Saturday, September 9, 2017

Acheton: Steady Progress

One difference I've noticed between CRPGs and adventure games, in general, is that it's easier in the former to gauge how far you'll progress within a certain timeframe.  For the most part, CRPGs are pretty straightforward, and progress is often a simple matter of making your character stronger.  With adventure games, progress is made in terms of puzzles solved, and areas unlocked and explored.  It only takes getting stuck on one puzzle to bring everything to a crashing halt, and whole weeks can be spent banging your head against the game with nothing to show for it.

I was worried that this would be my experience with Acheton, but I'm happy to report that I've solved a number of puzzles, and made significant and steady progress.  As usual I'll break it down by puzzle as I describe my various breakthroughs.

The Wine: One of the treasures in the game is a case of wine that can be found in the wizard's cellar.  The problem is that when you try to remove it, the case screams out loud and attracts a pack of dogs that tears you apart.  The solution is to also have a pillow in your inventory, to muffle the screams.  I discovered this one by accident, but I'll take my solutions where I can get them.

My pillow put a stop to the wining.

The Gnome and the Lamp: In the wizard's garden there's a gnome who runs away if you try to catch him.  I had initially thought that you needed to burn the hedge maze down to catch him, but in the course of testing it to write this blog I discovered that you just need to make three attempts.  After the third attempt he offers to give you a clue at the cost of 10 points, but that's pretty irrelevant when you can save and restore at will.  He gives more than one clue (which I also just discovered while testing things out for the blog), and I took great pains to get as many of them as possible by abusing the save/restore functions.  These are the clues he gave me:

  • "The Ruling Council of Acheton wants you to know that you have to get quite close to the giant before you can deal with him, and that it is possible to do this safely."  I've already solved this problem, as detailed below, and I can't see how this clue is helpful.
  • "The last adventurer who passed this way told me from his death-bed that there is more than one use for the magic wand."  I've found what is probably a magic wand, in the tunnels behind the Ningy, but I haven't discovered even one use for it yet.
  • "Mr Witt's mother-in-law, who was the last wife of Pharaoh Yelka-Oekim III, has asked me to tell you that there is a great source of heat below Acheton.  It is possible for you to make use of this, though you cannot get anywhere near it." No idea about this one yet.
  • "The general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Cave Workers, who was drunk at the time, mandated me to tell you that the prime reason for drinking is to help you relax."  I have a pot of London Dry gin, but there are no situations where being relaxed seems helpful just now.
  • "The Wizard, when he first brought me into existence, bade me say that the material of your lamp was forged timeless eons ago."  This is the one clue I figured out, and I'll get to it in more detail below.
  • "The old man, who passed this way as a boy after digging the mine informed me that the amulet is a powerful charm."  I've found an amulet in the mine, and there's a deaf old man elsewhere in the caves.  I took the amulet to him and tried a number of verbs (GIVE, THROW, SHOW, DROP, WEAR, RUB, WAVE), but he didn't react to any of them.

There might be more clues than these, but I probably tried it around fifty times, so I doubt it.  As I said above, though, I figured out the clue about the lamp being timeless.  In an earlier post I mentioned that there was a Timeless Cavern, and that lingering in it for too long caused the lamp to burn out.  The trick is to leave just one move before the lamp burns out, when it is "burning very brightly".  As far as I can tell, that brings it back to a full charge.  I haven't tested whether this can be done multiple times, but I doubt it.  Adventure game designers are rarely so kind.

The Giant: There's an area with a giant wandering around, who will step on you if you end up in the same location as him.  You can slip past him to an alcove, where you'll find two treasures: a beryl, and a porcelain plate.  (The plate has a pile of salt on it, which I'm sure will be useful at some point.)  The problem is that the way the giant moves around stops you from being able to get back out again.  I needed to find something to either help him notice me (an unlikely solution) or to kill him or knock him over (far more likely).  As usual when I'm stuck, a look at all of the inventory items I'd found proved helpful.  In this case I hit upon the marble, which despite being small seemed like a possible way of tripping him up.  Sure enough, if you throw the marble at the giant he goes crashing to the floor and you can escape.  The marble even comes through unscathed, which is good because there's a vision swirling in it that I need to decipher at some point.

The convenient survival of an essential quest item.

Swimming: The ocean and the desert were the two major obstacles I'd been concerned with in my last post, and I've made zero progress in navigating the latter.  The ocean, however, I'm pretty sure that I'm done with.  I got through the swimming portion of it through trial and error.  If you swim too far north you'll die in a whirlpool, and if you go too far south you'll die on the cliffs.  Swimming north-west three times from the beach will guide you between Scylla and Charybdis, the whirlpool/sea monster combo from Greek mythology, and into some new caves.  You can only take one item while swimming, and it needs to be the lamp so that you can illuminate these caves.

Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.

There are two items to be found in the new area: a tiara (one of the treasures) and a dead fish.  Eventually you'll arrive at a familiar bridge.  In an earlier post I mentioned that there is a bridge where Scylla pops up and eats you when you try to cross.  This is the same bridge, but this time you're approaching it from the opposite direction.  It's a simple matter to distract Scylla with the fish and cross the bridge back to the main area of the game..

The Dinghy:  That's not all that needs to be done on the ocean: there's also a dinghy.  You can sail it once you have the triangular cloth, but everywhere I tried to go with it resulted in me being dashed to my death on a coral atoll. Eventually I decided to see what would happen if I just waited a few turns, and let the current take me.  It still swept me to my death, but I found that jumping off just beforehand resulted in me being washed up on an island.

On the island I found some driftwood, a single palm tree, and four caves.  One of these caves contained some emeralds, but I couldn't find anything else.  A ship flying a white flag, and seemingly crewed by ghosts, sailed past without noticing me.  I thought perhaps I needed to set the driftwood on fire to get its attention, but I couldn't figure out how.  Later on a ship with a black flag landed, and a crew of pirates disembarked and killed me.

This one took a LOT of trial and error.  First, you need to climb the palm tree when the pirate ship arrives, otherwise they will find you no matter where you are.  While you're hiding, the pirates go into one of the caves before leaving.  If you enter the same cave and dig, you'll find a chest full of doubloons.

Hiding from the pirates, matey.

With that done, you need to get the attention of the white boat.  I was right about the driftwood, but you can't make a fire with it initially because it's scattered all over the beach.  I tried all sorts of things to make it into a pile, but all you need to do is pick it up then drop it.  It makes sense, I guess, but I only figured it out by accident.  Once that's done you can light a fire with a match when the white ship appears, and the ghost crew will pick you up and deposit you in the harbour cave near the slab room, back in familiar territory.

The Ice Maze: This is yet another puzzle I solved by accident.  It's a maze of icy caverns, each with three exits.  Exploring will eventually put you in an area where the ice cracks under your feet and dumps you into deadly freezing water.  When I went to explore it recently, though, I had the thermometer in my possession, which constantly gives you the temperature of the room you're in.  The ice caverns alternate between -10 and -4.  As long as you're in a cavern with -10 temperature, it's safe to proceed south-east or south-west.  If you're in a cavern with a -4 temperature, you can only safely head back north; going SE or SW will kill you.  Deep in the caverns I found a sceptre and some mink gloves.

Navigating the ice passages.

The Combination Room: With a sceptre in my possession, I was reminded that the game also had an orb and a crown.  I can't for the life of me remember where the myth comes from, but I know that the three go together, so I took them all to the King's Combination Room to see if anything would happen.  When I arrived, the king's butler appeared and presented me with a treasure chest.  I go back and forth with puzzles like this.  A lot of adventure games require outside knowledge for their puzzle solutions, particularly on the topic of mythology.  That's fine for me, because I have a pretty good base knowledge on that topic.  Sometimes, though, I feel like an adventure game should be complete in itself.

Excellent butling, good sir.

