Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spottiness Ahead!

FYI, my postings here are going to be less frequent for the next several months.  I've taken on a couple of theatre projects that are going to eat up more than my available free time, and it's a busy time of year on top of that.  But rest assured I will be back, I have some games in the pipeline that I haven't written up yet and several more I am eager to tackle.  Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quick Impressions: King's Quest 2015 - Episode 1

I've been remiss in my regular blogging duties this week due to a hectic schedule, but this gives me an opportunity to introduce an occasional look at more recent adventure games.  My regular Adventure of the Week posts operate under a self-imposed five year embargo -- yes, I know there are walkthroughs a-plenty out there, but I like to let a game ferment and grow some historical context before I write about it in spoiler-filled detail.  But I do play more current adventure games, and I'd like to use this space to write about those now and then.  And... for a change there will be...

***** NO SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

This past week I've been playing the new King's Quest game, the first of five planned episodes being released by Activision's revival of the classic Sierra label as an "indie" channel.  The season pass on Steam currently retails at $39.99, a bit more than the $25-$30 range other publishers have conditioned us to expect.

First, let me say that I'm glad to see something KQ-related finally come to market after a long dry spell, fan projects and the abortive Telltale Games take on Roberta Williams' classic franchise notwithstanding.  It's a healthy sign of revival for the adventure game genre, in that a large mainstream publisher is taking a gamble on a title like this. 

Second, I should point out that I'm not a huge fan of the series -- I've played KQ I-VII and written about them here, but I've always regarded the series as a bit contrived and less dramatic than it wants to be.  With tongue firmly in cheek, I also question its sense of morality, as Graham and his progeny seem to feel no compunction at all about pushing old women into ovens and such when the plot calls for it; they're unfailingly polite and deferential to everyone else, but witches and non-human creatures are often cruelly dispatched without a moment's thought.

As I write this, I'm only about 4 hours into this first episode -- apparently the budget does allow for a little more content than the three hours or so I usually get out of an episodic release -- but I have to say I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  It's definitely not designed as a point-and-click game -- I'm playing with an Xbox 360 controller, which provides direct control of our hero and works well for the mild action sequences and Dragon's Lair-style events that come up once in a while.  That said, there's no parser and interactions with inventory objects are very simple -- we just stand near something that an object can be used on, open inventory, and select objects until something at least responds, often with a groan-inducing pun if it doesn't apply.  Sometimes no response is produced at all, but I can't say that's a bad thing.

I like the structure of the story -- an aging King Graham (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) shares tales of his life and exploits with his granddaughter, Gwendolyn, allowing for plenty of "I would have died IF I had done that" instant recoveries and first-person-from-a-distance narration.  This convention flows better than the clunky popups and frequent die-and-restore cycles of the vintage King's Quest games.

And I like the artwork a lot -- the three-dimensional environments often call the pioneering painterly style of King's Quest V to mind, and the character models, while a little chunky up close, fit the quality voice acting nicely.  Animation is lively and often subtle, and while there are little glitches and priority breaks here and there they never seem all that important somehow.  And the effects animation is really well done -- flames and flowing water look great, but not overly realistic, without the pasted-on, memory-constrained look that the vintage Sierra titles often suffered from when trying to look dramatic.

The gameplay is, if anything, a little too reminiscent of the vintage series.  I'm currently doing quite a bit of backtracking and experimenting, and a little fast-travel or parser-quick navigation would be handy, but that's always been a problem in these animated adventure games if you ask me.  So we do spend quite a bit of time watching young Graham's gangly walking animation, steering him from place to place as we try to figure out what to try with the latest object we've acquired.  Dialogue interactions do occur, and are generally informative and/or entertaining, but dialogue doesn't drive the story as directly as in many other modern adventures.  For the most part, we have to figure out where to use the thing on the other thing, with the occasional hint thrown our way by another character or future Graham, and the old-school mechanics are fine with me.

All in all, I think the Odd Gentlemen and Activision have done the right thing in bringing King's Quest back.  The style is a workable hybrid of the modern choice-driven and classic animated adventure games, and I'm enjoying the story and the puzzles, many of which call the earlier titles to mind without seeming like direct copies.  I expect I'll write about this game in more detail some day; for the moment, let me just say that the 2015 King's Quest is proving very worthwhile -- a bit of nostalgia, a lot of genuinely fresh fun.  And I'm glad there are still death animations, with the added bonus of quick recoveries.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Wizard's Revenge (1981)

This week's subject, Wizard's Revenge, is another of an informal series of text adventures published by the Atari Program eXchange for Atari's 8-bit home computers, and the only one I hadn't yet tackled in my recent posts about these games.  Wizard's Revenge was written by Max Manowski circa 1981, and does not appear to use the same parser as the other adventure games in the APX library.  It also has a few role playing game-style elements, so it may present some different challenges.

The plot is fairly standard early-adventure material -- the player has been banished to a strange land by a powerful wizard, though this setup does more than most adventure games bother to do, in explaining why the player starts out in an unfamiliar place with no possessions to speak of.  The game also handles illumination in a more sophisticated way than most adventures of its era, and the structure is very open-ended -- there aren't many required puzzles, there are a lot of red herrings and atmospheric optional locations to visit, and the player is given a lot of freedom to explore.

Interested readers are of course encouraged to spoil the Wizard's Revenge before reading about my experience here -- but be warned that the game is a little buggy and there are lots of fatal scenarios, and no built-in SAVE facility, so I highly recommend using a modern emulator with machine state save capabilities, as I don't think I would have persevered for very long without that technical assist.  I also found that the game seems to work better under an (emulated) Atari 800 OS-B configuration than on an XL platform, though even then I found a number of situations that just hang the game.  So feel free to avoid some annoying non-game issues and learn what this one is all about in the...

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

As the game begins, we find ourselves in a Forest.  YOU ARE 50% ALIVE, we're informed, suggesting that there is a role playing game concept of the player's health involved here.  There's a cave to the east, but I'm going to do a little exploring and mapping first.

My initial attempt to head North meets with resistance, as the parser informs us that I DO NOT ACCEPT ABBREVIATIONSNORTH is more successful, leading to a clearing in the woods with a green pole stuck in the ground.  I try to EXAMINE POLE, and the parser's visual response suggests it's only really recognizing POLE -- but just the same, the ground trembles, and we fall through a newly-opened crack before it closes above us. 

We are now in a Dimly Lit Room, with passages west, east, and south.  Heading SOUTH, we pass through a room with a little light visible to the south, into a Very Narrow Passage -- I thought the game had gotten hung up here, but there's just a pause as we find a sword, get stuck, and struggle back into the room to the north. 

Just out of curiosity, I try this again -- and on the second try, I get attacked by vampire bats and my health drops to 37%.  This happens again on subsequent tries, until I'm dead, so I guess we're only supposed to find one object here.  What's interesting is that after I restart and make another attempt, I acquire a silver button instead of the sword.  Curious, I start again and pick up a potion.  So it seems this is a way to acquire only non-critical items.

From the room with little light, I discover we can go EAST into a room with walls that feel covered with moss, and we hear strange sounds from the east.  We can't go north -- the room descriptions don't always list the available exits, so we have to make attempts in all possible directions, though at least UP and DOWN don't seem to be recognized so I think we only have to worry about four possibilities.  Heading south leads us into a Room that feels Damp (this game's text doesn't always name rooms formally, so my capitalization is going to be rather inconsistent here also.)

Here, we can only go back north, or west into a Dry Room with a torch on the wall.  I try to TAKE TORCH, based on my recent experience with APX adventures, but we can only GET TORCH... no, that doesn't work either... ah, my mistake.  I'd gone back to the damp room, and instead of telling me the torch wasn't available, the parser was just saying HUH? in response to GET TORCH and WHAT? for TAKE TORCH.  This suggests the nouns are treated according to situation or location, and maybe given priority over the verbs; the parser actually underlines the words it recognizes with up-arrows after we enter a command, giving us some hints as to how the game "thinks."

In the dry room, I do successfully TAKE TORCH -- and it's already lit, saving us hunting for matches and such.  The passage mentioned leading north turns out to be too narrow to enter, but the torch's light reveals that it seems to run on for quite a distance.  The only other apparent option is to head WEST, which leads us back to our starting point.

I still have some areas to explore inside the cave, but let's check out the map above ground now that we're back here.  Heading west from the forest leads to a Small Stream, flowing north to south.  DRINK WATER here proves refreshing, but doesn't seem to improve our health, which remains at 50%. 

I head NORTH again and find the source of the stream at the mouth of a small cave.  I DRINK WATER once and feel stronger -- but health stays where it is, and when I try to drink again, I die of an overdose!  After a restore (there is no SAVE GAME command, so I'm glad I'm playing under the Atari800Win emulator) I drink just once, and confirm that we can't go north or west here, and EAST returns us to the clearing with the green pole, though it's no longer here after I disturbed it earlier.

In the interest of mapping, I follow the small stream south this time, to the point where it flows into a small crack in a large rock.  Trying to go west from here leads into an area where The Ground Here Is Very Swampy, and the game appears to hang.  So I have to restore again, and hope this doesn't happen too often; the same thing repeats when I try again, so it might be a bug or an intentional dead end.  I'll steer clear of it for now.

