Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Sands of Egypt (1982)

Once in a while I like to blog about a vintage adventure I've experienced before, for the sake of nostalgia and to see how it's held up over time.  I first played The Sands of Egypt (1982) on the TRS-80 Color Computer, but for this return visit it was easier to track down the original Atari 400/800 version.  Datasoft didn't produce many adventures, but I had fond memories of their illustrated games and wanted to play through this one again.  (Emulation tip: it seems to run only on older Atari machines, it froze for me in 800 XL mode and would not run past the title screen, but ran fine on an OS-B configuration.)

The title screen is surprisingly simple and quiet given the Atari computers' audiovisual power; in-game, the interface design features an illustration on the upper section of the screen, with simple scrolling animation on many screens.  Text entry and response are handled by the lower section, and available exits are efficiently indicated with a compass rose.  The graphics aren't as brilliant as I remember them being -- most of the layouts are fairly schematic and perspective is sometimes a little odd.  At least the visuals are an integral part of the experience, as some important objects can only be located by examining the imagery.

I usually suggest that readers tackle the adventures I cover here before reading my playthrough notes, for the sake of savoring the experience firsthand, but I have to say that The Sands of Egypt aren't particularly hospitable.  The parser is obstinate even when the player has exactly the right idea, and the early going requires a lot of blind exploration in an extensive and unmappable desert.  So consider yourself forewarned if you intend to play it, and also forewarned if you proceed, as there are still going to be plenty of...

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

We initially find ourselves lost in the desert, naturally, with nothing in inventory, as clouds scroll lazily across the blue sky.  And we see nothing but sand.  If we're lucky, we can wander around until we stumble across the top of a cliff.  We can see a tiny speck of blue off in the distance, and are able to climb D to the base of the cliff, though we can't get back up from where we land.

We can wander around the base of the cliff, eventually running across some old rope -- it crumbles to dust as we pick it up, but You notice however that it was made from braided palm fronds, which sounds suspiciously like a clue.  Depending on how much wandering it took to get here, we are also growing thirsty... then very thirsty... then we are dying of thirst, likely to die very soon.

At least the old rope helps us to do a little mapping if we don't touch it -- there isn't much to do at the base of the cliff beyond noticing the rope, and the three locations are distinguished by the available exits.  From the original base location, we can go W, S, then E to find ourselves suddenly at an inviting-looking pool, with a camel standing nearby and a pyramid off in the distance.  We're still quite thirsty, but the game casts us cruelly: You are a civilized explorer - if you have no canteen, then you will not drink.  Really?  Even at the dehydrated brink of death?  We can even GO POOL and SWIM -- My that's refreshing -- but remain resolutely committed to dying of thirst.

Entering the pool, we can see a drain cover with a handle, but we can't seem to PULL HANDLE.  And I couldn't figure out how to exit the pool before dying of thirst -- irony!  Ah -- on a retry I learned we can CLIMB STEPS at the edge.  But we have no canteen or camel chow, so this seems like a dead end for the moment.

What else?  Closer examination reveals that the desert locations' graphics do subtly change layout -- the bumps on the ground shift in each location, so maybe we can map it out that way.  But... hmmm... no, they're not that consistent.  I did find a shovel in a room to the west of the top of the cliff, and a nasty snake north of that location, who is prone to striking and killing.  But we can KILL SNAKE - How? - WITH SHOVEL, leaving behind a pool of snake oil; we can also travel to the east and discover... nothing, really.  But we can dig in another spot and find a torch.

We might as well see what else we can dig up -- there's a magnifier south of the cliff, but no sign of a canteen yet, unfortunately.  It finally turns up in the northeastern reaches of the desert, and once we have it, we can get the snake oil.  That might not be a good idea just yet, considering the hydration situation; we certainly can't DRINK OIL, so we'll have to do something with it once we have it.

At least we have enough useful items to do some actual puzzle-solving now, instead of wandering around trying to map the vast and unforgiving desert that creates most of the game's early challenge.  Now we begin to run into the parser's major limitation -- it often supports the designer's idea of what we should do, with few alternatives considered.  For instance, we have to GO TREE and then CLIMB TREE at the pool to retrieve some dates for the hungry camel; trying to CLIMB TREE directly acts as though the tree isn't an object we can interact with.  And we can't climb the tree while carrying very much; at least, one appreciates the parser's support for DROP ALL and GET ALL, as it saves us some thirst-provoking movement.

We can now FEED CAMEL with the dates, MOUNT CAMEL, and RIDE CAMEL to the pyramid to examine a carving.  There's a real scepter mounted in the carving, and since archaeological integrity is not on our to-maintain list, we can GET SCEPTER - How? - PULL SCEPTER... oh, wait, It's stuckOIL SCEPTER helps, and we can afford to EMPTY CANTEEN afterward to get rid of the oil.

I ran into further parser trouble while trying to get back to the pool before dying of thirst -- I was able to feed the camel another date, ride back to the pool, fill the canteen... and then DRINK WATER failed, and so did DRINK CANTEEN.  I had similar problems on the retry, until I noticed that FILL CANTEEN leaves it on the ground, so we have to GET CANTEEN before we can DRINK (DRINK WATER and DRINK CANTEEN still don't work.)

