Saturday, February 22, 2020

Game 36: Battlestar (1979)

Quite some time ago I played through a text adventure called Aldebaran III, which has a pretty good claim on being the first adventure game to be explicitly based on an existing property. Today I'm writing about another of those, although exactly what property it's adapting is up for debate because... well, there are a few of them.

Before I get into all of that though, I have to get this out of the way: the author of this game is given as His Lordship, the honorable Admiral David W. Riggle. A bit of googling has turned up nothing on this supposed Lord/Admiral, so I feel like we might be dealing with a Richard Garriott/Lord British situation here. Regardless, the creation of the game started in 1979, written in C on a PDP-11 mainframe. The Admiral worked on it until 1984, but as with most of these games I'm taking it from the year the game was first available to play.

Obviously the mainframe version isn't available any more, but the source code is out there and it's been ported to DOS and Amiga. The DOS version has a lot of problems with the starfighting sequences in the middle (yes, the starfighting sequences), so I opted to go for the Amiga version. Even with that I had problems with the same section, but I was able to blunder my way through. (Jason Dyer over at Renga in Blue apparently got the source code to compile in UNIX, but that's well beyond my capabilities; setting up an Amiga emulator was hassle enough.)

The source code comes with some instructions; I'm not sure if they were present with the original game, but I'll reproduce the little bit of flavour text that sets the whole thing up:

In the days before the darkness came, when battlestars ruled the

Three He made and gave them to His daughters,
Beautiful nymphs, the goddesses of the waters.
One to bring good luck and simple feats of wonder,
Two to wash the lands and churn the waves asunder,
Three to rule the world and purge the skies with thunder.
In those times great wizards were known and their powers were beyond
belief.  They could take any object from thin air, and, uttering the
word `su' could disappear.

In those times men were known for their lust of gold and desire to
wear fine weapons.  Swords and coats of mail were fashioned that could
withstand a laser blast.

But when the darkness fell, the rightful reigns were toppled.  Swords
and helms and heads of state went rolling across the grass.  The entire
fleet of battlestars was reduced to a single ship.

It's a little cryptic to begin with, but it does all make sense eventually. Those who were alive in 1978 and/or 2004 will recognise that we're dealing with some elements from the sci-fi property Battlestar Galactica here. I'm not the best person to tell you how accurate any of this is, because I've never seen more than a few minutes of either show.

The start of the game

The game begins with you aboard the Battlestar mentioned above, a space station that is under attack. The situation seems grimmer the more you explore the ship: there are corpses everywhere, including the president, and the sick bay is overflowing with the wounded.

What also becomes apparent is that moving about in this game is hell, at least until you get used to it. Rather than the usual NESW cardinal directions, Battlestar goes for relative movement: Ahead, Left, Right and Back. I've played a few games like this now, and it's always annoying and frustrating to map. As I said, you get used to it eventually, but it seems like a needless complication. Unless the creator wanted to make the game difficult to navigate, I guess, in which case I say mission accomplished Admiral!

You have thirty moves until the space station blows up, so there's not a whole lot of time to explore. You can't even really interact with any of the people or the scenery, beyond filling your inventory with items. Speaking of, you begin the game with nothing but the pajamas you are wearing. Searching around the station (with many deaths by explosion interspersed throughout) I was able to find an ornate robe, a couple of knives, a laser pistol, some matches, a meat cleaver, some coins, a grenade, a nuclear warhead (!), and an amulet. Picking up the amulet gives the following message:

"Purl" is a real word that means "flow with a swirling motion and babbling sound".

Most of these items can be ignored, and it's impossible to get them all anyway. The only ones that are absolutely necessary are the pistol and the amulet, though I usually grabbed the knife, coins and matches as well. The game has an inventory limit, but it's a bit more complicated than restricting you to a set number of items. Each item has weight and encumbrance, and the items you are holding in your hands are tracked differently than those you are wearing. Wearing items is less encumbering than carrying them, but you can't use them unless they're in your hands. It's probably the most realistic encumbrance system I've seen in one of these games yet.

The goal of this section of the game is to get off the station alive, which you can do by finding a starfighter called a Viper and flying it off into space. Nobody stops you, so I guess you have some kind of authority on the station, if not any concern for your fellow man.