South of the forest is an area with many trees, and ONE OF THEM IS VERY TALL.  We can't go UP, but we can CLIMB to see a deep valley far to the east.  I try to go NORTH, and subsequently fall from the tree, knocking my health down by 9%.  CLIMB does not bring us back down, but DOWN works here.  Just to be thorough, I learn that trying to head EAST from the treetop is fatal, but the player's character is somehow wiser about heading south or west.  So maybe under some circumstances yet to arise, we will be able to head east?

I head south of the tall tree to find more trees and a large hole in the ground.  The game seems to hang up again if I try to go WEST of this point, and we can't go DOWN into the hole, at least not that way.  EXAMINE HOLE proves unintentionally effective, as we find the edge of the hole slippery and fall into it.

This leads us back to the room where we felt moss earlier, but with the torch in hand, we can now see it much more clearly.  It has mossy walls and passages leading east, south, and west.  This is a really nice way to handle illumination -- we were able to explore in the darkness before we had a proper torch, which is a more natural solution than the usual it's-so-dark-you'll-break-your-neck-just-by-walking-around situation these games often present.

With this insight, I travel back to the dimly lit room we visited earlier, which is now just a room with passages to the west, east and south.  I haven't been west yet -- this leads to a room with a Musty Smell, and we can continue west to a small room with a door on the west wall.  I try to EXAMINE DOOR, and end up wounded somehow, though the game suggests we might be able to push harder.  This seems misleading, as another attempt produces a click, and a dart is stuck in my neck, costing some health as I pull it out.  PUSH DOOR produces a similar result, and with my health dropping again I opt to restore to a previous save state.

Heading back to the east, I see some strange powder near the north wall.  We can't TAKE POWDER, or PUSH WALL to look for dust-disturbing secret panels, but if we try to go NORTH, a spark from the torch lands in the powder, and it explodes!  We don't seem to suffer much damage, but the torch is now useless.  I try to DROP TORCH after a restore, but DROP is not even a recognized verb, so we'll do some more mapping before we try to push through this area.  I do discover that if we let the torch be blown up, and try to go NORTH, we're told that it's too dark to see anything -- but if we type LOOK, we can learn that we're still in the musty room despite the lack of a light source.

We have some more mapping to do, so I'll head east of the formerly dimly-lit room into a dead end -- but when I try to turn back, a bright flash occurs, we move through the air, and find ourselves in a small cave with a poisonous snake approaching.  I try go SOUTH but fail to escape a deadly bite.  After yet another restore, I attempt to KILL SNAKE, and to my surprise I'm able to do so even though I don't have an obvious weapon in hand.  But the game hangs again here, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm even going to be able to play this one to completion.

What next?  Let's check out the strange sound to the east of the mossy room.  The passage turns north into a Very Large Room with water blocking the way north and a large, apparently friendly bird.  I try to EXAMINE BIRD and SING BIRD and PET BIRD, but only get strange looks and more chirping.  CLIMB doesn't work -- he's not that large -- nor does RIDE BIRD.  I try to EXAMINE POTION, in case it might be helpful here, but the parser assumes I want to imbibe it, and I find myself back at 100% health... just before the game hangs again.

What is going on?  I set up my emulator to run as an Atari 800 with OS-B instead of as an Atari XL, reboot, and now the game seems to be slightly more cooperative.  My quick test, heading into the swampy ground west of the trees, leads to a pearl and a hang-free prompt.  I opt to head north into knee-deep water, where I get bitten by a water moccasin and die.  Restarting, I go to the bird room, and trying to go NORTH reveals that we must either WADE or SWIMSWIM is not great, as a large fish bites us and we're wounded.  WADE has the same effect.  Dang it!

Entering the narrow passage, luck grants me a book this time.  READ BOOK reveals a single page of writing: "TO LEAVE THE CASTLE, KEEP GOING EAST."  That will probably be useful advice.  Next, I try to KILL SNAKE in the small cave again, but this still seems to hang the game.  I restart and pick up a worm in the narrow passage, which enables me to GIVE WORM and get the bird to fly me across the water.  This game seems to depend on random events to a startling degree!

We enter a small passage here, crawling to discover a key before we have to back out.  The passage caves in, but another passage north takes us to a Round Room with passages west and south.  Writing over the south passage reads: "WHEN SMILED AT ALWAYS SMILE BACK," but then the writing fades away.

We might as well head south, then, to a dead end where a rock SEEMS TO STICK OUT IN AN UNNATURAL WAY.  I TOUCH ROCK and fall through a trap door, landing fatally on some spikes.  So we'll restore and avoid doing that.

Instead, we'll go west into a room with passages to the south and west.  THE NORTH WALL LOOKS STRANGE, but we can't walk through it or otherwise interact with it.  The south passage leads to a room with walls that sparkle, and no obvious exits.  SMILE and SMILE WALL aren't productive, but I TOUCH WALLS, and we find ourselves at the west end of a valley with steep sides and a western sparkling wall, presumably way to return.

Heading east, I pass some bushes, and reach an area where the walls are not as steep.  CLIMB still fails, but we're not hurt after sliding down from about halfway up, and we can continue east to an intersection of two valleys.

A partially readable sign suggests, "TO EXIT GO .O.TH," which means it's a good time to save state for the umpteenth time -- and also suggests that Mr. Manowski's game must have felt a little sadistic in its original, unSAVEable form!  I opt not to decide yet, and check out the east end of the valley, where some rocks are starting to fall.  EXAMINE ROCKS proves fatal, though, as they crush our health turn by turn, and we can't escape by heading back to the WEST -- all we can do here, in fact, is suffer wave upon wave of falling rocks until we're dead.

Restoring and heading north instead, I find some bushes at the north end of the valley, and go west into a small room with a passage west and a small gem in the wall.  Going west leads us to the small cave with the poisonous snake we earlier reached by another route, and again the game hangs up.

I'll restore and try going south at the intersection -- this leads to a stairway in the south wall.  The steps are tiring, we're told, but we are able to climb them and arrive at a clearing.  To the west is a tall tree -- similar to but not the same as the earlier one -- where we can see a valley to the north and a river to the east.  Further west is a clearing with some bushes bearing yellow berries, which I'll ignore for safety's sake at the moment.

This game's map is fairly large, though there aren't a lot of inventory items or puzzles to deal with.  I'm going to go back to the east for now, discovering a castle near a river with an open door.  GO DOOR is not recognized, EAST causes us to drown in the river, and GO CASTLE is also unproductive.  It finally dawns on me that, with the castle's door on its east wall, we've probably just come through that door -- which suggests we're making progress escaping said castle.

I try going SOUTH from here, finding a log across the river that DOESN'T LOOK SAFE TO CROSS.  But with the luxury of a save state to back me up, I try to CROSS LOG anyway... and to my surprise, victory is ours!

The game still feels a little bit unfinished, with lots of loose ends, so I restore to my pre-log crossing situation and wander around this area a little bit more.  I meet a smiling man in the woods to the west, and SMILE gets him to tell us that "IT'S SAFE TO CROSS THE LOG," which we'd already figured out.  I find a flute in a grove of willow trees, but can't PLAY FLUTE to do anything with the poisonous snake.  I get the impression that certain random events, especially the discovery of one of multiple possible objects in the narrow passage early on, allow Wizard's Revenge to have multiple solutions, but I'll stop here, satisfied to have found one of them at least.

Wizard's Revenge is certainly not a standard adventure game -- it's got some odd behaviors and a few bugs, but as what I surmise is an attempt to produce a more RPG-like, loosely-structured experience, it's not bad.  The map is very large and I have to think that other paths to the ending are available -- at the least, the design presents a greater illusion of choice than most text adventures of its time.  As far as I can determine, this is the only game Max Manowski ever published, so we don't have any other examples of his approach to the genre to compare to this one.  But I enjoyed wandering through this expansive, if largely plot-free, adventure game.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Castle (1981)

Castle is another escape-the-castle adventure involving a wizard's curse, written by Robert Zdybel and published by the Atari Program Exchange for the company's 8-bit computers, circa 1981.  (All of these games start up with the same COPYRIGHT ATARI 1981 notice, and I'm starting to wonder if it's really just the engine's built-in notice and these games were released over a longer period of time.) 


Castle uses the standard Atari Program eXchange engine written in-house at Atari, with all the attendant quirks I've been noting while working my way through these games in recent weeks.

Interested readers are, of course, encouraged to escape the Castle before reading about my experience below.  The game isn't overly difficult, but figuring out how some of the pieces are supposed to fit together isn't always straightforward, and the APX parser's approach gets in the way here and there -- the player tends to have to hunt for the location where an object can be used as intended.  In any case, be advised that if you have any interest in experiencing this adventure firsthand, you may want to go away and do that, as there will surely be...

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

We begin in a large open courtyard -- our imprisonment being rather informal, it seems -- near a beautiful fountain.  There's quite a bit of detailed, evocative text in this game, which suggests the map may not be very large.  We have nothing in inventory, so we'll explore the large stone arches in all directions.

Heading North leads us into a Banquet Hall, where moldy remains of the last dinner served suggest a hasty departure.  There is a parchment lunch sack lying here, and we're told that it has a grease spot in one corner.  I try to TAKE SACK and TAKE LUNCH SACK, unsuccessfully, but TAKE LUNCH works.  OPEN LUNCH reveals a tuna sandwich, a banana, and a liverwurst cookie.

