Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Witches' Brew Adventure (1982)

This week, we venture into the SoftSide disk magazine adventure series once again, with SoftSide Adventure #11, Witches' Brew Adventure, published in April of 1982.  No author is credited onscreen or in the code; the style resembles many of the other SoftSide text adventures, but this one is considerably more difficult than the norm, thanks to a rather tricky central puzzle.

This colorful title screen is accompanied by an odd assortment of white noise; I think it's supposed to be the sound of a bubbling cauldron.  There's an introductory text screen which indicates that we must once again rescue a princess from a castle:

The actual game's intro (following these title screens) also suggests that we have to do all of this before it gets dark -- which isn't actually true -- and beware of the witch, naturally.

As always, I encourage interested readers to sample the Witches' Brew (Adventure) before continuing with my commentary below.  This isn't an easy adventure -- I had to walk away from it and return after giving it considerable thought, not always productive.  But I did manage to fight my way through, and I will provide all the gory details and a full walkthrough below.  In other words, there are bound to be...

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

As the game starts out, we find ourselves standing in the Enchanted Forest, near a cottage, with nothing in inventory.  To the east is a high mountain, and to the west we find a tree and an AXEMAN (wood-cutting, not guitar-playing.)  If we try to KILL AXEMAN -- since we can't TALK to him or do anything else of a more positive nature -- he swings his axe and cleanly cuts you in half.  YOU'RE DEAD.

There's more to do inside the cottage -- the kitchen has a cupboard, fireplace, table, large kettle and a sleeping cat.  If we try to LOOK CAT, it wakes up and becomes an ENRAGED CAT.  We can try to ignore it, but after a turn or two, CAT LEAPS AND ATTACKS! IT RIPS YOUR THROAT APART! YOU'RE DEAD!  This fairytale neighborhood is proving to be extremely dangerous.

We can explore the cottage's garden to the north, but there doesn't seem to be anything there.  The cottage has a bedroom, containing a bed and a sleeping witch.  She's no Elizabeth Montgomery, though -- if we so much as LOOK WITCH, or even LOOK BED, she wakes up and turns us into a frog.  (This ends the game, but still seems a milder punishment than those doled out by the Axeman and the witch's cat.)

The game's map seems very small initially, with six rooms and no obvious pathways, and though we will find our way into more areas as the game progresses, it's not a very large game.  So we're going to spend most of our time interacting with the many objects crammed into the limited space.  The witch's kitchen cupboard is locked; there's a book on the table, but if we try to GET BOOK we are misinformed that There's no "BOOK" here.  We can, however, READ BOOK to find an invisibility spell requiring Snake Venom, Human Blood, Nail Clippings and Cat Whisker; we must PUT IN KETTLE, HEAT, WAVE WAND to complete the recipe.  So presumably we will need to be invisible at some point, and should start to round up the ingredients.

We can't GET WHISKER from the cat -- There's no "WHISKER" here -- but at least the attempt doesn't wake the cat.  The fireplace contains wood and what the game cryptically refers to as a dirty stained piece of metal.  I tried to use it to CUT NAILS or CUT FINGERNAILS, but neither one is here; we are apparently some sort of gecko-like freak, at least according to the parser's limited understanding.

We can't GO MOUNTAIN outside -- Too steep -- but closer examination of the mountain reveals a cave at the bottom and a castle on the top.  And, in a break from tradition, we can see perfectly well inside the cave without any sort of light source.  Here we find a bat and a shovel.  Taking the shovel should allow us to dig in the garden, and can we use the bat to obtain human blood somehow?  We can carry him anyway -- it, actually; once he's it's in inventory, we discover we are actually carrying a BASEBALL BAT.  Very funny, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Adventure Game Designer!  This is, however, actually a clue about the bat's eventual use -- an interesting abuse of the player's assumptions to provide a hint.

At this point, after exploring a bit, I was informed that we should be taking the game's constant reminder HURRY...it's getting dark! a little more seriously, as we now have only 10 turns left.  At first I thought, aha -- clearly we're going to need to figure this all out and then execute with few wasted moves!  But the time limit is way too tight to finish the game, and as it turned out I had misunderstood the nature of the actual deadline we're fighting against.  At least the game does not count commands it fails to understand, unlike some games of this era, and this timer only applies to the arrival of sunset.  We just have to obtain a light source before it's too dark to see.

Digging in the garden yields a MAGIC CHARM BRACELET, which bears an inscription: "With this charm the witch will sleep.  Wear it in health, it's yours to keep."  (I wish everything came with rhyming instructions: "Do not pump gas near open flame.  If everyone dies, you'll be to blame!")  This does raise one question -- why did the witch bury this in her own garden?  Did she get tired of sleeping?  Does she just not want to be disturbed by any shovel-bearing thieves in the night?

Anyway, wearing the bracelet (which doubles a light source), we can LOOK BED to spot a large, soft pillow.  And the witch is a very sound sleeper -- we can GET PILLOW to reveal, and take, some matches; the witch apparently subscribes to the "How about a little fire, scarecrow?" school of home security.  And LOOK WITCH reveals her wand, which we can also appropriate.  The bracelet does nothing to keep the witch's cat asleep, however; if we leave the house after enraging it, though, it goes back to sleep.

The Axeman doesn't keep us from climbing the tree he appears to be guarding or waiting to chop down, and there's a branch with glowing writing up there. Actually, no, that's incorrect -- BRANCH and BRACELET are confused by the parser's dictionary, with BRACELET taking precedence most of the time, so we cannot actually LOOK or READ BRANCH; the game assumes we wish to READ BRACELET instead.  And after it gets dark, we can't really see any objects in the tree, so it does no good to drop the bracelet for the sake of disambiguation.  I wanted to QUIT at this point, as I was starting to feel stuck, but there's no such command, so I resorted to a presumably fatal attempt to KILL AXEMAN -- and discovered that the bit of metal I was carrying could now be used to do so!  Examination of his freshly-stabbed corpse reveals in iron glove; removing it causes a vampire bat to appear, slurp his blood, and disappear into the woods.  Accidental progress!

With the axeman dead, we can also explore more of the enchanted forest to the west.  There's a rattlesnake here, likely a good source of snake venom, but we can't HIT or KILL it.  We will also encounter a swarm of flies, and the vampire bat -- which we can kill with the baseball bat.  But we can't carry it after doing so... hmmmm.  This area gets a little bit confusing because the enchanted forest is not actually a maze -- movement is just random, and when we execute an action we also get teleported randomly from one room to another.  So we just have to wander around a bit -- we can always go east from any location to exit the woods, and any object we drop stays with us, but we randomly find the snake, the bat, or the flies.  In reality this "maze" is a single room, and navigating just randomizes the local wildlife.

Back to the tree.  Without a light source, we can't even see the branch in the tree, and lighting a match lasts too briefly to see it.  But with the bracelet on, the parser won't allow us to do anything much with the BRAnch.  Still, if we've seen it earlier, we know that we can GO BRANCH -- actually, this specific verb works even if we are wearing the bracelet -- and navigate out to the EDGE OF A BRANCH.  Here, the branch breaks, and we fall and die.  This happens even if we leave all inventory behind.  With the bracelet on, we can catch a glimpse of a ROBIN NEST on the branch just before we die; so how are we to get it?  We can't SHAKE BRANCH or JUMP BRANCH or BOUNCE BRANCH.  We can't CHOP BRANCH or CUT TREE with the late axeman's axe, either.  Hmmm.  I had to look at the code to figure out that we can put the pillow on the ground, which somehow transforms a fall heavy enough to break every bone in our body into a safe landing.  Now we have an empty robin's nest, and an egg.  Hmmmm.

With the matches from the witch's room we can LIGHT WOOD in the fireplace.  We can't GET SNAKE in the woods -- she bites, and YOU'RE DEAD, and we can't kill her with the axe or the baseball bat either.  We can't seem to obtain the cat's whisker or kill the cat.  But aha!  Here's something I haven't tried.  We can MOVE BED in the witch's bedroom (she is a sound sleeper) to reveal -- in the standard tradition -- a trap door.  We can't OPEN TRAP or GO TRAP or OPEN DOOR, thanks to the parser's obstinacy, but we can GO DOOR to find spiderwebs (which we can't seem to do anything with) and an empty bottle, which we can use to GET BLOOD from the dead vampire bat in the forest.  We can't PUT BLOOD or EMPTY BOTTLE or ADD BLOOD but we can POUR BLOOD into the kitchen kettle, and oddly the parser will also allow us to GIVE BLOOD.

We can try to GET FLIES, but they are Too quick.  Could we take them to the spiderweb, since we can't take the web to them?  Maybe, but I wasn't having any luck at this point.  If we try to GIVE EGG to the cat, the game presumes we want to put it into the kettle, ruining the recipe in progress and suggesting that lots of random things can be put into the kettle.

I had to look at the code to figure out how to get the venom, after trying to MILK SNAKE or SQUEEZE SNAKE.  We have to have an empty bottle, and wear the iron glove -- and then we can simply GET VENOM.  But there's really no way to tell what the conflict is until we have everything just right; the parser does not reward incomplete preparation with any sort of message or hint.  Worse, if we are not properly prepared, the game just responds There's no "VENOM" here, implying that that's not even the right word, and with several other reasonable-sounding attempts, the snake bites and kills us.

So now I have 2 ingredients and still need nail clippings and a cat whisker.  With the axe, we can BREAK CUPBOARD -- not SMASH CUPBOARD, mind, even though the end result is a SMASHED CUPBOARD.  This violence liberates some catnip, seeds, and a sugar cube.  With the sugar cube in hand, we can GET FLY to end up with a SUGAR CUBE WITH FLY.  But we still can't GET FLY -- still Too quick -- or PUT FLY or DROP FLY or PUT CUBE.  We have to return to the witch's basement and... annoyingly... GIVE CUBE to attract a spider to its web.  I inadvertently jumped ahead a bit here, storywise -- an inadvertent peek at some code unrelated to what I was looking for earlier suggested that we can GET LEG, which we can do, but I had no clue what that was supposed to accomplish.

The catnip is more obvious -- we GET CATNIP and GIVE CATNIP to make the otherwise sleepy or enraged animal a PURRING CAT.  Except that now, if we try to GET WHISKER and fail, it becomes enraged and we're dead again, unless we run south immediately.  It's purring again upon our return.

