Thursday, March 11, 2021

Priority Adventure 3: Mission: Asteroid (1980)

The best quality image I could find of this game's
Apple II packaging

Well, I've been gone for quite some time, and let me tell you returning to the blog is going to test my memory.  After I wrapped up Local Call for Death and decided to take a break from blogging - a potentially permanent one - I kept on making headway through my list. In late November and early December I played through Mission: Asteroid, Eamon: The Lair of the Minotaur, and Maces & Magic: Balrog Sampler.  I also got a start on Wizardry, but tossed that aside after several of my parties got wiped out. I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind to be playing a game that would murder me ruthlessly and repeatedly, especially after my long slog through Rogue, so I took some time off to replay The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That's just as well for the blog, because otherwise I'd have a lot more games to catch up on.

What I'm saying is, you'll have to bear with me for the next few entries.  I might not be as detailed as usual, and there probably won't be as many screen shots. Things should be back to normal when I reach Wizardry again, and hopefully by that time I'll be emotionally prepared for that meatgrinder of a game.

Thankfully, my first game back is pretty simplistic, and shouldn't be difficult to recap.  Mission: Asteroid - designed by Ken and Roberta Williams - is designated as Hi-Res Adventure #0, but in actuality it was released after The Wizard and the Princess.  Apparently Mission: Asteroid was deliberately designed as a game for novices, and so it was placed before their other games in the series.  It is much easier than its predecessors, but that doesn't mean it isn't without its own peculiarities, as I'll explain below.

An evocative beginning.

Mission: Asteroid begins with the player standing in front of a building. I started my usual SCORE, INVENTORY, HELP routine, which was interrupted partway through by a beeping sound. An examination of my inventory revealed a watch with a switch. I pressed the switch, and a voice from mission control gave me some instructions: I was to report to the briefing room at once, and the password I should use is "starstruck".  I wasn't able to wander off in any other directions, so I had little choice but to open the door of the building and go inside.

The first room was a reception, with a secretary who wouldn't let me continue without giving the password. Beyond that was the briefing room, where a general gave me my mission: an asteroid was headed for the earth, and I had to fly up there and blow it up. The asteroid collision was going to happen at 7:15, which means that NASA was cutting things very fine here.  It's a very stealthy asteroid, I must assume. (The game prompts you to salute the general when you meet him, and if you don't you're kicked out of the air force and the game ends. I guess they'd have back-up personnel for these missions, but it seems a little drastic to sack your number one pick for a small breach of etiquette when the world's at stake.)

Roberta Williams always finds the dumbest ways for you
to fail in her games.

The general also makes a point of saying that the mission is top secret, and that plays into the room directly to the west, where there are a pair of reporters. What they're doing their if the mission is top secret is anyone's guess, but if you talk to them it's another game over.  Never mind that the verb "talk" doesn't necessarily mean "spill your guts about the top secret mission you've just been given", but apparently the hero of this game just can't help himself.  I shouldn't criticise, because when I played the game I talked to the reporters with the almost-certain knowledge that I'd be blowing the mission wide open.  What can I say, sometimes finding ways to lose is the most fun part of an adventure game.

Back past the briefing room is a computer room, with a "diskette" (yes, we called them that sometimes, but I have no idea if there's a difference between a diskette and a floppy disk). I loaded the diskette, and the computer displayed my flight plan from Earth to the asteroid: right for 10 minutes, up for 5 minutes, left for 15 minutes, down for 5 minutes, left for 5 minutes, and up for 10 minutes. It seems needlessly erratic, to be honest. I was also wondering how these directions would apply to a text adventure, where time doesn't always pass unless you input commands. I tested things with my watch, and discovered that 5 minutes passed every time I made a move.

Next was a supply room, which contained the explosives required to blow up the asteroid.  North of that was the pre-flight checkout, where a doctor gave me the once-over. Apparently my personal hygiene wasn't up to standard, as the doctor wouldn't let me pass until I'd exercised in the gym and taken a shower.  Given the urgency of my mission, I question this doctor's sanity. He's really going to put the world in danger of destruction because I smell bad?

This might be the first game I've played where having bad
BO is a major obstacle.

Once past the doctor, I was able to head out to the airfield and over to the rocket. Inside was a throttle, and four buttons: white, black, orange and blue. These corresponded to left, right, up and down, respectively. Using the throttle launched me into space, where I had to navigate to the asteroid. As I suspected, each move corresponded to a five-minute interval, so it was a simple case of pressing the buttons the right number of times (once for 5 minutes, twice for 10, or thrice for 15), then landing on the asteroid. The need to press the buttons multiple times goes against space physics, of course, but it's hard to see how else this could have been implemented in such a limited parser.

