Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Curse of the Pharaoh (1982)

This week, we're taking a look at Curse of the Pharaoh on the Atari 400/800 computers, written by Peter Kirsch, who wrote several text adventures for Softside disk magazine.  This 1982 effort, also published by Softside, is in a different format from Kirsch's other works -- it's a text adventure with illustrations dominating the display, and a four-line interface window at the bottom of the screen.

Like most of the Softside games, Curse of the Pharaoh is written in BASIC, and it seems the code devoted to drawing the simple images leaves little memory for the actual game.  Text is severaly constrained -- the interface just produces a low, lengthy beep if it doesn't understand a command, which gets annoying quickly with the game's incredibly limited one-word parser.

Interested readers may wish to experience this one first-hand, as it doesn't take long to finish, but it definitely merits mention that traditional commands like GET FLASHLIGHT don't work -- if there's a flashlight nearby, we are required to type GET with no object specified, and the full command is summarily rejected.  This got me stuck in the early going, and everything after that point was relatively straightforward.  I'll leave that decision up to you -- beyond this point, per usual, I will describe my playthrough from start to finish.  There isn't really much to spoil here, but there will nevertheless be...

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

We begin, without benefit of title screen or credits, in a desert, on a starlit night, near a pyramid.  We can wander in the nearby desert, but we can't DIG or otherwise go anywhere but back (always W) to the pyramid.  We can't GO PYRAMID or ENTER PYRAMID or LOOK at it or EXAMINE it or... hmmm.  Maybe we can go elsewhere in the desert -- and yes, further east of the main desert "room" is a flashlight.  Now we can GET FLASHLIGHT... no, TAKE FLASHLIGHT... no, PICK UP FLASHLIGHT... ack!  This is getting ridiculous, how are we supposed to play this?  I have to say this is the earliest I've ever had to seek out a walkthrough, and CASA contributor Juan Duc comes through again -- we can only GET, and whatever is here gets picked up.

Now we can GO at the pyramid, and discover that, to our non-surprise, it's DARK IN HERE!  LIGHT FLASH actually works, though it may just be looking for LIGHT.  There are STRANGE HYROGLIPHICS here -- does that imply they are also misspelled? -- but READ just plays what sounds like a death dirge?  Okay, maybe this is a stylistic choice, and we're being warned of fatal consequences ahead, in the traditional mode of warning all ye who enter here.

East (the only available direction, other than S to exit the pyramid) is a junction with passages leading in all directions (except up and down, as it turns out.)  North of the junction is a DARK CHAMBER OF WATERS IMPOSSIBLE TO CROSS (and no, we can't SWIM it either.)  S is a DAMP ROOM containing a GIANT CLAM and a DARK BEDROOM to the west.  We can MOVE (the bed) to find a ruby, and GET picks up the ruby but not the (presumably too heavy to carry) bed.  We can't OPEN the clam, at least not yet, as indicated by the sonorous beeping whenever we try.

Going east of the junction and ignoring some other possibilities along the way, we reach a DEAD END with a pushbutton on the wall and a rug.  Trying to PUSH the button actually produces one of the game's very few messages back -- STRANGE...DOESN'T WORK.  We can GET the rug to find a KEY; I hope we don't run out of inventory space, as there's no DROP command at all!

Heading back west to the room just east of the junction, going North leads up a staircase, and we must go U to reach a TALL ROOM with SOMETHING HANGING FROM THE CEILING that we can't GET even if we JUMP.

We can also go south from the dark bedroom (I initially allowed the illustration to influence my thinking and thought we could only go back east) to reach a DINGY CHAMBER, where we find another pushbutton on the wall.  PUSHing it doesn't do anything visible, but the confirming high-pitched beep suggests we've accomplished something.  And yes, now the SOMETHING in the tall room reveals itself to be a LADDER.  This may be one of the few pyramid-based adventures I've played that actually considers the traditional shape of the structure!

