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.

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