The brief rain showers we periodically see happening outdoors are not just for atmosphere -- if we drop the empty bottle and then it rains, we end up with a BOTTLE OF WATER.  And now we can WASH METAL to reveal it as a pair of scissors, explaining its stabworthiness.  And now we can safely CUT WHISKER, then GIVE WHISKER to put it into the kettle, and do the same with our own NAILS which have magically regrown now that we have a proper trimming implement.  LIGHT FIRE with the matches, MOVE KETTLE over the fire to heat it, WAVE WAND and POOF (with nice Atari 400/800 sound effects) -- we have created our Witches' Brew, an invisibility potion which we can carry in the all-purpose bottle.

Now what?  We still can't CLIMB MOUNTAIN to reach the castle visible at its summit.  We can, however, plant the seeds found in the cupboard in the garden, and eventually a BEANSTALK appears.  Climbing twice leads us to the top of the mountain, and the castle.

Of course, we can't just GO CASTLE -- it belongs to a giant, moat too wide! If you were just a little taller.  So it's back to the kitchen, where -- I discover far, far too late -- we can TURN PAGE and read another page of the witch's spellbook, revealing a growth formula requiring human saliva, tears, human hair, and an egg.  These should be easier to come up with; we can SPIT and CRY, cut our own hair, and put the robin's egg into the kettle.  However, while I was doing this, the invisibility potion wore off.

So it seems we will have to make these recipes in a different order -- we can't carry both, as we only have the one bottle, so I probably need to cook up the longer-lasting growth brew before the invisibility brew.  We can cross the moat with the growth potion -- which makes us giant but doesn't seem to interfere with our navigational abilities -- but if the invisibility potion wears off too soon, a security camera outside the giant's castle sees us and shoots an arrow through our heart.  Ack!

Further investigation reveals that the book contains three spells, for invisibility, growth and shrinking.  Some pages are copyright by the Witches' Brewers Union, but page 3 features a SoftSide promotion:

We can turn the spellbook's pages indefinitely, it just wraps around to page 1 after page 3.  The shrinking spell requires a spider leg, a bat wing, and some water.  Its effect reduces us to one inch tall, but wears off very quickly.  The growth spell is the only one that seems to last indefinitely.

So here's the difficult part -- which order do we make the potions in?  We only have the one bottle, and it seems likely we will need to have all three potions available when we assay the giant's castle.  Hmmmm.  We need to use the bottle to gather the venom and the blood and the water, as well, so we can't just stockpile all the ingredients and then make up our potions.  So -- after considerable thought and some ill-fated experimental retries -- I decided that growth has to go first; then we have to make and drink the invisibility potion, and THEN quickly put together the shrinking potion so we can carry it with us, getting safely into the giant's castle before the invisibility potion wears off.

This means we have to be careful about where we keep our ingredients -- if we drop them in the
kitchen, the parser assumes we want them to go into the kettle.  Even with due care -- dang it! -- the invisibility potion only lasts a few turns, not nearly enough time to make the shrinking potion AND get ourselves up the beanstalk.  Are we supposed to go up while invisible and disarm the camera somehow, then go back for the shrinking potion?  Yes, actually -- we can push a button to turn off the camera once we have made our way past it.

Now we're confronted with a door with a one-inch gap beneath it -- clearly it's time for the shrinking potion. But we can take our time, now that we don't have to be invisible.  For some reason, when we drink this shrinking brew, You drink half instead of guzzling the whole thing down in one slug as we usually do.  And we can't GO DOOR, still?  Ah, we have to GO CRACK to travel through the one-inch crack below the door, to reach a dungeon where the chained princess is held captive.  And then the shrinking brew wears off if we've been too slow.  But this is okay -- the princess can be freed from her shackles with the remaining half of the potion -- she shrinks, slips out of the shackles (no word on her clothing) and immediately returns to normal size.  And we can just open the door from this side, now that we're normal size again, so all is well.  (Though I can't help noting that LOOK PRINCESS yields You see nothing special.  Was this really worth the trouble?)

So now we're off to climb down the beanstalk to safety and victory... except it appears the princess has not joined us.  And now that we're normal size again, post-shrinking, we can't re-enter the castle, though it seems we had no problem traveling across the moat when we were coming from the other direction.  A quick restore and do-over establishes that all we really have to do is GET PRINCESS and take her out of the dungeon and down the hall a bit; we don't even have to escape the castle, and the giant never turns up or presents any other kind of threat.  Victory is abruptly ours!

The SoftSide adventures are always unpredictable -- this one was much more difficult than most of them, primarily due to having to figure out the right sequence for the various spells' effects and durations and dealing with the single-bottle conundrum.  But I enjoyed the challenge.  I'll play something else next week, I expect, as I've now played the first twelve of these games and several beyond that point.  But we'll probably revisit this series again soon.

My walkthrough is available at the CASA Solution Archive, and is also provided here, below the fold.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

The LoadDown -- 01/26/2012

January is traditionally a quiet time for retail videogames, the holiday rush being out of the way with everyone back to work or school.  But there are still new games turning up online...

WiiWare -- One new game this week: Newton vs. The Horde, a physics-based action/puzzle game where two scientists must fend off attacking enemies by flinging things around with the Wii cursor.

DSiWare -- Two new E-rated games this week... it appears that Nintendo's handheld focus is shifting more and more to the 3DS, and skewing a little younger on the older platform.  Lola's Alphabet Train is an alphabet learning game for 3-7 year olds; it's got a cute panda host, and the exercises seem solid.  Flipper 2: Flush the Goldfish owes some inspiration to Earthworm Jim, and despite the name it has nothing do with TV's Flipper the dolphin.

3DS eShop -- One new 3DS-exclusive game, along with the DSiWare titles -- Mutant Mudds, a retro-style platformer with parallax 3D backrounds and pleasant chiptune music.  There's also a free downloadable demo of retail 3DS title, Mario & Sonic at the 2012 Olympic Games.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two new, inexpensive, indie-style downloadable games this week, a pleasant break from the recent trend towards more substantial $15 XBLA games.  Quarrel is a family word game with strategic territory-claiming elements, and Puddle is a tilt-based fluid-physics puzzler.

PS3 on PSN -- One new game this week: Scarygirl, the platformer based on the popular toys and graphic novels.  I got a closer look at the XBLA version that came out last week, and while the art style is nicely preserved in the backgrounds, the camera is pulled back farther than I'd like -- we don't really get to see the terrific character designs that make Scarygirl special.  Also, my update last week was inaccurate -- I missed AMY, the survival horror game with an interesting young protagonist but a collection of terrible reviews since its release; and Zack Zero, an old-school platformer with decidedly current-gen graphics.

PSOne Classics -- Nothing new here this week.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Adventure of the Week: James Brand Adventure (1982)

This week, we're playing another of the SoftSide disk magazine adventures, from an era where the games industry was so small that slightly-modified, thinly-disguised trademarked properties could be "borrowed" with little fear of legal repercussion.  It's SoftSide Adventure #10 -- James Brand Adventure, an action-packed (as text adventures go) spy thriller published in March of 1982 for the Atari 400/800 home computer.


As the titular Mr. "Brand," we must save the President from an assassination plotted by the evil Dr. Death (no, not James Kevorkian).  The title is inspired by Ian Fleming's James Bond, obviously, though there's actually very little directly lifted from 007 in this story.  And in a departure from the usual SoftSide habit of not providing authorial credit, the game's colorful title screen informs us that this game was created by Peter Kirsch:

The game's parser is similar to other SoftSide adventures, strictly text with a simple parser, though it does take advantage of the Atari 400/800 hardware.  Unlike most text adventures, the world of James Brand is not very open -- it's largely a series of set pieces that keep the plot moving along at a good clip, at some expense to interactivity and puzzle-solving; most of the time we just have to come up with certain very specific actions the sequence at hand requires.

As always, I encourage interested adventurers to try James Brand Adventure for themselves before proceeding with my commentary here; but I'll warn you that it's not easy to solve, due to some parser oddities and even odder puzzle solutions.  The game's nearly three decades old, so I will not shy away from revealing all of the game's events and secrets; in other words, there are...

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

We begin at Headquarters, carrying a gun, a small suitcase, and 2 cyanide capsules.  The suitcase contains -- well, that's a bit of a mystery, because we can't OPEN (Sorry, you can't do that) or DROP it (You're not carrying it).  We can EAT CAPSULE -- You're dead / This adventure is over -- but in general this is not a very descriptive game.  We can't EXAMINE anything, but we can LOOK GUN to discover we have 6 bullets left.  SHOOT [object] plays a nice Atari sound effect, but we generally Missed..., except, we presume, when it comes to the designer's intended target.

The author seems to be fond of non-linear mapping -- we go W from Headquarters to the street, S from the street to Headquarters.  Oh, joy.  GO CAR puts us in the car parked in the street, where we find a KEYHOLE for which we don't seem to have a key.  START CAR -- Won't startOPEN HOOD -- Sorry, you can't do that.  Okay, this looks like it's going to be tough.  We have no key; a suitcase we can't open; three rooms containing a CAR and a KEYHOLE, with no other visible objects beyond our initial possessions; a gun; and a cyanide capsule, which we can swallow but hardly solves the real problem at hand (though there's no QUIT command, so this is a reasonable substitute when the going gets unbearable.)  Many verbs that might apply to more creative solutions aren't recognized -- we can't HOTWIRE CAR or RADIO HQ or YELL for HELP.

I had to peek at the code -- really early -- to find out that what we're carrying is not a SUITCASE, nor is it SMALL, but it's a CASE, according to the parser's dictionary.  Ack!  The situation is not helped by the parser's willingness to fake responses -- LOOK SUITCASE yields You see: nothing special but LOOK CASE reveals You see: red button, yellow button.

Now we have something to explore.  PUSH YELLOW -- Knife shoots out from your case / Missed...  We probably should have saved that one for a real emergency.  PUSH RED -- Heavy black smoke shoots out from your case.  At least it looks like we can do these things repeatedly, so we haven't wasted any opportunities.  And now we can actually succeed with OPEN CASE -- no puzzle here -- as Something falls out.  It's the CAR KEY, at last!  We can't INSERT KEY but we can START CAR now.  We are immediately prompted to HIT RETURN TO RELEASE BRAKE?...

