Thursday, November 5, 2015

Game 7: Adventureland (1978)

Adventureland, programmed by Scott Adams and originally released for the TRS-80 microcomputer, is a milestone on a number of levels.  It's the first ever text adventure released for a home computer (and may very well be the second text adventure ever created).  It's the first game commercially released by Scott Adams, a significant figure in early game design.  And, perhaps most importantly for this blog, it's the first game I'm playing that wasn't designed for a mainframe.  I still have a few games designed for the PLATO system to get through (including Moria and The Game of Dungeons v8.0, both of which I am in the middle of), but I feel with this game that I've turned a corner.  Games designed for home computers should be shorter than those on mainframes, so maybe now I can start getting through my list a little faster.

Before I get into Adventureland proper, I should probably write a bit about Scott Adams.  Adams was one of the pioneers of gaming in the late 1970s.  As I mentioned before, Adventureland is the first ever text adventure designed for a home computer, and even if it turns out to be terrible it's still significant.  He designed a total of eighteen text adventure games between 1978 and 1984, all published through his own company, Adventure International.  Despite his pioneering work, I've often seen Adams disparaged by fans of the genre.  I've played a few of his later efforts (most notably the baffling Incredible Hulk game from the Questprobe series), and found them to be a bit crude in comparison to their contemporaries.  Hopefully Adventureland and his other early efforts will hold up better.

Adventureland was released on a lot of different platforms, but I opted to go with a TRS-80 emulator in order to get the most authentic experience.  It was rereleased in 1982 with added graphics, but I've decided not to play that version.  That's probably a stupid idea for a blog that relies on images, but I'm sticking with it.  I want to play the game as it was in 1978, or as close as I can possibly get to that experience.

The plot of Adventureland is basic to the point of nonexistence: there are thirteen lost treasures, and you have to find them all and return them to a safe location.  No reason is given for why the hero is looking for these treasures, or how they got lost, or what they are.  It's just the objective of the game, and that's that.  It's the exact same plot as Colossal Cave Adventure, and you'll discover as this article progresses that this game owes a heavy debt to its predecessor.

One thing unique to Adventureland, however, is it's screen layout.  The screen is split into two text windows.  The window at the top displays the area descriptions, and the objects that can be seen, while the bottom window displays the results of your actions.  I found this disorienting at first, but after playing for a short time I became accustomed to it.  It's not what I'm used to from text adventures, but it works well enough, and it's nice to always have the relevant room details in sight.

One thing I quickly noticed about the game is that it's parser feels a little less sophisticated than the one in Colossal Cave Adventure.  This is to be expected, I suppose, as home computers were at that time far less powerful than the PDP-10 mainframe that Colossal Cave Adventure was designed for.  Adventureland only accepts two-word commands, and only recognises the first three letters of any word.  It feels limiting, and frustrating in a way that any fan of old-school text adventure games will be familiar with.

That said, the sense of relief I feel to be playing this game instead of Moria is palpable.  There's stuff in this game.  There are things.  Stuff and things I can interact with.  Sure, the interaction is crude, but it's there nevertheless.  I'll run down some of the things I've discovered, and the puzzles I've solved so far.

  • The game begins in a forest, with some wilderness areas surrounding it and a small underground dungeon.  The setting has a sort of generic fantasy/fairy tale vibe.  I'm pretty sure that I've mapped out most of the game, and so far I've visited a mere 28 separate locations.  It's not a large game, and the detail is sparse.  It lacks much of the character and sense of place that Colossal Cave Adventure had.  That's probably due to technical limitations, and the fact that Colossal Cave Adventure was based on a real cave system.  Adams does pretty well here, crafting a number of interesting locations to visit, but it's all a bit disjointed.
  • The first thing I encountered was a sleeping dragon, but I haven't been able to wake it up without being killed.  It wakes up if you enter the area carrying mud from the swamp, and kills you with fire. I've also been able to blow it up with swamp gas, but that didn't seem all that helpful.

