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.

2 comments:

  1. It's been a while since you last posted about this - how is it going?

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  2. The sad truth is that it's not really going at all. Due to a bunch of factors in my personal life I've had no time for blogging, and most of my gaming has been of the less mentally taxing console variety. My current plan is to get back to blogging in a month or so, but alas, there are no guarantees.

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