The Roc's Nest: The ice maze didn't just provide me with the solution to the king's combination room, but it also provided me with the mink gloves.  With those I was able to take the mithril habergeon, which had previously been too freezing for me to touch safely.  I'd been waiting to get my hands on the mithril armour for a while, because I suspected that it would protect me from the Roc in the wizard's garden.  The Roc guards the western path of the garden, and when it carries you away its claws puncture your lungs.  The armour protects against that, and instead of killing you the Roc carries you to its nest.

Surviving the Roc's claws.

In the nest there's a moonstone, and four unhatched eggs.  Nearby in a dead end is another treasure, an adamant diadem.  Of course, if you hang around long enough the eggs will hatch and a Roc fledgling will descend on you and tear you to shreds.  Elsewhere in the area is a locked cage with four winged serpents inside.  This was a simple one: you unlock the cage, release the serpents, and find a safe place to wait while the serpents and the rocs kill each other.  Once that's done you can enter the cage, where you'll find a tunnel leading back to the wizard's garden.

So that's where I am, quite a bit further through the game than I was as of my last post.  I made no progress at all as of last night, though.  I've got no idea what to do about the desert, or the ice floe with its various scents, or the wizard's dungeon, or the hall of mirrors.  I have the clues the gnome provides now, but none of those are helping much at the moment.  I'll give it a few more days, but if I go much longer without figuring anything out I'll probably get some hints from a walkthrough.  I've done pretty well to get this far with only looking at one hint, and I won't be ashamed to look a bit more should I get really stuck.  It's a challenging game, but not so devilishly hard as I'd been led to believe (at least so far).  Maybe I'm just getting better at these things.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Acheton: Like Chipping Away at a Mountain

Given that it's been three months since my last post, you might think that I'd have made a lot of progress.  After all, that's like 100 days - plenty of time to finish most games that aren't Moria or The Game of Dungeons v8 (or Fate: Gates of Dawn, for those of you who were reading the CRPGAddict last year).  Well, I have accomplished a lot.  I started reading Pluto by Naoki Urasawa.  I watched every single match in the G-1 Climax tournament.  I completed Super Metroid, Super Mario World, Starwing, Super Castlevania IV, Illusion of Time, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  I read 539 comic books (all Marvels).  What I didn't do was play Acheton.  So while I did loads of other things that were not very taxing on my brain, I studiously avoided playing this dauntingly large game that would require diligence and concentration.  For various reasons, I just wasn't up to it.

I had determined to get back to blogging once the G-1 Climax was over, and thus I also had to return to Acheton.  I wasn't exactly looking forward to it.  The scope, size and difficulty of the game were a real deterrent.  There was also the fact that I had hit a wall with it back in May, not long after my first post.  The prospect of getting back to a game that I felt I had barely scratched the surface of, and that I was already stuck in, wasn't very enticing.

So I've been back at it for a week, and I've had mixed results.  Yes, I've solved a few puzzles, discovered some new areas, and claimed some treasures.  But the new areas I've found have just presented more puzzles I can't solve, and hinted at expansive areas that possibly make the game far larger than I ever expected.  As the title of this post says, it feels like I'm chipping away at a mountain.  I'll keep at it, but don't be surprised if I eventually cave, and start consulting walkthroughs.

It's not all bad news, though.  In the time since I started playing again I've managed to solve three puzzles, and I present their solutions below.

The Ningy: One of the rooms in Acheton has a giant rubber object called a Ningy propped up against the east wall.  If you type GET NINGY, it falls over and a new passage is revealed behind it, where you'll find a Rod (very similar in description to the magic rod from Colossal Cave Adventure, which was used to create a bridge over a chasm), a Rembrant portrait in an art gallery, and a cliff overlooking the ocean.  The portrait is a treasure, but it's too large to take out of the gallery, so that's another puzzle to add to the list.

There's more to the Ningy than is first apparent, though.  Check out what happens when you topple the thing.


There's a clue here, hinting that you've screwed up: the mocking voice that says "I suppose you think you're clever, don't you!"  This immediately put me on guard; messages like this rarely appear in adventure games for no reason.  I didn't figure this one out on my own, though.  When I first got back into the game I played it for a couple of hours before taking some time to read the first few posts on the game over at Renga in Blue.  What I discovered there was that there's another tunnel higher in the wall, and the only way to get to it is to CLIMB NINGY.  If you topple the Ningy first, there's no way to beat the game, and I'm pretty sure that mocking voice is the only clue you get.  It's better than nothing, and it did raise my suspicions, but I probably never would have figured it out on my own.  (So technically I've already consulted help, even though it wasn't from an actual walkthrough.  Nothing else I read at Renga in Blue gave me any hints, though, so I'm in the dark from this point on.)

The higher passage led to an area with a beach, and also a room full of gargoyles and a pot of "London Dry".  The gargoyles are regular statues and have yet to come to life, which surprised me.  As for the "London Dry", taking a DRINK revealed that it was gin.  Drinking it results in you falling unconscious briefly, but if you drink to much you'll die of "cirrhosis of the liver".

As for the beach, this is where the game starts to get scarily expansive.  To the north of the beach is the ocean, and to the south is the desert.  Venturing south results in you becoming lost, and eventually dying of thirst unless random chance leads you back to the beach.  I suspect I'll need to find some way of navigating.  Going too far along the beach leads you into deadly quicksand.  You can swim in the ocean to the north, but I haven't yet found a way to do so without drowning.  The key to crossing the ocean is probably the boat that's on the beach.  You can rig up a sail with a piece of triangular cloth from elsewhere in the caves, but sailing it resulted in me being caught in rough seas and smashed to my death on a coral reef.  There was a message about my boat not having a rudder, so perhaps that's relevant.

Open areas like this make me nervous in adventure games.  With tunnels, things are confined.  You know that there's a limit to the game space, at least theoretically.  Of course there's a limit to outside areas as well, but in my head it doesn't feel that way.  I'm having nightmares of the desert being nothing but hundreds of empty areas, with one necessary item in the middle.  The ocean could be the same.  I'm definitely putting these two on the back-burner for now, because they make me nervous.

Escaping Hades: When you die in Acheton, the game asks if you want to be reincarnated.  If you answer YES, you are brought back to life in the Slab Room, stripped of all your equipment except for the lamp.  It's possible that you lose points as well, but I haven't looked into it.  You might expect that an answer of NO would result in the game ending, but instead you are transported to Hades.  There you'll find a number of famous dead personages engaging in fitting punishments, and also a crystal skull on the ground.

The first time I entered Hades, I discovered that you can leave by typing REINCARNATE.  The game mocks you, but otherwise acts as though you had previously types YES, returning you to the Slab Room with the lamp.  What you can't do is keep the skull: as the game puts it, "The only way skull you're taking with you is your own worthless one."  Obviously, there's another answer.

The clue comes in the Slab Room, where there's a message carved onto a rock: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here - ANON".  The solution is a pretty simple one for those who've played Colossal Cave Adventure and understand how its magic words function: you type ANON while in Hades and you'll be returned to the site of your death with the skull in your possession.  Obviously this isn't always beneficial, as some locations will just kill you again.  The trick is to find a location that you can survive returning to.

The desert: not a great place to come back to life

The Wizard's Greenhouse: Inside the Wizard's Greenhouse there's a giant plant that eats you when you enter.  Around the back of said greenhouse is an exposed root, which is pretty obviously your means for killing this plant.  I tried cutting it and I tried burning it, but those didn't work.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, the answer was to water it.  Apparently such exotic plants are sensitive.  There's a little bit of parser trouble here, because typing WATER ROOT doesn't work; you need to type WATER ROOTS for it to register.  Anyway, with the man-eating plant dead you can enter the greenhouse and claim another treasure: a bundle of rare herbs and spices.


