Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Game 15: Zork (aka Dungeon) (1978)

We're all familiar with Zork, aren't we?  I suppose it's possible that there are younger readers who don't know the game, but it's fair to say that everyone reading this has either played Zork or played a game that's influenced by Zork.  It's one of the most important foundational games ever made, and its influence is impossible to escape.  It was even mentioned in one of the biggest movies of 2015.

Despite that, I think it's also fair to say that few of my readers would have played Zork in its original form.  The original Zork was developed on a PDP-10 mainframe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but when it was later released commercially it had to be split into three parts, because the game was too large for home computers.  The Zork trilogy is the form that most people are familiar with, but today I'm going back to take a look at the game in its primal form (more accurately, as it existed in 1980, which is close enough for my purposes).

The mainframe version of Zork was developed by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling.  Inspired by Don Woods' expanded version of Colossal Cave Adventure, they worked on it continuously from 1977 to 1979, though the basic game was playable in the Summer of 1977 and complete in 1978

The game's original title was Zork, but the version I'm playing is called Dungeon (there are so many games called "Dungeon" and "Adventure" that it gets very confusing, and I opt for the alternate name whenever possible).  "Zork" was at the time a nonsense word used by hackers at MIT as a name for any unfinished program.  The developers eventually called it Dungeon, but after a notice of copyright infringement from TSR (the oft-litigious publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG), they changed the name back to Zork.  Which is a much better name, to be honest.

This is the first game in the project that I've played before.  I completed the Zork trilogy about seven years ago, and I still remember bits and pieces of it.  Not enough that this is going to be easy, but there are certain puzzles that I have memorised, and certain others that I'm sure will come back to me.  I don't doubt that there'll be things I've forgotten completely.  I do recall that I got through Zork 1 without the need for a walkthrough, but Zork 2 and especially 3 were much too difficult for me. I'll try my best to complete this version of the game unaided.

The game begins in very familiar territory: a field near a white house with a mailbox.  The mailbox contains a leaflet, which gives a bit of an intro blurb to the game, and also indicates that more information can be gained with the HELP and INFO commands.  These commands display more text than will fit on a single screen, and it flashes by too quickly on modern computers, but luckily the version I got has a file with the relevant text included.  HELP has information about the parser, and other aspects of how the game functions, while INFO outlines how the game is won.

I should discuss the parser a little more, because it is absolutely revolutionary. Every text adventure game to this point (and all the ones I've played that come after, I'm pretty sure) feature a simple two-word parser.  Zork expands on that significantly, as it allows the player to use prepositions, and understands more complex sentences.  You can even use multiple commands at once, separated by commas. It's easily the most complex text adventure parser created to date, and would set the standard for a while to come.

Not everything can be revolutionary, however, because the goal of this game is to gather treasures and return them to the trophy case inside the house.  Colossal Cave Adventure casts a long shadow, but it will be interesting to revisit Zork to see what it does to transcend its simplistic story.  Finding and storing the various treasures gains you points, of which there are 585 in total.  The backstory is similarly simplistic, at least in the beginning: there's a lost labyrinth beneath the ground that's full of treasures, and the player is an adventurer who wants to explore it.  It gets more interesting as the smaller details are fleshed out in bits and pieces during the game.

The opening section of the game takes place in a forest, with the goal being to get inside the white house and find an entrance into the underworld.  There are only two things of interest in the forest.  The first is a pile of leaves that is hiding a locked grate, but the grate can't be opened at this stage of the game. The other is a nest in a tree that contains a jewel-encrusted egg.  The egg is one of the treasures I need to collect, but I have a vague memory that there's something inside it, and that I need to open it somehow.  (This was confirmed when I later tried smashing the egg with a sword.  There's a delicate clockwork canary inside that did not survive the process.)

Aside from the egg and the grate, you can explore a canyon that leads to the end of the rainbow.  My vague memory tells me that I need to cross the rainbow at some point, but I can't do it yet.

Getting into the house isn't all that difficult.  The front door is nailed shut, and the windows on the north and south sides are barred, but there's a window on the east side that can be opened, allowing you to enter the kitchen.

The house has three rooms: the kitchen, the attic, and the living room. The kitchen contains a bottle of water, and a sack containing a lunch and a clove of garlic. (I have the sinking feeling that I need to keep my character fed...)  The living room contains some of the most important items in the game: an elvish sword, a lantern, and the trophy case where you store your treasures.  The attic has some important things as well, but it also has this iconic moment.

"It is pitch dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."  It's a simple puzzle, but it's a good bit of design in that it gives the player a relatively safe place to learn about the lamp, and the dangers of not using it.  Later in the game this message pretty much means you're dead: once all of your light sources run out, the game is as good as over.

Once it's lit, you can see that the attic contains some rope, a knife, and a clay brick.  I'm pretty sure that the clay brick isn't here in the commercial Zork.  (Speaking of things that are new to this game, the living room also has a newspaper that details recent updates to the game. It is dated 18th July 1980, and notes that the endgame is here and that there have been some puzzling discoveries near the thief's hideaway.  It also provides an address where people can send written complaints, and highly discourages personal visitors.)