East of the banquet hall is the Scullery, where we see a large, half-full bottle of water that looks potable.  Zdybel's text in this game works around the engine's lack of a typical EXAMINE verb, so it pays to read the room descriptions in detail while the objects are in situ to pick up important details. 

South of the scullery is the Ladies Quarters, where cobweb-covered feather beds once hosted the castle's female staff.  We can return to the courtyard to the west, but I'll continue south into the Bunk Room, apparently abandoned by the Royal Guard.  An Elven steel sword here suggests that the author had recently played ZORK, what with the lunch sack we found earlier and the blue glow we see before us.  We'll TAKE SWORD too.

West of the bunk room is the Great Gate, where a thick drawbridge secures the castle.  An iron crank probably controls the great drawbridge, but we'll keep exploring, confirming that we can return to the courtyard to the north.  The map is straightforward so far, and geographically consistent -- it appears the courtyard is surrounded by a ring of 9 rooms, all connected in the expected fashion.

Continuing West of the Great Gate, we find a Guardhouse containing a brass oil lamp, so we'll TAKE LAMP as custom dictates.  A forbidding staircase leads into unknown territory below, so we'll keep ZORK in mind and continue exploring to pick up any other worthwhile adventuring accessories before we go down there.

A Small Grate secured by a heavy, padlocked iron chain lies to the north of the guardhouse, west of the courtyard.  It appears we could go west if the chain was removed, but for now we'll have to go north to what should be the last room in this area.  This is the Great Staircase, leading upward, but we're warned that The ageing [sic] stairs are showing signs of neglect and just might not hold your weight

I'll take the risk and head Up to the Chapel, where we see a broken-down pipe organ and a wall of stained glass.  PLAY ORGAN isn't recognized by the parser, so that's probably not something we need to pursue. 

This upper floor seems similar to the first, with the chapel in the northeast corner.  I'll tour in clockwise direction again to visit the Council Chambers, with a wrought-iron grating covering a window cut from the stone; the King's Chamber, with a moldy mattress and a passage upward that's currently blocked for some unstated reason; and a Sitting Room with a potted plant crying for "Water" -- another clear influence, this time from Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave.  In the southeast corner of this floor is the Queen's Chamber, with a magically fresh-looking blueberry and raisin cupcake on hand (though we must TAKE CAKE, TAKE CUPCAKE doesn't work) and a route up to the Lookout, a breathtaking view with no other exits.  West of the Queen's Chamber is the Sewing Room, and in the southwest corner is a Small Stairwell with a staircase leading up into unfathomable mist, so we can't climb it at the moment.  (I later discover that the sewing room seems to exist solely to allow for a joke about early computing hardware logic gate technology -- HINT here suggests that the new Enchanted Castle Limited (ECL for short) represents a major improvement over the TTL series.)  There's also a Great Hall connecting the small stairwell to the chapel, and we can go up from the chapel into the Bell Tower to acquire a small sack of birdseed if we TAKE BIRDSEED, TAKE SACK and TAKE SEED don't work.  We can't RING BELL either.

Before I go down into the darkness below the guardhouse, I try to TURN CRANK at the great gate, to no avail as it's rusted in place.  I try to OIL CRANK with the oil from the lamp, also unsuccessfully, and I also fail to USE OIL and OPEN LAMP.

So we'll continue mapping -- I head down into the darkness, TURNON LAMP (a verb peculiar to the APX engine) and find myself in the Gaol, where a grinning, armed, presumably animated skeleton blocks our way and guards the tempting ring of keys lying on the floor.  I try to KILL SKELETON and ATTACK SKELETON, but USE SWORD is the only way to dispatch him as the blow smashes the dancing skeleton into a hundred small pieces.  We can't TAKE KEYS or TAKE RING, so the ring of keys on the floor appears to be strictly decorative in nature.

The gaol lies to the south of the Dungeon proper, with torture implements, strange Elven runes on the wall and a suspiciously less-dusty eastern wall.  I try to READ RUNES but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, and trying to go east suggests something is in the way.  The map down here does not resemble the upper floors -- so far, we can only reach the gaol and the dungeon.

So our map is complete for the moment, and now we can start solving some puzzles.  My first thought proves lucky, as I EAT CAKE and feel a strange Elvish feeling come over you, allowing us to READ RUNES: "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER."  But no magic words I try seem to work, so we probably need to discover the word somehow.

I try to THROW BIRDSEED and OPEN BIRDSEED at the lookout tower, but nothing seems to work.  We can DRINK BOTTLE and EAT LUNCH, for refreshment, but no other results manifest... and I probably should have watered that plant, shouldn't I?  There's no SAVE GAME supported, so I'll have to return to an earlier emulator save state.

WATER PLANT causes the plant to grow to the ceiling, just as we expected, but this seems to have no real impact on the story -- it now bellows for water, but we can observe this only at the moment we water it; otherwise, the plant seems to have disappeared from the world.  Our bottle is also gone, so there appears to be no way to refill it; I'll just restore again and ignore the plant's entreaties for now.

In the King's Chamber, we can LIFT MATTRESS to find a golden amulet with a strange inscription: "You rule the toads of the Short Forest and every newt in Idaho."  There's a Royal Seal on the ceiling, in gold; I try to WEAR AMULET, OPEN AMULET, WAVE AMULET and OPEN SEAL, but the parser doesn't recognize any of these concepts.

In the bell tower, requesting a HINT suggests that the bishop used to feed a flock of birds here.  So I try to SCATTER BIRDSEED, which as I expected doesn't work, and DROP BIRDSEED, which does but not the way I wanted it to.  We can EAT BIRDSEED, which does nothing beyond leaving a bad taste in our mouth and consuming the birdseed, and FEED BIRDS isn't recognized.  It finally dawns on me that I found the birdseed here originally, so the hint is just descriptive.

I'll play some more with the amulet -- the fact we can READ it in the King's Chamber but nowhere else suggests whatever we can do with it must be done there.  LIFT AMULET does nothing to open the seal, but INSERT AMULET does, causing a small step-ladder to extend down from the ceiling.  This leads us to the conveniently located King's Mistress' Chamber, where a yellow canary looks hungry.  I try to FEED CANARY and DROP BIRDSEED, but only FEED BIRD works -- the little bird says, "ARJAYZEE."  That sounds like the author's initials, and likely a magic word. 

SAY ARJAYZEE doesn't work on the dungeon door, but it does thin out the mist in the small stairwell, allowing us to reach the Wizard's Tower.  A thin black spellbook is here, but we can't READ BOOK in this location, so we'll just TAKE BOOK for now.

We can't read it in the dungeon either.  Just for fun, I try taking the "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER" clue literally and SAY AND -- and lo and behold, the wall fades into a thinning mist!  Now we can enter the Potion Room, with a gigantic vault door to the north.  There's a flask of blue fluid here with a faded label, but I have to leave and reenter the room to learn that the parser calls this a POTION, not a FLASK or a FLUID

READ POTION suggests it's called "OLD IRONBENDERS STRENGTH EXTRACT," and DRINK POTION suggests it lives up to its name.  With our newly acquired power we can OPEN VAULT and enter the King's Vault.  There's a note here, reading: "... under my mattress, simply insert it into the ceiling and the secret room will appear."  So... wow, that was a lot of work for something we've already learned.  And our new strength doesn't allow us to BEND BARS in the council chamber or BREAK CHAIN at the small grate to create a new exit.

So where can we READ BOOK?  In the Potion Room, we get a different response -- YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET.  It turns out this is very much like the black-light puzzle in Wizard's Gold -- we have to TURNOFF LAMP before we can read fiery script revealing another magic word: "XANADU."  We can SAY XANADU right here, as luck would have it, and the potion room's eastern wall disappears.

Now we can reach the Wizard's Treasure Room, where a small silver key is encrusted with gems and inscribed in gold.  This is partially a gag, as the key says, "Harvard" rather than the more common "Yale."   But the key itself should be useful, and proves to be as we return to the Small Grate, UNLOCK CHAIN here, and open up a passage to the west, out of the castle.  Victory is ours!

Castle is clearly derivative of some classic adventure games that preceded it, but after borrowing quite a bit of their flavor it goes off in its own direction.  The puzzles are nested a little bit too linearly, especially at the end, but there are a few interesting red herrings designed to raise questions in the player's mind and trip up the experienced adventurer, and Mr. Zdybel wrote some nicely atmospheric text.  I think this is the last of the APX games to use this engine, and I've enjoyed working my way through these adventures on summer afternoons.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Chinese Puzzle (1981)

This week, we're looking at another Atari Program eXchange adventure game: Chinese Puzzle, written by Dennis Koble (later to co-found Imagic) and published in 1981, using the same engine as most of the other APX adventures for the Atari 8-bit computers.


(A technical note: we have to RUN "D:CHINA" at the Atari BASIC READY prompt to fire this one up, as there's no autostart on the commonly available disk image.) 