So that's the extent of my success with Acheton so far.  It doesn't feel like much, and I'm not entirely certain what to tackle next.  The Roc that carries me away?  The garden gnome that I can't catch?  The mithril habergeon that freezes me when I touch it?  The Ice Passages?  The Hall of Mirrors? There are so many puzzles, and no obvious solutions.  Figuring them out on my own promises to be super-satisfying, but at the moment it's a frustrating experience.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Brief Hiatus

Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted here, but rest assured that the blog is not dead.  I still want to post, but the last couple of months have seen me dealing with some difficult personal issues and the emotional stress that comes with them.  I haven't had the mental energy or focus to do any sort of writing, or much of anything else to be honest.  The good news is that these issues are over, and and I'm in a good place right now.  I want to start blogging again soon.

The bad news (at least for readers waiting for the next post) is that the G1 Climax tournament is going on right now.  For those not in the know, it's a Japanese pro-wrestling tournament that is basically a solid month of hard bastards leathering the shit out of each other.  If WWE is the Nickelback of pro-wrestling, the G1 is like the Beatles, or a Mozart symphony.  Basically, it's great, but it also takes up a lot of my time, so I won't be getting back into writing until after it's done. So expect me back somewhere in mid-to-late August.

This is the part where I might ask for some monetary support, but let's be real here: what I write on the blog ain't worth charging money for.  But if you are looking for some more of my writing, I have a novel that's been available on Amazon for a few years. Jack Manley and the Warlord of Infinity is a fast-paced, B-movie sci-fi action adventure, and I have it on good authority that it's excellent (my Mum would never lie to me). So if you'd like to provide me with some lovely feel-good endorphins, please head over to Amazon and buy my book for the lovely price of 99 American.cents - it's totally worth it, and you can find it RIGHT HERE.

So, until my next post, I thank you for your patience (and ask you to forgive me for the blatant advertising).  I'll be back before you know it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Game 20: Acheton (1978)

The beginning of Acheton.

I had a good run with a couple of one-post games, but it looks like my streak has been broken by Acheton.  This game is big, it's vindictive, and it's difficult.  It's not going to hold me up for as long as Moria or The Game of Dungeons, but I think I'll be stuck on it for a couple of months at least.

Created by a trio of mathematicians from Cambridge University (Jon Thackray, David Seal and Jonathan Partington), Acheton may very well be the first adventure game written outside of the US. (The other candidate is The Cottage, which I'll be playing soon, but I'm not sure which of the two came first.)  It's yet another cave-based game with the goal of retrieving a number of treasures, and its debt to Colossal Cave Adventure is obvious.  It was programmed on Cambridge's Phoenix mainframe, and the creators have made full use of the space available to them, because this game is bloody huge.  It seems that the mainframe era will be haunting me for a little while yet.

I'm playing a Z-code port which was made to be as close as possible to the original game; the only difference that's been made is that you can restore your game whenever you want instead of at the start of your session. Unfortunately the game as it was in 1978 has been lost, so I'm playing the final version from 1981.  It's not ideal, but it's the best I can do.  It was later ported to some home computers, but I'll stick with the z-code version, as it's the most likely to be accurate to the original.

The goal of the game is to collect all of the treasures, and thus score a full 1,500 points.  That's a daunting total, but you begin with 50, and there's no way of knowing how many points each treasure is worth.

When the game begins, your character is standing in a forest near a farmhouse, carrying nothing.  Exploring the farmhouse reveals the following items: a can of white spray-paint, an empty bottle, a bunch of keys, and a brass lamp.  So far, so familiar.  I'm at the point now where I feel a twinge of dread at discovering a lamp at the beginning of an adventure game.  Trying to beat a game before the lamp runs out is more stress than I need.

South of the farmhouse, in a slight depression, is familiar scene: a 3x3 steel grate set in the ground.  As in Colossal Cave Adventure the grate is locked.  I used the keys and went down, not suspecting any foul play.  That's when the familiarity ended...

Getting punk'd by Acheton.

Thus Acheton sets out its stall early: it's been deliberately made in order to troll people familiar with Colossal Cave Adventure.  There are no other moments as deliberate as this one, but there's no shortage of ways to die in the opening stages.  To the west of the farmhouse is a deserted mine, and exploring that results in you slipping down the shaft and asphyxiating on the stale air.  If you enter one of the miners' huts nearby, it collapses on top of you.  The game's not afraid to kill you without warning, and in that it reminds me of Sierra's adventure games.  I like it; finding amusing ways to die was one of my favourite things to do in Sierra adventures, and Acheton provides that same sense of macabre fun.

As far as I can tell, the only other thing to do on the surface is to find the way down into the caves. Most of the areas surrounding the farmhouse, the mine and the grate are bits of wilderness that shuffle you around randomly when you exit them as a way to make the outdoors seem larger. To the east of the farmhouse, though, past an open field, is a glade surrounded by silver birch trees.  You can't leave the glade by regular means once you've entered.  Instead you need to climb one of the trees, at which point you're given the choice of which tree to climb: north, south, east or west.  There's nothing at the top of the trees, but climbing back down will place you outside of the glade.  Climbing the south tree and climbing back down puts you in a different glade with a hole in the centre.  Drop into the hole and you're in the caves of Acheton, and into the game proper.

My usual process with these games is to explore everything before I start solving puzzles, but that's difficult with Acheton because the game is bloody ginormous.  I've been at it for about three weeks, and I still haven't finished with the exploration phase.  I think I'm nearly done, but it's hard to say because there are mazes and areas blocked by obstacles, and there's no way to know how large the areas beyond them are.  I'm not sure where to begin describing the things I've found, because there's just so much.  I think I'll split this up into sub-sections and go from there.

PLACES OF INTEREST
There are so many different rooms in this game, many of them with intriguing descriptions, that it would be almost impossible to describe them all.  I'll try to cover the most interesting ones here, though.

  • The central hub of the caves is the Slab Room, which has exits in every direction.  Pretty much every area of the game branches off from here.
  • Towards the northern area of the map there's a large safe.  When I closed the safe door, the game got very irritated that I hadn't left any treasures inside and killed me, so I assume that this is the place where I need to gather every treasure I find to get a full score.
  • South of the Slab Room is a cluster of chambers with a torture/graveyard theme: there's a torture chamber (with manacles that come to life and hold you in place, that can only be opened with the keys), an executioner's room with a guillotine, an undertaker's room, and even a tomb for anonymous deceased adventurers.  I wonder if I should try to dig there?
  • West of the Slab Room there's a wizard's house with an adjoining garden area.  One area of the house has a cauldron with smoke pouring out of it, and wandering into the smoke lands you in the wizard's dungeons.  The game does mention that you'll need to learn some magic words, and I'm pretty sure that this is an area where they'll be used extensively.
  • East of the Slab Room are three rooms that once belonged to a king: a counting-house, an ante-toom, and a "combination room" (which only contains tapestries, so I'm not sure what the "combination" is in reference to).  There are no other mentions about this king elsewhere in the game.
  • South-east of the Slab Room is a room known as the "Toll Hole".  There's a hole there, and if you try to pass by without dropping a treasure in you'll be threatened by a hollow voice, and menaced by a falling boulder.  The first time you can get through unscathed, but on the second attempt you'll be killed.

I should have dropped something in the Toll Hole.

