Sunday, November 8, 2020

Game 50: Kadath (1979)

Being a fan of super-hero comics I know the value of a nice round number, so it feels somewhat momentous to have finally reached Game 50.  I didn't realise that it was coming up, so I didn't arrange for it to be anything special.  Instead, I've just gone ahead with my standard chronological order, and played the next game on my list, Kadath.

Not gonna lie, any game with this C64 font is
gonna hit my nostalgia buttons hard.

Kadath was a text adventure designed by Gary Musgrave for the Altair, one of the earliest available home computers.  From what I can gather, the Altair was primitive in 1979 when compared to something like the Apple II.  It doesn't appear to have had a monitor display, so I suspect that Kadath accomplished that with paper printouts, in a similar manner to Richard Garriott's DND1.  Like I said, primitive.

The game was ported to the Commodore PET in 1981, but as I mentioned in my last post I haven't been able to find that version.    In 1983 it was ported to the Commodore 64, where it was renamed as Eye of Kadath.  That's the version I played for the body of this post.  Somewhere along the way it also got ported to the Exidy Sorcerer, a short-lived PC that I had never heard of before today.  I'm told by Jason Dyer of Renga in Blue that this version is probably closest to the original, and thanks to his instructions I'm able to briefly cover it below in Ports of Call.

In this game you play as a archaeologist who uncovered a tomb around ten years ago. In that tomb, the archaeologist found an ancient tablet, and has spent years translating it by consulting such dark volumes as the Unaussprechlichen Kulten and The Necronomicon.  The tablet spoke of the rise of a dark evil that would occur when the dark star Kynath was in conjunction with Arcturus.  Now, with only fifteen days left until that event will come to pass, the archaeologist has travelled to the ancient city of Yaddith intending to put a stop to it.

Laying out the backstory.

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, then you've probably read or heard about the noted horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft is one of those writers that - due to his massive influence on genre fiction and Dungeons & Dragons in particular - I should have read years ago.  I keep putting it off.  I tried a few years ago to get through a bunch of his short stories in audiobook form, but they slid right off my brain with no impact.  I suspect that's more due to the format than the stories themselves, but regardless, I'm only familiar with Lovecraft via what I've absorbed through pop-culture osmosis.

Kadath marks a pretty big first, in that it's the earliest known video game adaptation of Lovecraft's work.  Given the name, you'd think it was an adaptation of his novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but a quick look at the Wikipedia entry indicates that there's little connection.  I suspect that Kadath may be an original story cobbled together from elements of Lovecraft's stories, but I'd appreciate it if any Lovecraft experts out there can set me straight.  (From further research, I'm seeing that there are elements in the game taken from stories by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan; he was one of a bunch of writers that built on and added to Lovecraft's work over the years, with varying results.  It looks like Musgrave has drawn on elements not just from Lovecraft, but his many collaborators and imitators.)

What's also notable is that Kadath isn't played using the parser system that so defined text adventures in the wake of Colossal Cave Adventure.  Rather than typing in commands, the player is presented with a number of possible actions, and must choose one.  In some ways it's similar to playing a Choose Your Own Adventure or a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.  I can't say for sure if this is the first game that ever used this format, but it must be among the earliest.  It's hard to give this much historical significance, because it's not a style that really ever caught on in the digital realm, but it deserves at least a little bit of credit.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing Kadath is that the quality of the writing is very high by the standards of the genre at the time.  This is especially impressive on a home computer; there have been games with well-written descriptions before this, but they've been exclusive to mainframe systems.  Most of those on home computers have been very terse, no doubt due to memory constraints, and I was surprised to see something this good coming from a computer like the Altair.  I would later find out that the game isn't very long, which explains how Musgrave was able to cram it all in.  It was a good choice though; the game is short, but it manages to evoke a Lovecraftian atmosphere, something that would have been very difficult without longer room descriptions.

The game begins with the player entering the catacombs beneath the city of Yaddith, with the ultimate goal being to stop an ancient evil from arising.  The instructions lay out the five things you need to do to complete this goal:

  1. Enter the labyrinthine caverns
  2. Find the hidden and guarded "Eye of Kadath"
  3. Return the "Eye" to its rightful place
  4. Invoke the Elder Powers
  5. Destroy the gate through which this unspeakable evil will gain dominion over all the Earth.