The only other thing I haven't mentioned is the rug in the living room.  It's not important in itself, but underneath it is a trapdoor, with stairs leading down into darkness. This is where the game proper begins, and also where it starts to feel dangerous: when you descend, someone closes and bars the door above you.  The elvish sword also starts to glow with a faint blue light.

Those who haven't read Tolkien might think that the sword has just become a handy source of light, but the rest of us know better. In Tolkien, elvish swords glow blue in the presence of orcs; in Zork, being one area away from any enemy will cause the sword to glow as a warning.  In this case the sword is glowing because there's a troll in the next room.

Zork takes a cue from Colossal Cave Adventure here, in that it has enemies that can be killed by brute force.  There's nothing tactical about the combat in Zork: you simply type KILL TROLL WITH SWORD until one or the other of you dies.  Still, the combat text is rather entertaining, and I find the battles to be tense and gripping.  This version of the game accompanies the text with a whole lot of numbers, but I can't figure out what they're trying to tell me.  The Troll isn't all that hard to beat, but there are tougher enemies to come.

There's not a lot you can do before killing the troll.  the first area I explored featured an artist's studio and a gallery. The gallery contained a painting, and the studio had a chimney that led back up to the kitchen.  The chimney was too narrow for me to climb with all of my stuff, but with only the painting and the lamp I was able to make it through.  I'm not sure why I can't get back down the same way, but at least it's not to hard to get back to the studio (after placing the painting in the trophy case, of course).

The only other area open before killing the Troll is the bank. I only have the barest memories of this place, and can't remember how to solve it at all (it's actually from Zork 2, so the commercial games really did rearrange things).  It features a couple of waiting rooms, a viewing room for looking at safety deposit boxes, a chairman's office with a portrait, and a giant stone cube.  There's a also a curtain of light that I wasn't able to pass through.  I haven't touched or investigated anything in here just yet, as I usually like to map out a text adventure before I start solving puzzles.  I'll get back to this, but the uneasy feeling I got when I first found the place is making me nervous.  I think my subconscious memory is trying to remind me how hard this was to solve the first time I played it.

Past the Troll the game opens up, with a lot of areas to explore.  It's large for a text adventure of this vintage, and I expect that I've only mapped a fraction of it.  At first the areas past the Troll are mostly featureless: passages, ravines and canyons.  It doesn't take long to find interesting stuff though, which I'll lay out below.

  • I'll get the most frustrating thing out of the way first: yes, this game has a maze.  A maze of twisty passages, all alike, just like the one in Colossal Cave Adventure. It can be mapped by dropping items to mark the locations, but Zork has an added complication: the thief.  Occasionally he wanders through to steal things, or to pick them up and drop them in different places.  I'll discuss him later, but needless to say he's one of the most hated antagonists in my gaming career.   I haven't finished mapping the maze yet, so I'll discuss this more in my next post.
  • There's one area with a shaft leading down, and a railing at the edge of the hole. You can't descend unaided, but you can tie a rope to the railing and climb down that way.  At the bottom is a flaming torch that never goes out. The brass lamp from earlier has a finite lifespan, but I'm pretty sure that this torch burns forever.  It's handy, but it's also a treasure, and the aforementioned Thief loves to steal it and leave you in the dark.
  • One room has a mirror that covers the entire south wall. I'm not sure what this is for yet. I broke the mirror, but there's nothing behind it.
  • Another room has a wall covered with a large glacier.  Presumably I need to melt it.  I've found some matches, but I doubt they are enough to get the job done.  Perhaps I could try the torch?  I get the feeling I'll need something more substantial.
  • The Egyptian Room contains the gold sarcophagus of Ramses II.  It's empty, and too heavy to move, but I'm positive that I need to get it back to the surface somehow.
  • The Loud Room contains a platinum bar, but anything you do in this chamber besides leaving the room results in an echo. If you type GET BAR (or anything else for that matter) the game simply repeats your command back at you. This is a puzzle that I remember.  Typing ECHO results in a shift in the room's acoustics, and after that you can pick up the bar without trouble.
  • There are quite a few rooms in and around a dam.  The lobby contains some matches, and a guidebook that identifies the dam as Flood Control Dam #3.  It also provides what will probably be the player's first glimpse into the backstory of Zork, with mentions of The Great Underground Empire and the tyrant Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive. A nearby maintenance room contains a wrench, a screwdriver and a tube of "magic gunk", while at the base of the dam you will find an inflatable boat and a broken stick. There's also a control panel with a metal bolt and a green plastic bubble on it, but I haven't investigated this yet.  As mentioned before, I've been mapping.  Puzzles can wait.
  • The Temple has a number of interesting objects in it. The first is the Grail, which I haven't found a use for yet but is no doubt one of the treasures. Further in I found a bell, and on an altar a book and some candles. The book has a rather bizarre message about the phrase "hello sailor", which as I recall becomes important later. The mythological significance of finding a bell, a book and a candle isn't lost on me, but I haven't figured these out yet.
  • Near the temple there's an entrance to Hades, with a pile of corpses nearby. The gate is guarded by evil spirits who won't let me pass. I vaguely recall that the bell, book and candle are used here, but I don't know how or in what order. I'll keep experimenting.
  • I've also found a shovel, some bat guano and a shiny wire.  I've no idea what any of these are for yet, but being a D&D player guano always reminds me of the fireball spell. The Zork team were definitely D&D players, so we'll see if this is where they're going.
  • The only other thing of note is not a location, but a character: the aforementioned Thief.  Occasionally he'll wander in as you're exploring, and lounge around casually. You can sometimes get away from him, but more often than not he will steal your treasures and escape. Fighting him is a bad idea at this stage of the game - he's quite deadly with his stiletto knife.  He's much like the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, only more threatening and more capable of interaction with the game world.

