Sunday, May 1, 2022

Priority Adventure 4: Strange Odyssey (1979)

Yes, this game does contain a spaceman
and a Laser Wolf (sort of)

I left off last time saying that I'd be following the Priority List, meaning that for the moment the blog will be mostly covering games of a more historically significant nature than it's done in the past.  This required a little bit of rejigging though, because the Priority Adventure List had a glaring omission: the games of Scott Adams.  This wasn't an oversight, but more of a practical consideration, as most of Adams' work was going to come up fairly soon on the chronological list anyway.  But now, with my temporary abandonment of the chronological list, it would be remiss of me not to cover his games.

(And yes, I did say "temporary abandonment".  For now the blog will chug along as I cover whatever relevant games I've been playing lately.  When I have time I plan on returning to the original chronology, but with limited hours and the finite nature of the human lifespan on my mind, I'm concentrating on my gaming bucket list.  The obscurities will have to wait.)

Strange Odyssey is the sixth text adventure game published by Adventure International.  As with the previous games in the series, this one has a simple two word parser and the same split-screen interface showing room contents in one window and commands/responses in the other.  This time around the player controls a space explorer whose spaceship has broken down on a remote planetoid.  The goal is to collect five alien treasures and repair your ship.  This is incredibly familiar territory for adventure games in 1979, but Adams has a pretty steady track-record so far, and this is his first brush with sci-fi themes.

Before I get into the game proper, I should mention that I played it in August of 2021, not all that long after my marriage ended.  My memories of it are understandably hazy, but I'll do my best here.  Replaying it for the blog should refresh things.  As with previous Scott Adams games I played the TRS-80 version.  I really should just play the Apple versions for my own sanity, as the emulator I have is much more reliable, but I do get a little hung up on playing the earliest versions I can find.

Starting the adventure

When the game begins the player is inside a scoutship, described in Adams' customarily terse fashion.  Typing SCORE told me that I had stored 0 treasures, giving me a score of 0 out of 100.  INVENTORY told me that I was carrying nothing.  HINT and HELP didn't provide me with any clues, so it looked like I'd have to rely on my own wits. (Or those of the many internet walkthrough-writers, as the case may be.)

In the scoutship there was a closed door, an exit down, and a console with two buttons: a blue one marked "blast off" and a red one with no label.  Pressing the blue button revealed that the ship had "insufficient power" due to a damaged power crystal.  I guess replacing that crystal could be added to my list of essential tasks along with finding the required treasures.

Pressing the red button opened the door which led to an airlock.  The outer door was closed, and there was another red button on the wall.  Pressing the red button predictably opened the outer door and caused me to asphyxiate in the airless planetoid, but what adventure gamer could resist trying it?  Finding ways to die is part of the fun, after all.

Below the console room was a hold where I found a space suit, a phaser and a shovel.  Wearing the space suit was the obvious solution to the airlock puzzle, and I was pretty stoked about getting a weapon so early.  Examining the suit revealed a pressure gauge that indicated exactly how many moves I had before my air would run out.  Enforced time limits in adventure games aren't new, but it's a rarity that they give you a way of seeing how close you are to the end.  It's a welcome touch.

Examining the phaser revealed that it had 28 charges left, and was set on stun.  Typing SET PHASER told me that I could set it to STUN or DESTROY, both of which sounded like all sorts of fun.  I left it on STUN, but I was anxious to get down to some DESTROYing.

The hatch was stuck. Blasting it with the phaser on stun had no effect, and examining it revealed nothing.  I saved my game and tried blasting it with my phaser set to destroy.  As I expected, this ruined the ship and ended the game.  Still, the attempt had to be made; in adventure games, the knowledge gained by failure can be vitally important.  I tried a few other things with the hatch (kicking, punching, hitting, turning, pushing, pulling) but nothing worked.  That bad boy was stuck, so I resolved to come back and try again later.

With my spacesuit on, it was time to explore the planetoid.  Surprisingly, there wasn't that much to find.  The airlock opened onto a ledge, where I could jump down in the low gravity to a more open area.  There were exits in all four directions, but the game uses loops to make the planetoid seem much bigger than it actually is.  By dropping items I figured out that it only had three areas, and in those areas the only thing of interest was a cave.

The cave only had one exit and a large boulder, which was too heavy to move.  Destroying it with the phaser worked, leaving behind nothing but rock dust.  Behind the boulder was a "strange flickering curtain of light".  With nowhere else to go I walked through the curtain and found myself in a strange hexagonal room.

The hexagonal room contained three items of interest: some goggles on the floor, a small piece of plastic flush in the wall, and a rod jutting straight out of the wall.  Examining the rod revealed nothing special; I figured it was probably a lever of some sort.  The piece of plastic had a picture of an alien tentacle on it, which was odd.  I couldn't take either of them, but I could take the goggles, which had a yellow button on them.  Wearing the goggles rendered me blind, but by pressing the button I could see things in a bluish tint.  I was a little worried that they might have a finite lifespan, so I turned them off and saved them for later.