And now we're in a car, out of control, because somebody has tampered with the non-parking brakes.  If only Mr. Kirsch had let us OPEN HOOD and give it a proper inspection!  The car speeds up to 55 miles per hour, then 80, then 105, then 130 -- and of course, There's a cliff.  We can't JUMP or REMOVE KEY or GET KEY or OPEN DOOR or OPEN WINDOW.  And there's a really annoying white-noise sound effect playing constantly through all of this.  And if we haven't guessed the right verb in time, we are informed that You fall over / You're dead, which I presume means we have fallen over the cliff, not that we have just keeled over of a sudden heart attack.  Trying again, I discover we can't PULL KEY either, but we can TURN KEY to shut off the engine; fortunately someone didn't do a very thorough sabotage job.

Now we're on a north-south road, though it's really just one room that loops back to itself, and it's not at all clear where we should go -- this mission isn't very well planned, it seems.  A motorcyclist in a full suit of armor appears, and if we can't figure out what to do, IT'S SHISKABOB [sic] ALA BRAND, and we're dead again.  We can use our fancy suitcase, however, PUSHing RED to shoot a smokescreen out, blinding the cyclist and sending him into a wreck; it's not fatal, but his armor is too heavy and he can't get up.  We can't LOOK CYCLIST or RIDE MOTORCYCLE; we can try, unsuccessfully, to SHOOT CYCLIST, which I'm sure he appreciates.  Nor can we GET CYCLE or GET MOTORCYCLE or MOUNT anything, which I'm sure he appreciates.  But we can GO MOTORCYLE and ride until we run out of gas.  Again, Mr. Brand exhibits a serious lack of planning.

Now we're on a street, and we have an urban landscape to explore.  Near a building to the north, a female voice says, "James, in here".  But we'll ignore her summons for the moment, being the suspicious adventuring types that we are.  Further north is a beach with a lake and a speedboat, and there's a hot dog stand at the west end of the beach.  There's also the Kit Kat Klub -- so we're suddenly in a production of Cabaret? -- and along the street a stranger bumbs [sic] into us and disappears, leaving us with a slip of paper reading, "Meet me at the Kit Kat Klub SIGNED: Madame XXX."  Oh, so that's who owns all those movie theatres!

Inside the building, we do not find the source of the alluring voice; we see a note, but someone tosses a box into the room... a box that goes Tick...Tick...Tick...  If we pause to READ NOTE, the bomb explodes and we're dead.  We can leave the building, and return after the bomb goes off.  We still can't READ NOTE, but we can LOOK NOTE to discover that It's C-SHARP!  Very funny, Mr. Kirsch.  But this isn't just for comic effect -- inside the wall, accessible through a hole blown by the bomb, we can find a quarter.

On the beach, we can try to take the speedboat for a spin.  LOOK BOAT reveals an outboard motor and a dashboard, which has another keyhole for which we don't possess the key.  We can GO LAKE and find a CLAM underwater.  But we can't GET or OPEN it.  Visiting the hot dog stand, where our quarter should come in handy (it's 1982, remember), we can't BUY HOT DOG or BUY DOG (there's no BUY verb), or GET DOG or GET HOT.  It's not until we think twice about our mental picture of the situation and try to GO STAND that we learn: Sorry, we're closed.

So let's try visiting the Kit Kat Klub instead.  Madame XXX is waiting at a table and invites us to sit and have a toast; we are immediately suspicious, of course.  LOOK TABLE reveals 2 glasses of wine.  PUT CAPSULE lets us drop a cyanide capsule into her glass.  We're about to drink the toast when we sneeze and hear a sliding sound.  Is it, perhaps, best to SWITCH GLASSES before we drink?  Yep.  Now Madame XXX is dead.  Did we want her that way?  After we get up from the table, we're back on the street and the Klub is klosed.  I wasn't sure I had done the right thing, so I restored and replayed this section, noting this time that LOOK MADAME before we sit indicates that she has a small pistol tucked into her bra, and that she probably plans to kill you.  Further experimentation establishes that if we don't poison her, then she shoots us as we drink the toast.  And if we don't swap glasses, we also die.  But James Brand's universe is a nihilistic one -- we don't seem to gain anything from the death of Madame XXX, really.  Except now the hot dog stand is open.

Inside the Hot Dog Stand, if we have a quarter we can GET HOT (even though elsewhere the word isn't in the dictionary -- the code uses some specific word recognition, rather than always relying on the database, which calls it a DOG.)  There's apparently not a speedboat key in it -- the only remaining puzzle for the moment -- and if we EAT DOG all we get is a BURP!   But we can GO LAKE and DROP HOTDOG so that the clam... eats it and spits out a key.  Oookay.

Getting in the boat, we can't INSERT KEY or START MOTOR but we can PUT KEY, which both inserts it and turns it.  LOOK MOTOR reveals a string (I didn't notice that before) and we can PULL STRING; You ride the ocean blue (I thought this was a lake?) until we hit land.

We're now on Death Island -- presumably where arch-villain Dr. Death hangs out -- on the shore of a shallow lake.  We can see another island at the other end of the lake, but if we GO LAKE we run into a hungry crocodile.  Going the other way leads to a road and a tree, where a Sinister figure throws boomerang at you.  It's heading for your head!  We need to DUCK here.  We can see Dr. Death's palace, but if we wander onto his lawn a guard with a sword appears and chases us, killing us before we can get away.  Up the tree near the road is a silencer; with our gun properly silenced, we can kill the guard.  But then he somehow still manages to kill us if we head back toward the palace.  Maybe it's a different guard?  Aha -- LOOK PALACE reveals a *different* guard guarding it, before we ever meet the one on the lawn.  We can avoid the lawn and SHOOT this GUARD to get into the palace.  But then we fall through a hole in the floor.

Now, in a ludicrous twist beyond anything in Moonraker, we find ourselves in a HUGE HUMAN PINBALL MACHINE where Dr. Death shoots a giant ball at us.  These villains always invest so much effort in colorful ways to kill our hero!  LOOK BACKGLASS reveals a tilt sign, so maybe we can trigger the machine to dump the ball somehow.  We can run from the ball through several locations, with different screen background colors for a nice atmospheric touch, until the only exit shown is DEATH.  But as it turns around, we don't even have to run, and there's no need to KICK BUMPER or CLIMB BUMPER or anything; a simple TILT MACHINE ends the game.  Exploration finds an OUTHOLE, which seems to be an exit as opposed to a primitive restroom, but we can't GO OUTHOLE -- we must GO HOLE.

Now we're in a small enclosed room, where we find ourselves getting drowsy.  There's a vent here, and gas is seeping into the room through a small opening the width of a knife.  That seems like a clue, and PUSH YELLOW plugs it neatly with a knife shot from the briefcase.

Now what?  There are no other apparent exits.  But some directions return to the pinball machine, apparently climbing out of the hole.  We're stuck here, it seems.  Should we restore and spend some time with the crocodile first?  We can't SHOOT CROC.  Trying to go E in spite of the creature puts us Right into the croc's mouth!, fatally so.  So it'sback to the pinball machine...  ah, we can GO VENT!  It didn't seem nearly that big in my mind, being the width of a knife and all; I think the gas-spewing opening is supposed to be inside the larger vent.  Here we find a small stick, and another hole leading to a hall.

The hall features a locked door and a doorbell -- we can't RING DOORBELL or RING BELL or PUSH DOORBELL but we can PUSH BELL (complete with sound effect).  Someone opens the door and shoves you inside.

Now we are face-to-face with Dr. Death, who challenges us to a game of pool, intoning in a sinister manner, "If you win, you live."  There are guards here also.  We can't really win at the bad Doctor's pool challenge -- actually, we can't even PLAY POOL -- but we can notice that the 8 ball looks strange, and then take it and throw it to kill... the guards, anyway.  Now Dr. Death takes a hostage, a woman not previously visible in the room, and if we try to PLAY POOL, or do almost anything else at this point, Dr. Death cuts her throat, and then shoots us.

For some reason, as this drama is unfolding we now learn that You're getting sleepy; apparently Mr. Brand is so calm, cool and collected that adrenaline is not coursing through his veins.  I tried to shoot Dr. Death and use my briefcase attacks, but we only have a few turns to act.  I couldn't see any source of gas here, so could not figure out why we were getting sleepy.  As it turns out, and I had to peek at the code to discover this, this is a hint to YAWN.  Dr. Death also opens his mouth wide to yawn, and we can THROW CAPSULE to kill him with cyanide as the girl escapes.  Really?

Now all we have to do is rescue the President, I suppose.  Outside the pool room with all the fresh corpses in it, we find a Weapons Room with no apparent weapons in it.  A workshop nearby has a BOX OF TACKS; we can't GET BOX (There's no "BOX" here) but we can GET TACKS.

Going north from here leads us back to the palace's lawn, where the guard with the sword jumps out again and is just as obstinate about being shot and knifed as before.  Nor can we lead him through the pinball machine and lose him or dispatch him -- he just goes back to his hiding place after we enter the palace.  We can't KICK GUARD or GET SWORD, either.  Cheating once more, I discover that we have to GET SWORD in the Weapons Room, even though it's not visible there.  Now we can effectively ATTACK GUARD, after which we run into a flurry of guards chasing you with sharp swords.   It's interesting how explosives are obviously readily available to Dr. Death, but he outfits his guards with swords.  We can't THROW TACKS but we can DROP TACKS, and the Guards retreat in a hurry!  Wimps.  But the boss is dead, so I can't really blame them. And Dr. Death's cheapness apparently also extends to footwear.

Now we're ready to face the crocodile, whose mouth is also wide open.  We can PUT STICK to jam his mouth open and send him away hungry.  On the other side of the lake is... a golf course.  There's a flag and a hole here, and we hear a Tick...Tick...Tick...  Uh-oh.  Near the clubhouse is a sewer, leading to the bottom of the cup... and a bomb.  It has a red wire, which is either a trap or the world's simplest disarming mechanism.  CUT WIRE reveals Sword's too big, so we need some other way to handle this.

In the golf course's clubhouse we see a man shaving.  Even though it's not directly visible, we can make a reasonable assumption and GET RAZOR -- he doesn't put up a fight -- then go back to the bomb (which seems to tick for a good long time) and CUT WIRE to save the day.  Victory is ours!  Compose(Even though we haven't seen the president -- what if he's already dead?)

