location runs infinitely to the northwest, though it's nicely handled -- we can walk indefinitely, but find ourselves being accosted by more and more creepy-crawly bugs, distasteful but not fatal, as we head away from civilization.  Once we turn back to the southeast, the game brings us back to the point beneath the ladder immediately and saves us the long trudge back.  In any case, it's best to head into town to the southeast.

The biggest problem I ran into with Fahrenheit 451 is that its world is almost too naturalistic and open, and some technical issues surface early on.  Some crucial events, like meeting the man from the Underground who approaches us at the fountain and provides several important bits of information, occur only once per play session, can be missed if we take a route that bypasses the rendezvous point, and will not recur after an in-game restart.  Other important moments are random, time-dependent, or rely on a subtle clue that may only be apparent as such after the fact.  The design does its best to compensate by providing alternate pathways and multiple means of discovering the most critical password quotes, but the approach still makes for problematic play at times.

The most useful thing we (should) learn from the fountain encounter is that a lighter will let us signal fellow members of the resistance -- "make a little light so we'll know who you are."  We can obtain such a device in the nearby hotel.  The man also tells us to "Enter the building at E48-49, find the speaker, and SAY 'IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN'," breaking the game's reality a bit by quoting the first line of Bradbury's original novel.  He also tells us to make sure we obtain a new mask, chemindex and fingerprints so we can adopt new identities to pass checkpoints; this is the game's central puzzle conceit, and most of our time will be spent tracking down the appropriate technology and paperwork.  The main obstacle on our way to the story's climax is the barricaded post at the Main Library.  There are similarly secured facilities elsewhere, requiring hand, fingerprint or visual ID for entry.

In my initial foray, I completely missed meeting the man at the fountain, so I was left to explore the world without any real idea of where to go or what to do.  I discovered that there are many ways to die -- Bradbury's fearsome Mechanical Hounds and roving squads of Firemen prevent us from crossing the street safely, so we must find an elevated walkway to get to the east side of the avenue.  There are also many establishments to visit -- we can eat at a restaurant to fight off hunger pangs, get treated at the hospital (SAY "I'M SICK" to the admitting nurse), visit the Walls Parlor where disinterested citizens watch giant television screens, explore deserted buildings, and get arrested and killed anytime we are asked to produce ID.

Once we have the lighter, the world opens up a bit; in fact, so many citizens are furtively helpful after we pointedly USE LIGHTER that it begins to seem like the Underground would easily outnumber the Firemen, if only we could get organized.  If this is intentional, it's an impressively subtle reinforcement of the novel's themes, but I suspect it's just a side effect of adventure game conventions.

The hotel contains the PHANTASYPHONE offices, where we can don a virtual reality helmet and pretend, briefly and non-interactively, to be a spiritual leader or mountain climber behind two of the three available doors.  The hotel guard downstairs will quietly inform us that the attendant "is" (that is, has memorized for posterity) the works of Lewis Carroll, and we should give him the first line of Jabberwocky.  We SAY "'TWAS BRILLIG AND THE SLITHY TOVES," and he lets us into the mysterious room to the west, where the PHANTASYPHONE headset presents a vision of our young friend, Clarisse McClellan, who is alive (in the game), dressed in white and urges us to find her, though she provides no concrete information as to her whereabouts.  Later, other characters will mention seeing a woman in white inside the 42nd Street Library, now a maximum-security repository of all officially-permitted books.

The parser isn't too hard to deal with, as few special-case verbs are required, but it's limited just the same and takes some getting used to.  I immediately discovered that we must EXAMINE LEAVES -- SEARCH LEAVES doesn't work, and LOOK LEAVES is treated as a room-level LOOK.  The engine also has a habit of giving us significant details only on our first encounter with a new location or person, so if we didn't pay close attention we won't get much information from the terse descriptions provided afterward.  Another minor annoyance -- READ SIGN often reports That is not possible.  The design generally gives us the text as part of the room description, so it's not really necessary, but it's a bit jarring on occasion.

Fahrenheit 451 is not very puzzle-y in the traditional sense, but it has a very nice sense of its world, and there's a lot to explore that's not directly germaine to the plot.  I always think science fiction works well in the interactive fiction medium, moreso than fantasy, because it's generally about plausible variations on the world we know -- experiencing an alien environment and learning to understand it is always a lot of fun, and it works very well here.  Bradbury's circa-1950s futurism holds up pretty well, too, although there are a few odd notes -- in the hospital, the nurse busies herself receiving and answering message capsules through pneumatic tubes, a function usurped by email in future reality; and we obtain a map encoded on a plastic wafer that unfolds and hovers, a novel device that's no match for 21st century GPS technology.

The hotel lounge contains a number of storage lockers -- we need a tetrasonde to open them, whatever that is, and I never found one.  There's also an older gentleman present -- if we TALK MAN, he asks us to follow him, giving us a brief tour of the city in passing before he leaves us standing outside a locked building after he enters a code and vanishes inside.  We can do this repeatedly, as he will reappear in the hotel lounge by the time we get back, but I never figured out why this is possible.