That's the extent of my exploration so far.  The game hasn't really done anything yet that Colossal Cave Adventure didn't do before it, but it does so with wit and charm. The best games in a genre rarely do things first: more often than not they build on the innovations of an earlier game. That's exactly what Zork does: it takes the best parts of Colossal Cave, improves them, and adds its own distinctive character.  It's great fun.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Castle: Victory!

I'm done with Castle, and to be honest I spent more time on it than I probably should have.  Sure it has a lot of historical curiosity, and a touch of historical significance, but those don't always translate into a great game.  Castle is... let's say it's interesting.  It has certain elements that would carry forth into gaming through much of the 1980s, though I wouldn't necessarily say that they are positive ones.  I'll explain later once I touch on the endgame.

The first thing I should say is that it's surprisingly complete.  I've played William Crowther's original version of Colossal Cave Adventure (though I didn't blog about it), which is the only comparable text adventure to Castle in terms of vintage.  That game is unfinished.  It has no ending, there are exits from locations that don't lead anywhere, and there's at least one section that crashes the game.  It's also of great historical significance, but the original version wasn't the one that was widely played and circulated.  I was expecting something similar from Castle, but instead I got a game that was much larger and much more complete.  That's probably because Peter Langston worked on it for years after its initial release, but I can only play the games in front of me.  Without the original code for Castle we'll never know.

That's not to say Castle is totally complete.  It has a number of bugs in the code, and I took it upon myself to roll up my sleeves and fix them, which was a tricky thing to do without violating the workings of the game.  I'm pretty sure I managed it, and I may just have the only version in which you can legitimately reach the true ending.  I'll mention the changes I made as they come up.

At the end of my last post I had just found the entrance to a missile silo, and upon opening the doors I'd ended up splattered on the front of a launching rocket.  When I went back there this time, I paid a bit more attention to the sign on the door.  It read: "...ILO.  To doo...uck!."  I took a stab at filling in the blanks, and this time when I opened the door  I typed DUCK.  I wasn't expecting this to work, but not only did I dodge the missile, I found myself in the Missile Control Room.  (You can read the full message by lighting a match found later in the game, and that makes the puzzle a lot more explicit.)

(There's an error message that crops up in the shaft, to do with the OPEN DOOR command.  I fixed it by adding a backslash or two, and now the message doesn't appear.  Missing punctuation is the most irritating thing about coding, and the easiest to miss.)

Blowing up the portcullis

There was a screen flashing here, asking me for a target.  I tried a few things, which involved multiple restarts, as you only get one shot.  I couldn't blow up the moat, or the bridge, or the honeymoon cottage, or even the castle drawbridge.  Eventually, after going through my notes, I hit on the correct answer: the portcullis that had been blocking my way south.

The only exit from the Missile Control Room was a hatch leading up, which exited at the Crossroads where the game begins.  (I fixed a bit of code here as well.  Exiting the Control Room is supposed to change the Crossroads so that the hatch is visible, but the original code didn't point to the right place.  It works now.)

I retraced my steps back through the castle courtyard, and found that the portcullis was a smoking ruin.  To the south were some gardens, where I found some jewels and an ugly frog.  Kissing the frog did nothing, so I took it with me instead.  The jewels end up being useless in the game.  The frog is part of the endgame, which I'll discuss once I get there.

Finding the frog.

There seemed to be nowhere else left to explore.  I couldn't figure out how to cross the moat, or open the drawbridge.  The shaft leading up to the missile silo led downwards as well, but I couldn't find a way to do so safely.  I figured that the only thing down there would logically be missiles, anyway.

So, with nothing left to do I set about testing every possible exit direction in every location.  I normally do this as part of my standard mapping procedure, but for whatever reason I was a bit lax with the early stages of this game.  Eventually I found what I was looking for at the bottom of the well: a secret passage leading north-east.

This led to a secret stairway, with four locations and four buttons.  Two of the buttons are bad, and will block the way back to the well.  If you press these, your escape later on will be much more difficult to figure out.  The other two open secret doors that lead into the castle proper.  There's also a passage that leads into a small maze of prison cells, which can be completely skipped; there's nothing in them.

The castle is big, with a lot of locations that don't really serve any purpose.  Instead of laboriously detailing my exploration of it, I'll hit the highlights in point form.