All of this must be accomplished within fifteen days.  I tried waiting it out, to see what would happen; I've played other games that threaten you with deadlines but don't deliver when the time comes.  I got to around twenty days with nothing untoward happening, and I was about to add Kadath to that list, but then disaster struck while I was poling a raft into a cave.  Luckily, beating this game before the deadline hits is not at all difficult.

This sounds a bit like me during one of my regular
bouts of bronchitis.

The first chamber of the catacombs has four exits (not including the one you entered from), and after a small amount of exploration I was pretty hopelessly lost.  This game is difficult to map, and can be quite disorienting.  There are a bunch of near-identical rooms, all with five exits, and where those exits lead is relative to the one through which you enter the room.  So exit 1 might lead to a dead end, but when you return to that room exit 1 will lead somewhere else entirely.  There are also room where the exits are labelled as Left or Right, and I have no idea if those are relative or not.  Even after finishing Kadath I'm not sure that my map is correct.  I'm not sure if this was purposeful design, but it's another thing that adds to the game's Lovecraftian vibe.

Starting the game.

As you'd expect, you can die in Kadath, but for the most part it requires doing something stupid.  Do you want to dive into a lake from a high cliff?  Or creep across a vast cavern littered with bones?  Or wade through black, waist-deep water?  Go ahead, but you ain't gonna survive any of those.  I found myself doing dumb things on purpose just to read the descriptions, which had some macabre entertainment value.  Another benefit to dying is that the game tells you how well you're doing.  It will clue you in on whether you've found the items you need to beat the game, or if you've destroyed one of them, which I appreciated.

It's nice to be a part of something, though, innit?

Aside from the chambers with five exits, and the obvious death-traps I mentioned above, the catacombs have the following points of interest:

  • A balcony overlooking Yaddith, where an ancient scroll can be found.
  • A room with a stone block, on which rests a dagger and a sphere. Only one of these items can be taken at a time.
  • A room with a huge statue of a nightmarish beast.  Runes at the base of the statue translate as "From death spawned black star great Kadath rises - lord of all".  In the middle of the statue's face is a large pentagonal hole.
  • An underground lake with a raft.  The raft can be poled to an island, on which can be found a conch shell. Taking the conch causes the cavern to shake, and dislodges a stalactite that falls close to you.
  • The raft can also be poled into two fissures.  One of those leads to a certain death unless you turn back, but the other leads to a room where you will find a glowing green gem.  That gem is guarded by something called a Shoggoth, a shapeless, protoplasmic creature made of black slime.

The path to victory is quick.  You need to find and keep the scroll on the balcony.  If you try take it out, the scroll crumbles and can't be used.  You also need to collect the conch shell from the island.  Then you need to find the Eye of Kadath, which is the aforementioned glowing green gem.  If you try to take it without the necessary item, the Shoggoth will chase you away, and you'll be told that you need a weapon to defeat it.  That weapon is the dagger from the stone block, which is powerful enough to kill the creature with one blow.  With the scroll and the Eye now in your possession, you just need to take them both to the statue, where the endgame begins.

I'm more horrified by the hideous mass of typos.

What follows is a series of questions. Do you put the Eye of Kadath in the statue, on the altar, or on the floor?  What do you use to invoke the Elder Powers?  What is the invocation on the scroll?  Will you destroy the Eye with the conch, the dagger or the sphere?  If you get too many of these wrong, you will eventually lose the game, with a message similar to what happens when you run out of time.  The only one I had trouble with was typing in the chant - KADATH CTHULHU R'LYEH - and that's only because the key mapping for the Commodore 64 emulator I was using was different to a standard QWERTY keyboard.  Luckily for me I spent over a decade using a C64 almost daily, so I had little trouble tracking down that errant apostrophe, and thereby beating the game.

Saving humanity with a conch shell.

Overall, it took me about an hour to beat Kadath, and the experience was short-lived and user-friendly enough that I had a good time doing it.  In a lot of ways, it feels ahead of its time; there's certainly no shortage of brief horror games based on Lovecraft floating around the independent scene these days.  I'm interested to see how it does on the RADNESS Index; it's short and very easy, but it does what it does rather well.


Before I rate Kadath, I'll take a quick look at the Exidy Sorcerer version.  The most notable difference is that the Sorcerer has more room for its text: it can fit a bunch more characters per line than the Commodore 64, so the text is a little more detailed.  For instance, the star Kynath is only named in the Sorcerer version.  I also noticed that the Sorcerer does a lot more in the way of creating pacing with its text formatting.  For example, the death screams of the Shoggoth are much more drawn out.  The trade-off is that it has a distracting number of typos.  There are plenty on the C64 as well, but on the Sorcerer they are present to a maddening level.  I suppose it's a toss-up as to which is better, but if you're as sensitive to typos as I am then the C64 version might be more to your tastes.