We can USE LIGHTER in the magazine store to visit the back room, where a selection of contraband print works are secretly available:  the Bible, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Plato, and Thoreau.  The clerk advises us to meet the author of The Phoenix and The Turtle, i.e. Shakespeare; the only useful quotes the game will mention here are in the Bible and the Shakespeare books.

In the subway station, if we WAIT repeatedly, a train repeatedly roars into the station and grinds to a halt.  I never figured out what we were supposed to do in the subway, either, though I did manage to get arrested there.  The interrogation, in my case, established that my physical characteristics did not match my fake ID, and I was summarily executed.

In the hospital, I eventually figured out that, instead of SAYing simply "I'M SICK", we get some additional information if we quote the Bible in a similar vein: SAY "STAY ME WITH FLAGONS, COMFORT ME WITH APPLES:  FOR I AM SICK OF LOVE."  The nurse will hint that we can enter official buildings if we assume a maintenance man's identity, and find food at the government food center (although we will need proper ID in practice.)  Either way, we meet Dr. Foster, and if we utter the first line of a classic nursery rhyme learned from the mute man in the cathedral (SAY "DR. FOSTER WENT TO GLOUCESTER"), he will use his chemindexer once on our behalf.   After he leaves, we can and should pick the cabinet lock with the paper-clip found on the floor and take the chemindexer with us for future adjustments.

Fahrenheit 451's Navigation is more story-driven than the traditional adventure game -- we often need to ENTER BUILDING, but once we find our destination LEAVE ROOM usually takes us all the way back outside to the street.  Several phone booths line both sides of the avenue, but we can't USE BOOTH or GO BOOTH, only ENTER BOOTH works.  And one area seems like a trap at first -- we enter through a window, and must EXIT WINDOW to leave, even though the description doesn't mention the window once we're inside; experimentation establishes that we can't LEAVE or ENTER WINDOW or CLIMB WINDOW or GO WINDOW or navigate W/S/E/N/U/D to return to the street outside.

Some buildings are only open at certain times of day -- we can WAIT or SLEEP to accelerate the passage of time.  WAIT always works, even though under some circumstances the game will tell us we Can't do that here even as it allows time to pass

There's a tall skyscraper with an observation deck, apparently just for atmosphere, but if we use our lighter and SAY "RISE UP, MY LOVE, MY FAIR ONE, AND COME AWAY" to the elevator operator, we can learn some new information about the Magic Shop and get the phone number of one Emile Ungar: NYC-802.  We are instructed to quote the last line of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man when we contact him.

Like Telarium's Amazon game, this one occasionally forces the narrative a bit; some areas nudge us along by saying things like You realize that there is nothing here for you.  In the restaurant, You decide that before you try to do anything, you'll wait for your meal, and when we talk to a rambling old woman in the bank, it forces us eventually to nod and walk away (after we learn, secondhand, that her daughter has spotted Clarisse inside the Library).  But a good balance between description and interactivity is generally maintained.

The Jewelry Emporium, operated by a nicely-portrayed snooty clerk, offers a stickpin, a flashlight ring, and a calculator for sale.  We can buy a ring, which can be engraved with initials -- but I found no reason to choose specific initials, and the ID we start with has a random name that varies from game to game.  The important task here is to visit the engraver, another member of the Underground, and quote Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson to him, earning a coveted Library permit.

The game provides a solid sense of a literary Underground, with constant threats and occasional aid.  We can CHECK ID to confirm identity, chemindex and fingerprints at any time.

We start with a fair amount of cash on hand, but eventually need more.  The clerk in the bank officially requires a bank card before he will deal with us, but if we give him a Shakespearean quote about money, he'll give us an ATM card we can use at the cash machine.  The funds allow us to purchase a contraband fingerprinter, allowing us to match our fingerprints to our current ID.

I needed to reference a walkthrough to enter the intriguing Magic Shop on the east side of the street.  We can't get past the padlocked gate... unless we use the lighter to BURN PADLOCK.  Here, a bizarre array of automated masks allows us to change our face, again to match our adopted identity.

I entered the dark alley off of location E47-48, but only found a trap door that leads to a tunnel -- the ladder breaks free, and the tunnel below does not seem to be a maze.  All I discovered here is that we can wander endlessly until hunger takes over and we pass out, ending the game.

An establishment called Glass World contains a beautiful but confusing optional side trip involving a walk-in crystal -- a friendly robot gives us some glasses to aid navigation, but we still can't EXIT, and must instead LEAVE CRYSTAL.  We can examine a glass sculpture here that shows a woman in a white robe entering the 42nd Street library, useful if we haven't encountered some of the other Clarisse-related clues.

I enjoyed several alternative-history cultural references -- a mural in the Square Room dates from the 1930's Works Progress Administration, and New York's esteemed Tiffany's  is now a museum, open 10 AM to 8 PM.

