Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Last City (1983/2001)

This week, we arrive at the twenty-first and last of the Roger M. Wilcox adventure games, a science fiction story fittingly titled The Last City.  It was written in 1983 for the TRS-80 and ported to the IBM PC several years later, which is why it remains the author's best-known game -- the PC port was well-circulated and even spawned some additional conversions.  In 2001, Wilcox brought The Last City to Windows, and for the sake of consistency with the rest of his rediscovered library, we'll be playing that version here.

If you consider yourself an old-school adventure gamer, you really owe it to yourself to go check out the Wilcox archives.  These nearly-lost games are completely in the tradition of the Scott Adams adventures by which they were inspired -- all of them are interesting and a few of them are really, really good.  As always, though, it's at your discretion -- I'm happy to document the experience for history's sake, and to that end, there shall be myriad...

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

We begin in a suitably post-apocalyptic setting -- the rubble-strewn remains of an east/west freeway, with nothing at all in inventory.  We are informed by a brief introduction that human technology was eventually surpassed by magic, and it proved our downfall.  We are now on a quest to rescue the last of human technology.

We can't even GET RUBBLE here, so let's explore the area a bit.  A seemingly endless desert borders the freeway on the north side, but we have nothing available to help us map the area, so we'll come back later.  South lies instant death in a magically-contaminated wasteland (though when this happened, I was actually able to continue playing after death -- the What now? prompt is visibly disabled, but we can still type blind and our commands will be processed.  This was in the 09/11/2013 build, and past experience suggests that Mr. Wilcox will fix the bug soon after he reads this!)

Sticking to the freeway route, we find the remains of an ancient boulevard to the east, leading to the edge of a gigantic domed city we can't enter via this path.  More interesting is a pawn shop on the north side of the street, where we can acquire a Small advanced device (with five button), Fulcrum, Plank, Sand shovel, and a Pick and pitons (for climbing, most likely.)

We have enough stuff now to facilitate mapping the desert, and... well, as it turns out, there's only the one room after all!  But we can DIG here with the sand shovel to find a Dirt shovel (such specialized hardware!) and a Key if we dig some more.

The freeway loops back on itself to the west, so there's nothing to explore out there.  Can we use the device to protect against the magic contamination?  PUSH ONE doesn't do much, nor does PUSH FIVE or anything in between.

I couldn't resist cheating a bit here, using my unexpected life-after-death powers to cross through the fatal wasteland and reach the foot of an ancient-looking castle, complete with a moat and a Raised drawbridge, with a picture of a half-donut on it.  Hmmmm.  I'm probably here too early.  And slightly hungry now.  At any rate, I've been exploring and experimenting quite a bit, and I begin getting these time-out warnings: "Magical premonition: city will cease to exist in 39 turns."  So there is some time pressure to deal with here.

So what can we do?  The concrete rubble on the freeway is in chunks too big to lift -- with the fulcrum and plank, though, we can MAKE LEVER, and USE LEVER to turn one chunk into a Levered-up concrete blockEXAMINE BLOCK reveals that Underneath it's only dirt, so the dirt shovel comes in handy as we DIG to find a Parchment.  It reads: "As our world crumbles down, the future I see: To go in is five-four, to go out is five-three!"  This sounds very useful indeed, but now the timer has gone to zero, and even though I'm not-quite-dead, the game is truly over; I can still make moves, but the screen keeps flashing and none of my moves register, probably because The last city of humankind has been destroyed!  The human race is forever lost to the cosmos.  So it's time to start over, reset the end-of-game timer, and see if I can play honestly this time.

On the second go, I confirm that the parchment speaks truth -- we PUSH FIVE and PUSH FOUR at the edge of the city, and we are transported inside the dome among Light human traffic.  (The layout inside the dome is a little awkward to visualize, as the dome curves around but we can only navigate in cardinal directions, so mapping is very valuable here.)  East of our entry point is City Hall, where a Perpetual lamp is available.

To the southwest, at the south edge of the city, is a cover we can open, revealing a passage downward.  We travel down a metal ladder to an area with horizontal pipes and a Half-donut, which suggests it has something to do with the castle... that, um, I haven't visited yet.

Near the north edge is the city's central tower, a monolith of sandstone that rises all the way up to the dome.  We can CLIMB the TOWER (using the pick and pitons, one presumes) to approach a Circular ceiling hatch, which is sealed and resists attempts to open it or break it for the moment.

Toward the east edge of the dome is an unused part of the city where various magic items are available -- examination establishes that one of the wands could be made operational, so we should GET WAND; It looks like it needs to be recharged.  (We have a seven-item inventory limit, so some discarding becomes necessary along the way, but most items have obvious and limited uses so it's not necessary to juggle too much.)