The hexagonal room

I pulled the rod, and it came out of the wall a little.  It couldn't be pulled any further, but pushing it back into the wall caused the plastic to glow three times.  Doing the same thing again made the plastic glow four times, doing it again made it glow five times, and so on.  Nothing else happened, and at this point I was stuck.  I kept on messing around with the rod and the plastic, tried digging everywhere with my shovel, tried looking at everything with my new goggles, but it all got me nowhere.  In frustration I even tried shooting the rod and the plastic, which destroyed them both but didn't help any.

The solution, which I figured out after a couple of hours of frustration, was to TOUCH PLASTIC.  On doing this I felt disoriented, and on leaving the room I found myself on a grassy plain at the edge of a jungle.  The hexagonal room was a sort of teleport chamber, with the destination indicated by the number of times the plastic glowed when I operated the rod.

  • 2 times: a grassy plain
  • 3 times: a methane snowstorm
  • 4 times: a derelict spacecraft
  • +5 times: a black emptiness
  • 6 times: an alien art museum
  • 7 times: a Jovian mining colony
  • 8 times or more: the same black emptiness

The Grassy Plain

The plain only consisted of a single area (although I later discovered that it was a little bigger than I'd originally thought).  I used my shovel to dig, and found an ancient ice pick.

The Methane Snowstorm

I could explore the snowstorm in all directions, not that it did me much good.  Exploring only got me hopelessly lost in areas where there was seemingly no way out.  Obviously this was an area to explore later, but I had no idea how to make the hexagonal room destinations cycle backwards at this point.

The Derelict Spacecraft

This was an empty ship drifting in space.  The only thing here was an alien machine with a hose and two buttons, one black and one white.  Pressing the white button did nothing, but pressing the black button caused some gas to come out of the hose.  Getting the hose automatically attached it to my suit, and pressing the black button afterwards refilled my suit with oxygen.  So while I had an oxygen-based time limit, I also had a place I could visit to get a refill: very handy!  (Filling the suit with too much oxygen caused my suit to pop open, which was expected but also quite amusing.  The white button apparently toggles the hose between oxygen and some other deadly gas, because I also died by filling my suit with non-breathable air.)

Black Emptiness

There was nothing here except for a black hole, and at this point there was nothing I could do with it.

Alien Art Museum

This area was the jackpot as far as finding the game's treasures was concerned: there was a rare alien painting and an alien sculpture, both of which were marked with asterisks to denote their treasure status.  There was also a sign, but all that did was advertise Adams' next game Mystery Fun House, as well as an "adventure t-shirt" which I assume was for sale at the time.

The painting was in shades of black that made my eyes swim.  I remembered the goggles, and tried looking with them turned on.  This time I saw an image of an alien twisting a buckle on a belt.

The sculpture was of an alien being, and it was wearing a strange belt, no doubt similar to the one in the painting.  Putting the belt on and twisting the buckle caused it to float; presumably I was floating along with it.  The belt was also a treasure.

I tried taking the painting and the sculpture, but this is where I hit my inventory limit.  I'd have to come back for them later.

Jovian Mining Colony

The mining colony's heavy gravity proved to be instantly deadly, but I was able to survive (after restoring my game) by wearing the floating belt.  In the colony I found a flask of ancient saurian brandy (the fourth of five treasures) and a short twisted piece of metal, neither of which appeared special upon examination.  The gravity here meant that my inventory limit was greatly decreased, so I had to drop everything but my suit and belt, and I could only get the flask and metal one at a time.

Gassing myself to death on the derelict spacecraft

Having explored all of the game's areas, I now had a dilemma: how do I reset the teleporter so that I can revisit earlier destinations?  As it stood, the teleporter just kept counting upwards, and after the mining colony it only led to the black hole.  Not only did I need to go backwards for exploration and puzzle-solving purposes, but I also needed a way to get back to my ship.  I'm a little ashamed at how long it took me to figure this one out, but resetting the teleporter required touching the plastic while the rod was pulled out.  That caused the plastic to glow once when the rod was pushed back in, and returned me to the planetoid with my ship.  The upside is that in all this experimentation I tried twisting the rod, and this caused it to break off with a "crystalline snap".  That message was too specific to be just window-dressing, so I filed it away in my memory for later.

I now had four out of five treasures, and no idea where the fifth might be.  I didn't even know where to store my treasures; I had assumed it would be the storage hold of my ship, but putting them there didn't affect my score at all.  I was able to solve one outstanding puzzle though: the stuck hatch.  With the twisted metal in my possession I was able to open it, which gave me access to a crawlway where I found a metal holder and some broken pieces of power crystal.  Recalling the "crystalline snap" of the rod from the hexagonal room when I'd broken it, I tried placing the rod.  It was a perfect fit, and I was now able to blast off.  This worked, and after a short journey I arrived at my destination, which was apparently the storage hold of my mothership.  There was a sign indicating that this is where I needed to leave my treasures, so I'd solved that problem at least.  All that was left was for me to find the last treasure, wherever it might be.