The dark basement proved a bit of a problem initially -- it's not fatal if we fall in the dark, but we do black out temporarily and must seek medical attention for our injured, painful arm before it overwhelms us.  I had some trouble actually using the flashlight ring purchased earlier at the Jewelry Emporium -- we are instructed that Pressing on the stone emits a high-intensity beam of light.  But PUSH RING, PRESS STONE, LIGHT RING, and TURN ON RING do not do anything useful; we have to USE RING!  It apparently shuts off automatically when we return to the street.  With this light source, we can READ MICROFICHE for background on the last atomic war and subsequent conditions in Manhattan.  We learn that the Firemen transferred all books to microcassettes, now secured in vaults in the Library building, before burning the physical copies to thwart the literary underground.  There's also a segment of electro-optical cable visible through a hole in the wall, which permits a novel form of eavesdropping -- we can EXAMINE CABLE to learn it has a strange textureFEEL CABLE lets us "overhear" this scrambled text conversation in transmission:

The letters are just backwards, in unscrambled word order, so no real decoding is needed here.

The fountain near the hotel contains special water capable of washing off radioactivity, but only lets us do it if we really need it; I never encountered a scenario that required doing this.

Following the advice given early on leads us to a red phone in a secret room that gives us permission to call the mysterious "Ray" (Bradbury, I wonder?) at NYC-154 from any phone booth.  If we remember and repeat a quote from William Blake, i.e. SAY "SOME ARE BORN TO SWEET DELIGHT.  SOME ARE BORN TO ENDLESS NIGHT.", we can call him up and ASK about various authors and works to obtain quotes. Some of the information can be learned elsewhere, but several quotes seem to be available only from Ray's helpful phone service.

We should visit the cathedral before seeing Dr. Foster, at least if we hope to understand what's going on.  A mute man with a red nose and large ears will respond if we USE LIGHTER to get his attention.  We can then SAY "GIVE EVERY MAN THY EAR, BUT FEW THY VOICE."  Hearing the password, he briefly shows us a note with the DR. FOSTER nursery rhyme quote, and also mentions that the Hounds patrol Fifth Avenue the first and third quarters of each hour; time being somewhat variable in its in-game rate of passage, I found it easier just to avoid the dangerous streets altogether.

The walkthrough was not quite right in one spot, at least for the IBM PC version - I couldn't ENTER BUILDING, but had to EXAMINE BUILDING in order to meet the gnome-like woman who sells us the fingerprinter.

Careful notekeeping is valuable.  Once we meet Emile Ungar, he tells us we can get a Fireman's ID from room 212 at W54-55; Morton Dorr is the name we will adopt. We must trip the latch to the room with the blade of a knife, which can be stolen from the restaurant, and as always it's easy to run into unwanted opposition if we get lost and wander around too much.  It becomes apparent at this point that we need to round up the Fireman's ID, match Dorr's face, fingerprints, and chemindex, and obtain the entry permit.

I managed to find legitimate sources of most of the information needed to finish the game, but had to rely on the walkthrough to learn that Clarisse is in the Library, in room 210, and that a certain Bible quote lets us ride an oversized Hound into the building.  I'm sure suitable clues are buried somewhere in the code, but as the game doesn't actually track whether we've learned the necessary information, a priori knowledge can be exploited to finish the game.

Once we find Clarisse, we must talk to her, give her a buttercup found growing in a desolate city lot to prove we are still Guy Montag behind our adopted identity, kiss her, and escape to the roof before Firemen break the door down.  (Thanks, walkthrough!)  She has the microcassettes, and needs our help to get them to a transmitter so they can be disseminated and made freely available once more. 

The trip to the transmitter is relatively action-packed.  We have to fight a regular Hound on the roof - a couple of possible victory scenarios are written in, which is nice; it's still wise to SAVE GAME before taking the creature on.  Various combinations of LEAP ON HOUND, HOLD HOUND, and so forth usually work to subdue the robotic beast.

We are then given an interesting moral choice -- we can attempt to fulfill our mission, or opt to escape the city with young Clarisse (our ex-wife Mildred having betrayed us to the Firemen in the original novel).  This option provides an arguably happy but somehow unsatisfying ending:

Assuming we wish to pursue the path of truth and freedom, we take the correct drainpipe down, subdue a guard with another FIGHT sequence, and prepare to strike a blow for global literacy:

We have located the Transmitter at last, and Clarisse says, "Can you figure out how to use it?" Fortunately, no figuring is necessary, as the transmitter's terse instructions tell us to simply INSERT MICROCASSETTE.  We do so, the contents go out to the world-wide Underground...


And then...

****** REALLY! *****

And then...

The Firemen burst in, too late to stop the transmission!

***** I MEAN IT! *****

And Guy and Clarisse both die at the hands of the burly, well-armed Firemen! 