CLIMBing the ladder leads to the west end of a LONG CORRIDOR, and traveling east leads us to another staircase... with BLOODSTAINED WALLS.  This game's illustrations are extremely low-resolution and simple -- this is actually one of the more visually interesting locations, and it gets the depth cueing all wrong:

We can go U the stairs to the east end of another hall with a locked door.  We have a key, but let's first go to the west end of the hall where we see an OPEN FUSE BOX.  This pyramid has electrical power, apparently, but we don't have a fuse or anything on hand.

OPENing the locked door (presumably with the key), we find ourselves in the MUMMY ROOM, with an OPEN SARCOPHAGUS and a FEARSOME MUMMY with NO EYES.  He doesn't keep us from fleeing back south, or from trying any other verbs, so he's not presenting much of a danger.  False bloodstain advertising, I say!

What now?  The ladder retracts after we go back down it; pushing the button in the dingy chamber brings it back, but we can't GET it for use in bridging the water room.  What about the clam?  We can't PRY or TICKLE it open, or KILL or HIT the clam... but we can KICK it to reveal, in a more-egregious-than-usual instance of adventure game logic, a FUSE!  Mother of pearl!!!

We can now PUT the fuse in the fuse box... no, INSERT... no, actually, DROPping it puts it neatly into place.  So there actually is a drop verb, but it's only useful for putting things in specific places.  This has no apparent effect on the mummy or the chamber of waters, but we can now PUSH the button at the east of end of the first-floor hall that wasn't doing anything before, and now the WATER HAS DRAINED.

Going north past the chamber of newly-drained waters, we find ourselves in DEEP PINK CHAMBERS, with a ROPE available.  West is an area of DEEP PURPLE CHAMBERS, where I like to think Ian Gillan is rocking out in the background, and south of that is a DARK ROOM with a DEEP, DARK PIT and a prominently featured STAKETIE connects the rope to the stake and dangles it down into the pit.  CLIMB leads us down to find a green ruby, which we can simply GET before we CLIMB back up.  We can't retrieve the rope, so that must be the extent of this puzzle.

Now we have two rubies, a red and a green one (not an emerald, or zoisite even, but a green ruby) -- and a fearsome mummy with no eyes.  I thought we might be dealing with some sort of blind mummy/lights-out puzzle at the climax, but it seems all we have to do is DROP the two rubies, one at a time, to restore the mummy's sight.

At least the pace picks up a bit now, as the FEARSOME MUMMY...SEES! GET OUT QUICK (apparently he was harmless with 2-D vision but is very dangerous with his depth perception enabled!)  We can't pull the fuse to cause him any problems, and we can't get the eyes back.  Why did we want to do this, other than it seemed like the only remaining puzzle?  Even now, the mummy doesn't seem to pose any real threat -- we can stand around in the mummy room, methodically poking through our inventory and trying random commands without suffering any harm at all.

But it seems that the game might want us to exit the pyramid with our ill-gotten, um, rug, so we do... and apparently, that's all that's needed here.  We could have left at any time, so why we have to restore the mummy's vision instead of just keeping the rubies and heading home remains a mystery.  But if we exit the pyramid without doing that, the game isn't over, while if we have given up our hard-won treasures to restore the fearsome mummy to death-dealing life, then YOU WIN -- without so much as a celebratory exclamation point.

Curse of the Pharaoh is a primitive adventure even by 1982 standards, though the attempt to simplify the interface is interesting and could have allowed the design to work on non-computer platforms if the author had been so inclined.  But aside from some parser struggles, I didn't have any trouble finishing it in about an hour, including taking notes, and there's no real drama in the storyline, even when the parser pretends there is.  I'm glad Mr. Kirsch stuck to traditional text adventures for most of his output, as the limitations imposed by adding graphics to a BASIC language program make the Curse of the Pharaoh considerably less curseworthy than it might have been.


  1. The bloodstains on the wall were apparently made with PURPLE blood!

    Hmm ... I remember from _Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country_ that Klingons have pink blood. Maybe this blood came from an anemic Klingon.

  2. Regarding the "green ruby": There was one other place I've seen a green ruby used in published fiction. It was in Cordwainer Smith's _Quest of the Three Worlds_. This was the same science fiction author who wrote "Scanners Live in Vain", so he should have known better.