We can also PUSH FIVE, PUSH THREE at the east edge of the city to teleport through the eastern wall of the dome, where we find ourselves in a secluded rock formation.  There's nothing else of note here, but LOOK ROCKS reveals a Magic stone, which radiates a strong aura of protection

Finishing our urban exploration, we learn that using the device to teleport through the north and south walls of the dome sends us straight into solid granite or off the edge of a cliff, fatally so in both cases.  There's also a botanical section near the center of town, where hydroponics and potted flowers abound.  We can't seem to do anything with them, though, unless there's some subtle joke about the magic stone afoot here.

The stone allows us to pass through the magical wasteland safely, as expected.  At the castle, legitimately this time, we can THROW DONUT -- the two symbols combine and vanish, and the drawbridge opens.  Inside the foyer, a sign reads, "GO NO FURTHER."  But we'd be poor adventurers if we didn't go yes further anyway, to reach the castle's main audience chamber, where a Steel door and some Royal paraphernalia reside (to use with our magic stone hydroponics, no doubt.).  We can visit the royal quarters and try to GO BED -- No time for that now! You've got to save the city! -- and GO TOILET -- Thanks. I needed that.  Giving in to the temptation to LOOK TOILET reveals that There seems to be a passage behind it!  And we can go D to find an underground storage chamber, containing a Small plastic explosive (and, in a nice touch from the author, revealing that the castle is mostly illusion, as the reality distortion fades out a bit here, revealing the chamber to be conventional plastic of a decidedly non-royal character.)

Trying to USE EXPLOSIVE suggests that we need something at least as hot as a spark.  We can CHARGE WAND in the magical wasteland, where the contamination provides a power source, and discover that USE WAND creates a small lightning bolt, but it only holds one charge, so we'll have to save it for setting off the explosive.  Dropping the explosive near the sealed hatch and setting it off -- the most likely thing to try, it seemed to me -- opens up a passage into the dome.

On top of the dome, we find a Laser cutter -- surely the last piece of human technology we have been seeking?  But the plot has drifted slightly from its original stated premise, and the game isn't over yet -- we have to return to the castle and USE LASER to cut a hole in the steel door.

We now find ourselves in an unconceiled [sic] missile control room in front of a Humongous control console.  Aha!  This syncs up with the magical premonition -- there's a "Countdown at T minus 26 turns, and counting" displayed as I arrive here, while the premonition is also reporting in, saying that the city will cease to exist in 26 turns.  Can we stop the missile?  There's a black "SPEED LAUNCH" button, and an unlabelled red button.  Launching it didn't seem like the best option, so I decided to PUSH RED, causing the missile to detonate in its silo without launching, but still taking the city... and the player... with it.  So that's not the solution.

On the third try, we try what seems to be left to try, and aha!  We have to PUSH BLACK to launch the missile ahead of schedule, at which point we have one move available to PUSH RED and blow it up in mid-air.  Victory is ours, and a cheering crowd arrives to celebrate the brush with annihilation so cleverly instigated and then narrowly averted by the player!

Roger M. Wilcox considers The Last City to be the best of his twenty-one games, and it's a good one -- well-designed and not too cryptic, with sensible puzzles and a plot that develops quite nicely without being overtly spelled out.  It's been a pleasure working my way through this series during the past year, and I'm really glad these vintage adventures have been unearthed and re-released so long after they were created.  There's one more game that owes its existence to the Wilcox family, however, and I'm sure we'll be taking a look at it soon.


  1. D'oh! The bug you discovered was a side effect of a FIX I made, after reading your review of _Followers Adventure_. I was moving keyboard focus into the edit control whenever the main window gained focus, and wasn't bothering to check to see if the edit control was actually visible at the time. Apparently, native Windows controls can have keyboard focus even when they're hidden!

    As you rightly anticipated, I've fixed this and put the fixed build up on my website. (I also went back and fixed Followers Adventure so that it behaves the same as The Last City, keyboard-focus-wise.)

    I'm glad you enjoyed these little blasts from my past. Since they were never published back in the day, there are probably more people playing them now than when they were new! (Not MANY more, but still.) And I have you to thank for getting me off my duff and extracting the BASIC code from all my old TRS-80 cassettes.

  2. Actually, now that I read that introduction again, I can see how "rescue the last of human technology" could easily be interpreted to mean "find the last remaining pieces of technology and put them in a treasure room or something."

    That wasn't my intent. What I should have said was "If not rescued very soon, the last of human HIGH-TECH CIVILIZATION will be erased from the planet." The premise was always supposed to be "save the titular Last City from destruction."

    I'm going to keep the original wording, though, for the same reason I'm keeping the original spelling of "unconceiled". Because this is basically a historical re-creation of a game I wrote in 1983. (1983 was the year I graduated high school.)