According to the title screen, we've been drugged by a Chinese madman and locked in a suite of rooms; our only objective is to escape.  This game is unusual in that the environment is explicitly constructed as a puzzle, with no attempt to create a realistic atmosphere or establish an adventurous plot.  It's just a conundrum in need of solving.

Interested adventurers are of course encouraged to work out this Chinese Puzzle independently, but I'll warn you that it's brief yet much more difficult than the other APX adventures I've played to date.  Most annoying is that the final sequence is either buggy or intentionally illogical; I had to decipher the APX engine's data format to figure out the exact sequence of actions required.  So feel free to skip the aggravation and sail casually on into the...

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

We begin in the 3-Room, deathly silent, paneled with teak and rosewood.  "The magic number is 3. Remember that," we are advised, but SAY 3 doesn't do anything, nor is the noun 3 recognized.  We have nothing in inventory, so we'll start trying to map the place out.

The map is highly schematic.  North is the Red Room; East the Blue Room; South the Yellow Room; and West the Green Room.  We can also climb Up to the Grey Room, but we can't go Down yet; SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY.  So we probably have to do something to open that passage.

Expanding our exploration, we find the Orange Room north of the Red Room, where a faceted crystal prism breaks the incoming light into a cascading shower of rainbows.  We can TAKE CRYSTAL here, and it seems color is going to be a key part of this puzzle.

Heading north of the Orange Room returns us to the Yellow Room -- so the map wraps around on itself.  Does the same thing happen when we explore east-to-west?  Yes, west of the Green Room is the Purple Room -- with a Chinese ideogram written on parchment lying on the floor -- and the map wraps around back to the Blue Room here.

READ IDEOGRAM produces no effect in the Purple Room -- but this suggests it will do something more interesting elsewhere, so we'll take it along as we continue to explore.  Above the Grey Room is the White Room, and above that the Black Room.  We can climb Up from the Black Room to return to the 3-Room, but can't return the way we came, as we noted earlier.

It seems there aren't a lot of items to work with here, and no obvious uses, so we'll have to start experimenting.  I try to READ IDEOGRAM in every room -- it's written on white parchment, but it doesn't seem to be readable in the White or Black rooms.  In the Yellow Room, however, we're told that YOU NEED TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO THAT.  So there must be another object available somewhere.

HELP suggests that TURNOVER is an accepted verb, but I don't seem to have any luck with it anywhere here.  LIFT CRYSTAL suggests that an effect may occur somewhere -- and in the Black Room, instead of THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE, the parser responds: YOU CAN'T LIFT A CRYSTAL.  Is it sensitive to CRYSTAL?  I DROP CRYSTAL, and The crystal rolls across the floor into a corner.  Interesting; we can't seem to do anything with the corner, though, as it's not recognized by the parser.

Aha!  Mysteriously, now there's a lacquered Chinese box in the White Room.  I try to OPEN BOX, but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET. We still can't READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room.  The box doesn't respond much at all anywhere but the White Room, so it seems whatever's going to happen with it has to happen there.

Oh, wait -- with the box in hand and the crystal as well, I can finally READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room.  It resembles the word "CHINA," we're told, and SAY CHINA is recognized -- but is it effective anywhere?  Yes, in the Red Room apparently, though nothing is happening yet when we do so.

If we DROP CRYSTAL in the Black Room again, the box returns to the White Room -- one of those easy-to-miss bugs in early adventure games.  I notice that DROP IDEOGRAM often returns THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE -- so is it supposed to do something, somewhere?  Ah -- in the Yellow Room, The paper flutters to the floor.  This has no apparent effect but the mention seems to imply something special has occurred.

Now that we have relocated the ideogram -- for reasons that never become clear at all -- we can TURNOVER BOX in the White Room, and learn that Written on the bottom of the box is the word RUSSIA.  Okay, we're starting to see a pattern here.  Now we can SAY CHINA in the Red Room -- Ah yes.  One of the big 3.  So we may be on to something now! 

SAY RUSSIA has no effect here, but in the Blue Room it's recognized, though not effective at the moment.  Hmmmmm.

I restart and poke around some more, and somehow, without ever SAYing CHINA or discovering the magic word RUSSIA, I've gotten myself into a state where the next step of the solution appears to work.  We SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room and it's recognized as The second of the Big 3.  But if I SAY CHINA first, it seems I can't SAY RUSSIA again after that point.  And SAY USA doesn't seem to work anywhere, until I discover that SAY U.S.A. should work, potentially in the Green Room.

There's definitely some weirdness afoot here -- we can either TURNOVER BOX to learn about RUSSIA, or OPEN BOX to learn about U.S.A., but we can't seem to do both.  And somehow I accidentally stumble onto the endgame by skipping SAY CHINA altogether and jumping ahead to SAY RUSSIA and SAY U.S.A. in the appropriate locations, which isn't very satisfying as it feels like I've short-circuited the intended solution.  I'm not even sure the room colors have anything to do with the puzzle at this point.

So I finally break down and decipher the game's data file to figure out how these pieces are supposed to fit together.  It turns out that a series of actions have to be taken in a precise and counterintuitive order, due to the game's use of what I'll call "flag 4" to track status.  In some cases, if we do something and then re-do it, the flag gets reset and breaks (or supports) the expected sequence, and we have to repeat certain actions to make other actions possible.  The solution makes very little sense, but below I've listed what has to be done.  (You may notice that steps 1 through 5 are technically optional but are required to learn all the magic words; as I had discovered accidentally, the game can be finished very quickly by starting this sequence at step 6!)  Here's the sequence:

1. DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (sets flag 4:1)
2. TURNOVER BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:2)
3. SAY CHINA in the Red Room (requires 4:2, sets 3:1 which is never required)
4. TAKE IDEOGRAM and DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room again (resets to 4:1)
5. OPEN BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:4)
6. READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (requires box in hand, sets 4:3)
7. SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room (requires 4:3, sets 4:6)
8. SAY U.S.A. in the Green Room (requires 4:6, sets 2:1)

Finally, a secret panel in the floor lies open in the 3-Room, though we won't actually see this unless we Look in that room to see the open passage added to the description.  All we have to do now is go Down -- we've reached The Way Out, and victory is ours!

Examination of the data file verifies that there's no more effective way to finish this Chinese Puzzle, so this is indeed the desired solution.  There are a few more of these APX adventures in the archives; I really feel like I should branch out a bit, but I seem to be addicted to these odd little games.  So I'll just have to see what comes up next next time around!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Wizard's Gold (1981)

I intended to play something more substantial while I was on vacation, but instead I've spent my time with another Atari Program eXchange adventure circa 1981, author uncredited, called Wizard's Gold.  Our goal is to find a hidden bar of gold and return it to "its rightful place," presumably the other thing we'll have to find. 

This game uses the idiosyncratic Atari BASIC text adventure engine, and a lot of the text is misformatted with line breaks in strange places.  It seems to have been written in-house, perhaps by Dennis Koble, given a number of references to internal Atari code names of the time.

Interested adventurers are encouraged to retrieve the Wizard's Gold firsthand before reading my notes below; it's not a difficult game at all, though I lucked out by guessing the right verbs the parser expects in a few spots.  As always, my goal here is to document these games for the record, and there are sure to be...

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

We begin in the bedroom of a wizard's house -- it isn't clear how we got here or gained entry, and that may be better left unspoken, but we're apparently following up on rumors concerning a hidden bar of gold hidden in the catacombs below.  The APX games don't generally list available exits, so we'll have to use some trial and error to discover that we can go West to the Kitchen or Up to the Rooftop Garden.

The kitchen contains a bubbling pot and some spell ingredients, but we can't interact with any of these items.  We can travel south to the Living Room, or up to the rooftop garden, from here.

We might as well check out the rooftop garden, then -- there's a book here, but if we try to READ BOOK, THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE, which past experience with this engine suggests means we need to read the book in a particular location in order to make use of it.  We can explore in all directions within the rooftop garden, but everything loops back to the same location, except for Down which takes us back to the bedroom.

Continuing our mapping, we discover that heading down the stairs in the living room leads to a dark area requiring illumination, so we'll head east into the Observatory instead, where we conveniently find a battery-operated lamp.  We'll TAKE LAMP (the traditional GET LAMP doesn't work due to the limited parser dictionary) and since there are no more viable exits here, we'll head down from the living room again and TURNON LAMP (the game's built-in HELP is useful here, spelling out this non-standard command used by most of the APX games.)

The light reveals that we are in one corner of a Large Room.  This is a bit of a puzzle, although it doesn't take long to figure out that we've entered in the southwest corner of a 4 x 4 area, making every room a corner.  The only new exit is one heading down from the southeast corner, to the Misty Room where fog blocks most detail but a downward path appears to be available.  However, SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY if we try to move in that direction, so we'll have to see whether there are any other exits here.

North of the misty room is a Chemical Storage Room filled with empty, broken bottles.  Below is the Blank Room, intentionally left blank in the classic IBM manual tradition.  The map is pretty linear so far -- the only available exit from this point leads west into the Armor Closet, where we find a slightly used magic broom we'll take along.

We can travel up or down from the armor closet -- below is the Magic Broom Repair Shop, where the parser won't grasp the meaning of FIX BROOM or REPAIR BROOM, so we'll hope it's in good working order.  Above the closet is a Mushroom Garden, where we can acquire an ugly black mushroom.

