Remember at the end of my last post, when I said that I was taking a break for personal reasons? Well, those reasons haven't disappeared, but I'm making my return to blogging much sooner than I anticipated. I'm currently not working (for at least a few more weeks, until Melbourne exits Stage 4 lockdown), so I have plenty of time on my hands. I was planning on using that time free from work and blogging to play some games, but when I asked myself what games I wanted to play, the answers I was giving myself were Ultima I and Wizardry I, games that are coming up on my blog schedule fairly shortly. And every time I thought about playing those games without blogging them, I felt guilty about it. So, I'm back. It turns out that I have nothing better to do right now, and I ended up missing this more than I expected.
I am making one change to my schedule though: I'm upping the rate at which I play games on the priority list. Previously, I'd had four games from 1979 between those on the priority list, but I'm shortening that to two. It means that things will be jumping around the timeline a bit more than I'd like, but it also means I'll be playing more games that I know I actually want to play. I considered having only one game between priority list games, but decided against it. I want to play the classics, but I also want to make progress through the timeline, however slowly.
That brings us to The Count, by Scott Adams. This is the fifth game released by Adams, whose previous efforts have ranged from decent (Mission Impossible, Pirate Adventure, Voodoo Castle) to pretty good (Adventureland), at least by the standards of the time. I've heard that The Count is one of his strongest games, so I've been looking forward to digging into it.
The original version was released for the TRS-80, first through the Software Exchange (the game publishing arm of Softside magazine) and then through Adams' own company Adventure International. I'm playing a later version of the TRS-80 release, shown on the title screen as v1.15. It might differ from the original, but it's the earliest version that I could find.
|Dracula has his own face on the front of his castle.
With Adams' games, it's always worth checking out the front cover as released by Adventure International (I don't believe the Software Exchange version had any images on the packaging). The explanation is pretty vague: apparently I'm going to be waking up in a bed in Transylvania with a mysterious package. Said package is shown in the image, addressed to "The Count" from someone called Yorga, with a note saying that it shouldn't be opened until Halloween. The rest of the imagery - the title written in dripping blood, the bat, the hammer and stake, and the huge D on the gate - point to this being a game where I'm going up against Dracula. Subtle it ain't.
|Alvin Files will go on to wrote Pyramid of Doom, the 8th Scott Adams
Adventure, and the only one not written or co-written by Scott himself.
As the cover indicated, I began the game lying in bed, with little idea of what I was doing there. I typed SCORE, which the game didn't understand, so presumably there aren't any points to accumulate. I typed INVENTORY, and found that I was carrying a tent stake, which I assume is wooden. Typing HELP gave me a helpful hint to GET UP, which I probably could have figured out on my own, but I appreciated the parser guidance anyway.
I was in a bedroom, with a closed window and an exit to the north. I'd been expecting the mysterious package from the front cover, but it wasn't there; I even tried looking under the bed, but no luck. Looking through the window, I saw Voodoo Castle in the distance (nice plug, Scott), as well as a ledge I could stand on. Opening the window and stepping out, I found nothing but a flagpole, so I decided to explore inside.
Outside of the bedroom was a hall with exits in all four directions. West was a kitchen with an oven and a dumb-waiter. The dumb-waiter was empty, and the oven was radiating "a tremendous amount of HEAT & SUNLIGHT". Sunlight seemed like a pretty weird and specific thing to be coming from an oven, and at first I wondered if maybe I could use it to kill Dracula. The oven was too heavy to move though, and it was too hot to check inside, so I explored elsewhere.
North of the hall was a bathroom, with a mirror, a pocket watch, and a toilet. The toilet was usable, but served no other purpose. Looking in the mirror showed me that I looked healthy today. The mirror can be used to check your appearance and state of health, pretty much telling you how many days you have left to beat the game. In another game I broke the mirror and was told that it was seven years of bad luck, but I have no idea if this affects gameplay at all. The watch tells time, but in a very game-specific way: it tells you how many moves you have until sunset. I took these with me at this point, but in later games I ended up leaving them in the bathroom. They're handy, but the map is small enough that you can easily go back there and check them when you want to.