MAZES
Mazes are invariably the most irritating part of any early adventure game, and Acheton has seven of the bastard things (that I've found).  I've solved three of them, and I'm dreading tackling the rest.  I'll describe them below:

  • When you die, you're asked whether you want to be reincarnated.  Answering yes returns you to life, with only the lamp in your possession. If you answer no, you are taken to Hades where you can wander about a featureless landscape.  It's full of historical figures being punished, some of which are quite amusing, but I haven't been able to find a way out yet.
  • There's a giant pillar in a cave with two holes in the base. Entering either hole leads you to a small maze described as a "junction of several passages inside the pillar".  This only has seven areas, and I was able to map it easily by dropping items.  It was more of a nuisance than a genuine challenge.
  • At the bottom of a marble slide is a mine, in which every area is described as "lower levels of the mine".  Again, I was able to map this by dropping items, but the difficulty here was that it had more areas than I had items in my inventory.  I had to leave the mine and come back three times before I could map it fully.  This mine has no less than four treasures in it, and a few other items as well, so exploring it is quite rewarding.
  • There's a series of ice passages, each one with a tunnel to the north, the southeast and the southwest.  I haven't had a proper crack at solving this one yet, but each time I've explored it I've slipped on some ice and broken my neck.  I'm not why, but I suspect one of four possibilities: 1) It happens at random; 2) It happens after a set number of moves; 3) I need an item to avoid it; or 4) It happens in some specific exits.
  • There's a hedge maze near the Wizard's House, which I've fully explored.  Inside this maze I found a satin turban (one of the treasures) and a length of garden hose.  Later on I tried burning the maze with some matches, which destroyed the whole thing and revealed an irridium fleece.  I'll need to remember to do it after retrieving the turban though, because I'm pretty sure it's destroyed in the blaze.
  • Also in the Wizard's area is a hall of mirrors. Something tells me that this one will be trickier than the rest, unless I can find a way to break the mirrors somehow.
  • Finally, there are the Wizard's Dungeons, which you'll be incarcerated in if you wander into the wrong areas of his house. There's a lot of weirdness going on here, with an elf who runs in shouting various magic words.  I suspect that the magic words change the layout of the dungeons, but whenever I tried to use them the wizard got mad at me.  I'll probably leave this one until last, because it seems to be the trickiest by far.

Trapped in the Wizard's Dungeon.

UNSOLVED OBSTACLES
Below are some of the obstacles that I haven't yet been able to get past:

  • When I enter the wizard's greenhouse, a giant plant eats me.  Around the back of the greenhouse there's an exposed root, and I figure that I need to sever it or burn it or something.  I've found a spade which might help in digging it up, and a plate of salt that could maybe be used to salt the earth.  I haven't given it much thought yet.
  • I've found a cave with what appears to be a subterranean lake, but when I approach the water a fish jumps out and bites me.  Looking at the items I've found so far, I'm thinking that maybe the mithril habergeon might be useful here.
  • I've found something called a "Ningy", which appears to be a giant piece of rubber that blocks an entire wall of the chamber it's in.  I've got no how to get past it, or even if it's an obstacle at all.
  • The wizard has a rock garden, but when I try to enter I am carried away to my doom by a Roc.  Yes, Acheton creators, you're very funny.  I hope you're proud.
  • The central hub room of the caverns has a slab in the middle, with the words "Abandon hope all ye who enter here - ANON" written on it.  I assume that I'll need to move the slab at some point, possibly to enter Hades.
  • There's a stone bridge, but when I try to cross it I'm eaten by Scylla from Greek mythology.  The death message mentioned my boots making too much noise on the bridge, so I need to muffle them somehow.  Unless I just need to take them off, but I doubt the solution is that simple.
  • In a frozen area there's an ice floe that melts just a few turns after you first encounter it.  I get the feeling that I need to take the right actions here immediately, or the game becomes unwinnable.  Needless to say, if you're on the ice floe when it melts, it's game over.

Being eaten by Scylla.

TREASURES
So far I've located 22 treasures: a beryl, a porcelain plate, a mink coat, a crown, a sapphire, an amethyst pendant, an ebony statuette, a jewel-encrusted orb, an aquamarine, a cask of fine vintage wine, a mithril habergeon, a satin turban, a palladium salver, an iridium fleece, some ivory chess pieces, a turquoise amulet, some opals, a pair of jade earrings, a platinum brooch, some pearls, and a Stradivarius violin.

Of those treasures, there are a number that I'm not yet able to claim.  The beryl and the porcelain plate are in an area where there's a giant wandering about, and I can't get by him without being stepped on.  The aquamarine is found in the eye of a stone idol, which eventually finds and kills you if you take it.  The wine cask sounds the alarm in the wizard's house if you take it, causing you to be mauled by dogs.  The mithril habergeon is covered in ice, and freezes you to death if you try to take it.  Still, that's 17 treasures that I could retrieve and place in the safe right now, which feels like good progress to me.  Of course I have no idea how many treasures there are; I could be nowhere near the full total required.

OTHER MYSTERIES 
  • I've found a book on alchemy, but it crumbles when I try to read it.  I've found some other stones as well as a lump of lead, and I suspect that I'll have to transmogrify at least one of them.
  • There's a large area where an imprisoned giant is stomping about, and if you get caught in the same area as him he'll step on you.  Not because he's evil, but simply because he doesn't see you.  On the far side of his prison is an alcove where I found a beryl, and a porcelain plate with a pile of salt on it.  The beryl is one of the treasures, but it's impossible to get back out of the alcove without being stepped on.
  • There's a deaf old clothmaker in a room with a triangular cloth and some thread.  Perhaps I need to get him to make a boat for me?
  • There are different-coloured stars painted on the walls and ceiling in many areas scattered throughout the cave.  I suspect that there's magic involved here, but aside from that suspicion I have no idea what they're for.  If you say the magic word ZOOGE (found elsewhere in the dungeon) when in the presence of one of these stars, it summons a gust of wind that blows your inventory about the room.
  • I've found a glass marble, which occasionally tries to show me visions, but apparently the marble is too small for me to see them clearly.  Do I need to shrink myself, or enlarge the ball? Or do I simply need to magnify it?
  • There's a "lodestone room", which is highly magnetic. Whenever I exit the room, it puts me in one of eight random locations.  Normally I'd just chalk this up as a navigational hazard, but I remember the spinning room from Zork, and that stopping it was vital in claiming all the treasures.  I'm not ruling out that this room has a solution as well.
  • There's a primitive shrine with a stone idol that has an aquamarine gemstone for an eye.  I was able to pry the eye loose, but a few moves later the idol appeared and killed me.
  • There's a room called the Timeless Cavern, and it seems that entering it speeds up time significantly, as doing so always burned out my lamp.  Consequently I've been avoiding this room, but I'm convinced it will be necessary later.
  • I've found a sleeping dwarf, but haven't put any effort into trying to wake him up yet.
  • There's a cask of fine vintage wine in the wizard's cellar, but when I tried to take it out an alarm sounded and I was savaged by a pack of dogs.
  • There's a garden gnome in the wizard's garden, but every time I try to take it it runs away from me.

The wizard's guard dogs put an end to my wine thievery.

PUZZLES THAT I HAVE SOLVED
  • In  a cloak-room near the entrance to the caves there's a mink coat, but if you try to put it on you'll be attacked and killed by the ferrets hiding in its pockets.  Elsewhere in the caves there's a tiny casket that contains a whisper of moths.  I made the connection that moths like to eat coats pretty quickly, and sure enough if you open the casket in the cloakroom before picking up the mink coat, the moths will swarm down and devour the ferrets.  It's not the most plausible solution, but there's a certain game logic to it.  Disturbing the moths after that is a bad idea, though, because they'll eat the mink coat and you need that for later.
  • There's a cluster of rooms where the temperature is too cold to survive, but you can explore it if you're wearing the mink coat.
  • There's a fissure that I had originally believed was too wide to jump across.  It turns out that all you have to do is drop all of your gear, which allows you to make the jump.  On the other side I found a Stradivarius violin.
  • One room has a glass sheet covering the eastern exit, which can't be broken by force.  Etched into the glass are the words "Find the right key, though no lock there be."  The solution to this one was obvious: I needed to hit the right musical note.  At first I tried singing, with no luck, but as soon as I found the violin I knew that it was the "key" that I needed.  Sure enough, playing the violin shattered the glass sheet.
  • Beyond the glass was a dead end, where I found a tank full of acid.  At the bottom of the tank was a platinum salver that I was unable to take without being burned.  I found the solution to this puzzle in the pockets of the mink coat.  The coat is always described as having bulging pockets, and when I emptied the pockets I found a thermometer and some brass tongs.  With the tongs I was able to claim the salver and add another treasure to my tally.
  • Digging in the Tomb Room uncovered some pearls and an angry skeleton.  The skeleton wouldn't let me leave with the pearls, but I was able to immobilise him with the manacles I'd found earlier.

