The next game on my list is Mystery Mansion, which was programmed by Bill Wolpert for the HP-1000 minicomputer. I'm not exactly sure if this system is comparable to PLATO or the PDP-10 (I'm really not a hardware guy), but the prospect of venturing back into the world of non-commercial adventure games was making me very nervous. I was not prepared for another Acheton, or even another Zork, as much as I loved playing the latter. Games of that size are not what I'm looking for right now, and I was worried that Mystery Mansion would be one of those.
I'm pleased to say that it's not over-large. More accurately, I don't think it's over-large based on what I've explored so far. I don't think size is going to be the problem here. What's really going to stop me in my tracks is just how little the game does to let you know what the goal is.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. The first thing to determine when playing Mystery Mansion is what version to use. The original is out of my reach, as I'm not really up to getting a HP-1000 emulator up and running (guess what, I'm not a software guy either). There are a few different ports, which Jason Dyer helpfully outlines here. I chose the version ported by Terry Newton, which claims to be a "practically exact" port of the game as it was in 1981. Not having ever played the original, I can't tell how close it is, but it runs fine in Dosbox and feels authentic enough to the period. Download it here if you'd like to take a crack.
As you might have guessed from that 1981 date above, this is yet another game that was developed over the course of several years. I've often lamented that these games are often not available in their original forms, but recently I've come around to the idea that those earlier versions were much like today's alpha and beta tests. It may not strictly be true, but it helps me sleep easier at night. With this in mind I considered kicking the game back to 1981, but I've already set the precedent of playing these games in their first year of development. So Mystery Mansion is stuck in 1978, and I'm stuck playing it.
|Lust? Whatever you say, Bill.|
First off, let's really take in that start screen, because it's setting my expectations of what I'll experience while playing very high. Frustration? Definitely. Triumph? I sure hope so. Hope and despair? Conceivable. Power, lust and greed? I'll give you power and greed as possibilities, but lust? Mr. Wolpert, I can tell you right now that it ain't happening.
When the game begins, you're standing at the front gate of an old mansion. A taxi has just dropped you off, although the game doesn't bother to let you know why you're there. On my first attempt, I noted the highway leading south, and decided to see what would happen if I just kept on walking away from the mansion. Much to my surprise, I could keep walking south for a long time, with signs appearing occasionally to let me know how close I was to the mansion and the "Big City". After a time, the sun set and I was walking in the dark. A little further down the road and I heard an explosion, which sounded like the passages underneath the mansion had collapsed. (Pretty good hearing on my part, considering I was at least 30 miles away.) Eventually, after what must have been hundreds of moves to the south, I was told that the game was giving up on me. It was a game over, but I'd gleaned some valuable information: there's a limited time to explore the caves beneath the mansion, and probably a limited time to complete the game.
The death screen indicated that the game has a score, so upon reloading I entered the SCORE command. The game has 999 points that can be earned, and you begin with 45. Commenter Jason Dyer has informed me that I need to type SCORE POINTS every time I hear a woman scream or a wolf howl in order to score 2 points. I'm grateful for the help, but right off the bat this has me expecting some egregious bullshit from this game. Because let's be real, that right there is some egregious bullshit.
I also tried checking my inventory, another thing I always do at the start of a game. The INVENTORY command didn't work, but LIST did, as did BOOTY. My inventory was empty however.
To begin the game, I started by exploring the areas surrounding the mansion.
|A map of the outdoors|
The first thing that should be noted is that although the game does call out items and characters that can be interacted with, you also need to pay attention to the room descriptions. There's the lantern in the opening area, for instance: it's only mentioned in the room description, and it's vital for making any progress.
The area I've mapped above represents the road that goes around the mansion walls. The front gate is closed, and the back gate leads into a garden (which I haven't explored properly yet). There are cliffs to the east and north, which are predictably fatal if you decide to head that way. To the west is a dense wood, which is pretty easy to get lost in. I tried mapping it by dropping items, but I couldn't make sense of the results. I think the exits might be randomised. Moving around in the woods will eventually lead to a Strange Stream. Heading down from the stream leads to a cave, with "twisty passages, all alike", which is always a triggering phrase for me. More on that later. Heading up leads to a cottage which contains a map, which can be used to see the destinations of every exit from the room you're in. Alas, it only works in the outdoor areas, but it's great for getting you out of the woods.