I felt like I'd missed something here, story-wise, so I had to look into the bomb situation -- it seems to tick forever, but it turns out that if we wait long enough, the golf course explodes, the President dies and so do we.  That's right, he hasn't been kidnapped by Dr. Death -- a bad assumption on my part -- we're out to foil an assassination attempt while our nation's leader is playing golf.  Apparently the golf course is set up so that if the President knocks a ball into the hole, the bomb below goes off and kills him; apparently Dr. Death is counting on him using his putter, and not allowing anybody else to play through.  The code seems to indicate that we can witness the President teeing off, but I never managed to discover this in-game -- either we have to be in the right place at exactly the right time, or this scene is not actually implemented.

James Brand Adventure is really just a series of set pieces with very specific actions required -- it's not much of an adventure, in part because it's so linear.  It has some nice sound effects usage, and the ludicrous story is kind of fun.  But many of the puzzles don't make sense, and it's a little TOO structured and action-specific; I'm pretty sure I could not have finished it without looking at the source code.  To save others these headaches, my solution is below the fold and will also be posted at the CASA Solution Archive.

At least the SoftSide series, with its varying authors and styles, is pleasantly unpredictable, and I look forward to the next one.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cover to Cover: Activision Atari 2600 1989 Catalog (pp. 6-end)

We're wrapping up our look at the Activision/Imagic/Absolute Entertainment game catalog from 1989, offering new and re-released cartridges for the Atari 2600, even as it sank out of sight beneath the incoming wave of Nintendomania.

Page 6 indicates that maybe there weren't quite enough new games and re-released classics to fill the whole brochure -- or that Activision needed to subsidize their marketing efforts with a little outside advertising to exactly the right audience:

I thought at first that I must actually have missed the first issue of the long-running Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine, as this cover didn't look familiar.  But I remember that the magazine began as a supplement in the Atari computer magazines of the time, in the capable hands of some of the old Electronic Games editors, and was the first "new wave" magazine to reach newsstands when the NES established that there was indeed still a market for home video games, so I knew it was coming.  The mystery was solved when I tracked down my own "Premiere Issue" and saw that the actual cover featured Blaster Master -- not Ghostbusters as pictured here, and the other cover copy had changed a bit.  This was probably a pre-release promotional image.

And the last page promotes a modest video game sweepstakes, on a scale that seems more appropriate to your neighborhood independent electronics store than the once-and-former-king Activision:

$250 and 5 games was something, but not exactly a jackpot; a savvier Activision could have used this to figure out what platform Atari 2600 gamers were favoring and migrating towards, but I suspect most people just wrote "Atari 2600" on the Your hardware system line, since this brochure was packed in with the company's later 2600 games.  I particularly like the promise of 5 crisp $50 bills, with the footnote that you should ask your teller for fifties when you cash the sweepstakes check.

And that wraps this one up.  I have to give Activision credit for supporting Atari's comeback attempt, am sorry to say that I don't think their investment was rewarded.  The Atari 2600 console was incredibly flexible, allowing creative programmers to do the seeming impossible over its decade-plus commercial lifespan, but the world had changed by 1989.  I remember being at a Children's Palace toy store around this time and hearing a well-meaning woman ask her Nintendo-crazed grandson, "What about Atari and them?  Don't they make games anymore?" 

For the new generation of gamers, the answer was largely irrelevant.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cover to Cover: Activision Atari 2600 1989 Catalog (pp. 4-5)

We're looking at the 1989 Activision/Absolute/Imagic product catalog -- all the company's then-current offerings for the rapidly-becoming-obsolete Atari 2600.

Page 4 continues to clear out the warehouse -- that's speculation on my part, actually, it's possible that Activision was producing new cartridges for some of these titles -- with several more Activision classics:

Space Shuttle by Steve Kitchen was a remarkably complex shuttle takeoff and landing simulation that transformed the 2600's bank of switches into game controls to supplement the system's standard joystick; later versions for computers were more sophisticated, but this was a creditable simulation on the humble Atari console.  Brother Garry Kitchen's Keystone Kapers was a fast-paced, colorful chase game that remains one of my favorite 2600 cartridges, and River Raid was a vertically-scrolling shooter that squeezed a lot of action out of limited resources.  It was designed and programmed by Carol Shaw, one of the few prominent female designers in the video game industry at the time.

Page 5 promotes several games that might have been in development during the first wave of home videogames but didn't see release until Atari revived its system after Nintendo revived the industry.  We have two Absolute Entertainment titles, which were also available for the more powerful Atari 7800, and a 2600 version of one of the games that helped Activision survive the mid-80s crash:

Title Match Pro Wrestling was a one-on-one wrestling game with player-vs.CPU and two-player modes; given the challenges of programming the AI, it's no surprise that the graphics are rather limited and the gameplay a bit tougher than it needed to be.  Skateboardin' was a side-scrolling skateboard platformer that pushed the 2600 technically but wasn't a particularly memorable game; the NES pretty much owned side-scrolling territory and this attempt at doing the same looked extremely dated on release.  The 7800 versions looked significantly better, but are not pictured here; the second one sported the "upgraded" moniker of Super Skateboardin' on Atari's more sophisticated console, itself a casualty of the crash that was brought to market late, just in time to look a bit long in the tooth.

Activision's licensed Ghostbusters works well on the 2600, considering that it originated on the considerably more powerful Commodore 64 several years earlier.  Activision survived the crash in part because it had a more diverse product line -- it hadn't put all its eggs in the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision baskets, so when those markets vanished seemingly overnight its computer titles saw it through the tough times.  (The company also had some cash reserves, I would guess -- Imagic had also started to branch out, but didn't survive; perhaps Imagic depended too heavily on computer ports of its classic but aging Atari 2600 games.)

Tomorrow, we'll wrap up this little trip down memory lane -- just two more pages to go.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Bakushou Yoshimoto Shin Kageki (1994)

I'm sure some of you wonder -- I know I do -- why I insist on playing so many random, obscure Japanese PC Engine games, when I could more easily tackle the acknowledged classics like Cotton - Fantastic Night Dreams and Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo and be done with it.  It's because once in a while I run across a little gem that makes all the indecipherable RPGs, generic shooters and endless rounds of mahjong worthwhile.

Such a game is Bakushou Yoshimoto Shin Kageki, published on the Super CD-ROM format by Hudson Soft in 1994, toward the end of the PC Engine's storied lifespan.

I'm as clueless as always with my lack of Japanese skills, but the opening sequence implies that this game is based on a Japanese comedy TV show of some kind, as we meet what I presume to be several actual human beings and their in-game representations.

I really like the game's music -- the title track is an old-fashioned American-style rinky-tink tune, circa 1920s, combining kazoo-like instrumentation with a throaty saxophone that lends it an appropriately Benny Hill quality.  Most of the music is presented in CD-quality Redbook audio, shifting briefly to the sound chip between levels to cover data loading access.

I really had no idea what to expect from this game -- the packaging hinted at some sort of board or quiz game, but it's a proper 2-D comical side-scroller, where the player must dodge or jump over a variety of hazards.  The enemy characters, many based on the people introduced at the game's beginning, are varied and bizarre, and I often found myself distracted from the action just trying to catch their comical facial expressions or figure out what they were up to.  There's a lovely comic-strip flavor to the proceedings, as our hero Oto-chan makes his way through the levels with a mildly dismayed expression:

The game also takes full advantage of the CD-ROM medium, using the ample storage capacity to interrupt the side-scrolling action with lots of brief and amusing mini-games.  There's a
dance contest, where we get to pick one of two ladies with whom to participate in a simple arrow-pressing rhythm game:

A round of Jan-Ken-Pon (paper-rock-scissors) where the loser gets what I assume to be pizza flung in his face:

And a boss battle aboard kites that plays like a cross between Joust and Road Rash:

The PC Engine was created at Hudson Soft, and one gets the impression that with this late release the developers were showing off every last thing the system could do.  We see subtle parallax scrolling, detailed and colorful sprites, and lots of voice samples that would be even funnier if I knew what they were saying.  Some events and situations seem to be tossed in just to show off, like pinball-speed channels to roll through Sonic-style, an alternate pathway where the player can become bloated by draining the canal of water -- with a straw -- and this high-speed rollercoaster ride:

Our hero can also adopt brief disguises, which lend him offensive or defensive capability, and increase the entertainment value:

The game both honors and parodies many classic games of the 2-D era -- this level set in feudal Japan has a hint of Shinobi about it:

It's also not overly easy -- the first level passes pretty quickly, but things get more difficult later on.  Between levels, and when the game ends, the whole affair is revealed to be taking place on a stage -- this explains why we occasionally hear the audience laughing during play, and see them tossing things at us when it's Game Over time:

Bakushou Yoshimoto Shin Kageki is an unsung Japanese classic, inventive and fresh at every turn, throwing in everything the designers can think of just for the sheer pleasure of it.  It rarely reuses anything -- there are spot animations that only get used once, and the whole game feels like it's been put together by people who just love making games.

The coming of HD graphics and the associated increase in development costs has made crazy, random entertainments like this more difficult to pull off, and the world of video gaming is poorer for it.  At least I've run across this one, and now I've written about it, so maybe someone else will be able to discover it a little more easily.

This one is just crazy and freewheeling enough to be well worth picking up, if you can find it.  It's occasionally in stock here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The LoadDown -- 01/19/2012

What's new online?  This stuff!

WiiWare -- One new title, a first-person fantasy/RPG/melee game called Stonekeep: Bones of the Ancestors.  The graphics are simplistic by modern standards, and there doesn't appear to be much structure to it, but at 500 points I'm tempted to indulge in its old-fashioned King's Field/Dungeon Master/early Elder Scrolls style.

DSiWare -- Two new titles are up for the DSi and 3DS.  Gaia's Moon is a side-scrolling flying game that looks like a shooter, but is actually more of a dodger, as the player must avoid all manner of obstacles and enemies while being unable to do anything about them.  Anne's Doll Studio: Gothic Collection is a dress-up creativity toy with sharing and saving features.

3DS eShop -- One new release, yet another 2-D black-and-white Game Boy title in virtual form -- the arcade semi-classic Lock'N Chase, a maze game officially adapted by Mattel back in the day and released in handheld form in 1990 by its coin-op parent, Data East.  (In other news, Nintendo is now making free downloadable demos for retail 3DS titles available, starting with Capcom's Resident Evil Revelations this week.)