Chaining up an angry skeleton.

That pretty much covers it for the moment, although I suspect that there's a lot more to this game than I've discovered so far.  Despite my lack of progress, I'm enjoying it quite a bit: it's not quite as much fun as Zork, but if it continues in the same vein it might be comparable.  One thing that I appreciate about it is the complete lack of random elements.  Colossal Cave Adventure and it's remakes were full of knife-throwing dwarf.  Zork had the thief, and the battle with the troll which were both pretty much down to chance.  So far, Acheton doesn't have any random occurrences that can kill you.  It has plenty of ways to die, but they're all because of actions taken by the player, and can be avoided the second time through.  It's a more modern adventure design philosophy, and one that I prefer.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Game 19: The House of Seven Gables (1978)

Evocative.

The House of Seven Gables is the second game from Greg Hassett, twelve-year-old rival of adventure game legend Scott Adams.  Hassett's first effort, Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, had all the hallmarks of a game that was incomplete; it was full of red herrings and areas that served no purpose. It also only had one puzzle, making it extremely easy to finish.

The good news is that The House of Seven Gables is a much tighter game. There are still a few things in it that I never found a use for, but it felt to me less like Hassett didn't program them and more like I just didn't solve the puzzles.

If The House of Seven Gables sounds familiar, it might be because there's a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. The game has little to do with the book, although both have elements of witchcraft and the supernatural. Hassett's game is the first "haunted house" adventure I've played for the blog, and possibly the first one ever made. A lot of haunted house games will follow, so it's influential in that respect. (Oddly enough, at the same time I'm playing The House of Seven Gables, I'm also playing House of Hell over on my gamebook blog. That one's a bit more hardcore though, there's some genuine nightmare fuel in that book.)

One rule of my blog is that I try to run the games I'm playing as close to their original version as I can get. Where possible, I'm going to play games for the system for which they were developed. The House of Seven Gables was released for the TRS-80, so I'm emulating that machine. The emulator (found here) was a little finicky to get running. I had previously used it to play some early Scott Adams games, but had completely forgotten how to use it in the interim. A bit of Googling served me well, though, and I was ready to go.

The game begins with you standing at the front door of a house with seven gables. There's a doorbell, and a compass lying on the floor. The compass is an odd thing, because you can't move anywhere without it. As soon as you pick it up the exits from the room become visible, and you can move around. It doesn't make a lot of logical sense, and it also takes up an inventory slot which is kind of annoying. Once you pick it up though you can forget about it, so it's not such a big deal. Just don't lose it, or you'll be stuck in one location forever.

There's nothing to do outside the house except to pick up the compass (GET is recognised, but not TAKE, the opposite of my complaint about A3). You can't open the door, but if you ring the bell you'll be sucked inside to the living room. At this point there's no way out, until you defeat the witch who is in charge of the house (although that's not apparent just yet).

But why am I even here?

What's also not apparent is the objective of the game. Escaping from the house alive is one, but as is customary with games of this vintage there are treasures to collect. There's also a score, with a maximum of 160 points. You earn points by returning the treasures to the Living Room, which is something that I had to figure out on my own. Not that it was that hard, because Hassett's previous game used the same device, and a bunch of other early adventure games have done so as well.

The first thing I do when starting a text adventure is to map out as much of it as I possibly can. I don't think I've described my method before, so I'll quickly give an example. Instead of making a map of the physical space, I simply list all of the rooms that I find in alphabetical order, with exits marked and interesting features noted. Every time I add a new room I place a line beneath it for every possible exit: N, E, S, W, NE, SE, SW, NW, U, D.  I then try each direction in turn, regardless of whether the game tells me there's an exit. If it leads to a room, I note the destination. If it doesn't, I delete that line. It may be an unusual system (I'm not sure how anyone else does it), but it ensures that I don't miss any exits, and still gives me a good sense of the map in my head. Here's an example of what the end result looks like below:

LIVING ROOM
    E - DINING ROOM
    S - TOP OF A STAIRCASE
    W - GUEST ROOM

MAD SCIENTIST'S LABORATORY
Objects: Chemicals
    D - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 4

MAMMOTH ART GALLERY
Objects: Priceless Rembrant
    N - ONE END OF A HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - WEST END OF THE HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
Objects: Rusty Axe
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    S - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    W - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 3

Exploration in The House of Seven Gables is made difficult by two enemies that pop up at random.  The first is the Ghost, who demands a treasure from you. If you don't give him one he kills you, but if you do give him one you can't get the maximum score. I never did figure out how to defeat the ghost, or if you can retrieve any treasures given to him. Once he shows up, though, there's nothing you can do but relinquish a treasure or restart the game.

Running ghosts are a rarity.

The second enemy is the One-Eyed Ghoul, who will show up in a room and kill you on your next move. Dealing with him is less obvious than the Ghost, and it took me a while to figure out how to kill him. The solution is to mix some chemicals found in a Mad Scientist's Laboratory, and throw them at the Ghoul, which melts him. What's kind of lame is that Ghouls just keep showing up and attacking you no matter how many you kill, but the chemicals don't disappear after you throw them so it's not so bad. It's just another item you need to keep in your inventory along with the compass.  You also need to mix the chemicals when you find them, or they're useless against the Ghoul; there's a hint about this in a room of the house where a hollow, disembodied voice cryptically tells you "MIX THEM".

"Heavens!" is perhaps a sanitised exclamation here.

There are eight treasures in the game, which I'll list below.

  • Silver Candlesticks (worth 10 points). These are found right next to the Living Room, so claiming them is no trouble at all.
  • A Rusty Axe (worth 5 points). The axe is found in the middle of a very small maze.  Mazes are an obligatory part of any adventure game at this point, but thankfully this is a small one; the limited memory of the TRS-80 is good for something after all. The axe is not only a treasure, but it's also used to chop down a locked door that leads to a staircase to the upper floor.
  • Some "Valuable Recipies" (worth 15 points). They're written in "Witchish", so you can't read them. They're found on the upper floor, not far from the stairs.
  • A "Priceless Rembrant" (worth 20 points). Really, Greg Hassett might have been well served by spending less time on coding adventure games and more time working on his spelling. The painting is on the upper floor, in an art gallery.
  • A Diamond (worth 15 points). Again, this is on the upper floor, not far from the entrance to the Witch's lair.
  • A Beautiful Rose (worth 10 points), found at the top of the stairs to the upper floor. 
  • The Witch's Hat (worth 50 points). You need to defeat the Witch in order to claim the hat, but more on that below.
  • A "Sulton's Dagger" (worth 35 points). This is one of the more difficult treasures to obtain. It's found in a coffin, which also houses (surprise!) a Vampire. The Vampire can be driven off with some garlic from the kitchen, but later on it will block your path back to the Living Room. The garlic doesn't work on it a second time; you need to STAKE VAMPIRE while the dagger is in your possession.

Stupid game, all Vampires are Draculas.

Claiming all of these treasures earns you the full 160 points. A few times while playing I noticed that my score had dropped into the negatives, and kept dropping with every move I made. At first I had thought that this was to do with losing treasure to the Ghost, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I also thought it might have been the result of escaping from the Witch without killing her, but that wasn't it either. It's a mystery I haven't solved, and not one I'm ever likely to.