At this point you are flying in space, which still uses the same movement commands. Mostly this elicits a lot of "You are in space" room descriptions, with the odd "You are flying through an asteroid field". Inevitably, though, you will be attacked by another fighter and will have to engage it in combat.

Looks like a malfunction in my visual scanners...

As you might have guessed, this is not what it's meant to look like. I had the same problem with the DOS version as well. Here's the screen as it should appear, courtesy of Renga in Blue:

The goal is to maneuver the enemy ship into the center of the screen and shoot it with a torpedo. I don't think the ship fires back, but you are in danger of running out of fuel or torpedoes. Needless to say, I never got to properly experience this facet of the game. I managed my way around it by hitting Q, which ends the battle with a victory for the enemy. It also leaves you with a number of injuries, and on the DOS port it dumps you back onto the space station. Luckily the Amiga version leaves you still in space, so I was able to continue flying around.

Injuries like those above can stack up, and will kill you if you suffer enough of them. Mostly they affect your ability to carry things, and can render you stationary if you're carrying too much. If you're injured enough, you might find yourself unable to move even if your inventory is empty: there's nothing to do then but restart or return to a previous save. (The game does have a save feature, but with only save game file, so it requires some renaming of files whenever you want to have multiple saves.)

There are two planets that can be found in space. One is shrouded in fog, and if you descend into its atmosphere you will be hopelessly lost with no recourse but to restart. The other is a tropical planet, and when you descend you'll find an island paradise where you can land.

Before that, though, you can fly about just over the land and do a little scouting: doing that I saw beaches, jungles, a village, a house and gardens, a lagoon and an extensive fruit plantation. Eventually, I landed my Viper on the beach and set about exploring the island.

This was made difficult by the use of relative directions, but somewhat mitigated when I later got my hands on a compass. Not that the compass allows you to use NESW, as I would have liked, but it does let you know which direction is north, and I found that just enough of a help that I could make a decent map.

One of the first things that happened after I stepped into the woods was that I was attacked by an elf, wielding a halberd and a shield. The game has a melee combat system, with some wonderfully evocative descriptions of gore, but in practice it involves nothing more than typing KILL round after round until someone is dead. Looking at the code I can see that there are a lot of factors going on, mostly involving the weapon wielded and your encumbrance, but none of that's really evident to the player. Regardless, for most of the game you can ignore it by shooting your enemy with the laser pistol.

There are also hostile woodsmen who are similarly vulnerable to laser fire, but it's more satisfying to blow away elves.

Exploring further inland I found the native village, although it was deserted. Inside the house I found some Levis, though, and a diamond ring. North of the village were the fruit plantations where I found fields of pineapples, mangoes, coconuts, kiwis and other tropical fruit. You can eat these as long as you have a knife to cut them with (my knife was taken from the dead body of a maid, but you can find a less morbid one elsewhere).

Past the village I found a seaplane dock, where many people were milling about and enjoying the island lifestyle. None of them reacted to anything I had to say or do, though. At a nearby lagoon I found a friendly native woman, and I'm ashamed to say that the words FUCK WOMAN were pretty quickly typed into my keyboard. Hey, it worked!

North of that I found a house, which had a bulky two-handed sword in the drawing room, as well as a potion that healed all of my injuries when I drank it. Next to that was a garage, where I found the aforementioned compass as well as a Plymouth Volare with the keys in the ignition. With dreams of tearing across the island in that bad boy I turned the key, only for it to explode and leave me with crippling injuries. Time to reload!

In the same area was a stable with a horse inside. I rode the horse, but it just dumped me in a forest somewhere. There was also a clubhouse, which was crowded with dancing people and a one-eyed man with no money at the bar.

Behind the house was a garden, but like most of the areas in the game there was nothing there, at least not at the time I visited. You need to explore some areas more than once, because time passes from day to night in Battlestar, and certain events only happen at the right time. It also keeps track of your fatigue, and if you get tired enough you'll drop wherever you are and fall asleep. You can sleep voluntarily to regain strength, and eating food does the same.