East of the hall leads to a courtyard outside the castle, where I found a bell-pull and a coat of arms that bore the family crest of Dracula: my first concrete sign as to where I was. Pulling the bell caused it to ring, but had no other effect, so I continued to the main gate. An angry mob was gathered outside, but before engaging with them I took the time to look up at the castle. I noticed another window under the ledge of my bedroom window, and determined to check that out as soon as possible. First, though, I went out through the gate to see what the mob would do. I was little surprised to find that I was torn apart and killed. Apparently I'd been sent to the castle to kill Dracula, and chickening out wasn't an option. My mission was finally clear, but what wasn't clear is why I'd be sleeping in a bed inside the castle if I'm on a vampire hunt. That's not a question that the game ever deigns to answer.
After rebooting I decided to check out the window underneath my bedroom window. I reached it by tying the bedsheets to the flagpole and climbing down. The window had some daisies on the ledge, and the room beyond was empty except for a portrait of Dracula. Moving the portrait, I found a dark passage beyond, but with no light source I was unable to explore it without falling over and killing myself. I restored my game, and discovered that I would have died regardless, because the flagpole broke when I tried to climb back up the bedsheet. It's an obvious solution to accessing the window below, but it's also a deadly red herring. The real solution is to tie the sheet to your bed, which allows you to climb down and back up again. I didn't figure this out until much later though.
At that point, I was pretty much stuck. The map is very small, even by 1979 standards, and I only had two obvious places to go: the dark passage and the dumb-waiter. For the former I was lacking a light source, and for the latter I couldn't figure out the right commands to go up or down. To be honest, I wasn't even certain that it could go up and down. I've never seen a dumb-waiter in real life, and pretty much my entire knowledge of them is that Wolverine uses one to get around the Hellfire Club in Uncanny X-Men #133. (Sorry folks, comic books are my only frame of reference.)
With nothing else to do I tooled around the map trying various things, until I heard a bell sound. I went to check the front door, and saw that someone had left a postcard. The postcard was actually an "eating and ghouling" bill from a local mortuary. (Is this meant to be a pun? If so, I'm missing it.) Paperclipped to the postcard was a note saying that the postmaster would deliver a package tomorrow.
Not long after that, the sun set and I started to get tired. Then something happened (it was too dark for me to see) and I woke up in bed the next day with two holes in my neck. The game told me that I had a hunch I'd been robbed, so I checked my inventory: the tent stake was gone. Looks like Dracula was taking away the things I could use to kill him.
Later that day (in which I made no other progress), the postmaster delivered a package as promised. It had a note from Count Yorga, as shown on the cover above. Ignoring Yorga's instructions to leave the package unopened until Halloween, I found two items inside: a bottle of Type V blood, and a pack of Transylvanian cigarettes.
|Presumably Adams took the name from the early 70s vampire movies
Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga.
That night, Dracula attacked again, but he didn't drink my blood this time. Instead, he drank the blood from the bottle. He also stole the pack of cigarettes. Possibly he just wants to smoke them himself, but I suspect that they must be somehow vital to my mission.
With no light source, and seemingly no other way forward, I spent the next two game days accomplishing very little. On the third night Dracula drained my blood again, and on the fourth he turned me into a vampire. Obviously, that was a game over. The postman made no other deliveries during that time, so it looked like I'd have to make do with the items I had. It also looked like I had three days to defeat Dracula, with the bottle of blood giving me an extra day.
|Who is "I" in this scenario, and who is "you"? Why are they both in trouble?
Is the vampire protagonist of this game coming to get me for realsies?
I got very stuck at this point, but I was pretty sure that the dumb-waiter must lead somewhere. Eventually I hit on the correct commands: RAISE DUMBWAITER and LOWER DUMBWAITER. (I just checked, and the HELP command tells you this straight out. That would have saved me a lot of angst.) The dumb-waiter went one level up, and one level down.