  • The king's bedroom has nothing interesting in it, but one of the doors from the secret stairway leads in here.  Nearby is the Queen's Boudoir, where a gossamer gown can be found, and a Sanctum which contains a signet ring.  Neither of these items is useful.
  • Close to those rooms is a Guest Chamber with a gideon bible.  Trying to take the bible results in a snarky message about how it was put there to help people renew their faith, or whatever, but reading it gives you a clue that tells you where to use the match.
  • A storeroom in the castle has a sack of potatoes in it, which is essential for completing the game without starving to death.  You can still die of starvation, but the potatoes are the most filling food you can find in the game.  (Not that it matters, because the game lets you carry on playing after starvation anyway.  I never bothered to try and fix that in the code, because it was much too beneficial.)
  • The lower level of the castle features a mead cellar and various kitchens and rooms for servants.  There's a wine bottle in the cellar, and a knife and a match in the kitchen.  The match can be used to read the sign in the Missile Silo, as I mentioned before, and the knife can be very useful in escaping the castle if you've blocked the Secret Stairs.  The wine bottle doesn't have an explicit use, but I like to drop it in the Armory (see below).
  • There's a throne room, but you have to be careful when approaching it, as any weapons you're carrying will disappear, and I haven't been able to find them again.  There's a sign that warns you about it, though, so it's not unfair.  Sitting on the throne opens a door to the Secret Stairs, but you can't pass back through it the other way, and if you've pressed the wrong buttons in the stairwell you can trap yourself forever.
  • The Castle Armory is curious, in that all of the weapons are held to the wall by a magnetic or magical force.  Dropping an object in the room causes the game to crash, and this is where I had to go in an do some tinkering with the code.  I think Langston's intention was that dropping any object would trigger the C4 explosive on the wall, blowing everything up except for a mace that you can then take.  That's how it works after my rewriting of the code, though I'm not 100% sure it works in the way originally intended.

Blowing up the armory.

  • The drawbridge is up, and the chain that lowers it is too rusted to be moved.  You can break it with the aforementioned mace, and once opened the drawbridge leads to the portcullis area.
  • There are two other obstructions in the castle.  One is a barred door leading from the Grand Ballroom to the Courtyard, and I never figured out how to open this.  The other is a wooden panel that blocks the passage between the Guard's Quarters and the Banquet Hall.  This can be cut through with the knife.
  • The castle has an East Tower and a West Tower.  In the East Tower is a 30-foot-long wig, and in the West Tower, there is a distressed damsel.  Both of these are crucial to the end-game.

Once I found the damsel, I figured that the goal of the game was to rescue her, or perhaps win her love or something.  I spent a good deal of time messing about, trying to give her various items to no avail.  The first thing I tried to do was TAKE DAMSEL, but the message I got was a surprising one: "Don't be lewd! (This is neither the time nor the place)"  This implied that there was a time and a place, and believe me, I was correct.

Eventually I hit on the correct command: CARRY DAMSEL.  Which is bullshit, really.  It's what I was trying to do in the first place, only the game blocked me to make a sex joke about it.  I don't really appreciate puzzles that involve exact, precise word usage, but I'm pretty sure I have a lot of them in my future if I'm going to continue with this blog.

The damsel told me that if I could get her to the Crossroads she'd reward me, but there was a problem: as soon as I picked her up the stairs leading back down were blocked by a stone wall.  This one wasn't hard to figure out, given the wig in my possession and the fact that the tower was named after Rapunzel.  I tried CLIMB WIG, which allowed me to climb out the window and down.  Not all the way down, though: the wig frayed while I was climbing on it, and I had to scramble through a window back into the castle.  I was past the wall, but I still had to get out of the castle.

An improbable rescue.

There are a few ways to do this.  If you haven't blocked the Secret Stairs, you can just open the door by sitting on the throne, and climb up out of the well.  You can use the same exit by dropping into the maze of prison cells from the Armory.  If you've blocked the Secret Stairs, things get a bit trickier: you have to blow up the Armory to get the mace, and then use the mace to open the drawbridge.  If you've already blown up the Armory, it gets even trickier, as that area the becomes impassable.  The only way through is to cut the wooden panel with the knife, which will get you back to the drawbridge.

Once out of the castle it's simple to get back to the Crossroads, at which point the endgame begins.  Well, one of the endgames, because this game has multiple end sequences.  If you return with the princess, you get the following:

Well, if I must...

If you return with the frog, you get the following:

If you insist.

The game, of course, wants you to have sex with whoever you rescued, and it won't take no for an answer.  In fact it won't accept any other command, except for the one that results in sexytimes.  Reluctantly I entered the command, and if I wasn't wryly irritated enough, I was dumped out of the game before I could read the victory message.  I hate it when games do this, just pure, unadulterated white-hot hatred.  I've sunk hours of my life into this thing!  I've even bloody re-coded your stupid game so that it works!!  Let me read the damn victory message!!!  Anyway, once my blood cooled I went and found the message in the source code.  It was totally worth it:  "Oooooooh!  Aaaaaaaaah!  Congratulations, you are an Expert Wanderer!"  Yep.  Totally worth it.

That's what I was talking about in the opening, with the elements that would carry forward into 1980s gaming.  There are a lot of games which treat sex as a reward, and they usually have an unpleasant, puerile "boys' club" atmosphere about them.  I'm not opposed to sex in games, really.  I love Leisure Suit Larry.  As with most things, the trick is in the execution.  The treatment here is in the puerile camp, and especially grating in that it comes in right at the end with little warning.  Despite that, I have to give Castle some props here, in that you have your pick of genders.  Your own gender isn't even specified, so it's quite progressive in that regard.