It's a really nice serious sci-fi ending, offering credible hope for a better future even as our heroes sacrifice themselves in the present.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fahrenheit 451 -- it's not perfect, but the game's rich detail and forgiving design (there are few long-term mistakes we can't recover from) makes its world well worth exploring.  And I like to think that Mr. Bradbury must have enjoyed seeing his work come to life, using technology that would have seemed like pure science fiction when he wrote his classic novel thirty years earlier.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Elsewhere: The Mario Genome

The link below happens to cross a couple of my interest zones, so I'm sharing it here.

It's an overview of an evolutionary genetics experiment, mutating simple simulated "organisms" to solve The Mario Problem.  That is, how can successive generations of a creature with basic run and jump capabilities evolve to navigate a complex world of platforms successfully?


You can see that the first batch of generations gets a lot of Marios stuck in the lower, largely unnavigable path; the later batch gets farther, as those lowdown Marios failed to rescue the princess (i.e., breed) as successfully as the ones who took the higher road. 

It's a nice visual demonstration of how genetic algorithms work -- with Mario!

The LoadDown - 11/22/2010

As Thanksgiving approaches, there's a possibility we will all have some holiday time for a quick round of gaming.  And sometimes the titles best suited to a little extra free time are small-scale downloadable games.  Here's what's new this week...

WiiWare -- One new game, and a bunch of intriguing demos this week.  Snowpack Park is a virtual pet/animal husbandry simulation with minigames and penguin care aplenty.  Most gamers will find the free downloadable demos of the much-anticipated And Yet It Moves, BIT.TRIP.FATE, Jett Rocket and ThruSpace more interesting.

Wii Virtual Console -- We even get a VC game this week, with the Neo-Geo platformer SPIN MASTER arriving.

DSiWare -- Three new titles this week.  Tetris Party Live brings the online Wii game to the DSi.  Supermarket Mania is the latest in what I've recently learned is officially called the "time management" genre.  Music On: Electric Guitar continues the music tutorial series, simulating an electric axe with distortion, flanger and delay pedals, though the DSi's single-point-of-contact touch screen limits the instrument's capabilities.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two new games last week.  Alien Breed 3: Descent continues the episodic series that started in 2009 and just resumed this past September.  And Namco Bandai's Pac-Man Championship Edition DX revisits the excellent 2006 update of the classic arcade game, with new morphing mazes, features and challenges.

Game Room -- After an Atari 2600-centric lineup last week, this week focuses on the Intellivision, with three new releases.  Space Battle is the classic fixed-sight shooter, also seen on 80's TV as a call-in target-shooting game.  Skiing puts a human being on two flattish pieces of wood and/or fiberglass, careening down a hillside covered with frozen water.  Slap Shot: Super Pro Hockey is a late INTV release, a more action-packed sports simulation than the original Mattel NHL Hockey game, with player-vs-computer support.

PS3 on PSN -- Three games debuted last week.  3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures 2 brings more fun, crazy minigolf action to the PS3.  Sega's classic Crazy Taxi still holds up and is well worth playing if you've never experienced its pedal-to-the-metal looniness.  Sky Fighter is a 2.5-D side-scrolling shooter with looping flight mechanics reminiscent of Time Pilot and Sky Kid.

PSOne on PSN -- The crickets are playing a concert here these past few weeks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Treasure Master: The Ultimate Quest for Fantasy Prizes!

Dear ASC -- wouldn't people rather win REAL prizes?

The timing on American Softworks Corp.'s video game/marketing gimmick was a little odd, on the cusp of a console transition.  The intent was to encourage diehard 8-bit Nintendo players to purchase Treasure Master, so they could potentially win a 16-bit Super Nintendo system.  Interested participants had to buy the game (= profit!), practice until the Secret Password was revealed on April 11, 1992 (via a by-the-minute 900 number or by watching MTV at noon), then rush to finish the game before midnight, discover the winning code, and call it in before anyone else to win the best of the fantasy prizes.

The big prizes were luxury trips and a game room setup with a then-whopping 50" projection TV and a Super NES.  And there were 250 Super NES systems being given away as well, so after you finished playing Treasure Master you could declare it a fitting coda as you stuck your beloved but now-obsolete NES in the closet.  ASC also gave away 36,000 Treasure Master certificates, which hardly seem like a "third prize" -- I wonder if they were even able to give all of them away in the 12-hour window leading up to the deadline.

Of course, all winners had to be accepted by the Treasure Master judges, begging the question of what exactly it takes to become a Treasure Master judge, and how they cleared their docket in a mere twelve hours.  The bar exam seems like an inappropriate qualification; maybe they had to, as stated in the ad, "Master all the wacky tools" and "Interact with a variety of mysterious creatures"; i.e., the contestants.

8-Bit Rocket's Atari Retro Remake contest

If you've got Web-playable game development skills and a hankering to remake any classic Atari-platform game, implementing it in tight code, 16K or less, you might want to enter 8-Bit Rocket's Atari-Inspired Retro Re-make Contest.
The rest of us are going to sit back and look forward to the results!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

News from the Spambots - Flash Games Mart

If you share my quirky sense of humor and appreciation of enthusiastic incompetence, be prepared, as there are...