Continuing south of the mushroom garden, we find the Library, where an empty stand reads, "This Book Holds the Secret Words."  We can READ the BOOK we found earlier here, revealing cryptic letters: "STELLA" (surely a reference to the working name for Atari's popular 2600 videogame console.)

I try to SAY STELLA, and to my surprise it works right here -- a magic wand appears and we're advised we can Use it to go where fog leads, probably a reference to the misty room.

Before leaving the library, I explore downward to find the Egg Room, filled with rotten eggs as a voice says, "GLEEK."  I try to SAY GLEEK, and am greeted with a vintage 1981 pop culture reference as Mork from Ork leaps out of a large egg saying "NANOO-NANOO," and here in 2015 I am sadly reminded of the untimely departure of Robin Williams.  But this event seems to have no bearing on the plot, so we'll assume it's just a semi-literal easter egg.

We can continue downward from the egg room into the Wizard's Psychedelic Room.  There's a black light poster here which we can't TAKE or initially READ -- it isn't until I TURNOFF LAMP that we can make out the word "COLLEEN" (code name for the Atari 800 computer) using the ultraviolet illumination that remains.  SAY COLLEEN has no effect here, however.  (We can also note that the Wizard's cultural era probably parallels the author's -- the other posters on the walls are for Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, in the days when the tiny computer game industry freely cited brands and intellectual property from the real world, with nary a thought or worry about approval or licensing.)

We can't go back up to the egg room, and the only available exit seems to be further down, into the Boiler Room.  From here, we can go north into the Computer Room, with an ATARI 800 on display.  We can travel one-way Up from here to return to the Magic Broom Repair Shop, so we're not forever stuck down here, though I'll make my way back here for now.

East of the computer room is the wizard's Wine Cellar, with one available exit, to the Crossbow Firing Range above.  A sign reads, "No Crossing on Foot," which is probably why we have the broom -- and yes, while we can't walk south, we can RIDE BROOM to reach the southern end of the range (actually, this action just opens up the southern exit of the room -- the implementation is an artifact of the parser's approach to map puzzles.)

Now we can visit the Aquarium Room, where a fish tank full of hungry piranha dominates the view.  The piranha appear to block a downward path, and DROP MUSHROOM doesn't feed, poison or otherwise satisfy them, though the item isn't lost either and we can just pick it up again.

So let's check out the misty room again -- as expected, WAVE WAND dispels the fog, and now we can visit the Art Gallery and acquire a large rusty key.  There are no other exits from this location, and we're told that all the art on display is counterfeit and valueless.

What about the piranha, then?  The puzzles up to this point have been very straightforward.  SAY COLLEEN does nothing here or in the computer room.  But the game's HINT command comes to my rescue -- it gives us rather more of a nudge than we really need, however, as it gives away most of the rest of the game, suggesting that we need to eat to be strong to move the tank, and then we'll need a key to unlock the trap door.  So we're probably close to the end here.

And yes... EAT MUSHROOM improves our strength, MOVE TANK now works, and then UNLOCK DOOR reveals yet another downward passage leading to the Treasure Room.  Skeletons strewn about the room suggest there may be a trap here, but we'll try to OPEN the treasure CHEST anyway.  That fails, but not fatally -- It will take more than a simple word to open this chest -- which is a bit of a misnomer, as a simple SAY COLLEEN works, revealing a glittering bar of gold.  We can't TAKE BAR, but we can TAKE GOLD.

Mission nearly accomplished!  Now where are we supposed to store it?  I return to our starting point in the Wizard's bedroom, per established tradition, and HINT here confirms that we're on the right track as it reveals a table with a sign, not otherwise visible, reading: "GOLD to be put here."  We DROP GOLD, and victory is ours!

Wizard's Gold seems to have been intended as an introductory text adventure -- there aren't actually many puzzles, red herrings are few, and the map is neither particularly large nor very convoluted.  But it provided a pleasant, brief excursion into the Atari archives, perfect for a summer afternoon's adventuring.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Sultan's Palace (1981)

I'm entering the Sultan's Palace this week, in another Atari Program eXchange adventure for the Atari 8-bit computers.  It was written by Dennis Koble using Atari's quirky in-house text adventure engine and published in 1981; Koble would go on to co-found Imagic the following year.

We've seen this plot before -- we're to rescue the princess (Fatima) from the evil villain (Sultan Abdul).  But this is another example of the freewheeling Atari philosophy of the time, with a couple of puzzles involving decidedly adult content.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to visit the Sultan's Palace independently before reading my detailed notes below.  But be advised that the SULTAN.DAT data file included on the Marketing Adventure disk image in circulation online is corrupted in a very inconvenient manner -- a fatal error occurs at the very end of the game -- so look for the stand-alone version.  Beyond this point, I will be documenting my experience in salacious detail, so there are certain to be...

****** S.P. SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The game starts off with more momentum than many text adventures -- the Sultan's guards have been drugged (presumably by our hero?) and there's a massive iron gate in our way, with a feeling of forboding [sic] in the air.  In our Inventory we have... PANTS.  Okay.  I didn't realize how exposed we'd been in every other adventure game.  Just for fun, I attempt to DROP PANTS -- and we can do that, but THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE.  Erm.  There may be an interesting incident ahead for our hero.  We can TAKE PANTS -- not GET PANTS, mind, as this parser has a very limited dictionary; we also can't WEAR PANTS so we'll have to assume possession comprises nine-tenths of the decent non-exposure.

We can't go anywhere else from here, so opening the gate would appear to be our initial challenge... except all we have to do is OPEN GATE.  We can now reach the Entrance Hall to the north, where many doors await you.  So we have some exploration to do -- the APX games don't give us an exits list, and the room descriptions tend to be pretty brief, so mapping requires some trial and error as we test all the possible directions.  (I tend to miss the upward and downward paths, as will become apparent later on.)

A Storage Room to the east contains a rusty scimitar, so we'll take that along.  A Dusty Empty Room to the west is of undetermined size but doesn't seem to occupy multiple locations.  To the North of the dusty room is the Guards' Quarters, currently empty, where we can acquire an empty jar from a pile of trash.

East of the guards' quarters is the Grand Hall, housing the Sultan's diamond-encrusted golden throne and a number of Persian carpets that, if adventure tradition holds, will prove capable of flight, so we'll take one (actually, this seems to take all of them, as if we drop the carpet elsewhere we're given the same description of many carpets.)  Heading south from the Grand Hall returns us to the entrance hall; this map is pretty consistent geographically.

West of the dusty room is the Guards' Brothel, where a dark beautiful girl with a fantastic body and sultry expression approaches you.  But none of the verbs I can think of (including the CENSORED ones the parser recognizes but pretends not to) seem to be helpful here, and GIRL isn't a recognized noun.  I also discover a bug in the APX engine that has somehow escaped my notice in playing through several of these recently -- if we start our command with a space, it errors out.

The brothel's western and southern exits loop back to the dusty room, while heading East takes us to the guards' quarters.  North brings us to the Kitchen, where a tray of peacock eyes is available if we wish to TAKE PEACOCK EYES (we must spell nouns out completely to make the parser happy, no shorthand is implemented or allowed.)

East of the kitchen is the Sultan's Chambers, where a golden lamp radiates, beckoning us to TAKE LAMP.  And this wouldn't be an Arabian Nights-themed adventure if we didn't at least try to RUB LAMP -- but THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE so we'll have to save the presumed genie for a more appropriate situation.

North again takes us into the Sultan's Bedchamber, where a wall of erotic scenes lends a festive note to the room.  It appears this wall can be moved, as when we try to travel west SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY.  First, we'll go east, to the Harem Room, where we are suddenly besieged by sex starved lovelies who leave us very tired and unable to move after the required exertions, although we can figure out that there are no other exits from this room.  I take a chance and EAT PEACOCK EYES, which renews our strength enough to escape.

Above the Sultan's bedroom is his Observatory, though it doesn't seem there's anything to do here besides pondering the starry night.  Can we move the erotic mural?  PUSH WALL, RUB LAMP and DROP PANTS (which I just now remembered to try) have no effect, and to my considerable relief neither does RUB PANTSMOVE BED and MOVE WATERBED are also unproductive. 

We've got some more exploring to do, so we'll continue mapping.  East of the Sultan's chambers are the Eunuch's Quarters.  We can pick up a pink pillow with a heart embroidered on it here; there's a one-way passage north to the harem room, and we can travel east to the Fountain Garden where a tinkling fountain adjoins a beckoning copper door to the east.

North of the fountain is the Concubine's Quarters, where the Sultan's wives live and A lovely girl named SALOME especially tempts you.  We can TAKE SALOME -- which just puts her in inventory.  Travel West takes us through another one-way passage to the Harem Room -- the design is clearly meant to get us trapped there at some point -- and the only other exit is south, back to the fountain garden.  I do try to OPEN DOOR here, but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, this engine's all-purpose response when some pre-condition has not been met.

More mapping remains -- east of the Grand Hall is the Hall of Mirrors, where we can glimpse a reflection of the Princess.  This proves to be the southwest corner of a 3 x 3 maze that contains a jeweled dagger.  We can also explore up and down from a couple of rooms; there are about 16 rooms in the maze, with some one-way loopbacks, but the only item I find here is the dagger, and it can be located on the main floor without going into any of the mazier passages.