XBox Live Arcade -- Two unusual, visually unique titles arrive on the XBox 360 this week.  Haunt is a Kinect-based, E-for-Everyone-rated horror game, where the player uses hand gestures to aim a flashlight and open ominous doors and containers, from Masaya Matsuura, creator of Parappa the RapperScarygirl brings the long-running graphic novel character (and Hong Kong vinyl sensation) to side-scrolling, platformy life.

PS3 on PSN -- A fallow week on the PS3 PSN front this week.  But I'm sure it won't last.

PSOne Classics -- Also quiet here.  Time for PS3 owners to catch up on those games they've meaning to download but never got around to.

Notable on Steam --  For PC gamers, Sega's got Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode 1 (is there ever going to be an Episode 2?) and a PC port of Sonic CD, along with a general sale on all things Sonic this weekend.  Also, indie adventure game studio Wadjet Eye Games' point-and-click Blackwell Legacy series is now available on Steam;  I've recently been playing the company's sci-fi adventure Gemini Rue, and having a great time with it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Adventure in Ancient Jerusalem (1981)

This week, we're looking at another BASIC adventure game for the TRS-80, from the cassette-based CLOAD magazine.  I have been trying to track down the original Jungle Adventure, after playing the second part recently; I'm speculating that the first part was also published by CLOAD, and when I found a file called JADVENT in an earlier issue, I thought I had found what I was looking for.  But in fact this game is Warren Melnick's Adventure in Ancient Jerusalem, written in 1980 and published in July of 1981.

The game opens with a rather ominous title screen -- the game uses a keypress checking routine to prevent the player from breaking out of the BASIC interpreter to the system prompt, but unfortunately it also makes input slower and less reliable than normal.  I should also note that if you're playing on an emulator and aren't seeing your input register, check the CAPS LOCK status -- the game only recognizes uppercase characters.

According to the instructions screen, we must "explore the city while out-maneuvering Arabs that will kill you if you invade their quarter," find nine treasures and pass through the Golden Gate of the original temple.  The game is dedicated to the author's brother, Wayne; no onscreen credit is otherwise cited, but I found the author's name in the code.  As with many adventures of the early 1980s, the Scott Adams influence is visible; treasures are denoted with asterisks, and many of the same stock responses turn up.

As always, I urge interested readers to take an Adventure in Ancient Jerusalem firsthand before reading the following.  It's a tricky game, though; there's no SAVE GAME feature, and plenty of opportunities for unforeseen instant death.  But games are an experiential art form, and there's really no substitute for dipping your own toe into the waters.  My goal here is to document these games for history's sake, so whether you ever play the actual game or consider this an acceptable substitute, be advised that there will be plentiful...

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

We begin on a street in Jerusalem with no inventory in hand; exploring the streets suggests that the neighborhood is a bit of a maze, but as we have no items to drop for mapping purposes, we aren't going to get anywhere trying to figure it out just yet.

To the south is an underpass, from which we can climb to the top of the Western Wall.  There's a pair of glasses here, but going down doesn't bring us back to where we were earlier.  The map has a number of these one-way passages, so the player is required to do certain things in a fairly linear order.

There's no doubt about the danger warned of in the intro -- if we find ourselves in the Arab Quarter, You are attacked by an Arab.  You are dead.  We aren't given any warning about this fatal choice of direction, either, so we just need to mark the fatal choice on our map and start over.  The game is mostly about mapping, really; there are few traditional puzzles, but several mazes and fatal navigation options.

The first of the nine treasures we are likely to run across is the *SHEPHERD'S STAFF* in the Zion gate area.  The fabled Golden Gate to the temple is nearby, sporting a ruby colored button, but it seems we can't just PRESS BUTTON to open it.  The second treasure lies near the synagogue -- it's a *BRONZED BAGEL*.  Yum!

The glasses, presuming we made it to the top of the Western Wall to retrieve them, and also thought  to WEAR GLASSES, allow us to see a secret passage leading to the east in the synagogue.  This path leads to a hidden chamber with an old wooden table.  We can't see anything lying or written on the table, nor can we climb it, but we can MOVE TABLE to reveal a hole in the floor.  The hole leads to a door, but OPEN DOOR yields only How?? and UNLOCK DOOR yields TRY OPEN.  We probably need a key, but now that we've come down the hole, we can't go back to look for one.  Time to start over.

The keys are a few rooms to the north of our starting position, just lying in the street.  With the keys in hand, we can open the door beneath the synagogue's hidden room to reveal a passage to the west.  An underground cavern leads to the shores of the Dead Sea; entering the salt-saturated sea instantly and fatally burns out our eyes, so that's a bad idea.  We need to avoid wandering south of the shore.

The area does yield a number of treasures, however.  We can find a *DEAD SEA SCROLL* in a nearby cave, an *ARCHAIC BOOK* on the beach and a *RUBY RING* on a nearby mountain trail.  The book reads: "For more information on these adventures, write to me at:", followed by Mr. Melnick's name, address and phone number circa 1980 when the game was written.  It's probably a bad idea to bother whomever resides there now, but the use of "these adventures" is intriguing as it implies there are other works by this author floating around.

We can only carry five items.  The parser uses several characters to recognize verbs and nouns, but oddly if we enter a command it doesn't recognize, it sometimes only echoes back some of the letters.  I tried to JUMP and was told I don't know how to "JU" -- no pun intended, I am sure -- but when trying to replicate the issue, I only succeeded in crashing the code with an initialization error in line 51000.  I suspect there's a misplaced string index somewhere, though I didn't run into the crash in my playthrough.

So I had rounded up five treasures -- though I couldn't carry them all -- and I couldn't figure out how to get back from the Dead Sea area to town.  READ RING yields, "It says: I am -Touched- by your curiousity [sic] in the -Gate-."  So we will need this to pass through the Golden Gate, as implied by its ruby button.

I tried to CLIMB DOWN from the mountain overlooking Jerusalem, or CLIMB MOUNTAIN, or ROLL DOWN, to no avail.  I tried to climb back up from the room beneath the synagogue, also unsuccessfully.  I also drowned in the Dead Sea with burned-out eyes several times, until at last I was driven to look at the code, which indicated that I had already mapped the game pretty well.  But there are clearly several treasures I haven't seen.  Further digging in the game logic (I don't often say this, but BASIC has its advantages) reveals that verbs 26-29 correspond to a puff of smoke taking us somewhere, and that these commands are in the SAY, SCREAM, etc. family.  Then I had to look at the map data, as it appears these commands only work in a few specific locations.   At last I spotted some additional text I hadn't seen in-game yet, and figured out that SAY AMEN in the underground cavern room below the synagogue takes us back to the streets of the city.  (Actually, the code isn't specific here -- we can SAY YOHO if we like, or SAY anything at all.)

I found my way back to the Western Wall area, and at the gate, learned that TOUCH GATE doesn't seem to work as I thought it would based on the ring's text.  We just have to WEAR RING and then PUSH BUTTON.  This reveals a big lock, which opens with same set of keys we found lying in the street earlier.  The gate leads to several rooms of Paradise, whose geography turns out to be rather more Earthly than one imagines.  There are four more treasures to be found in Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern Paradise: *SILVA HALVA* (another food made inedible for value's sake), a *GOLDEN CALF* (unlike the famous Mosaic example, this one is small enough to carry), and some *GOLD COINS* and *ANCIENT SHEKELS*.  We can again SAY [anything] in Paradise central to return to the streets once more.  No lazing about in the afterlife for us!

I had now collected all nine treasures, and my next challenge was figuring out where the score room is -- we get 10 points for entering the Golden Gate, and each of the nine treasures is worth ten points each if stored in the proper place.  Traipsing back into the code indicates that [IF O(X) = 9 then SC=SC+1].  Is location 9 perhaps the Western Wall area?  Yep.  How we are supposed to figure that out is unclear, unless we chance to READ WALL and learn that we are to Leave *TREASURES* here!  Okay -- with little additional fanfare, victory is ours!

Adventure in Ancient Jerusalem is pretty straightforward aside from the SAY locations -- that really had me stumped, and it bugged me enough to do some further digging.  There is a way to discover this in-game -- but it also feels like a cheat, as we are required to ask for HELP in the underground cavern below the synagogue.  This admission of defeat returns the telling phrase, AMEN to Jerusalem! -- and we can be on our way again.

I enjoyed this little adventure, in part because of its novel setting, and even with the odd challenges it only took a few hours to solve.  Now I'm curious about whether any other games by Warren Melnick will surface -- one never knows what's buried in the TRS-80 archives.  My walkthrough is below the fold, and will be available at the CASA Solution Archive eventually.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cover to Cover: Activision Atari 2600 1989 Catalog (pp. 2-3)

We're paging through Activision's catalog for the Atari 2600 -- circa 1989, at the tail end of the long-running platform's lifespan.  Not too shabby for a machine released in 1977!

Page 2 presents some more Activision classics, and another new game:

Chopper Command borrowed a bit from Defender, but played well and looked great on the 2600.  Robot Tank was Activision's take on Battlezone, beating Atari's own official cartridge to market.  And Kaboom! was a classic fast-paced paddle game that managed to make almost everyone forget it was inspired by Atari's Avalanche coin-op; adding a mad bomber and a sense of humor left the original concept looking bare and boring.

The big news on this page, of course, was Commando, an adaptation of Capcom's coin-op hit for the 2600 (again, also a game available on the competing NES.)  The graphics suffered in translation, and it was almost impossible to toss off a grenade using a joystick and single fire button.  But it was a reasonable translation that pushed the hardware quite a bit; visually it always reminded my of Imagic's Riddle of the Sphinx, but there's a lot more action on offer here.

Page 3 gives the most prominent spot to a longtime Activision favorite, and also pushes some acquired Imagic properties:

There's not much to say about Pitfall! -- it was and is a classic game, and none of the later sequels and remakes have managed to capture its simple charm.  Activision kept the brand name but repackaged Imagic's titles for cost reduction purposes -- no more silver boxes, and the labels were reduced to simple blue backgrounds with white text.  But keeping Moonsweeper, Demon Attack and Atlantis on the market was a fine idea.  Imagic was really the only other third-party 2600 publisher that gave Activision serious competition, and these games, acquired by its rival during the crash era, have continued to show up in recent Activision packages.