***** SPIT-TAKES AHEAD! *****

I moderate comments here because some of them are commercial spam, trying to post links and content completely unrelated to this blog's subject.  A new one has been posting nightly of late, which is annoying.  But I'm going to dignify its subject with a more prominent post, because this one is posting links with the text "game development company."

The sponsor of this minor annoyance actually IS a Flash game development company, called FGM for short, Flash Games Mart for long. 

FGM's business model is interesting -- they create small Flash games, post them on their own website, and then auction them off as exclusive content to other websites and portals.  The games remain playable at FGM's site, so they're not quite as exclusive as they're purported to be.  But it's an interesting approach -- potential purchasers can audition the company's work, then bid to lock down the rights, including the original .FLA source code files.

What makes the company's efforts Saturday-blogworthy is that the development team is based in India, and the English employed is always a little awkward.  I like this Instructions page for The Haunted Serve, which is not a tennis game, but this:

A person was cursed by a witch to run a restaurant for ghosts.  Unfortunately the person's faith cannot be changed without pleasing the ghosts.  Now he needs your help for serving the ghosts.  Serve ghosts with their favorite food on time.

FGM's offerings are generally simple games in standard casual Flash game genres -- dress-ups (Cute Halloween), casual "adventure" games (Uphill Struggle For The Princess Rescue), time management games (Idly Shop), kissing games (Kinder Garten Kissing), and cooking games (Caribbean jerk rub-corn salsa).  Some of them make wholesale, unlicensed use of established, trademarked properties including Disney's Cinderella and James Cameron's Avatar.  The background music selected is always repetitive often inappropriate, and vocalized sound bites like "Ow!" and "Mmmmwah!" tend to sound flat and unenthusiastic.

The games aren't very good, but the website is highly entertaining in its own right.  Another great description is this one for Glamorous dancing girl dress up:

Dress up the girl, who is confused with the costume for her performance and make her to look pretty and glamorous on stage before the audience. Have fun and stay glued with us.

College professor dress up, which manages to trivialize decades of feminist struggle for academic respect:

College professors are one of the most important people in our life. They teach and guide us to lead a perfect life. Thus make her happy by choosing a perfect outfit for a lecture.

Or this, for the politically incorrect Apaches Attack, a shoot-the-tomahawk-bearing-Native-Americans-with-your-rifle contest:

Hi friends, if you would like to play some action games then take up the game of Apaches Attack. You have to attack the enemies in the war field at win over them to finish the level. See that the life is been kept in the game, do not reduce the life.

And the kissing games get very bizarre very quickly -- the website description for Kinder Garten Kissing is... man, this is all messed up:

Hey!!! The Kindergarten warden has given Lisa the responsibility to look after the babies for a while,surprisingly Lisa finds her boyfriend near to the place and makes love with him,now we have to make them enjoy their romantic kisses at the same time should keep an eye on the naughty babies from escaping help Lisa...have fun.

But my favorite bit is this thumbnail image for Peddling boat kissing:


The red spots are miniature kissing lips, visible at normal scale, but the image makes it look like some kind of amour fou zombie/vampire role-playing encounter, or a cautionary tale about gum disease.

Despite the spam marketing approach, I can't begrudge these folks a proper link -- for more unintentional hilarity, visit FGM's very entertaining website here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Super Real Mahjong Special

Why am I playing yet another PC Engine mahjong game?  Because, despite my better judgment, it's in my collection.  Moreover, this particular game is not very well documented on the Web.  So I want to capture some screenshots to submit to the excellent PC Engine Bible site for history's sake, and I might as well share a little about the game while I'm at it.

So, on to the basics.  Super Real Mahjong Special was published in 1992 by Naxat Soft and Seta for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM format.  The title screen is graphically simple, but features a very catchy J-Pop tune, complete with 1980's rhythmic police whistles and upbeat, high-pitched vocals:

Once we're past the title screen, where... some people... will have spent entirely too much time trying to find a cheat that will unlock the game's visual cheesecake scenes, we are introduced to the three available opponents, Shoko, Kasumi and Miki.  We are given each character's vital statistics, Japanese style, including blood type, height, weight, and BWH (bust, waist, hip) measurements; these are in cm, naturally, lest anyone think these cuties are freaks of nature:

Each character introduces herself in turn, with full voice acting but minimal lip-synch.  Then we enter our name and select an opponent -- I didn't find any great differences between them, at least in terms of general difficulty, but that may say more about my mahjong skills than the game's AI.

With introductions out of the way, we're off to face the tiles of fate:

The game is a standard mahjong contest at this point -- we draw a tile, then decide whether to keep it in the hope of building a proper hand, or toss it into the discard stack, where it will lie face-up, gleaming hideously with unfulfilled promise as we draw additional tiles that would have worked perfectly with that one, so carelessly discarded in the early going.  At least, that's usually my experience.  Each player starts with 10,000 points, and after each round, the winner gains points at the loser's expense.  Whoever reaches zero first is the, um, total loser.