Speaking of progressive, there's one more ending I haven't mentioned.  You can rescue the princess, and you can rescue the prince...  But what if you save them both?  Well, Peter Langston thought of that as well.

Um, what if I just turn around while you guys do your thing?  Would that be okay?

Well, I say he thought of it, but he didn't exactly implement it.  The ending is in the source code, but there's no way to access it as written.  In the code there's a line that displays the message "Flirt!" if the frog and the princess are in the same area.  What it also does is change the princess into a frog, which makes the ultimate victory unattainable.  I'm not sure if this was intended, or simply a bug that never got ironed out.  Well, I got in there and fixed it, because I'm persistent in that way.

And what was my reward?  I'm glad you asked!  "OOOOOOOH!!!  AAAAAAAAAH!!  Congratulations, you are a Master Wanderer!"  A Master Wanderer indeed.


Story & Setting: The story of this one is a bit garbled, and only comes into focus right at the end.  Even then, it doesn't make much sense.  The castle and its surroundings are quite well realised, even with the incongruous missile silo.  Even so, I can't quite bring myself to rank this as highly as Colossal Cave Adventure in this regard.  Yeah, I'm knocking it down for the sex ending.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The prince and the damsel are the only characters here, and they only exist as a reward for the player.  Not even being tied for "the world's best lay" can earn them an extra point.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Text adventures never score well here, but I'm willing to give them extra points when they're well-written.  Castle has some good descriptions and writing (victory messages notwithstanding), about on a par with Colossal Cave Adventure, so I'll rate them as equals.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: For the most part the game works well, but on the whole I would say that the parser isn't as strong as that in Colossal Cave.  Then there are the bugs.  When I have to dig into the code and fix a game, points are going to be lost.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Challenge: To be honest, the main challenge here was in getting the code to work properly.  As for the game itself, I feel like it had a decent balance, marred perhaps by a couple of puzzles that required very precise language.  It's also a little loose in its design, in that certain things that feel like they should be puzzles can be easily skirted around.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: I suppose I have to give this one top marks, don't I?  It was created in 1974, after all.  There is the caveat that it was updated throughout the 1970s, but even in 1980 having multiple endings was something of an innovation.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: I didn't have a great deal of fun playing this, but I really enjoyed digging into its inner workings.  That shouldn't factor into things, though.  To be honest, any game with bugs ought to lose points in this category.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Castle doesn't get the bonus point; I won't be coming back to this one ever again.  The scores above total 19, which gives me a final rating of 38.

Final Rating: 38 out of 100.

That places it below Adventureland and above Pirate Adventure.  From a historical perspective it perhaps deserves a higher spot, but to be honest I wasn't feeling this one.  If it had been properly functional it would have scored higher.

Speaking of which, if anyone wants the re-coded version of the game they should shoot me an e-mail, and I'll be happy to send the text files across.  You'll still need the rest of the Wander files, though (which can be found here).


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.  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: I remember this game having some okay puzzles, but nothing too clever.  It also doesn't help that I had to jigger with the game code to get certain things to work. Am I solving the puzzles as they were intended?  I'm not entirely certain.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1. As possibly the first game of its kind, this probably deserves the full 2 points. But so few people played it, and it's barely remembered today.

Castle's RADNESS Index is 29 out of 100. That puts it 8th so far, and 4th of the adventure games I've played so far.  It's only 1 point below Pirate Adventure, and would have topped it if the code was functional.

NEXT: ZORK!  I've found a port of the original mainframe version, which I'm dating as 1977 even though the game was modified up through 1980.  Anything to move this up in the list, really.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Game 14: Castle (designed using Wander) (1974)

This one requires a bit of explanation.  When I came across the excellent blog Renga in Blue, I learned that I had missed a whole load of adventure games when compiling my list.  Not only do I now have another ten games to complete before I'm done with 1978, I also have a few from earlier years that I haven't played.  I'm going to have to backtrack, and the first game that I'm playing is Wander, from 1974.

Wander is a text adventure.  More accurately, it's a system for designing text adventures, and it predates Colossal Cave AdventureColossal Cave is often touted as the first ever text adventure, but that's not accurate.  It's a more influential game in the grand scheme of things, but it's not the first.

Wander was designed by Peter Langston, a teacher at Evergreen State College in Washington DC.  He had already designed the strategy game Empire before beginning work on Wander, and later in life he was instrumental in helping to start up Lucasfilm Games (which later morphed into Lucasarts).  Wander is probably nothing more than a footnote in his career, and for decades it was considered to be lost.  Apparently all it took to rediscover the game was an e-mail to Langston (I'm pretty sure there was more to it than this, but I'm hazy on the details), and once that was done several more versions turned up in quick succession.  Wander was revised continuously into the the early 1980s, and I believe that I'm using a version from 1981.  Anyone who wants to have a crack at it should follow this link.

Several games were designed using Wander, and today I'll be tackling the first of those, Langston's own effort called Castle.  Langston wrote a few other games, and there's at least one by another author, but for the moment I'll concentrate on Castle, ostensibly the first text adventure ever made.