Next weekend, we'll wrap up the remaining 4 pages of this late-era Atari 2600 artifact.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cover to Cover: Activision Atari 2600 1989 Catalog (cover-p.1)

Most retro gamers will remember that Activision (of present-day Call of Duty fame) got its start when ace Atari 2600 programmers Larry Kaplan, David Crane, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left Atari to start their own company.  Activision was one of the few first-wave videogame publishers to survive the mid-80s industry crash, and apparently old loyalties died hard, as Activision was still publishing and distributing games for the Atari 2600 and 7800 as late as 1989.  The 2600 was old news in the Nintendo Entertainment System era, but Atari fans certainly couldn't blame a lack of software for the system's eventual demise.

So our latest Cover to Cover series is going to page through Activision's 1989 catalog, packaged with the company's "revival era" products.  We start with the cover, which indicates a little consolidation had gone on in the industry, and promotional budgets were low:

Activision had acquired the Imagic brand, and continued to distribute the company's best-known games.  ABSOLUTE Entertainment was an independent publisher whose founders included a couple of ex-Activision alums, including David Crane and the Kitchen brothers, and apparently they relied on Activision for distribution.

I also note that the big sweepstakes offer on the cover consists of a whopping $250 and free software -- the warehouses were probably still well-stocked after the sudden demise of the Atari 2600 market, so we may reasonably conclude that nobody was about to ante up big money to promote these last few titles.

That didn't stop Activision from creating and publishing new games, though -- the catalog features the new titles most prominently, and these are among the rarer Atari 2600 games today.  Kung-Fu Master brought Irem's classic coin-op (also well-known as the NES title Kung Fu) to the venerable 2600.  (I have to take issue with the catalog copy, though, as I believe Froggo's Karate was the first karate game ever designed for the 2600 -- it dates way back to the ill-fated Ultravision console.)

Kung-Fu Master was a good choice for the aging 2600, as the graphics worked well with a vertical color-table approach; the 2600 couldn't muster much detail per scan line, but it could change colors for each line to produce some dramatic and subtle effects.  This version couldn't match the NES' agile sprites, but its color scheme is a better match to the arcade, the game's horizontal scrolling is pulled off creditably, and it plays well.  And at $22.95, it was reasonably priced by 1989 standards.

The rest of this page is devoted to clearing out some old Activision stock -- Megamania was an intense fast-paced shooter; Skiing was looking pretty dated but was always more playable than its Intellivision counterpart, which should have been called Falling; and the classic Freeway may well have inspired Konami's Frogger.  These have been made available in numerous Activision anthologies in recent years, with pricing that puts $14.95 per game to shame -- cartridges were still expensive to produce, even when they were 4K or 8K.

Tomorrow, the journey continues!

Friday, January 13, 2012

East vs. West: the Manhole (1990)

In the late 1980s, there were a couple of new multimedia technologies floating around.  One was CD-ROM, whose impact was substantial; the other was Apple's HyperCard, a Macintosh innovation that allowed for hyperlinking of elements across virtual notecards.  The Web's effectiveness depends on a similar concept, but HyperCard itself was not tremendously successful. 

Still, at least one entertainment product was developed using the technology: the Manhole, developed by the team at Cyan who would later create Myst, also using HyperCard and HyperTalk.  This title originated on the Mac in 1988, and was ported (translating the HyperCard logic to an independent system) as one of the earliest PC CD-ROM titles by Activision in 1989, and later to the Japanese PC Engine by Sunsoft in 1990.  We'll be looking at the Japanese PCE version here; the entire game is framed in a Mac-style gray box with a menu bar, though there's no operating system at work here, just a visual border in keeping with the original look and feel.

I'll admit I played the Manhole, back in the day when there were very few PC CD-ROM titles available and any use of the technology was of interest.  But it doesn't surprise me that it isn't well remembered today; it wasn't really a game in the traditional sense, but more of an interactive children's storybook.  It has a definite sense of Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy about it, and its early use of animated full-screen graphics (no full-motion video yet) and spot sound effects and dialogue showed what would become possible as multimedia technology advanced.  But there's no gameplay here, really; players who found Myst lacking in that area should be advised that at least the Myst games contain puzzles.  All the Manhole has to offer is a series of displays with hotspots that can be clicked on, leading to other areas in the world and/or displaying cute, short animations with CD quality music.  As an introduction to the mouse for young children, I can't think of a more entertaining exercise; but by today's standards it's just a novelty.  There's not even a real end to the story -- when we've grown tired of wandering around, the only way to "finish" it is to bring up the Start-button menu and select the icon marked "END ING", at which point a full credits list for both versions rolls.

I guess an ending is a bit much to expect here, as there isn't even a story per se -- we're just free to explore this land's bizarre geography, where a boat ride can detour through a rabbit's beverage:

And a picture of a fireman's hat on the wall can lead into a sombrero-heavy dance sequence:

Or an elevator can take us to a sunken shipwreck:

There's a fair amount to explore and look at, although the conversion from the Macintosh is a bit odd -- the onscreen text remains in English, but the voiceovers are completely in Japanese.  And the manual's back cover appears to have been based on the US version with some comprehension lacking -- the text still reads "What You Need to Run the Manhole", with nothing listed below that point, as the PC Engine hardware was pretty standardized (this game ran on the original PCE CD-ROM 1.0 system card standard.)

The various animal characters we meet are not devoid of personality -- they are nicely drawn and they have character, expressed by their voiceovers and indirectly if we look around a bit.  This hip dragon remains a personal favorite:

And the walrus is clearly not fond of company:

But the Manhole's experience runs out steam pretty quickly -- there's not really that much to do and see here, and the entertainment value can be exhausted in a few hours' time.  The biggest problem is that we can't interact with these characters or this world in any satisfying sense -- we can't change anything, or learn anything deeper about the world of the Manhole.  There's not so much as a fetch quest on hand to provide a sense of accomplishment, and so we're relegated to the role of tourist -- free to explore and find the hotspots, but not really to become part of this world.  And so we poke around for a while, and then select the end credits and call it done:


the Manhole was a casual game before that term came into common use, and even that's stretching it; it's more of a toy, briefly amusing but not truly involving.  I know it has its fans -- enhanced versions were released as recently as 1995, and it's still commercially available today -- but I don't think it's aged well.  Call it one for the history books.

This one didn't sell well enough to be truly cheap, but it's not also much in demand.  I can't recommend the Manhole, but interested readers may be able to find it for sale here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The LoadDown - 01/12/2012

The holidays are past, and everyone's looking to snag your extra gaming dollars.  Here's what's new online for the consoles...

WiiWare --  This revival series keeps on going, with its third installment: Carmen Sandiego Adventures in Math: The Case of the Crumbling Cathedral.  I'd wager that the crumbling has something to do with poor civil engineering -- someone didn't do his math properly -- but the actual game finds the cathedral already crumbled as the player travels the globe, solving math problems to track down the villainous Ms. Sandiego.

DSiWare -- Two new releases here this week.  Hip Hop King: Rytmik Edition is a music improv/composition tool with a hip-hop leaning to its sample library.  101 Pinball World is a pinball game that makes good use of the system's twin screens -- but I'd be more enthused if there weren't 101 pinball tables included; something tells me they won't all be stellar.

3DS eShop -- If you have a 3DS, you can also play the DSiWare games.  But you might be wise to avoid 101 Pinball World in favor of Zen Pinball instead -- it's in 3D, of course, and spreads itself less thin with four diverse tables, complete with LED displays.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two new titles arrive.  Choplifter HD (see above) remakes Dan Gorlin's Apple II classic for the current hardware generation, and I'm pleased to see that while the graphics are updated to a modern 3-D engine, the chopper still floats and can only face to the left, front and right.  I particularly like the voice samples provided for the rescuees, who toss off casual, good-natured thanks exactly the way I always imagined they would.  AMY is a French survival horror game that takes more than a page from Capcom's Resident Evil series, but ups the emotional stakes with its painfully vulnerable 8-year-old protagonist.

PS3 on PSN -- Two new titles arrive.  Crazy Machines Elements is a physics-based puzzle/construction game, and retro gaming fans will want to check out Choplifter HD (see above).

PSOne Classics --  A good one this week: Square Enix's Final Fantasy Origins, remaking the original Final Fantasy I & II for the Playstation (and, with these simpler early games, presumably avoiding the loading times that plagued some later ports to the PSX.)

Notable on Steam -- Choplifter HD shows up here as well.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Something Newish -- Plants vs. Zombies (2009)

I had some time over the 2011 holidays to tackle a 2009 game I'd sampled but not really dived into -- PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies, a tower-defense game from the publisher responsible for Peggle and Bejeweled, among other casual gaming classics.

The tower defense genre fascinates me because it's fairly recent in origin, yet I can easily imagine simple TD concepts that would have worked on the Atari 2600.  The basic idea is that you have towers, of various offensive and defensive types, and the enemy has hordes of various incoming baddies; gameplay requires a balance of planning and improvisation as you set up your towers to deal with the invaders as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Wikipedia gives credit to a number of forerunners to the genre going as far back as 1983, but it's really only become established as a genre unto itself within the past five years or so.  I really enjoyed Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord and Defense Grid: The Awakening, so I was ready to pit a few plants against the walking dead.

Plants vs. Zombies follows a fairly simple model -- the zombies charge across the player's lawn or rooftop via six distinct lanes, and the player installs various plants to take them on.  The level layouts never really change -- some have a pool in the center lanes, and the rooftop levels require flowerpots to be built before anything can be planted in some locations -- but there are always six lanes of zombies.  The zombies don't move across lanes either, so to some degree the player is guided along a set path -- wherever the first zombie shows up is where your first offensive plant should be placed.  The game has an economy, of course -- different plants require different amounts of sunlight, which operates as the game's currency.  The player can opt to plant sunflowers early on to increase the amount of resources available, but must also deal with the threats at hand.