The game isn't overwhelmingly large, but it still took me pretty much a whole afternoon to map. And although it has well written room descriptions, you can't interact with most of what's described. It's much more a game of walking about and seeing what's there than one of puzzle solving.

There is a score, though. The game tracks your Pleasure, Power and Ego. Power is increased by killing things. Pleasure is increased by performing uhhhhh certain activities. Like fucking natives. Your Ego goes up and down based on doing good deeds or fulfilling certain parts of the plot. Killing people generally lowers it, except for the elves and woodsmen. Burying dead bodies can earn you points, as can giving items to the right people. There doesn't seem to be a maximum score to aim for, although the game does give you a rank at the end based on which of your scores is higher. And it's possible that certain events only trigger when your scores are at a certain value, although I'm not sure about that.

I mentioned at the start that this game is adapting several properties. It's already a weird mash-up of elements, what with the space station, the starfighters, the elves, the natives, the Plymouth Volare, and the tropical resort holiday-makers. It all got  a little bit weirder when I went to the village at night.

A man in a white suit and a dwarf, eh? I have to admit that I was thrown off at first, because I was thinking of the dwarf in a traditional fantasy sense, what with the elves I'd already encountered. Still, I had my suspicions, and when I opened fire with my blaster those suspicions were confirmed.

This was a fantasy, but one of a whole different variety: a Fantasy Island! Those of you too young to know can find out here, but by this time I had realised that I was standing in front of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo from the TV show. I couldn't interact with them aside from doing a murder, though, and I never did find a use for them. They don't even factor into the plot, except to suggest that none of what's happening is real (the set-up of the show being that various guest stars would go to the island to have their fantasies fulfilled, usually in a way that taught them a lesson of some sort).

Speaking of the plot, I wasn't even sure there was one at the beginning. The first thing I accomplished was to give some coins to the old man at the bar - he gratefully provided me with a map to the catacombs.

I never was able to get the map to display completely, but the clue about the shoes was enough to find the place, an area of very thorny forest. Heading down from there uncovers a secret entrance into the catacombs, but there's not much to find unless you go at night because the tunnels are flooded at high tide. There's also a cave in the cliffs near the beach where I landed my Viper, and that also leads into the catacombs, so the map is not exactly necessary. It's dark in there as well, but there are plenty of kerosene lanterns scattered around the island.

In the catacombs I found some mines and a tomb, as well as some impassable tunnels, but of more interest was this:

A caped Dark Lord with a laser sword who can deflect laser blasts with his hand? Yes, it's our third mash-up property, Darth Vader from Star Wars. I suspect that certain elements of this encounter might be a later addition to the game; sure, Vader was in the 1977 movie, but he wasn't shown being able to deflect lasers with his hands until 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. Regardless of when he was added to the game, my laser pistol wasn't going to finish him off, and he made short work of me when I took him on with my knife. It looked like I'd need another weapon.

There are quite a few options. The first one I tried was a grenade, which actually did the trick - the area he was in was left scorched, and the Dark Lord was nowhere to be seen. It didn't feel all that satisfying though, so I tried some others. The elf's halberd and the woodsman's mallet were no good. I found a mace and a rusty broadsword in the forest, but they didn't work either. I found a fancy sword in a tomb, along with some armour and a helmet, and I was sure that those would work. Nope. There was one last weapon to try: the two-handed sword.

The two-handed sword was so bulky that I couldn't carry anything else in my hands. So I'd have no light source, and no laser pistol. The lack of a laser pistol made it a little difficult to get back to the catacomb unscathed, but I was able to manage it. Having no light source made things a little tricky in the catacombs, but with my map I was still able to navigate. The first blow I struck against the Dark Lord sheared his arm off, so I knew this was the right weapon, and sure enough I was able to kill him.

Vader was dead, but I had nothing to show for it except a lot of injuries. I wandered around the island for a while, seeing if any encounters would trigger, or if Mr. Roarke might congratulate me or something. Or if, I dunno, Captain Stubing from The Love Boat would show up for some reason. Nothing. I was either stuck, or I'd exhausted the possibilities of the game. It was time to delve... into the source code!