From the outset, it's not clear what my goal is.  The opening begins with my character being sucked into a television, and appearing at a crossroads in a forest.  Without any purpose in mind, I spent my time exploring and mapping, which is my usual MO at the start of any text adventure.  The first thing I noticed is that the quality of the writing is much higher here than in any of the other text adventures I've played.  Colossal Cave Adventure was the previous holder of this crown, but Castle crushes it in this regard.

Before I started exploring, I checked my inventory.  I was carrying the channel selector knob from my TV, and a guide.  Reading the guide provided me with basic instructions for moving around and interacting with the game world.  I wasn't sure what the knob was for, and I haven't found a use for it yet.  At first I had thought it was a button from a TV remote, but then I remembered that the game was made in 1974, and that it was probably a big chunky dial broken off the TV set.  (A TV set that probably had legs, and fake wood panelling on the sides.  Old TVs are rad.)

I also tried typing SCORE, and got the following message: "Keeping score is an outdated, materialistic concept, don't you think?"  I smiled, but I'm always slightly surprised to see games of this vintage being so self-aware of the genre conventions.  No doubt this was added to the game in a later revision, after Langston played Colossal Cave Adventure.  I also encountered a reference to the magic word XYZZY, and an admonition that this was "an old, worn-out magic word".

The opening area is quite small (a 3x3 grid), with obstacles blocking my progress on every side.  To the west was a bridge that wasn't able to support my weight.  To the north was a lake that was too wide for me to swim across.  To the east was a wall, with a locked gate.  And to the south was a forest that functioned much like a maze.  Also of note was a river to the north-west, and a well to the south-east.  In the river was a boat, but the current was too strong for me to use it.  I was also unable to climb down the well, as there was no rope.

I was stuck for a little bit, with no obvious way to progress.  I also kept dying; the game has a starvation counter that runs down quite quickly.  I've been able to postpone starvation with an apple that I found near the woods, and some strawberries found in the woods, but those don't last long.  The woods themselves were also quite annoying until I figured them out.  At first I thought they were a maze, similar to the ones in Colossal Cave.  In reality most of the exits just loop back to one location, and the only way out is to keep going east or north-east.

(A note about starving to death: it doesn't end the game.  I got a message telling me that I was dead, but I was still able to continue exploring after that.  I'm not sure if this is bad design, or just a glitch in the version I'm using.  I'll take it though, it makes exploring the game a lot easier.)

Starving to death is a temporary setback.

Eventually I tried taking the boat, and this worked.  I was stumped a bit here, because GET isn't recognised by this game, and that's the command I always use to pick up items.  The command that this game uses is TAKE, which took me a while to figure out.  But once I had the boat, everything fell into place.  I dropped the boat in the lake, and was able to sail to an island with a honeymoon cottage.  There I found a rope, which I was able to use to climb down the well.  At the bottom of the well were some keys, and I was able to use those to unlock the gate.  I was through the initial area, and into the castle's courtyard.

The courtyard was another area of roughly 3x3.  The castle proper is blocked off by a moat, which is full of piranhas, crocodiles and giant leeches.  There's a passage leading south, but that's blocked by a portcullis.  There are only two things of note in this area: a pear orchard, and an outhouse.

The pear orchard is pretty simple.  It contains a dead cow, and some pears that you can pick.  It seems to me that the pears are poisonous, and sure enough the game doesn't allow you to eat them.  I haven't found a use for them just yet.  You can't take the dead cow.  I thought about dumping it into the moat to distract the piranhas, but I don't think it's possible.

The outhouse contains a balloon, and also something of a trap.  If you're carrying the keys with you, you will invariably drop them in a toilet, and they are seemingly lost forever.  The gate closes, and as far as I can tell that leaves you stuck on this side of the wall with no way to progress in the game.  It's a little irritating, and the kind of trap you can only avoid by falling for it once and reloading.  There's a ladder elsewhere in the courtyard, and I would have thought that could be used to scale the wall, but if it can I haven't figured out how to do it yet.  (Addendum: All you have to do is type CLIMB LADDER to get back over the wall, which makes me feel a little foolish.)

Attempting to retrieve my keys, with surprising and hilarious results.

Upon finding the balloon, I instantly had an idea.  I took the balloon back to the bridge that couldn't support my weight, and sure enough it was filled with helium, and made me light enough to cross over.  The area on the other side was small.  The only thing I found there was a shovel, and a patch of forest that was really difficult to escape from.  I starved to death while trying to find my way out, but through persistence (i.e. just going north over and over again) I was able to get back to the bridge.

At the bottom of the well had been a sign that read "Can you dig it?", which was an obvious clue.  I went back there to dig with my shovel, and unearthed a glass tunnel.  Further along I came to a hatch, which opened into a missile silo.  Given the name of this game I'd expected that this was a fantasy setting, but the missile silo really threw me off there.  To be honest, this makes things a little more interesting.  I wasn't able to explore further though, because a missile blew through the shaft and killed me.  This time I was really dead, as the death message just kept repeating no matter what I did.