As mentioned above, you can't get one of the treasures without killing the Witch. The first hint of her presence is found in a Dungeon, where a crude note is found on the wall: "YOU CAN'T GET OUT WITHOUT KILLING ME FIRST! --WITCHY POO".  Her lair is accessed via an altar on the upper floor that has a button on it; press the button and you're whisked away to her lair. (There's a book in the library with the helpful hint "NOTTUB SSERP"; thanks, I never would have gotten that otherwise.) The Witch isn't dangerous at all; she doesn't attack, and you can easily escape from her lair via an exit which leads to the Living Room.  Killing her is not hard to figure out, but there's a clue you can find by unfolding a paper airplane: "REMEMBER THE WIZARD OF OZ". The answer, of course, is to douse her with water, which you can find by filling a bucket in the kitchen.  Then it's a simple case of THROW WATER when you're in the Witch's presence, and she's done for.

"Her hat remains." I don't know why, but it makes me laugh.

Once the Witch is dead an exit to the north appears in the Living Room, and you can leave the house. This counts as winning the game, regardless of whether you've earned all 160 points or not.  But if you've collected all of the treasures, you'll get the screen below.

Sigh. If only I'd taken one more move.

Hardly the most satisfying conclusion, but it's par for the course at this stage. Really, the most satisfying thing about this was being able to knock off a game in a single day. After the long PLATO slog, it's a massive relief.

Before I give this game a Final Rating, I'll list some of the things that I never found a use for.

  • The house does indeed have seven gables, but I'm not entirely sure that Greg Hassett knows what a gable is. As you progress through the house you'll find areas named "First Gable", "Second Gable", etc.  Hassett must have thought that a gable is a room, but it's actually defined as "the triangular upper part of a wall at the end of a ridged roof".  I kept expecting the Gable rooms to become important, but they have no significance.
  • There's a banana in the kitchen. If you eat it you're left with the peel, but it never became useful. I had thought I might be able to trip the Ghoul with it, but no luck there. You can't drop it in the Witch's cauldron of brew either.
  • In the Second Gable is a black cat. If you try to catch it it disappears, with the ominous warning that it will return. It does show up in other rooms of the house after that, but nothing I've tried works on it.
  • In the Third Gable there is a test tube of fluid. Drinking it results in a black cloud that makes you drop all of your items, which is a game over because it means you lose the compass. Otherwise, it does nothing that I've been able to discern.
  • The compass goes from shiny to tarnished after a while, for no apparent reason.

That's not too bad, compared to the unfinished feeling of Hassett's first game. Now that that's done, it's time for the Final Rating.

Story & Setting: It's a treasure hunt, without even the proper rationale for one. There's no reason given for why you're at the front door of the house, or why you'd want to go inside.  Perhaps one was given in the documentation, but I wasn't able to find any on-line. The setting has all of the standard haunted house trappings, but the writing is so sparse that it never manages to create a spooky atmosphere. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The game has a few characters throughout the game: the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Vampire and the Witch. Interaction with them is minimal, though, and they do little except for functioning as puzzles or obstacles. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The game has no sound, and the graphics are limited to black-and-white text. The descriptions are exceptionally terse, as necessitated by the extremely low memory of the TRS-80, and as such they don't convey much beyond the purely functional. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's a simple two-word parser, and there are one or two instances where the obvious command isn't what the game is looking for, but the game is small and tight enough that it's not a big problem. I also like how it has the room description at the top, with the character's actions and their results below. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The game is pretty easy, though a touch more difficult than Hassett's first game. The major difficulty is with the Ghost: if it pops up, you can't beat the game with full points. Otherwise, the game shouldn't trouble anyone for more than an hour or two. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: In terms of mechanics, it's very much like Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, and the first two Scott Adams adventures. It does get some points for being the first ever "haunted house" adventure, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

This game doesn't get the bonus point, because I'll never go back to it. The above points add up to 13, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 26. This puts it dead level with Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, which is about right. It's a better game, but not a great deal better. From a modern perspective, they're much the same in quality.

Next: It's Acheton, a mammoth adventure game from England that borrows heavily from Colossal Cave Adventure. It's quite a bit larger, though, and much more sadistic. It's so large that I haven't even finished mapping it yet, and I very much doubt that I'll be done with it before my next post.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Game 18: Aldebaran III [aka A3, designed using Wander] (1978)

The closest thing it has to a title screen.

Aldebaran III is the second of three existing games created using the Wander system. The first was Castle, which I covered last year. It was surprisingly sophisticated for being the very first text adventure, although it should always be remembered that most mainframe-based games were developed over a number of years.  It was less sophisticated in its story-telling, with the ultimate "reward" being sex with a prince or princess, whichever of the two you rescued. (Okay, yes, you could also have sex with both of them at the same time. Okay, yes, I did fix the bugs in the game's code so that I could get that ending. Can we move on here?)

Aldebaran III, like Castle, was created by Peter Langston (the creator of Wander) and Nat Howard.  It's more generally known by its filename of A3, but as no title appears within the game itself I've decided to give it a name that's more descriptive.  It might make googling this thing a bit more difficult, but who cares. I like it better, so I'm sticking with it. I may have the date wrong for this game; the source code lists the final update as being in 1982, but the esteemed Renga in Blue has the creation of the game pinned down to 1977 or 1978, so I'll go with that.

Aldebaran III is a sci-fi game, possibly the first text adventure in that genre.  (Greg Hassett's Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure is the only other contender, if you count Jules Verne pastiches as sci-fi.)  In it you play as Jaime Retief, under-secretary to the ambassador for the "Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne". You've been sent to the planet of Aldebaran III to avert an uprising by the natives against Terran nationals, which is expected to come to a head at the end of April.

Just from that little snippet, you can see that the storytelling here is a lot more advanced than any other adventure games I've played so far.  This is probably also the first adventure game in which you play a distinct character, rather than a generic stand-in for the player.  There's a reason for that increase in sophistication: Jame Retief (it's spelled differently in the game) of the CDT is a pre-existing pulp sci-fi character, and the star of around 50 short stories. I haven't read any of them, but from what I can tell it doesn't appear that the plot of Aldebaran III is taken directly from any of them.  Certain elements are definitely cribbed, though, and it explains the nagging sense I had throughout the game that I was missing something.  I suppose that makes for another first: the first adventure game to be based on an existing property (albeit unofficially).

Aldebaran III begins when I (as Retief) disembarked in the spaceport.  There was a credit card on the ground, which I picked up and examined. (The parser didn't recognise GET, to my annoyance, but it did recognise the obvious alternative of TAKE.) I'm not sure why it was on the ground, as it belongs to me; I suppose it's so important that the designers didn't want to hide it in the player's inventory.  Speaking of which, my inventory contained my identity papers, and some notes that I had taken on the planet and its inhabitants. Looking at the papers is the only way I know of to learn that you are playing as Retief, although the mention of the CDT in the intro would have tipped off fans of the series.

Groovy Super Phat Crazy Trainee?

The notes span multiple pages, and I had to to read them multiple times to get all of the information, as Retief kept getting too bored to continue.  I learned the following relevant info from them:

  • The planet's atmosphere is close enough to Earth's. It's day lasts for 18.628 Earth hours (although they still use a 24 hour clock). It's axial tilt is such that the planet has no variance in the seasons and the length of it's days, which is a really clever way to explain why sunrise and sunset always take place at exactly the same time in the game.
  • The ruling species on Aldebaran has six legs, a human torso, and a "brain-case" with tendrils that give them exceptional senses of sight and smell.
  • Some of them have larger brains, and can alter the appearance of their bodies at will.
  • Aldebaranites are deeply religious, and place a great importance on certain "magic" artifacts.
  • The Aldebaranite language has a lot of dialects, and differs greatly from region to region.
  • The head of state is known as "the Rep".

There's a bunch of other stuff, but the clues above are the ones that play into the rest of the game.