A "hardcore" TD game like Defense Grid: The Awakening provides variety by changing up the level designs, forcing the player to deal with more complex enemy paths and new traffic control challenges.  It took me a little while to get used to Plants vs. Zombies' simpler model, which provides variety only by introducing new plant and enemy types -- one senses that the game will start to get stale the moment novelty ceases, and the designers had the good sense to end the main story just as that's starting to happen.  Even so, some of the plants are almost useless, or are introduced only to be superseded by something similar but much more powerful a few levels later.  At least there is some strategy required as the player selects a limited number of seed packets at the beginning of each level, and different plants thrive during daytime and nighttime levels -- but I found myself sticking to a handful of stalwarts after a while, and completely ignored some of the available options.  When there are thirty plant varieties available and only 5-8 seed slots, it pays to stick with what works.

Most of the onslaughts are fairly brief, and the game isn't particularly difficult -- I managed to get through the main adventure mode in about 8 hours, and only a few situations required retries, usually because some novel variety of zombie showed up at the last minute when I wasn't prepared for it.  There are some levels that function differently -- instead of planting what we can as sunlight permits, a scripted series of plants become available over time and we must make the best use of them we can.  This is also true of the game's final boss battle, where it doesn't quite work -- we never feel like we're really defeating the boss, we just have to survive long enough to win.

Fortunately, once that somewhat disappointing climax is past, Plants vs. Zombies has a kick-ass closing theme by Laura Shigihara, complete with an animated music video that's funnier than anything in the game proper.  And thanks to the designers who had the foresight to include a REPLAY button afterward -- I replayed it a few times, and have been happy to have this bouncy little J-Pop song stuck in my head.  I'd link to the official music video on Youtube, but you should really play the game through and enjoy this cool little reward the way it's meant to be. 

Instead, I'll link to Ms. Shigihara's YouTube page, where you can see and listen to some of her other work and covers.

Sometimes playing through a decent if not spectacular game has surprising and unexpected rewards.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon (1989)

Time to pick up where we last left off playing through one of Sierra's influential 3-D Animated Adventure series, with Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, created once again by the original Two Guys From Andromeda, Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy and published by Sierra in 1989.  I played this one back in the day on the Atari ST, which was as far as I can see identical to the IBM PC version I'm playing here; Sierra's format was standardized so the same graphic and audio data and gameplay scripting could be used on all machines, with custom interpreters for each platform.

This was the first Space Quest game to use Sierra's new SCI interpreter, which doubled the graphic resolution of the earlier AGI games to 320 x 200, though it remained limited to 16 colors at this time and still featured a text parser interface (later, controversially, replaced with a strictly point-and-click approach.)  The biggest advance was really in the audio department, with support for MIDI and specifically the Roland MT-32 sound module.  Most of Sierra's first-round SCI games featured impressive MT-32 scores created by established composers, and this one's no exception -- the soundtrack is by Bob Siebenberg of the 1970s rock group Supertramp, and kicks the action off with a nice rock mix of the Space Quest theme.

When we last left our janitorial hero, Roger Wilco, he had settled in for a long sleep after escaping Sludge Vohaul in Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge.  As The Pirates of Pestulon opens,
Roger's ship is scanned by a robot-piloted junk trawler and drawn in as scrap; his suspended animation interrupted, Roger awakes in the hold.

I always encourage interested readers to play these games before proceeding here, and even though it's now more than two decades old, Space Quest III is still readily and inexpensively available for Windows PCs as part of the 2006 Space Quest Collection, in retail box form or via Steam.  As usual, I will be playing through the game and documenting its quirks, plotline and puzzles for history's sake, so there are certain to be...


This is still a parser-based game, though the text line is hidden until the player starts typing.  LOOK and EXAMINE JUNK don't reveal anything interesting, so we might as well explore the ship.  A rocket stage, fairly intact, lies to the east.

There's a nice simulated-3D shadow effect here (cast on the wall) as Roger explores the tube.  The description doesn't really tell us much at a room level, but we can GET WIRE if we take the only decent piece of wire available toward the left side of the screen.  At the other end of the tunnel we find a large metal Battlebot head, reminiscent of a Transformer.  It has a broken window eye, and as this seems a good time to check inventory, we note that Roger is still carrying a Glowing Gem left over from Space Quest II.

And, of course, we can fall off a barely visible boundary toward the bottom edge of the screen, dying in the usual colorful Sierra manner.

We have to be careful with our keyboard or joystick-driven maneuvering to walk Roger close enough to CLIMB WINDOW and enter the Battlebot's head.  Once we're inside, we can't come back out -- the window somehow closes permanently, even though it's broken.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to need to restore the game to an earlier point, but we'll explore while we're here anyway.  Inside the Battlebot's head we find a small ship and a large ship.  The small one is a pod, with "For a good time, don't call HAL!" written on it, a 2001 joke.  The large one is called the ALUMINUM MALLARD (a Star Wars joke) and has a small hatch on top.

Climbing into the Mallard presents a challenge.  It has a non-stick coating, apparently.  And trying to CLIMB SHIP in any place I tried yielded only You're not in a good location for climbing that or You are unable to scale anything here.  So climbing isn't likely to work.  The small pod has a tiny meteoroid hole, but it's too small to fit into, and we can't insert the wire or the gem into the hole or otherwise make use of it.

Restoring back to the first room, LOOK OBJECT reveals that the prominent object on the floor is a warp motivator, with a modular plug.  It's too heavy to pick up and carry, it seems.  But we can travel south from the starting location as well, to find a junked TIE Fighter, an Acme rocket a la Wile E. Coyote, and the Jupiter 2 (from Lost In Space.)  To the east is a junk conveyor tower -- Roger can walk onto the moving platforms and ride the conveyor to another belt moving horizontally.  We have to get him to STAND and JUMP to safety on a nearby railing before he's shredded by the system.  These kinds of animation-based timing puzzles were really not possible in the move-based text adventure days; while they are often annoying, especially when a plot point requires us to hide and wait for an extended period while some scripted event happens, they do up the drama level a bit and are used to good effect in the Space Quest games.  And it's usually entertaining to see what happens to poor Roger when we fail, as long as we have a recent saved game to restore.

Safe for the moment, Roger can walk west into a computer room with a claw-bearing machine moving along the rail and a monitoring droid whose attention we need to avoid attracting.  We can RIDE MACHINE to take control of the grabber, and PUSH CLAW in various locations to grab interesting items from below.  We should be able to get the heavy warp motivator with this -- yes!  It takes a little time-consuming trial and error to pick it up and place it in the Aluminum Mallard. 

Getting off the machine is dangerous -- the monitoring droid tends to zap Roger with a laser if we dilly-dally for very long.  We can LEAVE MACHINE and jump down a chute that has a handy disembarcation platform, to reach another dumping room with alien rats -- they initially resemble wolves -- on watch.  There are some nice lighting effects here, as Roger's color palette shifts in certain shadowed areas.  We can't GET LAMP, even though there are lamps mentioned in the description, so there's another adventure game tradition gone out the window with these newfangled 3-D games that aren't even actually 3-D.

Climbing the ladder on the right gets us back to the main area, and its upright stance makes it stick out like a sore thumb, suggesting correctly that the ladder can be taken by Roger.  Apparently there's a small reactor powering the lights, which we can find by noticing a wire running to a hole to the left, and examining the hole (or, as I did, by referencing a walkthrough after getting stuck.)  We can GET REACTOR, and after we CLIMB LADDER to escape, we can GET LADDER and take it along.  As we head back to the Battlebot to check in on the Mallard, though, a rat beats Roger up and takes the generator and wire.  And if we've already taken the ladder, we have to use the conveyor to go the long way around again.  After we reclaim the reactor and wire, the rats leave us alone without further negotiation or puzzle-solving -- so this little incident seems to be nothing more than time-wasting padding.

Now we can finally go back to the Aluminum Mallard, set the ladder at the side of the ship, and climb onto its roof, which is still dangerously slick.  With a few careful steps we can OPEN HATCH and enter the ship to find a red button, a diagnostic computer, a cockpit and a couple of passenger seats.  We can USE COMPUTER in the grand old text adventure tradition to learn that, of course, power is critically low, the reactor is not online, and there's insufficient power to even do a systems check.  We can INSERT REACTOR INTO COMPARTMENT and USE WIRE to compensate for a missing short cable.  Now USE COMPUTER establishes that everything's at NOMINAL level -- the reactor, the landing gear, and the warp motivator -- probably not ideal, but we may be able to get this bird off the ground. (Unless we entered the Battlebot without the reactor or the wire, and now have to restore and track those down before we get inside.)

We can ENTER COCKPIT to prepare for takeoff, if we can figure out how to work the cockpit computer -- the interface is fairly self-explanatory, but this may also take some trial and error.  Simply taking off causes an explosion as we hit the roof of the freighter, but our death throes provide a hint about using the ship's radar.  With radar engaged, the ship hesitates before hitting the ceiling, and we can fire the ship's weapon system to blow a hole in the junk trawler's hold. Unfortunately, as everything else gets sucked out into the vacuum of space, the Aluminum Mallard gets crushed as well.  We have to enable the ship's rear shields before shooting, and then we get spit out like a watermelon seed, and we're on our way!

But where are we going?  The ship's navigation system can be used to scan and find the planet Ortega.  As Roger warps into light speed, a certain Schwarzenegger-esque robot's ship materializes -- Roger is wanted for vending machine retail fraud, with orders to TERMINATE.  Justice is severe in the future.

The planet Ortega is VERY hot, we are warned.  If we insist on disembarking, Roger gets melted after taking a few steps, so we probably should not start here.  More scanning of the neighborhood reveals the existence of Planet Phleebhut, and the fast-food station Monolith Burger, a parody entity making its debut in the Space Quest series here.

Planet Phleebhut is windy -- and the Terminator-esque ship has also touched down.  The robot has a localized cloaking device, and only its footprints in the planetary dust give its movements away (another nice, animated touch that wouldn't have worked in a text-based game.)  To the south, travel is cut off by the territory of a giant snake that eats Roger whole.  To the west are some pulsating, roof-clinging pods that do very much the same, but in a more controlled fashion that will come in handy. To the east, a venomous scorpazoid menaces Roger but can be avoided with skillful keyboard maneuvering.  The planet map is fairly small -- we wrap back to the Mallard after four screens, and there isn't really that much to see and do here.

Most of the real activity on Phleebhut centers around a giant statue/robot to the north called Mog -- we could view the planet from its head, according to the sign, except it is closed for repairs at present.  We can still enter the elevator concealed in Mog's right foot and PUSH UP to ride up.  There is heavy machinery in Mog's internals; Roger can, of course, wander into the gears to be chewed up if we are careless or bored.