That's where I left it.  I'm not exactly stuck, but I don't have much of a clue what I'm supposed to do in that silo, or even if I'm supposed to be there.  I'm actually pretty keen to get back to it.  Not having an explicit goal intrigues me, as does the incongruous discovery of the missile silo.  I'm probably building it up too much in my mind, but these unanswered questions make me feel like this game has a stronger story than any other text adventure I've played for the blog.  It's not just another treasure hunt, and that's really refreshing.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Game of Dungeons v8: My Secret Stash

Once again, I'm progressing in The Game of Dungeons v8.  Losing Strider, the character that I had advanced to beyond level 100, was a harsh blow, but I've picked myself up and started again.  My current character, the poorly-named Joe Average, is currently on Level 38.  I'm advancing quickly, perhaps even more quickly than I have been in this game so far.

(About that name.  Yes, I realise that Joe Average is a terrible name.  He had decent stats when I created him, but only 3 hit points, so I never expected him to survive.  Now that he's higher level I should rename him to something like Joe Noteworthy.)

There's a reason that I'm advancing a bit faster than before: I've discovered a feature of the game that stops me from wasting excess gold.  Every character in this game has a carrying capacity based on strength, race, and a couple of magic items.  Once this capacity is exceeded, excess gold will be discarded every time you move.  This was really annoying, because whenever I found a sizable haul of loot, most of it would be gone by the time I reached the surface.  Occasionally a chest will contain some astronomical sum from 100,000 to 500,000 gold pieces, which is often enough to advance a level or two.  I was being forced to drop a lot of gold.

What I figured out, after a careful reread of the manual, is that you can keep a stash of gold in the dungeon protected by magic, by pressing CTRL-ALT-H.  That stash remains so long as you don't start another one elsewhere, and you can keep going back to it and taking more gold.  So now whenever I stumble across a hoard of over 100,000gp I can claim every last bit of it over the course of multiple trips.  It's really helpful.

If you keep a stash on Level 1, you can use it to purchase items from the shops.  I'd often wondered at the astronomical prices of the magic items, but it makes a lot more sense now that I know I can establish a bank of sorts.

I give it another week or two before I'm going to start mapping again.  As I've mentioned before, I'm going to have to map the whole damn game, all 90 levels.  It's the only way to guarantee a safe exit to the surface, and it's going to take a while.  I'll get there one day.

Game 13: Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure (1978)

It's time for another game by Greg Hassett, the twelve-year-old wonder prodigy of 1978.  But before I kick on with Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure, I should clear up some errors.  The main thing I've gotten wrong (at least recently) is that Voyage to Atlantis is a 1979 game, rather than 1978.  That's what I get for believing Mobygames, I guess.  This was revealed to me when I stumbled across the excellent blog Renga in Blue.  The owner of that blog is going through adventure games in chronological order, and it seems to me that he knows his business.  If he says it's a 1979 game, I believe him.

Another thing I discovered in reading his blog is that I missed a whole load of games in my list.  I had thought I'd be done with 1978 after finishing Journey to the Center of the Earth, but it turns out there are another eight adventure games from that year that I still need to play.  There are two earlier games that I should play as well: the recently uncovered Wander, which beats out Colossal Cave Adventure as the earliest text adventure game; and the original mainframe version of Zork, from 1977.  I'm not at all upset that Zork has been fast-tracked on my list, I can assure you.

But now it's time to look at Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure.  With Voyage to Atlantis relegated to 1979, that makes Journey Greg Hassett's first game.  I'm playing the Commodore 64 version, as I wasn't able to locate a ROM for the TRS-80, so it's possible that it's been tweaked or upgraded from the original release.  It can't have been tweaked too much, though, because this game is a mess.

I wasn't able to find the manual, but the premise isn't too hard to figure out.  You begin the game in a ship that has crashed underground (presumably your own), and the goal is to collect treasures and return them to the ship.  Unlike Colossal Cave Adventure and the works of Scott Adams, there's no obvious guidance as to what you have to do.  Perhaps it's in the manual, but the only way the game lets you in on the goal is if you type HELP while you're in the ship.  The ship also has a broken "fribulating gonkulator", which needs to be replaced so that you can return to the surface.

(I noted in my review of Voyage to Atlantis that Hassett had ripped off Scott Adams quite obviously.  This game feels less inspired by Adams' work; it seems that he didn't start cribbing from Adams until a bit later.)

At the outset of the game, there's a limited area that the player can explore.  You're blocked off to the north by a chasm, and to the south by a nine-headed hydra.  Most of the locations in the initial area are dusty caves, and dark places, and you can be ambushed at any time by giant bugs.  The bugs are hostile, and you won't have the means to kill them until you figure out how to cross the chasm.  Most of my initial exploration phase was spent being murdered by bugs and reloading.  It was frustrating, but also kind of refreshing after the sterile safety of Voyage to Atlantis.

So dramatic.

As in other games of its type, there are treasures just lying around for the taking.  In the initial area I found a parrot in a cage, a diamond, a ruby, and a gold nugget.  Returning these items to the ship gained me 40 points out of a possible 175.

There's also a maze, which seems obligatory for adventure games of the time.  I've yet to play one that doesn't feature a maze of some sort, and this game has the classic maze of twisty passages, all alike.  What was it about the mazes in Colossal Cave Adventure that other designers felt the need to rip them off?  Yes they can be tricky, but I personally consider them a pain in the arse.  Thankfully the one in this game is small, and can be easily mapped by dropping items.