As you might have noticed from the first point above, Aldebaran III keeps track of the passage of time.  The game begins at midnight on April 1st, and time advances by an hour for every action you take. As mentioned above, you have until the end of April to stop the uprisings. I finished the game well within that time-frame, but I decided to loiter around to see what would happen. On the dawn of April 29th you get a message that "Tensions seem on the breaking point".  Then again on April 30th. Then again on April 31st. Hang on a second. Then again on April 32nd.  As far as I can tell, April just extends on forever, and there's no actual deadline implemented, which is a shame. I wouldn't be surprised if the intention was there to put one in, but for whatever reason Langston and Howard never got to it. Sure, the only way I ever got close to the deadline was by waiting around doing nothing for weeks on end, so it's not a genuine threat, but it would be nice to have something happen. Even a message saying "You Have Failed" would be enough.

The opening area of the game is the Aldebaran Spaceport. Its most notable feature is a vending machine, which you can buy various items from: cigarettes (10 credits), mystery grab bag (10 credits), biorhythms (25 credits) and subway tokens (25 credits). You only begin with 50 credits, so at this point in the game it's a tough choice, because you can't buy everything. You don't need the cigarettes. Getting your biorhythms read is an excuse to drain you of your money and make a joke about it. The "mystery grab bag" at first gives you a condom, which gave me some uncomfortable flashbacks to the ending of Castle, but I never found a use for them in the game. Buying the grab bag a second time gives you an electronic all-dialect dictionary, which is essential to reading various messages in Aldebaranite scattered through the game. The tokens are also essential, because the subway is the only way to travel between regions. You don't need to buy them here, though, because there's another area that sells them much cheaper. I didn't discover it until much later in the game, so I spent most of my time wasting half of my money on a mere 2 subway tokens.

Okay, good one. Ya got me.

Leaving the spaceport involves a trip through customs, where you'll need to show your papers and declare the items in your inventory. Some of the items in your possession (the cigarettes, condoms, dictionary and your credit card) come with a customs fee, which is another drain on your credits. Even without buying the cigarettes and taking the condoms, I was left with 0 credits by the time I got through. You can save 5 credits by dropping your credit card in the spaceport, where the wind will blow it through an electrified fence and into an alleyway outside, but it's hardly worth it.

The customs official also gives you your first taste of the casual racism of the native population, calling you a "Terry" and being condescending in general.

The game is split into five sectors, and you begin in the spaceport sector. It has the following interesting locations:

  • An alleyway, where you can find some keys and an old wine bottle. Looking at the bottle gives you this image, which is reminiscent of some of the images from Zork.

    Supervisions?

    You can also find your credit card here if you dropped it in the spaceport. Sometimes when you enter the alleyway you'll be robbed by ruffians, who steal your credit card. (You can find them in the bar afterwards, beat them up and take it back.)

The only time in the game where you get to kick ass.

  • A bar, which has sign (in Aldebaranite, so you need the dictionary to read it) telling you that you can't leave without showing the bartender your papers. If you do, he sees that you're a UNIX user and offers you a free drink. (And yes, if you check your papers it mentions that you're a member of USENIX.) The bartender has more to offer than free drinks, though. If you type ASK BARTENDER he leaves a map on the counter, which you can take and read outside. It has a message on it: "Find Ignarp in Crystal City -- secret password is 'Axolotyl'." The plot progression of the game is a little obtuse, but I suppose that the bartender is a Terran sympathiser, and after seeing your papers directs you to the person who can help. It just about works.
  • There's a series of maze-like streets, which you can only progress through by typing LEFT or RIGHT. Choosing correctly takes you to the next street, and choosing incorrectly dumps you back to the beginning. If you get to the end, you'll be rewarded with a shovel (and a lot of alliteration).
  • When leaving the street with the shovel, you get a message that says "Not always..." I've come to be suspicious of non sequiturs like this in adventure games, so I made a note of it as something to come back to later. I'm glad I did, because solving it became one of the keys to the game. If you type SOMETIMES, you are taken to the Information Booth in the Hoople St. Sector, and you can get back from there by typing the same thing. In that sector is where you can buy cheap subway tokens, which allows you to save some credits.
  • Finally, there's an iron gate with a slot in it. If you insert a subway token, you gain access to the  Subwalk Station, where you can access the other four sectors: Hoople St, Boardwalk, Imperium Worlds and the Government Sector.

The Hoople St. sector, which you can gain access to by the secret way I mentioned above, or by the subwalk, is a much smaller area, and only has two things of notes.

  • A machine from which you can buy tokens for 1 credit each (much cheaper than paying 25 credits for two tokens in the spaceport). You need the dictionary to translate the sign above the machine, though.
  • A tourist information machine that will tell you the location of various things and people in the game for the price of 2 credits. Given the note on the bartender's map above, the obvious thing to ask about is Ignarp, which gives you the message "Ignarp is where you find Him." Asking about HIM or GOD doesn't produce any results, but if you ask about CHURCH it tells you to "Subwalk to Imperium Worlds Station, rub ring and ask directions." This would be a good clue to follow after obtaining the map, but I completed the game without ever using this machine.

The Boardwalk Sector is an interesting one. It begins by noting that ground is made out of white paper, which seems odd at first, and only gets odder when you realise what it's getting at.

  • A jail, which you can't enter unless you have the keys. If you do go in, the guards close the door behind you and confiscate the keys. The only way to get back out is to BRIBE the guard, which only costs 1 credit and also allows you to get your keys back. I'm don't think there's anything else to do in there.
  • A riot happening on 'Park Place'. If the rioting Aldebaranites see you, they will beat you up and steal your subway tokens. If this happens, you'll be saved by a disguised "TerrySymp" (Terran Sympathiser).
  • The Terran Embassy, where your intended boss, Ambassador Pouncetrifle, lies dead under a pile of rubble. Only his hand is visible, and his ring which you can take. The ring has some writing on it that's too small to read. Looking in the source code, I see that it's supposed to be magnified using the wine bottle, but I can't get it to work; either the code is wrong, or I'm using the wrong command. It says that the ring can only be activated on a clean surface.
  • A paper-covered street named 'GO'. The ground is marked with a gridwork pattern, with black and white stones placed like so:

    I have no idea.

    It's the boardgame Go, obviously, which is not a game I've ever played. You need to move the white stones (marked with the @ symbols) into a winning position in order to win some credits. Not knowing how Go works, I did it through trial and error. You can leave and come back as many times as you want, which is very helpful; saving and restoring with every failure would have been tedious. Winning gained me the sum of 10 credits, which seemed a bit paltry to me. That's because I hadn't fully solved the puzzle. You can win 200 credits by just typing PASS. Because if you pass Go...  Yes, it's a Monopoly Board. Don't ask me why. It's a puzzle that I never solved, and would have saved me some grief later on; I wouldn't have had to work out that SOMETIMES puzzle. This sort of nonsense fits really well in certain types of adventure games, but Aldebaran III set itself up as more naturalistic than the standard treasure hunts that have come before. Finding a city sector modelled after a Monopoly board was incongruous to say the least.

The Imperium Worlds sector is where the plot comes into focus, and most of the action of the game happens. You can skip Boardwalk and Hoople St. altogether, but you can't win the game without visiting Imperium Worlds. As soon as you try to exit the subwalk, you'll be told that "I don't think you're quite clean enough for this neighborhood". The trick is to type CLEAN, which sends you through a hidden autobath, and dumps you on a spotless street. It's not a puzzle that's obviously singposted, but I solved it on a whim. You can get a hint to the answer by rubbing the ambassador's ring while in the station; a local appears and tells you that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Also in this sector is a church, where you meet a strange man who demands to know your identity. He doesn't trust your word or your ID papers, but if you ask for his identity by typing SAY NAME something weird happens. He tries to tell you that he is Ignarp, but something about the church makes it impossible for him to lie, and he reveals that his name is really R. Nixon Shilth. He springs to attack you, but if you fight back it gets even weirder: he undergoes some sort of internal struggle and morphs into a female. This is the true Ignarp, who was slipped a "Groaci drug" by Shilth that gave him dominance over her for a time. You can't so anything here unless you have the password from the bartender's map: AXOLOTYL. If you give this word, Ignarp explains the plot to you.