Okay, now it feels like we're getting somewhere.  The scepter is shaped like a hook, just like the handle on the pool cover, so let's see if we can drain the pool now.  We can't USE SCEPTER or HOOK HANDLE or PULL COVER, it seems... ah, we have to HOOK HOOK - To what? - TO HANDLE.  We can now open the cover -- well, not OPEN COVER or PULL COVER or PULL HANDLE but PULL SCEPTER -- to drain the pool, and go down the drain into... pitch blackness.  And By moving around in the dark you have managed to fall into a pit filled with snakes.  You die almost immediately.

Back to a saved game we go, to CLIMB PYRAMID on a return trip via camel, where we find an axe we can use to CUT FRONDS from the palm tree by the pool.  And LIGHT TORCH - How? - WITH MAGNIFIER to make our way down the drain.  We're now in an underground canal, traveling east and west.  Well, not traveling, exactly -- if we go E, we end up being devoured by deadly South American PIRANHA (imported by a Peruvian merchant, according to the game.)

So W it is!  Here we find a boat, and should use it, as going further W puts us back into the piranha-infested waters.  We can FLOAT BOAT and GO BOAT to find ourselves traveling the canal.  We have to ROW BOAT a few times to reach an archway, though after we dock and disembark to explore a tomb, the boat drifts away... we probably should have made a rope out of those palm fronds, and maybe secured the boat to that vertical row of pixels that looks like it might be some kind of pole near the archway.  It's restoration time again.

Of course, the parser is up to its old tricks as we try to make up lost ground.  We can't MAKE ROPE - How? - WITH FRONDS, but we can BRAID FRONDS.  Sigh.  And then we can't TIE BOAT, but we can TIE ROPE - To what? - TO BOAT, and then TIE ROPE - To what? - TO POLE.  In that order, mind -- if we try to tie it to the pole and then to the boat, it ends up just tied to the boat, untied from the pole, and the boat drifts away again.  Ack!

With that issue addressed, we return to the tomb.  We can't READ HIEROGLYPHICS, as They're not in English, but we can TRANSLATE HIEROGLYPHICS for the usual -- we have to return the royal scepter to its proper place to gain access to the treasure, lest we be cursed.  Of course, I left the scepter aboveground, so it's faster to restore -- in fact, this is the only workable possibility for reasons that will become clear shortly -- and UNHOOK HOOK before coming down here.  So now we can PUT SCEPTER - Where? - ON SARCOPHAGUS... oh, wait, we can't do that?  That's not the proper place, apparently, it has to be put ON MUMMY.

Now the ground shakes, and a narrow crack opens in the wall!  We can't take much into the deeper recesses, but we can bring a ladder out after glimpsing too much fabulous treasure to carry.  I particularly like the raven and hippopotamus artifacts:

 (I also died of thirst here, because for no discernible reason, when we go through the drain, we drop the canteen and it empties!)  We can't PUT SCEPTER until after we have translated the hieroglyphics, either.

Now we can get the ladder and escape, unless we're dying of thirst, in which case we can fill the canteen from the canal and die from encountering a baby Piranha in the canteen instead.  Getting out of the boat is also a challenge, as we can't seem to EXIT BOAT or GO SHORE or CLIMB OUT or navigate out of it, and eventually we are swept over hitherto unmentioned falls.

To successfully get out of here, we have to untie the rope from both the pole and the boat (otherwise the rope somehow traps us in the boat), drift downstream, and DROP LADDER when we are near the hole in the roof, so we can CLIMB LADDER before going over the falls to get back to the pool.  Whew!

Now where do we go?  Well, the only real possibility seems to be to get back on the camel and see if he can take us somewhere new -- and yep, we ride back to civilization, with a nice refreshing cityscape too look at while we plan a return expedition to cart off the treasure and destroy irreplaceable archaeological evidence of a past civilization!  Victory is questionable at hand!

The Sands of Egypt is one of those old-school games that, for better or worse, derives most of its challenge out of delaying and interfering with the player's progress.  The parser and the map are both rather cruel, especially by modern, post-Lucasarts standards, and I'm kind of surprised I ever had the patience to finish this one as a youngster -- I suspect my limited game budget forced me to view the difficulty as good value for money at the time.  But it was still interesting, if frustrating, to revisit it, and now I believe I can die happy if I never play it again.


  1. As frustrating as this game was for you, there's one little detail in your screenshots that I kind of appreciate.

    Namely, the command prompt.

    Where most text adventures would prompt you with "What now?" or "Tell me what to do", this one simply says "WELL?". I envision an impatient spouse, arms folded and foot tapping angrily, waiting for you to explain why you were so late getting back from that Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes meeting.

  2. I use a TRS-80 emulator; I found and won this game just now.

    The game is one of many in the Looting The Copts genre, like "Infidel" (of course, now it's clear that the Westerners did right to get to those treasures before the Moslems do). I think its ending is better than "Infidel"'s, though.

    The parser is an abomination. The game is in dire need of an Inform port.

  3. Two more gotchas:

    Be sure to bring the shovel when going underground. You can't ROW BOAT without it.

    You may carry up to two items when you GO CRACK. The game has a bug where it loses count of how many items you're carrying. If you DROP items one by one, it may think you're still carrying two items when all you have is a lit torch. The workaround is to DROP ALL to reset the count to zero and then GET TORCH.

    On the plus side, the desert is mappable. Just DROP a shovel here and a canteen there as breadcrumbs. There are only nine locations above the cliff that say "You are lost in the desert." plus another five around the pool and one next to the pyramid. It only seems extensive because many locations loop back on themselves if you go the wrong way.

    If you work quickly, you can FILL CANTEEN with oil first and DRINK later. This saves a trip back to the desert. Then you can finish the game without drinking again.