If we somehow succeed in beating our opponent's points off, the manual leads us to believe we will be treated to some sort of cutesy swimsuit imagery.  But I only succeeded in getting defeated, time and time again, earning only a brief glimpse of Shoko's more mature look.  At least she seems sympathetically upset that our mahjong talents fail so completely to make themselves apparent -- either that, or she's stifling a rude giggle:

That's about all I can say about Super Real Mahjong Special.  It's fairly playable with no Japanese knowledge, but a little mahjong knowledge is required.  And while I'm now somewhat acquainted with the rules, I'm still not very good at keeping track of what I should be adding to or dropping from my hand-in-progress to build a suitable hand.

Still, that opening tune is pretty sweet.

The later Super Real Mahjong games for FMV-capable platforms are more popular, as the rewards are more animated and a bit more risque.  But there were several early titles in the series released for the PC Engine, and fans of the genre (are there any in the West, really?) may be able to find a copy of this one for purchase at this affiliate link.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let's Make Us A Game! -- Puzzling It Out

Apologies for the hiatus in this series -- I took some time away from it in the interest of finding my own bugs more readily when I came back.  But now Thanksgiving is fast approaching, so let's see if we can wrap our design up, prior to final testing and debugging.  Our primary objective in this installment:  Add some puzzles.

We've already set up some context for puzzles.  There's a mud puddle in the backyard, and if Riley goes into the puddle, he gets his paws muddy and cannot get into the house.  So we should use this.  We have a couple of choices -- either we can force the player to deal with the situation by starting Riley out in the mud, or we can give the player a reason Riley has to go into the puddle, which seems more organic and interesting.

So what reason does Riley have to go into the puddle?  Well, his primary objective is to get onto the dining room table, steal a turkey leg, and get back outside to eat it.  As the game is currently set up, he has enough turns to pull it off.  And Mom actually doesn't notice that he has the turkey leg as he's leaving the house.  We should fix that, which suggests a puzzle -- perhaps he needs a way to conceal the turkey leg, by, say, tucking it into his collar.

So let's put his collar in the mud puddle to start with.  And give him a way to wipe his paws.  And make sure Mom will catch him if he doesn't tuck it safely away.  First, we need to create the collar and put it in the mud puddle:

Your collar is a wearable container.  Your collar is in the mud puddle.  "Lying forlornly in the mud is your collar, lost during a particularly vigorous round of tail-chasing."  Understand "collar" as your collar.

And we need to allow Riley to remove the mud with appropriate action.  This gets a little tricky because RUB and CLEAN are the same thing in Inform's standard libraries -- and here, we want to differentiate between wiping Riley's paws on the grass and cleaning them with his tongue.  So we have to define the paws (as part of the player, so they can't be dropped or otherwise separated from Riley's body) and override the standard rub, wipe and clean verbs.

The paws are a thing.  The paws are part of the player.

Instead of examining the paws, say "Your paws are [if player is clean]sparkling clean.  Well, not sparkling.  But clean. [otherwise]gloriously filthy with mud."

Understand the commands "rub" and "wipe" and "clean" as something new.

Scraping is an action applying to one visible thing.  Understand "rub [something]" and "wipe [something]" and "scrape [something]" as scraping.

Washing is an action applying to one visible thing.  Understand "wash [something]" and "clean [something]" as washing.

Carry out washing: say "You lick at the [noun] ineffectively."

Carry out scraping: say "You can't scrape anything off of that."

Instead of washing the paws:
    say "You lick at your paws.[if player is muddied]  But the mud is too thick to clean up this way."

Instead of scraping the paws:
    if the player is in the Back Yard:
        say "You wipe your paws on the grass.[if player is muddied]The mud comes off surprisingly neatly!";
        now the player is clean;
    if the player is inside the Mud Puddle:
        say "You wipe your paws in the mud.  Yep, still muddy!";
    if the player is not in the Back Yard and the player is not inside the Mud Puddle:
        say "You wipe your paws on the floor."

Now we need to set things up so that Riley can get caught on his way out after a successful heist, hinting that Riley needs a way to conceal the turkey leg:

Every turn:
    if the player has the turkey leg and Mom can see the player and the turkey leg is not inside your collar:
        say "Mom spots the turkey leg held brazenly between your teeth, and before you can even look guilty you are tossed unceremoniously outside.  You paw at the locked puppy door, never to return, at least while the family dinner is in progress.";
        end the story.

Note that the combination of rules driving the story will also work together in more complicated situations.  For example, if Mom catches Riley on the table, but he has already concealed the turkey leg, she will throw him outside -- without taking the leg away from him.  If we didn't want that to be possible, we would need to add a check for that -- but I like the idea of snatching victory in the face of defeat!