It feels like we've mapped everything that's not behind a blocked passageway now, so it's time to see if we can solve some puzzles.  That whole DROP PANTS business is intriguing, so I try it with Salome in our company in the harem room and the Sultan's bedchamber, with no results.  But in the guards' brothel, that sultry girl comes into play -- as she performs unmentionable acts upon your body, between gulps she mutters the magic word SHAZAM.  So that's not really unmentioning them, is it?  But this gives us something new to try.

I get lucky on my first attempt, as SAY SHAZAM opens the copper door by the fountain, so we can OPEN DOOR and then go E to the Exit from Palace.  Unfortunately, the game seems to think we shouldn't be doing this yet, and unceremoniously crashes with the magic words ERROR-136 AT LINE 3070.  So I'll have to restore to an earlier point using an emulator save state, as this engine has no SAVE command -- this is ameliorated to a degree by the lack of fatal situations in most of the APX games, but unforeseeable dead ends still can and do occur.

Returning to the bedchamber, I can't TALK to SALOME, but I manage to ASK SALOME and she screams the magic word SESAMESAY SESAME produces the unexpected response YOU CAN'T SAY A SESAME, but OPEN SESAME (which we might have guessed on our own) opens the wall.  This leads us west into the Treasure Chamber, filled with gems and gold, as well as a seven-headed Hydra blocking a stairway down. 

The parser won't let us try to KILL HYDRA or THROW DAGGER, but we can WAVE DAGGER and it steps out of our way; apparently the bejeweled weapon belongs to its master, confusing the dreaded beast.  This allows us to enter the Torture Chamber below, where escape is your only thought.  We can escape back Up to the treasure room, but it's more interesting to head South into some Subterranean Caverns, a small cluster of similar rooms with a boulder blocking the way south in the southwest corner.  We can't MOVE BOULDER, but if we RUB LAMP a genie appears and rolls the boulder aside with a magic word.

Ah!  This is how we reach the Princesses [sic] Room, where there is but one Princess who won't leave with us until we gain her trust.  What do we have in inventory?  Maybe the heart-embroidered pillow?  DROP PILLOW doesn't do it, and we can't GIVE PILLOW, though the parser's response suggests we can give her something else.  GIVE SCIMITAR and GIVE DAGGER don't work, and neither does anything else we have in inventory.  And we can't leave without the princess, so once we're here we're stuck!  Time for another save state restore.

So what have I missed?  I start rechecking my mapping, and shortly discover that I didn't try to go Up from the entrance hall, to the Guard's Tower.  We can hear voices in the distance here, and if we LISTEN... no, LISTEN VOICES... no, LISTEN GUARDS... hmmm.  Can we get a HINT?  Yes -- Listen carefully!  And now I notice that THERE IS A CAREFULLY HERE in the room, apparently a limitation of this engine; it has to have a pseudo-object present so we can LISTEN CAREFULLY.  We hear that SULTAN ABDUL IS A EUNUCH.  I guess this is a state secret or something?  This information might be a relief to the Princess, but it doesn't seem like an artifact I can carry with me to gain her trust.

Anything else?  Aha!  I missed another vertical passage -- D from the Sultan's Bedchamber is a Chamber of Horrors, where a wizened head lies on a shelf covered with webs.  We can TAKE HEAD, which, erm, suggests... uh-oh... really, Mr. Koble?

Yep.  We enter the Princess' room, and GIVE HEAD, and The Princess now likes you and will go with you.  We TAKE PRINCESS, return to the fountain garden's exit door, and... I get the same error as before.

AH!  After I dig into the BASIC code a bit, I realize that the on-disk data file is corrupted, and the game's attempt to read the description and hint text for this room is actually failing.  So the copy of Sultan's Palace included on the Marketing Adventure disk is corrupt.  Fortunately, I'm able to find and run a clean corruption-free version with a slightly different version of the engine -- I get a different color scheme, and a much more satisfying ending!  Victory is ours!

These APX games are generally not too difficult -- although the limited parser doesn't help, it does keep the puzzles on the simple side.  And this one is interesting as an artifact of the days when a company like Atari wouldn't raise an eyebrow, or perhaps even know about, potentially controversial humor in one of its products.  There are a few more of these adventures in the Atari archives, though I plan to take a break to play something more substantial before I continue there.  Onward!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Sleazy Adventure (1981)

This week, we're embarking on a Sleazy Adventure from 1981 -- another Atari Program eXchange release for the 8-bit Atari home computers, using the same in-house BASIC engine as several other APX games released around the same time.  This one was written by Bob Smith, and features an unusual theme -- it charges the player with sailing a friend's new sailboat back from Thailand, knowing that you can use it to import contraband.  Apparently the contraband will be treated as treasure!

Interested readers are welcome to enjoy a Sleazy Adventure of their own before reading my notes below -- if anyone does and manages to reach a more concrete ending than I did, I'd be very interested to hear about it.  Everyone is of course welcome to read my about my playthrough experience in the remainder of this post -- just be advised that there are going to be plenty of...

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

We start out at Bangkok International Airport with nothing in inventory but a passport (though even this doesn't show up in our Inventory, so it must be a permanent item in our possession.)  The only exits turn out to be Down, into the Sewer, and South, to the Marketplace.

I'll check out the sewer first, just to see if the sewers are meant to be significant to the story.  We can travel east into More Sewer, and TAKE the waterproof FLASHLIGHT floating here.  We have immediate need for it as we continue walking east, where we must TURNON FLASHLIGHT to discover that we're in the City Cesspool.

The game gets a little buggy here -- it suggests we are going to have to contract typhoid before we leave the cesspool, and a re-Look tells us THERE IS A TYPHOID HERE.  We also see the initial descriptions of a Sleazy Nightclub and a Back Alley, though that's not where we are yet, so this disk image may be slightly corrupted or the data file is missing some end-of-data markers.

With no other grand plans or high stakes this early in the game, I TAKE TYPHOID and on the next move find myself in the Hospital, where we have been brought to recover.  We now have to cure ourselves of the typhoid before we can leave the hospital to the south; no other exits are available, though we are told There is a small amount of poison here and we can TAKE POISON (which fortunately just puts it in inventory.)

Fortunately, the game's strange logic here is consistent -- we can simply DROP TYPHOID, and You improve 100 percent, and feel able to walk again.  We are now free to go south, out of the hospital and into an Alley where tourists seek unsavory entertainment, though it doesn't seem we can interact with them.

We can walk south again to discover an Unconscious Sailor and TAKE his WALLET (unlike many adventure game protagonists, our character here is notably amoral.)  West of the Alley is a Sleazy Alley, fulfilling all of the stereotypes of 1980s Thailand -- open gutters, starving dogs, nightly killings.  North of the Sleazy Alley is a Back Alley, with a 2 baht coin lying on the ground for the taking, so we'll TAKE COIN.

The game world's descriptions are brief, but its map is fairly large -- we can travel further north to a Dirty Alcove, where we see a small, ragged waif, and smell a sweet odor coming from behind a doorway (apparently to the west -- as in the other games using the APX engine, we have to navigate experimentally and that's the only valid but blocked exit here.)  DROP COIN doesn't produce any effect; the waif is apparently not a doorman, or at least not one who can be bought for 2 baht.

The dirty alcove is otherwise a dead end, so we'll return to the back alley and travel west to a Sleazy Nightclub where a pervert in feathers makes crude offers in your ear.  We can visit the Backstage area to the south, where we see half dressed females and midgets selling drugs.  This area doesn't seem to serve any real purpose beyond atmosphere, and it links back to the sleazy alley to the east.

South of the sleazy alley is a Sleazy Bar, with a sign reading "SHANGAI HAVEN" and drunken sailors everywhere.  We can travel east back to the unconscious sailor; I notice that most of these locations allow us to go D into the sewer, but we always emerge back at the Marketplace, so we'll try to avoid that detour and backtracking cycle as much as possible.

Where haven't we been yet?  East of the drunken sailor is a River Bank.  This, we are informed, is the edge of the city.  Southward lies the forest, the ocean, and ADVENTURE.  Before we go there, in case we can't return, we'll check out anything obviously left undone here.  As it turns out, the waif in the dirty alcove won't do anything when we DROP COIN, but stands aside when we DROP WALLET.

Now we can access a Hovel, where a boy offers an aromatic package that he assures us is a rare, costly, and potent incense.  Incense, right.  But we'll TAKE INCENSE anyway.  And it turns out, probably due to design oversight, we can TAKE WALLET again on our way past the waif.

Any other areas to explore?  East of the marketplace are some Rice Paddies that continue for miles and miles.  East of the river bank is a Lumber Mill, containing a bundle of rare ebony; we can't TAKE BUNDLE but we can TAKE EBONY.

The lumber mill reconnects to the rice paddies to its north, and this looks like a maze so we'd probably better map it out and acquire any goodies within.  Except... it turns out this isn't really a maze, just a dead end location meant to suggest endless fields that we needn't (and can't) go exploring.  We can't TAKE RICE, either.