  • The first puzzle I solved involved retrieving one of the treasures from out of a pool of quicksand: a statue of a blue ox.  Getting the ox is easy enough, but you can't leave the quicksand while carrying any item.  To get the ox statue out of the quicksand you need to be carrying an axe with the word BUNYON carved on it.  (The axe is found in a pool just south of the quicksand.)  Saying that word while carrying the axe and the ox will transport both items to an area marked as "Paul's Place".  It's not that difficult to figure out, though a knowledge of the legend of Paul Bunyan certainly helps.  Being Australian I'm only vaguely familiar with the story, but it was enough to put me on the right track.
  • Getting out of the quicksand isn't as easy as typing a direction.  You need to SWIM, which takes you to a nearby lake, but you can't do so while carrying any item.  Getting stuck in the quicksand with any item other than the ox and the axe is a bad idea, as you'll have to drop them in the quicksand to get out again.  If you do this the items dropped are gone forever, so you might as well restart.
  • In the lake is a Golden Fish, one of the thirteen treasures.  I'm able to catch it with a Golden Net I found in the dungeon, but it dries up and dies if you're not also carrying a bottle of water.
  • I had some trouble getting into the underground dungeon.  I figured out that you need to chop down the cypress tree in the swamp, and climb down the hollow stump, but I wasn't able to unlock the door at the bottom.  It turns out that you need to climb the cypress before cutting it down, so that you can find the skeleton keys.  If you cut down the tree first the keys vanish into the swamp, and the game becomes unwinnable.  The game does give you a message that something has fallen into the swamp, though, so at least it's playing somewhat fair.
  • The swamp is home to creatures called "Chiggers" (which is a word that I'm somewhat uncomfortable typing).  Occasionally the Chiggers will bite you, but the bites are easily cured by taking mud from the swamp.  I'm not sure if the Chiggers are needed to solve any puzzles, but I do rather enjoy picking them up and dropping them in the quicksand.
  • I've found some Royal Honey, which is one of the 13 treasures, but it's guarded by north african bees.  When I first tried to take the honey the bees stung me to death, but later on I figured out that the bees don't attack me if I have the mud from the swamp.  Even later I tried taking the bees themselves, and you can do so if you have en empty jar.  Unfortunately, the bees instantly suffocate when you leave the room, so I'm a bit stuck with this one.
  • There's a weird bit where you wander into the memory chip of a computer.  There's nothing to interact with in this area, and I suspect that it's just a bit of programmer's humour.  Not that it's very funny, but it is memorably strange.

  • There's a maze in the dungeon, though thankfully it's not composed of "twisty passages, all alike".  This maze is dead simple, because it only has six areas, and they're distinct enough that you always know which one you're in.  I panicked a little when I first wandered in, but it wasn't as harrowing an experience as I was expecting.
  • I found a Persian Rug in the maze, and a sign saying that the magic word was AWAY.  I've worked out that, by carrying the rug and saying AWAY, I can teleport between the sleeping dragon to the bottom of the maze.  Indeed, this seems to be the only way to escape the maze at all, and it's a very handy navigation tool. 
  • I've managed to blow a hole in a bricked up window by igniting swamp gas.  Beyond it is a bear guarding a magic mirror, and I'm not sure if I've solved this puzzle correctly. The bear goes to sleep if you give it some honey, but the royal honey is one of the treasures needed to complete the game.  I feel like there should be another solution.  (It's not the axe.  If you throw it, the bear dodges and the mirror gets smashed.)
  • Dropping the Magic Mirror causes it to smash.  In order to drop it safely, you need to first drop the Persian Rug.  When you do so, the Mirror flashes and gives you the following message: DRAGON STING.  Obviously this is related to waking the dragon, but I'm not sure exactly how.  It may have something to do with the bees, but as I said I'm having trouble keeping them alive in my bottle.
  • There's a lava flow at the bottom of the maze, and there appears to an object hidden within it.  It's too hot to do anything with, though, so I'm stuck for now.
  • The game has a lamp, which is required for exploring underground without falling and breaking your neck.  It runs out after a time, like the one in Colossal Cave Adventure.  If you rub the lamp while it's turned off (it's too hot to rub when lit), a genie appears and gives you a diamond ring.  Rub it again, and the genie leaves a diamond bracelet.  Rub it again, and it kills you for being too greedy.
  • Sometimes when you die, you go immediately to Hell, and the game is over.  Sometimes, you find yourself in Limbo, with a chance to choose a direction and return to the game if you pick correctly.
  • So far I've been able to claim the following treasures: a Golden Net, a Golden Fish, a Pot of Rubies, a Jeweled Fruit, a Persian Rug, a statue of a Blue Ox, a Diamond Ring, a Diamond Bracelet, some Royal Honey, a Crown, and the Magic Mirror.  So far that means I've found 11 of the 13 items required.  I suspect there's another in the lava, and that the dragon is guarding one, but otherwise I have no idea.  I've also had to sacrifice the Honey to claim the Mirror, which doesn't seem right.

With the majority of the treasures claimed, and only a few unsolved puzzles, I feel like I'm just about done with this game.  I haven't had to resort to a walkthrough either, something that I needed for Colossal Cave Adventure.  So far I'm having fun, and it's refreshing to be playing a game that feels short.  The end is in sight, and that's fine by me.


  1. Do you need to poke holes in the lid of the jar with the bees in it?

    I've never played this game; just speculating!

  2. The thought has crossed my mind, but I'm not sure how to do it with the two-word parser.