Breaking the rod

The first piece of the puzzle came back in the grassy plain near the jungle.  Sometimes this game indicates all of its exits in an obvious fashion, but sometimes you need to type things like GO DOOR.  This was the case here, as I needed to GO JUNGLE to find a new area.  This led to a jungle of "centurion slime trees", and exits in all directions.  Heading east led to the ruins of an intergalactic zoo, and a "rigilian dia-ice hound".  Examining the hound gave me a warning: "Watch it! It's known to spit molten DIAMONDS!"  This sounded like the treasure I needed, but before I could try anything the hound attacked and killed me.

Upon returning I tried shooting the hound with my phaser, and obliterated it as I had it set to destroy.  A satisfying revenge, but obviously not the solution I was looking for.  Next time I tried it with my phaser set to stun, and that worked.  I was able to get the hound and carry it around with me, but once again I had no obvious path ahead of me.

There were two areas in which I hadn't accomplished anything: the black hole and the methane snowstorm.  Dropping the hound near the black hole didn't do anything (and while I was trying things it woke up and killed me).  Besides, it was an ice hound, so a snowstorm seemed like its natural habitat.

Dropping the hound in the snow and then waking it up caused it to burrow off, although no direction was indicated.  With some trial and error I discovered a large ice mound to the west that hadn't been there before.  Using my pick I was able to dig it up, but as soon as I did the hound came along and killed me.  This happened again on my second attempt, but on my third it didn't attack and I found a Rigilian Ice Diamond.

Finding the ice diamond

At this point I was stuck, trapped at the bottom of a hole with an angry ice hound.  I wasn't able to climb out or dig my way free, and my frustrations got the better of me as they tend to do when I'm nearing the end of a game.  I looked up a walkthrough, and the answer was to SHOOT MOUND with my phaser set to destroy.  This allowed me to get free with the diamond, and return to the hexagonal room and then to my ship.

With all five treasures in hand and the ability to repair my ship, all I had to do was fly to the mothership and place my treasures in the hold.  This required a fair bit of back and forth due to the inventory limit (as well as a trip to replenish my oxygen), but I got there in the end for the following victory screen.

Surrounded by my newfound riches.

Strange Odyssey is another solid outing for Scott Adams.  I do question the decision to block progress with a potentially difficult puzzle at the very beginning of the game though.  I only got through by stubborn perseverance, and it certainly would have stumped me when I was younger.  I suspect a decent number of players back in the day never got further than the initial planetoid.  Other than that, and the frustrations inherent in typing PULL ROD, PUSH ROD, TOUCH PLASTIC over and over again to get anywhere, it's an adventure game with solid puzzles that make sense and can be figured out with some persistence.  That may sound like faint praise, but in this era that puts it a cut above.


Story & Setting: The story is yet another in a long line of treasure hunts; I understand why they're so common, as they work very well as the basis for an adventure game, but it's hard to get excited about one at this point.  And while the sci-fi setting is still a novel one, Strange Odyssey's various locations don't hang together in any cohesive way.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There's exactly one character/creature in the game other than the player, and that's the Rigilian Dia-Ice Hound.  One of the game's more interesting puzzles does centre around the creature, but other than that it's just a hostile killing machine and not terribly interesting otherwise.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: As I said above, the puzzles in this game are all solid, with solutions that make sense once they're figured out.  I do take some issue with the hexagonal room puzzle blocking all progress so early in the game, and I'm also not too keen on the SHOOT MOUND puzzle at the end given that the player has already dug up the mound and is now in a hole.  And now that I think of it, the crystalline rod is also a little obscure; I only figured it out by accident. Still, by the standards of the day this game does quite well.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This is a text adventure, and Scott Adams doesn't go for flowery descriptions, so the score has to be low.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: As with all of Adams' games this one has a simple two word parser, but it uses that parser well, and does a decent job of prompting the player when their are moments that could stump the player (such as setting the phaser to stun or destroy).  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: It's a fair adventure game that will provide a decent challenge to someone willing to persevere through the navigation puzzle at the beginning.  The ice hound is also a bit of a stumbling block with its unpredictable nature, but not so much that it's going to drag the score down.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: Zipping around to different sci-fi settings via teleporter is fun in theory, but those areas are too small to be of much interest.  And while giving the player the ability to zap everything in sight provides some amusement, in practice there's very little that can be blasted without effectively ending the game.  Outside of that, it's a primitive text adventure, and that always limits how much fun can be had. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

The above scores total 15, which doubled gives a RADNESS Index of 30.  That puts it on par with other Scott Adams adventures such as Pirate Adventure and Voodoo Castle.  Only The Count and Adventureland rate higher of Adams' games, with Secret Mission ranking slightly lower.  It's quite a consistent track record for such a prolific output.  They're not exceptional games outside of their historical context, but it's enough to give Adams the crown for the era as far as home computer adventure games go.

NEXT: It will probably be the next Scott Adams adventure, Mystery Fun House, which I also played about a year ago.

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