In terms of gameplay, the only difference I noted came in the endgame.  Some of the questions that are presented as multiple choice on C64 must have the answer typed in on the Sorcerer.  It makes the game a little harder I guess, but not so much that it makes a great difference.

The same ending, with a little more fancy text formatting.


Story & Setting: Kadath has great source material to draw from, and does a decent job of evoking that material successfully.  It might be the earliest horror game I've played that manages to be even mildly effective in that regard.  A lot of the details are vague and unexplained: the nature of the menace you have to stop is barely hinted at, and the various lurking creatures that can do you in are never shown or described.  For some that might be unsatisfactory, but again it's something done to evoke that Lovecraftian feel (which, for the record, is much more about fear of the alien unknown than fear of tentacles).  There's not a lot to the story and setting in terms of size and scope, but it makes up for that with atmosphere and implication.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: As with the previous category, there isn't a lot here in terms of detail: just about every creature in the game is lurking out of sight, never seen but dangerous nonetheless.  They provide atmosphere, but in terms of gameplay they're only there to kill you if you take a wrong step. The Shoggoth is the only creature that can be seen, and it's pretty great in descriptive terms, but it operates solely as an obstacle to victory.  Again, there's no interaction, so I can't rate it highly.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This is a text adventure with no sound, but the writing is up there in the absolute top tier of the adventure games I've played so far.  This genre is never going to score super high here, but I have to put this one on a level with games like ZorkRating: 3 out of 7.

Puzzles: The puzzles in this game are very light on, and are solved almost exclusively by entering an area with the right inventory item.  That's the inherent limitation of a text adventure that relies on multiple choice rather than a parser, I guess.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Everything in this game works the way it's supposed to, although it would be pretty hard to mess up a game in this format.  I suppose it might have been an impressive game on the Altair - I have no idea what other kinds of games were made for it - but by 1979 it already feels very simplistic.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I finished this game in just under an hour, so I'd say it has little in the way of legitimate challenge.  Navigating the catacombs is probably the most difficult part of the game, but if you move around at random you'll eventually hit everything regardless.  That said, I'm not even sure the game was designed to be much of a challenge; it gives you copious hints about your progress after you die, so even when you do fail it's pretty easy to see where you went wrong or what you're missing.  I feel like it was made to provide an experience rather than a challenge, and on that level it does well. In this particular category, not so much. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: As with most short games, I enjoyed it while it lasted but the experience wasn't meaty enough for me to really get into it.  I might have rated this a little higher as a parser-based game, as that would have provided more interaction and difficulty.  It worked well enough as a game with its multiple choices/branching paths, but the lack of choices brought it down a bit. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus: 1. Kadath gets a single bonus point, for a combination of being the first Lovecraftian game and one of the first Choose Your Own Adventure style games.  Neither of those would probably merit it on their own, but together they're worth a point I reckon.

The above scores total 15, which doubled gives a score of 30; add the bonus point and Kadath gets a respectable RADNESS Index of 31.  That places it equal 13th overall, and equal 8th in terms of adventure games.  It's level with games like The Wizard and the Princess, Colossal Cave Adventure II and Mystery Mansion, all of which I'd describe as games with a mixture of good and frustrating elements.  Kadath does what it does well, and if it was longer or less simplistic it might have scored quite a bit higher.

NEXT: My next game is Local Call for Death, a murder mystery for the TRS-80.  This one is similar to Kadath in that it's short and well-written; I don't expect it to take more than a single post.  After that, it's back to the priority list for Mission: Asteroid, the third game from Ken and Roberta Williams.  If these short games keep coming, I'll be on to Wizardry in no time...


  1. You know, it kind of makes EXTRA sense that a game on the Altair would be small. Memory is one thing, but on top of that, who wants to waste all that paper?

  2. Wow... interesting game from the deep depths of computer gaming! Agree on the paper issue too!

    I've read a fair number of Lovecraft's stories back in the day. It's probably worth reading a few just to see his style.

    "At the Mountains of Madness" would be a good story to read, particularly in relation to the plot of Kadath.

  3. Altair users would generally provide their own monitor. Keep in mind it didn't even come with a keyboard! Someone wrote a game that just uses the switches and lights.