At this point I should note that Mystery Mansion uses the same irritating navigation style as The Cottage: when you're outside you can use cardinal directions (N,E,S,W), but when you're in the forest or the mansion you have to go Forward, Left, Right or Back. It's very disorienting, and very, very annoying. Thankfully you can find a compass, which allows you to use cardinal directions everywhere.
There's a note pinned to the mansion's front gate, which gives you a hint. These notes will appear in various locations, and seem to be scattered at random, but there's always one on the gate. Most of the time it will tell you that someone will help you open the gate. There are three characters wandering around in the opening area: a Hunter, a Woodsman and a Warrior. They will follow you about once you encounter them, although they won't enter the mansion. Any one of them will help you open the gate.
It's easy enough from there to enter the mansion, but you shouldn't linger on the front porch. If you wait around for too long (and it tracks actual time, not just commands entered) you'll fall through to some underground tunnels. I've fallen in there a couple of times, and been killed by a werewolf.
The mansion has three levels, as shown below:
|A map of the mansion|
Each level of the mansion is structured in a neat 3x3 pattern. Most of the rooms in the mansion are dark, which is why you'll need the lantern to proceed (although the candles in the Chapel and the matches in the Kitchen are a short-term alternative; you can't take the lamp from the Living Room, although you can light it with a match). There are various items scattered about, though I haven't found a use for most of them. There are also several characters: the Butler, Cook, Maid, Lady and Master, as well as the Vampire in the crypt.
The compass, which I mentioned before, can be found in the Haunted Hallway on the top floor. (I have no idea why it wasn't already marked on the map.) The scroll in the Library crumbles whenever it's touched, but the book can be read. It reveals the verbs that the game understands, showing a different verb with every game. I just tried it now, and it says "THE BOOK CONTAINS WORDS I KNOW LIKE THE VERB DIG". None of these have been too helpful yet, but they were perhaps more useful to people at the time, who may have been less familiar with adventure games.
The telephone in the entrance hall rings occasionally, and if you answer it you'll receive a hint. It will always ring and tell you to return to the front gate for the lamp if you forgot to take it.
The Secret Passages are the easiest way to navigate up and down between floors, and there are certain areas you can only get to by passing through them. Each room connected to a Secret Passage has a hidden method that opens the way in. Some examples include drinking the wine in the Charming Chapel, sweeping the Haunted Hallway with a broom, or feeding bananas to the monkey in the Butler's Room.
The Cold Corridor off to the left in the basement is a trap, with a moving wall that will crush you. I haven't worked out what to do here. The tunnel leading down from the Dark Pit is another entrance to the maze of twisty passages.
The Vampire in the crypt will kill you pretty quickly after you encounter him, unless you are carrying the cross from the Chapel. Otherwise, he follows you around but does no harm. I haven't killed him yet, but I suspect that if I lead him up to the ground floor and open some curtains it might do the trick.
As for the other characters roaming the house, they will happily follow you as well. After some experimentation I figured out that you can QUESTION them, and they'll give you clue about a supposed murder. There are three clues: the culprit, the murder weapon, and the location. You can also find out the identity of the murderer by turning on the radio in the Game Room.
There is always a corpse in the murder location. The weapons are scattered around the game, but they aren't always in the same place. The goal of the game, or one of the goals, is to find the weapon, and lead the murderer to the place where they did the deed. I managed to do this by accident, which was how I was able to figure out what to do in the first place. In later games I found a note that told me about this, but the first time around I had to stumble into it.
|It was the Master, in the cellar, with the club. I knew it all along.|
After identifying the murderer, I eventually found another note telling me that I should call the police. This game might be mystifying at the start, but it does provide help here and there. If you call the police on the phone, they'll come and arrest the murderer.
The only other place I've properly explored is the maze of twisty passages, which was nowhere near as large as its counterparts from Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork.
|A map of twisty passages, all alike|
This maze only has six rooms, thankfully, but it can be difficult to navigate if you don't have the compass. The torch is a light source that eventually burns out, and the battery can be used to extend the life of your lantern. Both of them are placed randomly in the maze, in different areas every game.
I've solved one of the larger problems of Mystery Mansion, but that only left me with 332 points. This means I've only figured out one-third of the game. I suspect that the rest might involve hunting down some treasures, but I only say that because it's the goal of every other damn game I've played so far. My immediate goals are to properly explore the garden and the tunnels beneath the porch. There's a werewolf down there, and I've got a pistol and silver bullet ready to go. Hopefully I can figure out what to do pretty soon, because I don't want to spend much more time with this game.