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.

1 comment:

  1. Likely no American will ever discover that a hooker can be called "prosi", a bit of British slang I know strictly via Only Fools & Horses. And I'd have presumed it was spelled "prozzy" anyway. This reveals a bit about the game's provenance at least. If peeking at the code revealed no REMs, this might be the ONLY clue to the origins.