The room above the kitchen was a pantry, where I found some matches and a clove of garlic. Below was a workroom, where I found a rubber mallet, a vent in the wall, and a locked door. The mallet I assumed would be useful for staking Dracula. The vent, I was told, was about the right size for a bat to enter or exit. The locked door had a memo stuck to it, which was simply a thank-you note from Scott Adams, expressing his appreciation to the audience for making him a success. (I feel tentatively safe in saying that, of the famous Scott Adamses, this one is the nice one.)
I didn't have a key for the locked door, but I did have a paperclip, and with that I was able to pick the lock. It led to a dusty closet where I found a vial containing three No-Doz tablets. My character had been getting tired as sunset approached, so I figured I could use these to stay up later.
Down from the workroom was a dungeon, with iron rings in the wall and a pit in the floor. The bottom of the pit was dark, but a lit match revealed a torch, which I took. I had a light source, but I had no way out of the pit except to wait for Dracula to come and get me after sunset. (Later on I figured out that you can tie the bedsheet to the iron ring above and use that to escape.)
With a light source I could now explore the dark passage through the window below my bedroom. It led to a crypt, where I found another vent (also bat-sized), a pile of used cigarettes, and a sign that said "POSITIVELY NO SMOKING ALLOWED HERE!" Signs in adventure games are made to be ignored, so I lit up, and was treated to a discovery and an awful pun.
|Maybe the other Scott Adams is the nice one after all.
The coffin was closed, and locked from the inside. My initial thought was to break the coffin, but neither my fists nor a rubber mallet were sufficient to break the stone lid. After that I suspected that Dracula might open it from the inside, so waited around until sunset and ate a tablet to stay awake. Now that I had a light I could see after sunset. Dracula attacked me in bat form, but was repelled by the garlic I was carrying. I was able to get inside his coffin, but all I found there was a slide bolt. I was pretty sure that I needed a way to break it so I could open the coffin during the day, but nothing I had on me did the trick. Besides, this was the second day, and Dracula had already stolen my stake.
Obviously, the problem of Dracula stealing my stake and cigarettes was one I'd have to deal with. My first thought was to hide them in the oven, but I wasn't able to figure out how to put them in there. My second thought was to put them in the dumb-waiter, but Dracula found them there. Next I tried the dusty closet, but I didn't lock it behind me, and that didn't work. Finally, I tried the closet and locked the door, and that did the trick. I had a hiding-place for my arsenal.
That whole process reminded me that the oven was something I should check out, and the fact that it was radiating sunlight still seemed odd to me. I thought that maybe I'd be able to get a look inside after dark, and with the aid of a No-Doz tablet I was proven right. Climbing inside the oven, I saw a lens (because this was a solar oven) and a nail-file. The lens was stuck in place, but I was able to take the nail-file. It seemed a little dubious that it could break a metal slide bolt with any great speed, but it worked. I had the final piece of the puzzle, and now all I needed to do was sort out the right sequence of events.
That didn't take long. Day one was for gathering items, hiding the stake, and getting the nail file from the oven. There's no avoiding getting bitten by Dracula after dark, unfortunately. I tried hiding in the closet, but the door on;y exists as an object on the outside. The next day involved waiting for the package to arrive, heading down to the crypt, and disabling the lock on Dracula's coffin with the nail-file. There's also the matter of hiding the pack of cigarettes, but you can get around that by taking a single cigarette from the pack; Dracula won't steal that one when he attacks that night. On the third day, it was time to grab my stake and mallet, and head to the crypt to kill Dracula.
This time the vampire was asleep in his coffin. It was a simple matter to kill him with my stake, and I was carried off by cheering townspeople. I'd been a little worried that there might be more to it than that; I was particularly concerned that Dracula might be able to escape through the vent. But nope, once you're in Drac's coffin with the right gear killing him is dead simple.
|Staking the Count.