The only thing to be found in the maze is a magic wand, but this wand is needed to cross the chasm.  All you have to do is WAVE WAND while you're on one side of the chasm, and it will teleport you to the opposite side.  This is a puzzle straight out of Colossal Cave Adventure, so it seems very likely that Hassett did play that game after all.

On the other side of the chasm is a sword, which is used to kill the bugs; once you have the sword the bugs become a minor annoyance rather than a lethal threat, as you can kill them easily when they appear.

Sweet revenge.

Also on the other side of the chasm is a wooden bridge.  Crossing the bridge takes you to an area guarded by a troll, who killed me by throwing his axe no matter what I tried.  I was never able to defeat him, but as it turns out you don't have to do so to get the full score.  I checked a walkthrough, and apparently if you have the parrot with you it blurts out the name SIR ALEXANDER, which you can use to scare the troll away.

Killing the troll is unnecessary, though, because you can sneak into his palace through a secret entrance.  This involves another small, easily navigable maze.  The palace contains some gold bars and a diamond necklace, two more treasures that need to be returned to the ship.  For whatever reason the troll himself never enters this area, so you can loot it at will.

Heading south from the ship leads through an Ice Cavern, and eventually to the aforementioned Hydra.  I wasn't able to kill the Hydra with my sword.  I had a few other items of note, besides treasures: some keys, a quarter, and a lighter.  The answer, of course, was drawn from mythology: BURN HYDRA.  I had my doubts that a lighter could destroy such a powerful creature, but as it turned out the Hydra was highly flammable.

Killing the Hydra.  With a cigarette lighter.

With the Hydra dead, the rest of the map was free for me to explore.  To the west, in a room with clam-shell walls, I found an emerald.  South was a Velvet Room containing a ming vase, and a garden where I found some silver bars.  There was also a Treasure Room, guarded by dwarves, but I'm pretty sure this was intended as a joke; you can't do anything here, and the treasure is described as "nothing to flip over".

One of several baffling and pointless rooms.

One incongruous area (though not the most incongruous in the game) was the Arabian Room, in which i could hear sitar music.  There was an oil slick on the floor, because racial stereotyping was all the rage in 1978.  It turned out not to be just stereotyping though, as south of that room I found Mac's Earthdigger Body Shop, and a functional fribulating gonkulator.  All I needed to do was return the gonkulator to the ship, repair it with some tools I found, and the game would be over.

Luckily for me, this Gonkulator was fribulating correctly.

At this point I had nine treasures in total, as well as the gonkulator, which is worth 50 points alone.  This was enough to get me the full 175 points, and win the game.  Not bad for the work of an hour or two.  Normally at this point I'd kick on and give it a Final Rating, but there are a few other things I want to mention first.

I don't feel like this game made me earn the title of Grandmaster.

I wrote above that the game is a mess, and it does have a lot of loose ends.  They keys don't unlock anything.  You can find Al's Diner (which is the most incongruous area of the game), wherein you can get some food and buy a coke by inserting a quarter into a machine.  Neither the food nor the coke are used for anything.  It's rare to find these kinds of extraneous things in early games; memory is often at a premium, and can't be wasted.  More than anything this smacks of being Hassett's first game.  Many artists take on an overambitious project in their early years, and those projects are rarely finished.  I feel like this game was intended to be larger, but got cut off by memory constraints.

This game was a momentary diversion, more than anything.  I almost spent more time playing Space Invaders than I did on this.  It really is beginner-level stuff, with only one or two puzzles of note.  All you really need to do is cross the chasm and beat the hydra, and the game is over.  An underwhelming experience, I'm afraid.


Story & Setting: The story is the same one we've seen over and over in this genre, and the setting is a series of thinly-described caves and other areas that don't make much sense. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The bugs give the early game some menace, but the hydra and the troll are merely obstacles to get through rather than actual characters.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's a text adventure, and the descriptions are sparse.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is a simple two word affair, that only recognises the first three letters of each word, but it works well enough.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The game has no challenge, really., outside of the opening when the bugs keep killing you.  Most of my time playing the game was spent on exploration; once I'd finished that I beat it almost straight away.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: This game doesn't do anything that Colossal Cave Adventure and Adventureland didn't do before it.  Even some of the puzzles are lifted.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: The game's too short and lacking in substance to prove much amusement. It might be a good one to start young kids with, but I didn't get much out of it.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Definitely no bonus point for this game; I won't be revisiting it.  The scores above total 13, and doubling that gives a Final Rating of 26.  That makes it the lowest ranked game so far.  I feel a little bad for ranking a twelve-year-old's game at the bottom, but I can only rate the game in front of me.  For all I know Scott Adams might have been eight years old.

Final Rating: 26 out of 100.


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.  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: This game barely has any puzzles at all. Once you figure out WAVE WAND and BURN HYDRA, you're basically done.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0. I'm tempted, but I don't think this being the first game in the Greg Hassett series nets it a point.

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure has a RADNESS Index of 22.  That makes it the lowest-rated game so far.  It was certainly the one I knocked off the quickest.

NEXT: I'm going to take a trip back to 1974, to have a look at Wander.  Assuming I can find a workable version.