Look! A story!

So it turns out the riots are being orchestrated by Shilth, who wants the land that the Terran Embassy sits on. Shilth stole three sacred art objects and sold them to Ambassador Pouncetrifle, who proudly displayed them as his own. Pouncetrifle was arrested as the thief, but managed to negotiate things so the return of the objects as well as a fine of 1,000 credits would settle matters. Pouncetrifle paid 985 of those credits, but the art objects have once more been stolen and hidden by Shilth.

So that's the objective of the game: collect the three art objects, and return them to the Rep along with 15 credits. The objects are a "green zwerf", and "alabaster yangst" and a "pale xyller". I had one clue: they were rumoured to have been hidden in an area near Pont St. Michel.  It's a little unfortunate that for all the great work done in the intro to create an interseting story, it all boils down to a treasure hunt.

Pont St. Michel is a street not far from the church. It leads over a flimsy bridge, and ends at a locked gate. You can only carry one item over the bridge, which can result in some problems later. Getting through the gate requires the keys, but this is where things get a little contentious. As I did with Castle, I needed to alter the code here to beat the game. I spent hours trying to get this gate open, until I gave up and went into the source code. Here's the problem: it's coded to open if you have a "key" in your inventory, but the one you find in the alleyway is listed in the code as "keys", plural. There's nowhere else in the code that refers to a singular key, and the game itself doesn't even recognise the word. So I feel justified in changing the code to work with the keys I had; I'm 100% sure it's an error on the part of the designers.

Beyond the gate is a graveyard area, which functions like a small maze; all of its areas are described identically, and you can't go back through the gate. All three of the art objects are buried in the graveyard, the yangst in one specific area and the other two found at random.  I was expecting an extensive treasure hunt, but to be honest I wasn't disappointed to be denied one. Sometimes I just want a game to be easy.

The way out of the graveyard is through a crypt, which loops back to the locked gate. Inside the crypt is a coffin, and if you open it a "Transylvanian Count" pops out and invites you to rest with him. Yes, this game has Dracula in it.  Normally I'm quite happy to have Dracula pop in any type of narrative you care to name, but even I'll admit he's out of place here. He gets very annoyed if you try to leave, and stops you from getting past. He tries to kill you, but he never managed it against me. I simply kept moving around the graveyard with Dracula in pursuit until the sun came up and vaporised him. It's an odd addition to the game, made even more pointless because you can just ignore the coffin entirely and he won't come out. Perhaps this sort of thing is consistent with the original Retief stories, but somehow I doubt it.

One! One anachronistic vampire! Ah Ah Ah!

With zwerf, xyller and yangst in hand, it should be a simple matter to return them to the Rep, shouldn't it? Well, no, there are still some obstacles to solve. The first is taking all three of the objects across the bridge one by one, which sounds easy enough but is complicated by the nature of the items: if any two of them are dropped in the same area, one will come alive and consume the other. This is signalled when you pick them up: one of the items will quiver in your hands.  Still, the solution here is just to drop them in separate locations, which requires a couple of loops back through the graveyard but is no real hassle.

The real problem is that if you ever drop your subway tokens, they will be almost immediately stolen, and you can't take them across the bridge because you need the keys to unlock the gate. Without fail, every time I've gone to unlock the gate my tokens have been stolen before I could get back.  And without tokens, there's no way to get into the subwalk station, and no way to return the art objects.

This is the puzzle that stumped me the longest, but the solution is quite clever, and well signposted. The clue is that in this sector you will occasionally see a message telling you that a speck of dust has landed on the hyper-clean streets, and vacuum cleaner pops out to suck it up.  The proper solution is to type DROP DIRT, which results in the cleaners sucking you up and spitting you out in the subwalk station.  That's not exactly how I did it though...

A valid solution.

Yes, I got frustrated, and as most people do when they get frustrated with a text adventure I started typing obscenities into the parser.  Wouldn't you know it, I typed SHIT and was promptly whisked to my desired destination. I'm not proud of it, but I chuckled for a good long while.  So yeah, I solved this game with vulgarity, but a win is a win.

From there it's no problem at all to head to the Government Sector, which only has two things of note: the hall from which the art objects were stolen, and the Rep's house. I marched into the Rep's house, and despite his extreme rudeness I handed him all three of the art objects as well as the credits. Getting the credits can be tricky if you spend all of them in the spaceport, but you can get the required amount by playing Go, or buying the cheap subwalk tokens.

"My Yangst!" he crows: the catchcry of the late-90s teen.

I beat the game, but unfortunately I haven't been able to get a screenshot of my victory because the stupid game dumps me back to Windows as soon as it's over.  This is the winning message:

"You Terries aren't so bad after all," admits the Rep as he flicks a
switch that cuts the power to all the androids that were leading the
uprising. "Why don't you stay for dinner?" Which, of course, you do."

Not exactly a gripping finale, is it? And too bad about all of the murder and destruction committed, when apparently this douche-nozzle I'm about to sit and have dinner with could have stopped it all with the press of a button.  Still, I can take a bad ending, or even an anticlimactic one. What I really hate is being unceremoniously booted from the game. I'd fix the code for it if I knew how to do it.

And now, for a Final Rating!

Story & Setting: This one starts off really strongly. Even though the setting and characters are taken from the Jame Retief stories, they're well-realised and entertainingly described, at least at the beginning. And there are a lot of clever touches, such as the explanation for the game's unwavering timescale.  Even the plot is original, at least for adventure games: a race riot orchestrated by an evil businessman looking to make a land-grab is the sort of thing that hadn't been seen to this point. Hell, just having a plot beyond "collect these treasures" is unique in 1978. Too bad it eventually does boil down to a scavenger hunt. Add in the incongruous elements such as Dracula and the Monopoly board puzzle, and it falls apart a bit. There's a lot to like here, but Langston and Howard couldn't quite move past the standard adventure game tropes. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters in this game actually have character, which is a novelty. From the condescending racism of the customs officer, to the rudeness of the Rep, everyone you meet in this game has at least one trait you can recognise. You can't interact with them much, though, and there aren't a lot characters you can meet. I'm not rating it very highly, but aside from Zork this is the first adventure game I've given a score higher than 1. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: There's no sound or graphics, but the writing is quite good, if a little clumsy in places. It also has a charming and quirky sense of humour. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is quite sophisticated for the time, able to recognise commands of up to five words. It has a few problems with word recognition, though (not recognising GET, for instance).  And then there's the matter of the code for the graveyard gate being bugged.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a short game, but none of the puzzles were too challenging, and I thought that one of them was even quite cleverly done. Weirdly enough for an adventure game, the most challenging thing was probably resource management, in that you had to find ways to save your credits unless you figured out the Go puzzle. Probably a little too easy on the whole, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence:  I would say that the influence of Aldebaran III is negligible, as the Wander games were never all that widely distributed.  It's innovations come on the story-telling side of things, as it's the earliest text adventure to have anything even vaguely resembling a plot and a deeper setting. (Actually, Zork has a bit more going on than a standard treasure hunt, now that I think of it.) Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: I got some mild enjoyment out of quirky setting of this one, and some of the writing. The Imperium Worlds station puzzle tickled me, although that may just be the way I solved it.  I wasn't ever all that eager to sit down and play it, though. Rating: 2 out of 7.

It doesn't get the bonus point, as I'll probably never play it again.  The scores above total 19, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 38 for Aldebaran III.  That puts it dead level with Castle, which was more innovative, but weaker in the storytelling, and riddled with bugs.  It sounds like a fair assessment to me.


Next: It's The House of Seven Gables by child prodigy Greg Hassett.  And I've already finished it!!! I can't blog fast enough now that the games are so much shorter!