The first thing I discovered was that I could USE the amulet that I'd found back on the space station. Doing so took me to a hidden valley, where I met a goddess bathing in a stream. She led me into a cave to her throne, where I gave her a diamond ring and laid a little kissin' on her, and I finally got some exposition as to what the hell's going on with this game.

Okay, so I now had two of the amulets (one of them called a medallion so that the parser can differentiate them), and I had to get the third one from Vader.  I did a little more exploring, found my way out of the valley, and triggered another encounter at the Seaplane Dock: a woman took me aside and told me to meet her at midnight in the Garden. I went to the garden, waited around, and got the following scene.

I recognised the place she was describing: it was a canyon past a tunnel leading from the goddess's throne room. I took the rope back there and went to the edge of a chasm where it said I might be able to get down with a rope, but try as I might I wasn't able to find the right command to make it happen. With a little frustration, I jumped down, and survived albeit with many injuries (which I was able to heal with the potion I was carrying). At the bottom I found a pit with no exits. On the ground were a bar of gold, a block of diamond, and a pot of jewels. I took them all, but it made no difference to my score. Despite the lack of exits I was able to climb out with my rope, by typing THROW ROPE UP first. Alas, it doesn't work in reverse. I tried giving these treasures to the goddess, and it did raise my Ego a little bit, but nothing else happened.

After that I went back and killed Vader, but he didn't drop the third amulet, and the goddess didn't react to his death.  Diving back into the source code, I noticed that there's some text where Vader snatches the amulet and runs away from you. It's triggered when you try to retreat from him after weakening him a little. So I went back, chopped him up a bit, retreated, and sure enough the scene triggered and I was able to chase him through some secret passages into another area: the bottom of the pit where the treasure is. (You should make sure to do this while only holding the amulet. If you have the amulet and the medallion, Vader becomes all-powerful and kills you instantly.)

This time when I killed Vader (which is a little more difficult since you effectively have to fight him twice) he did indeed drop the third amulet - this one called a Talisman. Using my rope (which you can wear, meaning I was able to keep it with me while holding the two-handed sword) I went back up to the goddess and gave her all three of the amulets. Cue the victory screen!

So that's the ending of Battlestar, dubious gender politics and all. Piecing the plot together, it looks like this: the Island King made three amulets for his daughters. The Empire and Darth Vader came along, killed one goddess and took her talisman, and captured the other. That one escaped, somehow ended up aboard the Battlestar space station, and the Empire followed her there and attacked. That's where the game began, Our Wife-Murdering Hero found the amulet, and made his way to the island to defeat Vader and yada yada yada.  Oh, and all of this might be a dream, because Mr. Roarke is hanging around. To be honest, given the ending I kinda hope it is, though I'm not sure what lessons were learned here.

But wait! There's more! The source code also revealed to me that you can become a wizard if you have all three amulets. I'm not sure how it happened, but I wandered around for a bit after finding them and eventually got the following message.

Being a wizard is pretty cool. You can summon any object in the game into your hand, out of thin air. You can fly around over the island, just like when you're in your spaceship. You can even fly all the way up into outer space and survive. And when you use the magic word SU (mentioned in the game's backstory that I included above) you can teleport to any location in the game, as well as set a number of variables (time, encumbrance, fuel and torpedoes for your ship). The game keeps track of how many of its locations you've visited, and I used this ability to get 100%. Given the time limit at the start of the game before the station blows up, becoming a wizard is the only way to do it. I mean, there's no point to doing it aside from personal satisfaction, but I did it anyway.

So that's Battlestar in the can. It was disappointing that I had to do so much code-diving to beat it, and that I couldn't do the space battles, but for what it was I enjoyed it. I mean, a text adventure mashing up Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Fantasy Island? I wasn't expecting that. It's a little light on puzzles for my tastes, and the movement system grinds my gears, but I still had fun poking around in its various weird corners.