Now we need Riley to be able to stash the turkey leg inside his collar, and give the player some information to suggest that such an action is possible.  One thing we will do is replace the standard "Your collar is empty" response:

Instead of examining your collar, say "Your collar was given to you a very long time ago.  It has a jingly thing on it.   When you have it on, you always get stuff caught in it. [if the turkey leg is contained in your collar]  Right now you have a turkey leg tucked into it, held safely beneath your chin."

The standard Inform libraries ensure that the player can PUT TURKEY LEG IN COLLAR, but we should describe it more colorfully, and should handle some other likely attempts appropriate to the context:

Understand "tuck [something] in/into/under [something]" and "slip [something] in/into/under [something]" as inserting it into.

Before inserting the turkey leg into the collar, say "The tantalizing odor right under your chin makes the whole world seem bright and turkeyful.  You just... manage to... there!"

With these additions, we now have a brief but complete piece of interactive fiction.  Most of the puzzles are verbiage-based, but as Riley the puppy has few manipulative capabilities or familiarity with human-type objects, that's probably where the emphasis ought to be.

If you've been following along with this series, you know we've left a number of bugs and issues outstanding, and my testing has found a handful of new ones.  Our final installment will tackle cleaning up some of these items -- a game isn't really finished until all known bugs are exterminated.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Video Podcast: Attack of the 8-Bit Zombies!

Today's gaming scene has zombies galore, but the shambling undead were quite a bit rarer once upon a time.

The sporadically-produced Gaming After 40 video podcast is available via the iTunes podcast directory, on YouTube, and on Roku set-top boxes via the blip.tv channel.  Thanks for watching!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Cathouse (?) (19??)

Hoo, boy.  Sometimes documenting these things really does feel like a scholarly labor.

This is another of those obscure, miscellaneous text adventure games that comes down to us through the ages thanks to surviving archival copies on the Internet.  This game has no title screen, no publisher, and no author identification, for perfectly understandable reasons.  I call it Cathouse only because the BASIC program file is called CATHOUSE/BAS on the TRS-80 Model I/III disk image.  It almost certainly dates from the early-to-mid-1980s, while the TRS-80 was a viable platform, but with no one stepping up to take the credit for it, even that may qualify as wild conjecture.

It's not a very good game at all, but it's historically interesting as a forerunner to Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry series.  It lacks the humor that Al Lowe brought to the genre, but the plot stems from the same root as Mr. Laffer's inspiration, Sierra's early Softporn Adventure.  The player's objective is poorly defined and progress impossible to assess during normal play -- I had to dissect the source code to discover that our only real goal is to earn 350 "pleasure points" by indulging in various questionable pursuits, then QUIT to receive our final assessment.

I really can't recommend this one as anything but a novelty, but if you insist on sharing in this particular masochistic pursuit, feel free to go forth and do so, and please wash your hands before returning.  For those less desperate for entertainment, feel free to read on for...


The Cathouse parser is very limited and simple -- even standard verbs are unsupported, as we cannot EXAMINE, GO, SIT, or READ anywhere or anything at all.  We must use I for INVENTORY purposes, neither the full word nor INV are accepted.  Nouns are handled inconsistently or, often, not at all -- the POLICE must be referred to as COPS, the THIEF is completely unrecognized, and it's somehow appropriate when the parser tells us I DON'T UNDERSTAND "WOMEN" and I DON'T UNDERSTAND "MEN"BUY DRINK yields THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE, and there's no SAVE GAME.  Another odd characteristic -- if we hit the ENTER key without typing anything, the previous command is rerun.

The game world features all the standard seedy accoutrements appropriate to the theme -- but it's all more depressing than fun, at least from a 2010 perspective.  There's "Studio 56," i.e. a largely-deserted bar and disco, several dark alleys, a liquor store, a couple of ladies of the night plying their trade, a robbery in progress, a strip joint, and a drug store.

This is a text adventure, so the strip club's advertisement of TONIGHT! TERI AND HER EROTIC SNAKE! LIVE ON STAGE! is less than enticing.  And the description inside is even less so, as Teri remains frozen in time, removing her G-String slowly, and never ever getting there, while the leering audience makes one embarrassed to be male while we search in vain for something interesting to do.

There are a couple of policemen standing outside a large Victorian-style house, and while they provide the game's only traditional puzzle, their advice is better than the designer intended:

We don't really want to go in there, but gamewise our goal is to enter the Cathouse, of course, and conveniently there's a potentially distracting crime in progress just up the street, where a thief is robbing a jewelry store.  But we can't TALK POLICE, TELL POLICE, CALL POLICE, or do anything at all with the thief on our own.  Instead, we have to find the nearby pay phone booth, INSERT DIME (we have SOME LOOSE CHANGE at the start of the game, and it never seems to run out), DIAL 411, and then fight with the parser.  The person on the other end of the phone responds, THIS IS THE POLICE WHAT TO [sic] YOU WISH TO REPORT?  I tried ROBBERY, THIEF, JEWELRY STORE, ROBBERY AT JEWELRY STORE, CRIME, and BURGLARY, all to no avail; and for good measure, DRUGS and PROSTITUTION, just to enjoy the standard response: UNLESS YOUR [sic] GOING TO REPORT A CRIME DON'T CALL THE POLICE.  Repeated attempts eventually produced a fatal OUT OF STRING SPACE IN 980 error, crashing the game.  I finally had to inspect the source code to discover the magic phrase: REPORT ROBBERY.