Well, we have some incense and ebony to smuggle home, so let's see what happens to the south.  We find ourselves in a Teak Forest -- but we are lost, and dare not go further.  All other exits are currently blocked, and the text helpfully informs us that "A pervert at the nightclub has maps."  Ah, those scandalous cartographers!

I go back to the sleazy nightclub and try to DROP WALLET, DROP COIN, and TAKE OFFER to no avail -- HINT suggests that we HUMOR IT (IT being used as a non-gender-specific pronoun, something the language is still struggling with three decades on.)  HUMOR PERVERT is indeed the right course of action -- a map appears in an outstreched [sic] hand, and we can now TAKE MAP.

We can't READ MAP immediately -- THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE -- but if we do that in the teak forest, the exits open up; The way to go is still not obvious, but you are no longer lost.

East brings us to a Clearing, where a blind mendicant begs for donations.  DROP COIN prompts him to reveal himself as a monk from the Shrine nearby, and he teaches you a mantra to say.  Inside the Shrine to the east, a passage leads down; SAY MANTRA has no effect here, though.

I head down into the Meditation Room, a vast underground cavern, and find the way out now blocked by chanting monks.  There's a large gold disk here, suspended by wires, with a padded hammerlike affair nearby.  I can't TAKE HAMMER or TAKE INSTRUMENT or TAKE AFFAIRHINT suggests that if we don't know any mantras we should try SYSTEM RESET -- After you strike the gong, of courseSAY MANTRA clears the passage back the way we came, so we aren't trapped.  But now I'm curious -- saving the emulator state first (as the game has no SAVE function of its own), I STRIKE GONG -- and a gold Buddha appears at our feet.  We can TAKE BUDDHA, though it does seem to be heavy.

We can TAKE COIN from the blind mendicant as we exit -- there probably isn't any reason to do this, just a design oversight that allows us to.  I'll head west of the forest entry point now, before going any further south, to visit Sheena's Hut.  The Tanya Roberts movie version of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was relatively current when this game was produced, and we're advised against taking advantage of the woman in a leopard suit standing here.  HUMOR SHEENA causes her to sigh, and open the door, but I'm not sure that's meaningful.  We'll have to come back here once we think of something to do (and yes, I did try a few of the obvious verbs, but this Sleazy Adventure proved insufficiently sleazy to recognize them.)

There are no other exits here, so we'll go to the Dock south of the teak forest.  Here we see our sailboat moored a little distance off shore, and are advised: If you have everything you want, step into the dinghy on the south side of the dock.  This seems like a point of no return, so I'll save the emulator state here.

We can go D from the dock to find ourselves Overboard, splashing around, but can readily climb back up into the Dinghy.  We find ourselves rowing in circles around the sailboat.  I try to BOARD BOAT and GO SAILBOAT and COME ABOARD (per the location description) but finally figure out we can just go U to reach the boat's cockpit.

The first thing we should do, the game urges us, is to GRAB HANDRAIL.  Doing so informs us that aboard ship, we must navigate with Fore, Aft, Port and Starboard.  The first thing we're supposed to do is drop the mooring line, but we'll try to explore a little bit before we set sail.  We can't travel port or starboard here without falling into the water.  Aft is blocked, but we can move Fore to the Cabintop, the place to sleep in the sun after we're under way.  We can travel fore once more to reach the Foredeck, where a cleat for securing the mooring line exists in the bow of the boat.  I TAKE MOORING LINE and DROP MOORING LINE -- it disappears into the water, which was probably the wrong thing to do... ?  But I can TAKE MOORING LINE again, so maybe not.  I can't SECURE or TIE it up, at least.  And if I drop it elsewhere, the cleat seems to move with it, so this isn't a deeply implemented sort of puzzle.

HINT suggests that we need to hoist the jib after dropping the mooring line, but when I try to HOIST JIB, I'm told that I DON'T SEE ANY JIB HERE.  Clearly my seamanship is lacking, as I'm not actually sure what a jib is, though I'm sure it is in dire need of hoisting.

We can go D from the cockpit to the Companionway below-decks area.  Aft is the Masters Quarters, our bunk for the next few weeks, and there's a suggestive woodcut on the aft bulkhead.  MOVE WOODCUT reveals a secret compartment, described as, erm, a damp, secret place here!  Ah -- this is where we are meant to hide contraband, it seems, as when we walk into the Secret Compartment, we are advised that It is downright wet in here, so you'd better wrap anything of value.  We are allowed to WRAP BUDDHA and WRAP INCENSE, but the others are apparently okay as-is or aren't contraband.  I drop these items in the secret compartment, hoping this will keep them away from prying eyes.  I try to MOVE WOODCUT again to close up the compartment, but that's not supported so I guess I'll just have to hope it's invisible. 

We'll go fore a few times now to reach the Galley, where a hole leads down into the Hold, and a passage fore reaches the Sail Locker, where we can TAKE JIB and TAKE MAINSAIL.  The hold is purportedly great for cargo, so I'll DROP EBONY here and see if that passes muster should we run into any authorities.

I return above deck and HOIST JIB at the foredeck, as the boat begins to move.  I can't find a place to HOIST MAINSAIL until I climb U from the cabintop to the Mast.

Now the sailboat is ready to sail, and I can access the Helm aft of the cockpit, where I am supposed to give steering instructions.  I have no idea where we're going, really, and trying to READ the large COMPASS here suggests only that The oceans are your gateway.

Aha!  The act of reading the compass seems to shift the game into a new mode.  We can no longer navigate aft/port/starboard/fore at this point -- we're stuck at the helm, and are only allowed to enter compass directions for steering the ship.  I discover this accidentally after seeing that Aft no longer works, and trying to go South instead, only to find the boat entering the Gulf of Siam.  I end up bumbling my way back to the San Francisco Bay, and south to a Dock.  Home sweet home?

As we dock, we are greeted by an IRS agent, an art dealer, a DEA agent, and Hunter S. Thompson, famous gonzo journalist and drug enthusiast.  So how do we deal with these folks?  HINT only tells us that if no one is here, the computer's SYSTEM RESET button will end the game so we can try again.  Is there any action we're supposed to take here, or is this in fact victory?

I can't seem to re-board the boat now that we're on dry land, in order to sell or get caught red-handed with any of my hard-smuggled contraband, so I restore to an earlier state and see if I can greet the welcoming party with more stuff in hand.  While exploring, I discover the Bilges aft of the hold, where the GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA lives.  (My research indicates that this is a 1924 Sherlock Holmes reference, though I personally first encountered this creature in the annals of The Firesign Theatre.)  We DROP POISON, and the creature nibbles it and dies in its sleep; we have to MOVE RAT before we can access the Secret Hold.  Interesting -- this boat is full of secrets!  We can WRAP EBONY here, where we couldn't in the secret compartment, and DROP EBONY.

I confirm my earlier, luck-driven route home on this second try -- S, E, E, N, S, S.  This time, we have added several eager cabinetmakers to the parties from before, so I'm going to assume that victory is ours:

I am still not sure this is the best possible situation, so I check one more time to see if putting the Buddha and incense in the secret hold instead of the secret compartment makes any difference, but it doesn't seem to.  I dig into the game's data files and the only person missing seems to be a US Customs agent suspecting I'm importing illegal wood.  But we can't seem to TAKE TEAK in the lumber mill or the teak forest, so that doesn't really seem to be something I'm missing, and the contradictory presence of other law enforcement agencies right next to customers with an interest in the same goods suggests the game's logic here is a little confused.

So I'm going to call this Sleazy Adventure finished -- it is giving us a traditional congratulatory message just for making it back here, and the only victory condition the ending suggests is that we have not been victorious if absolutely nobody is here to greet us.  There doesn't seem to be any more gameplay available, despite this engine's presentation of infinite prompts with no real ending implemented.  I'm calling this one done!  Next!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Alien Egg (1981)

This week, I'm playing another Atari 400/800 text adventure published through APX, the Atari Program Exchange, in 1981.  I had heard of Alien Egg back in the day but hadn't run across it yet, and I found it by chance under the unofficial title "SPCSHP" on the same disk as Rob Fulop's Marketing Adventure.  This one was written by Robert Zdybel and uses the same engine.

As I noted last week, this engine was apparently an in-house Atari project.  It features a very basic two-word parser -- text simply scrolls up the screen, exits aren't listed, there's no EXAMINE verb and no GET, only TAKE, but at least we can tell which verbs and nouns the dictionary does and does not recognize.

The object of Alien Egg is not too different from some other space-themed adventures of this era -- we're to find an alien's egg on its home planet, and return it to our spaceship's bio-lab for analysis.  The game is fairly grounded in plausible science fiction, though at least one of the puzzles might as well involve magic for all the sense it makes.

Interested readers are encouraged to recover the Alien Egg firsthand before proceeding here -- the game is not too difficult, though the hardcore are advised that the HINT command really is needed, in part to make up for the lack of EXAMINE.  Beyond this point I will be discussing my own playthrough experience in detail, for the sake of documenting the history of these games.  And that means there are sure to be...

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

We begin in the Astro-Navigation Room, alone on the spacecraft.  There's a hatch in the floor, and a light on the console is flashing red.  We can't open the hatch (YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET) and we have nothing in inventory, so we'll do some exploring.