Further to the north, electrical storms zap Roger, providing another impenetrable navigation barrier.  But there's a World o' Wonders gift shop tucked between Mog's feet, and we can observe a happy alien family exiting this obvious tourist trap.  The glass case out front contains a cute, cuddly Antarean slime devil; it's not a good idea to OPEN CASE.  The gift shop's proprietor, Fester Blatz, is a good-ol'-alien, and he's actually one of the best-developed minor characters in the Space Quest series.  The gift shop's  goods include Thermoweave underwear, useful for Ortega we might guess; an Orat-on-a-stick, which works like a reach extender; and an Astro Chicken flight hat based on the popular arcade game (in the Space Quest universe, anyway.)  He also offers entertaining postcards from Arrakis (Dune reference), Black Hole Bertha, Ortega (hinting about the underwear), a starless void, Achoron (a misspelled version of Acheron from the original Alien film) and RobertaLand -- perhaps poking fun at the EGA remake of Roberta Williams' King's Quest, then in the works: "Come join the fun at the funpark of the future! See characters from your favorite stories come to life again and again."  But Roger doesn't have any money at the moment, so we'll have to come back here.

Exiting the store, Roger runs into the Terminator robot.  But he's in a good mood, so he gives Roger a head start -- time enough to run to the cave to the west and get the robot disposed of by the ravenous pods.  We have to position Roger appropriately so that the robot walks through the cave, which means we should enter from the upper edge of the screen and hope that the robot enters from the right and makes a beeline for Roger through the danger zone.  After the robot is digested by the pods, his invisibility belt remains -- it's directly under the pods, though, so we will probably need the Orat-on-a-stick to get hold of it safely.  We need to get some buckazoids.

The Orium (glowing gem) Roger has been carrying since Space Quest II turns out to be rather valuable on Phleebhut.  Fester is definitely interested in acquiring it:

It's not a bad idea to SAVE GAME before agreeing on a price here.  We can negotiate him up to 425, but if we try to go higher he'll offer no more than 100 after that.  If we play our cards right, we can buy all three of the interesting gift shop items and still have 350 buckazoids left over.

Using the Orat toy to retrieve the belt takes some work, mostly because the animation only functions correctly in a very specific location -- I got a lot of Try approaching from a slightly different angle messages, or got Roger chewed up by the ceiling-dwelling pod creatures.  It works most reliably if we do it from the same position we took to trap the Terminator robot.

Is there anything left to do here?  Mog's workings seem only to be for getting Roger killed, although there's an alternate solution to the Terminator puzzle involving the upper level's gears.  And it seems we've solved all the available puzzles, so it's time to go to Ortega.  With the ThermoWeave underwear, Roger can explore the surface and discover a couple of ScumSoft employees surveying the planet.  They have a small scout ship and are heavily armed, but they seem to be wrapping up and will leave shortly if we are patient.  The invisibility belt doesn't seem to help here; its charge is low.

We can see a broadcasting satellite antenna on a nearby planet, viewing it through the ScumSoft team's telescope. We can also take a thermal detonator from a crate, but walking over the unstable lava surface with it tends to be fatal.  And we can't seem to drop the detonator at all.  So we may be stuck.

So, let's restore and visit Monolith Burger first.  The place features a diverse lot of alien customers, including a Hutt-like creature and other assorted life forms.  One clerk (employee of the week) is available to help us.  READ MENU gives us a selection of items to choose from, though we have no choice (Yes/Yes) about buying Space Fries and Blattfruit Pie.


No matter what we buy, we end up with a generic Bag of Fast Food in inventory.  We can also play the restaurant's Astro Chicken coin-op; it's a Lunar Lander-type game, but faster paced, and if we land the chicken safely (more than five times, I think) the machine displays a coded message.  We have to EAT FOOD (Roger somehow survives this) to get a decoder ring we can use to read the message.  (It's amazing how easy it is to read the code once one gets rolling.)  The message indicates that the Two Guys From Andromeda are now Two Guys In Trouble, held captive by the ScumSoft Pirates on a small moon of the planet Pestulon.  The planet is surrounded by a force field, of unknown origin to the Guys (but we have been to Ortega so we know what's going on here) and ScumSoft security is armed with jello pistols.  They're counting on us, as high-scorers a la The Last Starfighter, whoever we are.

Knowing the ScumSoft team is only using jello guns, we can just charge in and... get Roger suffocated in an impenetrable block of non-Jell-O(TM) brand gelatin.  So perhaps we should use the invisibility belt?  If so, we need to charge it somehow.  I tried to take advantage of the lightning on Phleebhut, to no avail, but did note on this return visit that we can see Mog in action from a distance.  I happened to come in from the side earlier and never saw his head looming over the horizon from the south.

I was getting stumped a bit, so it was once again time to check my progress with a walkthrough.  I discovered that there's no way to charge the belt, on Phleebhut or anywhere else -- this was a self-imposed red herring, we just need to wait for the ScumSoft team to leave.  So it's back to Ortega, then -- we can take the detonator, and the pole holding the anemometer to vault across the chasm and avoid the unstable rocks.  (I did note that if Roger knows what he's looking at because we've seen the Astro Chicken note from the Two Guys, we now get different, better-informed text when looking at the satellite beam through the telescope.)  We can only VAULT CHASM in the one spot -- but when I tried, the parser kept yielding Why not just walk across?  Ah -- per the walkthrough, we need to modify the chasm first, by blowing up the force field generator.

We can enter the domed complex and climb a ladder (seeing a small-scale Roger in a more panoramic view of the complex) to get to the rim.  Here, finally, we can DROP DETONATOR.  Climbing back down is tricky -- it seems nearly impossible to keep Roger on the ladder.  As it turns out, we have to CLIMB DOWN, not CLIMB LADDER; even in the animated adventure era, parsers can be temperamental.  Now we can VAULT CHASM, navigate back to the Aluminum Mallard and go on to Pestulon, as the exciting conclusion approaches.

The entrance to ScumSoft is protected by two guards, and there are not many places we can go here -- we can only stay, return to the ship, or try to enter ScumSoft.  So this seems to be where the invisibility belt comes into play.  We can use it just long enough to sneak past the guards and get inside.

There's some nicely-handled pseudo-3D animation used here, as Roger walks the circular halls of ScumSoft, though it can be tricky to get Roger to stop walking at just the right point to access any of the doors -- it's an unintentional arcade action challenge much of the time.  Entering the accounting department is fatal, as Roger is spotted as an intruder and ends up once again encased in jello.  Another interesting door requires a keycard and a facial scan.  Roger can find a janitor's closet by typing LOOK after going into one of the indistinguishable doorways; we can then SEARCH CLOSET to find some coveralls, and a Mr. Garbage vaporizer.  And we leave all of our old inventory behind in the process, so the endgame must be near.

Entering accounting again, we are still spotted as "an intruder in accounting disguised as a janitor" -- dang it!  We have to maneuver quickly before we are noticed, and USE VAPORIZER on any wastebaskets we happen to pass; verisimilitude is the key here.  There's a color copy machine in the office area, which we can use to make a copy of the life-size picture of ScumSoft president Elmo Pug posted on the nearby cubicle wall before replacing it.  Now we just need Pug's keycard.

Roger can walk past Pug's office to look out into the vehicle bay, where he sees his ship surrounded by ScumSoft fighters; this will have to wait, however.  Elmo Pug has left his office now, so Roger can snag his ID.  (I also note that one of the guards cracking the whip on the hapless ScumSoft employees appears to be Ken Williams.)

Behind the keycard-protected door, we find the jello-encased Two Guys from Andromeda, on a central platform accessible only by retractable bridges.  I failed to USE KEYPAD or EXTEND BRIDGE, but PUSH BUTTON works.  Of course, after we free them from their gelatinous prison using the vaporizer, the bridges retract and none of us can get out of here.  We can't JUMP to safety as the guards arrive, and then Elmo Pug himself shows up, with an army of ScumSoft lackeys backing him up.

Roger is escorted to an arena, while the Two Guys are separated from their would-be rescuer.  So we are not quite done yet.  Nukem Dukem Robots is the name of the game (based on the classic Rock'em Sock'em Robots toy, as Duke Nukem was still years away), and is a fighting game with clunky keyboard controls.  It's not hard to beat Pug's mech -- we just have to punch a lot, blocking is almost optional.  Well, at least it didn't seem hard the first time I tried -- after an initial success and a failure to save game later, I had a tough time doing it when I had to restore and replay this section!  Timing and positioning seem to have a lot to do with it -- it burns energy to punch, so we have to be diligent about blocking and finding the right opportunities to strike; but it does generally seem to work better if we are more aggressive.  With Pug down, Roger and the Guys escape in the Mallard, but we are still short 110 points (in my playthrough).  We have to use the ship's weapon system to fire on the chase ships and make good our escape.

After eluding the ScumSoft ships, the grateful Two Guys from Andromeda (I think their appearance here counts as more than a cameo) offer to fix the ship's disabled light-speed system, and we're off to Monolith Burger.  Except we didn't get the course laid in first, so we are sucked into a black hole.  There's no way to avoid this, it's part of the plot, and we find the Mallard parking at a distinctive office building in the Coarsegold, CA area.

On the other side of the black hole, the Guys meet Ken Williams (Sierra did a lot of self-referential humor) and get hired as game designers; Sierra doesn't need a janitor, but Roger is satisfied with his mission accomplished.  There's no explicit sequel setup at the end of this one, which is unusual for the series, but there would be several more games to come after Roger takes off for parts unspecified.

There's a nice medley of Siebenberg's musical themes that runs during the end credits, most of which are real, some of which are just an opportunity to squeeze in a few more gags.

At the end of my run through Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, I was still short 10 points -- I had 728 of 738 possible -- so what did I miss?  Research indicates that we can search the Aluminum Mallard's pilot seat for a few extra buckazoids; I did not do that, but earned enough trading in the orium so that it was not an issue.  I thank the detailed documentation at the excellent Roger Wilco's Virtual Broomcloset site for solving this mystery!

The Space Quest games are always fun -- the games' sense of humor and plentiful pop sci-fi references keep the action light and lively, and they have a better sense of pacing than some of Sierra's contemporary efforts.  I'll be tackling Space Quest IV in due course.