On the whole, this was a pretty satisfying game, and I fully understand why this has a reputation as Adams' best game. I haven't played them all, but of those I have played I'd rate this one as the strongest. The set-up is a welcome step away from treasure hunting, and the time-based mission is something that hasn't really been seen before. A few games have had smaller sequences with timing-based puzzles (Acheton springs to mind here), but this is the first time that it's been so heavily featured, and it's definitely a milestone. Aside from any historical significance, I just enjoyed the process of figuring things out. It was frustrating - I think that's unavoidable in text adventures of this vintage - but satisfying to solve.
PORTS OF CALL
This games, like everything made by Scott Adams, was ported to an absolute buttload of different computers. I'll try to stick to the more prominent ones, which would be the Apple II port from 1980, and the Atari 8-Bit and VIC-20 ports from 1981. Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the Apple II port anywhere. All of Adams' other games are easily found, but not The Count. As for the VIC-20, I found a cartridge version, but getting cartridges to work on the VICE emulator is a nightmare. If anyone out there knows a VIC-20 emulator that's better at loading carts I'd appreciate you letting me know.
I did get the Atari 8-Bit version working. It looks to be a UK version from 1984. The text is mostly similar (a word here or there is changed), but it has two pretty big differences: the first is that I never saw Dracula fluttering about in bat form after sunset. Possibly connected to this is that Dracula can be found in his coffin at any time. It's actually possible to kill him on the second night, which means you don't have to bother finding the nail file and breaking the lock on his coffin.
|The ending of the Atari 8-Bit version.
Story & Setting: The story is a hackneyed one in terms of general pop culture, but less so in video games at this point. The time-based plot also deserves consideration here. The setting of Dracula's castle is pretty small, and minimal in description. The player's imagination, probably fueled by countless vampire novels and movies, does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Characters & Monsters: It's literally just the angry mob and Dracula, and neither of them are exactly brimming with personality. Dracula might be a great character in general, but in this game he's just a threat that knocks you out after sunset, and there's nothing you can do to interact with him. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Aesthetics: A Scott Adams text adventure is pretty much locked into the bottom of this ranking, I'm afraid. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Puzzles: The puzzles all make sense, the game has enough hints to help the player along, and the addition of timing-based puzzles adds an extra layer of interest. I got stuck a few times, but never for long enough that I wanted to give up, and the solution was never something that made me upset. It's hard to fault anything here, really. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Mechanics: It's only a two word parser, but its awkward moments are few (mostly restricted to tying the rope to other objects). The dumb-waiter was the only time I had trouble with the parser, but if I'd used the HELP command it wouldn't have been a problem. Everything here works pretty well. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Challenge: The puzzles are just tough enough that I was occasionally stumped but never for too long. Aside from my trouble with the dumb-waiter I was always able to make some form of forward progress, and for me that's always important with an adventure game. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Fun: This is a quick, solidly enjoyable game, though it is perhaps a little too vague at the beginning. Frustration is inevitable with this genre, but I found this among the least irritating of the text adventures I've played so far. Rating: 3 out of 7.
Bonus Points: 1. I'm going to give The Count a bonus point for its innovations in story-telling, It's not quite fully formed as a time-based game, but it's an important step along the way.
The above categories total 20, which doubled gives a score of 40. Add the bonus point, and The Count has a RADNESS Index of 41. In overall terms, that puts it equal sixth, with Beneath Apple Manor. For adventure games, it's placed third, below Zork and MUD1, but above every other adventure game for home computers so far. That's an incredible showing for such a small game, but deserved. Its the best Scott Adams game, and at this point in time Scott Adams was the benchmark for quality adventure games on home computer.
NEXT: I technically have Futurewar sitting in my backlog, which I abandoned due to some problems with the game. Those problems have been fixed, but I'm really not in the mood for a lengthy PLATO slog right now, so I'm going to push forward for a while. That makes my next game The Wizard and the Princess, an early game from Roberta Williams and the second adventure game on my priority list.