Heading north takes us to the Reactor Control Room, where a "REMEMBER THREE-MILE ISLAND!" poster on the wall reminds us when this adventure was produced; the reference already seems dated and out of synch with the game's otherwise futuristic trappings.  There's a reactor control rod sticking out of the console, and a large red caution notice.  We can READ NOTICE: "DANGER, PROTECT EXPOSED SKIN SURFACES."  That seems like wise advice near a nuclear reactor.

We can head Up from the reactor room to a Billiards Room -- The human race must be civilized after all!  North of the billiards room we find the Crew's Bunks, all neatly made by the crew before their mysterious and untimely disappearance

West of the bunks is the Galley, piled high with dirty dishes.  A secured crawlway above is marked with a sign: "ACCESS TO SECURE AREAS CONTROLED [sic] BY VOICE COMMAND."

This engine makes mapping difficult, because there's no auto-listing of exits and the game's text doesn't usually tell us anything either, so we have to bump into or through possible walls a lot to find all the possible pathways.  I'm at risk of losing track, so I'm going to backtrack a little bit and make sure I'm being thorough in checking the six possible exits from each room (N, S, E, W, U and D.)

Above the crew's sleeping area we find the Captain's Bunk, containing a thin access-privelege [sic] card that ought to come in handy.  North is the Chemistry Lab, where an overturned jar of crystals sounds significant based on its description but is not apparently portable.

Continuing upward from the Chemistry Lab -- there are a lot of up/down connections in this map -- we find the Biology Lab, which the intro has informed us we'll need to visit to finish the adventure.  A pamphlet here suggests that the aliens are scared of small furry creatures, almost certainly a hint for facing said aliens.

We can travel east from the chemistry lab into the Observatory, where a large viewport displays the cratered surface of the alien planet upon which we are parked.  The security crawlway above is securely bolted, but we'll TAKE the battery operated LAMP here (and avoid turning it on until we absolutely need to, based on past adventuring experience.)

It looks like I've explored everything here, except the blocked security crawlway, so I'll start backing out.  Checking navigation in the crew's bunks, I find a downward path to a Weapon Locker, unfortunately empty of weapons.  A book here can be taken, but READ BOOK yields only THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE, which my experience with this engine suggests means we have to read it at a certain place and/or time.  We'll keep it with us until we figure that out, anyway.

Traveling north of the weapon locker returns us to the Astro-Navigation Room, our starting location, so the map is starting to feel a little more complete.  I close another loop by discovering the Needle-Shower room, which uses no water, and can be reached from the Galley to the north and the Billiards Room to the east.  There's a Captain's cap here, which we can take with us, but there's no WEAR verb so it doesn't appear we'll be impersonating an officer.

We're closing out more of the map now... D from the Needle-Shower takes us to the Ship's Zoo, where an unlicensed Tribble sits near a dragon-like beast breathing fire, though the creature doesn't bother us if we want to TAKE TRIBBLED from the Galley takes us to the Space Suit Closet, where we can obtain a clean space suit that fits, and it reconnects to the Astro-Navigation Room to the west.

What next?  We can't OPEN HATCH in the navigation room yet.  Can we remove the cooling rod from the reactor room?  Nope, TAKE ROD is not permitted, and the parser won't understand PUSH or PULL ROD.

Can we figure out how to operate the voice-activated security system in the galley?  SAY OPEN and SAY ACCESS don't work.  But I can READ the access CARD we found earlier, on which is written GEMCO.  But drat the luck, SAY GEMCO has no effect here either.

Perhaps due to the lack of an EXAMINE verb, this engine sometimes relies on HINT to provide information not otherwise available.  Typing HINT in the biology lab, for example, reveals that a sign is present, even if we don't exactly need this confirmed: "Alien organisms to be placed here."  So maybe I need to look for hints in more areas to see what the possibilities are, and I realize that there's a quirky context-sensitivity here -- we have to L(ook) in each room to trigger a change in the HINT text, otherwise it just repeats the previous hint.

This gets interesting -- in the crew's bunks, HINT tells us that "The Captain's cap belongs in his cabin."  And when I DROP CAP there, a secret panel opens to reveal a cassette recorder.  PLAY RECORDER yields the word, "WARNER."  I suppose this could be figured out without the hint, just by painful trial and error, but this is the game's only puzzle that makes little practical sense.

We don't have to use the tape after hearing the word -- there's no voiceprint technology at work, so we can just SAY WARNER ourselves in the galley, causing the security crawlway to open, leading to the main computer room above.  The entire cabin is filled with the weird sounds that seem to characterize fictitious computers -- very observant, Mr. Zdybel!  We can acquire an extra-heavy duty radiation-proof glove here, and there are no other exits from this room so that must be why we're here.

We still can't TAKE ROD, even with the glove?  Hmmm.  And WEAR isn't recognized.  HINT in the reactor room suggests, "NO MORE NUKES! .. SHUT 'EM DOWN."  So that appears to be a clear goal.  HINT in the billiards room suggests we need to read the book here -- it turns out to be "Theory and Practice of ZERO-G Billiards," by Mork from Ork.  Man, I still miss Robin Williams.  But what is this supposed to accomplish?  It seems to have no obvious impact, and we can't PLAY BILLIARDS so I suspect this is just for entertainment purposes.

What about the access card?  I try to WAVE CARD, INSERT CARD and USE CARD, but none of these verbs are recognized near the security crawlways, in the control rooms or in the computer room.

Interesting... an idle attempt to READ GLOVE reveals a label: "Edward Teller Autograph Series," like collectible baseball gloves; Teller was a physicist.  I still can't push or pull the control rod with the glove, but MOVE ROD pushes it in, and the reactor shuts down.

Now we can open the hatch and enter the Reactor Room, finding ourselves on a catwalk high above the reactor (which appears to still be operating -- in fact, we're told that our eyesight is quick enough to visualize tachyons!)  We can access an Airlock with a card slot to the north, the Engine Room to the west, a Tool Shed to the south, and a Hydroponic Garden to the east.  I acquire a small silver key in the garden and an aluminum ladder in the tool shed.  HINT in the engine room notes that the engine's serial number is filed off, so it's probably stolen, but I think that's just another little joke.

The Airlock's card slot appears designed for the access card, but I still can't WAVE or USE or INSERT CARD.  Aha!  We just need to OPEN AIRLOCK -- in fact, it seems we don't actually have to have the card with us, so the access slot may not really have been implemented.

The airlock opens to reveal the planet below, and we can go D to explore the planet's Endless Plain.  The airlock after we disembark is now high above, and perhaps unreachable, but we can DROP LADDER to fix that.  There's a cave here, but the entrance is blocked by a boulder and we can't explore anywhere else.

I return to the Observatory and try to SAY GEMCO here -- SAY WARNER didn't work, and I could have sworn I tried this earlier, but this opens up the crawlway leading to the ship's nose cone.  A large Vegan spider is here -- from the star Vega, I guess, since if it doesn't consume animal products we're safer than we're meant to feel -- spinning a web in the corner, and we see a large mahogany chest, locked and covered with cobwebs.

With the silver key, we can UNLOCK CHEST and find a blaster inside.  That might come in handy!  The spider doesn't actually harass us, so we're free to go try this blaster out on that boulder.  Except we can't SHOOT BOULDER; we must FIRE BLASTER.

We head D into the cave, where IT IS TOO DARK TO SEE ANY DETAIL, but we're ready for that and can use this engine's non-standard TURNON LAMP to gain some light.  We can head north from the cave entrance to the Diamond Room, where a splendid diamond is as large as a hen's egg and just as valuable.  This seems to suggest that in the world of Alien Egg, either chickens have become scarce, or diamonds have become common.

I travel north into the Stalactite Room, and north again to a... Bottomless Pit?  We fall infinitely downward, it seems, and there's no way back -- HINT "helpfully" confirms this -- so I'll have to restore (and I am grateful for emulator save states, as the hint can only suggest hitting SYSTEM RESET!)

Heading east from the diamond room this time, we find the Stalagmite Room, where "some of them look as old as Ronald Reagan."  Ah, vintage 1980s humor!  There's also a full-grown alien here, guarding the entrance to it's [sic] lair.  But we read that pamphlet earlier, so we correctly predict that we can DROP TRIBBLE and frighten it out of the cave.

We're now free to enter the Lair, and TAKE the leathery alien EGG here, hoping it's not going to launch a facehugger, and breathing a sigh of relief when the pickup is uneventful.  I TAKE TRIBBLE again on the way out, just in case; clearly we're not meant to confront the full-grown alien, just collect a young one for scientific research.  What could go wrong?

Now I think we just need to take the egg to the bio-lab... I grab the diamond on the way, but am surprised we can't CLOSE AIRLOCK on the way back into the ship.  I don't run into the alien again, and I guess the airlock isn't critical because we don't actually have to take off.  All we have to do is DROP EGG in the designated location, and victory is ours!

I'd like to think I have been a FULL-FLEDGED ADVENTURER for a while now, but the game is over with a satisfactory ending.  One odd thing about this parser is that it can't apparently really end a game -- even when we win, the engine just keeps taking input, and I never ran into any truly fatal scenarios.  There are a couple more of these Atari Program Exchange adventures in the archives, and I may continue with those while I still have the APX parser's quirks fresh in my mind.