Story & Setting: Despite the very weird mash-up of elements, the story to this game hangs together pretty well for its vintage. I could actually describe it above, which is more than can be said for a lot of the text adventures I've played. And there was more to it than hunting for treasure! As for the setting, the weird mash-up of elements was kind of what made it for me. From an opulent space station to a tropical island, and yet somehow it works. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: With elves and woodsmen, Roarke and Tattoo, and Darth Vader as the final villain, it's tempting to give this game a higher rating than it deserves. It certainly has more well-written characters than most of the games I've played for the blog. That said, a lot of those characters are window-dressing, and any interaction with them is minimal at best. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This game was written for a mainframe, and has less restrictions than those written for personal computers, and it shows: the writing for this is very good, with evocative room descriptions and scripted events. It's still a text adventure, with all the aesthetic limitations of the genre, but it's an atmospheric one with high quality prose. Only Zork rivals it to this point. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser works well enough, although I had a few places where I had to struggle for the right words (giving the coins to the old man in the bar being one, and using the rope to get out of the pit another). The day/night cycle is well done, and the realism of the encumbrance system is impressive (even though it can be frustrating to juggle at times). I can't really rate the space combat, because I couldn't get it to work, but that's a problem with the ports rather than the original game. Regular combat is tactically non-existent, and livened up only by the vivid descriptions. I was tempted to knock this down for using relative movement, but the room descriptions adapt impressively well to your positioning, so I couldn't do it. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is hard to rate, because there really aren't a lot of puzzles to solve. Most of the game is exploration, and the difficulty only comes when you're trying to figure out how to trigger the endgame. Most of those actions were things that players would stumble into eventually. So even though I had to delve into the source code, I wouldn't call it difficult exactly. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence: With the day/night cycle, more realistic encumbrance and fatigue, this game is doing a lot of things that other games of its vintage weren't. That said, it's hard to say how many were innovations given the long creation period of the game, but I'll give it some points for those. It's not really a historically notable game, though, so I can't rate it too highly. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: I like exploring game worlds, and I like game worlds that have loads of weird things in them. This game delivered on both of those counts, although the weird things were perhaps not as frequent as I'd like. The frustrations with movement drag this category down, not that it would have been super-high to begin with. There are things to see in this game, but perhaps not many to do. Rating: 2 out of 7.

The above scores total 20, which doubles to a surprisingly high score of 40. I doubt I'll play Battlestar again, so it doesn't get any bonus points. That gives it a Final Rating of 40, placing it equal 12th overall, and 6th counting just the adventure games. That's a pretty good showing for a game that I never quite loved, but I guess it didn't have any weaknesses either. It's just a solid, well written text adventure for its period.


Somewhat later in this blog I made the decision to overhaul my Final Rating system, so I'm going back through and fixing all of the games I've already played as of March 2020.  I've ditched the Innovation and Influence category, and replaced it for adventure games with a category for Puzzles.  For CRPGs I'm using a Combat category.  I've also changed the purpose of the bonus points, saving them for games that are important, innovative, influential, or have features that are otherwise not covered by my other categories.

Also, the Final Rating is a boring name.  The CRPG Addict has his GIMLET.  The Adventure Gamers have their PISSED rating.  Data Driven Gamer has his harpoons.  So I'm ditching the generic name and calling my new system the RADNESS Index: the Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores. It's a pretentious mouthful, but I'm going with it.

Puzzles: The game doesn't have all that many, and those it does have are pretty much directly related to defeating Darth Vader.  I had to delve into the code (or perhaps you could say I "used the Source"), but trial and error would probably have revealed them anyway.  I'll rate it low, but not at the very bottom. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

That gives Battlestar a RADNESS Index of 38. That puts it equal 7th, on a par with Colossal Cave Adventure and Acheton.  It's the equal 3rd highest rated adventure game, which is a damn good showing.

NEXT: Something called Burial Ground Adventure for the TRS-80, which looks to be another treasure hunting text adventure written by a 13 year old.


  1. There's also a ready-compiled version for Linux Mint available in the Debian repositories.

  2. Good job! I was hoping you'd find an ending of some sort (although that's, uh, quite an ending).

    David Riggle is his real name -- he worked on BIND which is pretty instrumental to the functioning of the Internet:

  3. "when you use the magic word SU (mentioned in the game's backstory that I included above) you can teleport to any location in the game"

    Hm, shades of su as in "sudo"? I can't help but get the feeling that this is a bit of unix jargon granting the wizard-player debug mode powers.

  4. Thanks for doing a full playthrough. I always wondered how it ended.