With the police out of the way, we can enter the building and examine the dubious services on offer in Madame Scarlet's Massage Parlour.  But we can't, er, take advantage of the situation without some additional cash, so it's back to the streets to raise funds in an ethically questionable manner.

A drunk in an alley can't be searched, examined, assisted, or moved... but we can ROLL DRUNK, and steal his billfold, which still contains $100.  There's also a purple El Dorado parked down Grant Avenue, with a crushed velour interior -- in the glove box is a gun, and $500 in cash.  The parser's limitations are apparent here -- we can't GO CAR, but must actually navigate S to enter it; we can OPEN GLOVE, but not OPEN BOX; we can never CLOSE GLOVE, and if we try to open it again we are told IT'S ALL READY [sic semper] OPEN.

We can use the gun to hold up the liquor store and the drug store, safely netting another $1500 if we are not violent about it; life in prison if we are.

There are some other "pleasures" available outside of the titular Cathouse.  We can buy WHISKY for $5 at the liquor store, or if alcohol is not our drug of choice, we can visit the tall, seedy dealer in a nearby alley to buy COKE (not of the a-Cola variety) for $100 and GRASS for $30.  But we can't overdo these indulences either -- taking any combination of these produces no additional pleasure, and the impact of each on our score varies, so we're better off to max out the available points with a quick SNORT COKE for 20 points and A REALLY NICE HIGH.  Ah, it's refreshing to play a game with values.

There are two prostitutes working the streets, though the game's dictionary misspells the accepted noun as PROSI so we are more successful referring to each as a GIRL or HOOK.  Each girl's temporary affection costs $50, less than the more elegant ladies in the house, but these amateurs are apparently less satisfying, offering fewer points, and the sex worker in front of the liquor store never seems to offer much pleasure at all, compared to her counterpart on Grant Avenue, who occasionally responds to the player's exertions with a positive remark worth 10 points.

Most of the available points are to be earned at the Cathouse.  Each encounter offers four options from a simple menu of STRAIGHT? FRENCH? GREEK? KINKY?, and each service provider has her own specialty and preference.  If we choose incorrectly, we may learn that SEX THIS WAY WITH THE GIRL IS NOT VERY STIMULATING.  We may also suffer impotence, be clobbered (and lose points) for grossly indecent suggestions, or be told we're the worst lover she's ever had (which, one imagines, is really saying something.)

We need to avoid the alley in the northeast part of the map, as a mugger parked there robs us, essentially forcing a restart.  Although, as it turns out, even if we've been robbed, we can still buy the items for sale at the drug store thanks to a silly little bug.  If we BUY ASPIRIN, BUY VITAMINS or BUY CONDOMS, the game doesn't add them to our total -- and we aren't accused of shoplifting either, as PAY CASHIER yields YOU TAKE $0 FROM YOUR WALLET, LEAVING YOU WITH $0 AND SOME ITEMS.  Only if we TAKE the items are they actually added to our total, requiring us to pay for them before leaving the store.  The BUY verb puts the items in inventory but doesn't subtract any cash; apparently we are rewarded for our honorable intentions, as the store detective doesn't bother us after we've paid our zero-dollar bill.

With supplies in hand for the moment, we can return to Madame Scarlet's to sample the joys of Sue, Pat, Janet, Terri, and Shelia [sic].  To spare readers the suspense, as there is none and the "best" experience plays out exactly the same every time, Sue speaks FRENCH best, Pat GREEK, Terri likes to be KINKY and Shelia takes it STRAIGHT.

That's about all there really is to know.  To win efficiently, we need to snort some cocaine and have eleven earth-shattering experiences with the available ladies.  The player character's stamina wears down after a few such romps, and we have to take aspirin and Vitamin E, replenishing our supplies at the drug store as needed to keep our, er, spirits up.  The puzzles, such as they are, have all been solved at this point, and the game becomes very repetitive, very quickly, from here on in.  Since it's not much fun to begin with, a little real-world stamina is required to finish properly.  Er, so to speak.

Alternatively, since this is written in BASIC, we can simply do a little code surgery before we start by typing in this little cheat code before we RUN the program:

11 PP=350

Then, whenever we get tired of playing, we can simply QUIT and achieve a certain nirvana -- if not of victory, then certainly of escape:

We've SET MORE THAN ONE WORLD'S RECORD L.  Whatever that last bit means.

I hope that recording this bit of interactive fiction history will help ensure we are not doomed to repeat it.  In any event, next time we'll tackle something worth playing, I promise.