In the space rocket.

The surface of the asteroid was a small maze, made up of just three areas (unless I mapped it incorrectly). The only danger here was suffocation: I needed a spacesuit to survive outside of the ship, and it had a limited oxygen supply. With such a small area to explore I soon found my destination, a cave which contained a deep pit. I set the timer on my explosives, dropped them in the pit, hightailed it back to the rocket and took off.  The asteroid was blown up before it could strike, and the Earth was saved.

Well, that's how it should have gone.  The first time, I dropped the explosives in the right area, but without specifying that I was dropping them in the pit. The explosion didn't fully destroy the asteroid, and it struck the Earth. (I hope it landed right on top of that doctor who insisted I take a shower.)  The second time, I didn't give myself enough time to escape. You have to set the timer on the bomb before dropping it in the pit; I set it too low, and was caught in the explosion.  The third time, I got it right, giving myself enough time to get back to the rocket, retrace my flight plan in reverse to get back to Earth, and watch as my world-saving handiwork took effect.

Oh no, I've been struck by Hugh chunks!

Oddly, the game allows you to continue playing once you've saved the Earth. I wandered around for a bit hoping that some characters might congratulate me, but nothing about the game changes, and when the timer runs out the asteroid destroys Earth anyway. I thought that maybe something was wrong with my copy of the game, but looking around at other blogs I see that this is a universal experience. It makes sense to me when modern games ship with bugs, but in something as small and simplistic as this it's quite baffling. Still, it doesn't affect gameplay at all, so it's hard to complain too much.

Not only does it allow you to keep playing after a victory, but you can keep playing after you've died as well. After the screen shot above I waited around, and at 7:15 the asteroid hit the Earth as scheduled. Then I flew back to Earth and tried to land, only to be told that I'd landed in the ocean and died (presumably because the asteroid had destroyed most of America). So this game is pretty buggy, but at least one outcome has been accounted for.

The victory screen, soon to be invalidated.

Having completed Mission: Asteroid, it's a real case of a game that's on my priority list because of the games surrounding it rather than because of any qualities possessed by the game itself. It's not particularly good or interesting, and it has very little in the way of historical significance, but the Hi-Res Adventure series is important so it's in the queue.  This is going to happen from time to time; heck, it's going to happen a couple of priority games down the line when I hit the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games for the Intellivision.  It's an inherent drawback with being systematic, I suppose.


Story & Setting: The "asteroid colliding with Earth" set-up is a new one, and it's still unusual to find an adventure game with a hard time limit.  The setting is split between mission control headquarters, outer space, and the asteroid itself.  The asteroid and outer space are both disappointingly empty, although I suppose that's realistic.  Mission control has the most content in the game, but most of it's pretty nonsensical. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There really aren't any. The receptionist only responds to the password, the general is a one-time infodump who gets mad if you don't salute, the reporters are only there as a way to lose the game, and the doctor is an absurd obstacle to you getting to the rocket. Characters you can only interact with in one specific way barely qualify as such, so this game is getting a low score. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The colour graphics here are on a par with those of The Wizard and the Princess, though it must be said that they're not depicting anything nearly as interesting as what's in that game. They're quite ugly, but colour graphics of any kind on a home computer is still refreshing at this point. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Puzzles: The puzzles in this game are dreadfully simplistic, and most of them are signposted heavily within the game. That's a legacy of designing the game for beginners, but I feel like Ken and Roberta took it a little too far. The most difficult part is probably navigating outer space, or finding the asteroid cave before your air runs out. As a small game with simple puzzles it's not going to get a minimum score, but I can't rate it too highly.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's a very simple game with very simple commands, but it does what it does reasonably well I suppose. It's tempting to knock it down a point for the false ending, but it doesn't affect gameplay at all. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: This is definitely one of the easiest games I've played for the blog, but it's short and comes without a great deal of frustration. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: The game may be short, and may be lacking in frustrating elements, but it's also overly linear and gives the player almost no scope to do anything outside of the obvious solutions. Games should at least enable some kind of "play", but Mission: Asteroid just walks the player from one simplistic puzzle to the next. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

The above scores total 12, which doubles gives a RADNESS Index of 24. That's well below Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess, and only a little bit above the earliest of Greg Hassett's adventures. It really is one of the least engaging games I've played so far though. It might have been designed for beginners, but I'd be hard-pressed to see it convincing many of them to stick around and play some more adventures.

NEXT: I go back to Eamon to try out its second adventure, The Lair of the Minotaur.  I can't remember a damn thing about playing it, so writing this one up is going to be a test.


  1. Glad you are back!

    This game is an oddity... hardly up to shareware standards... but also a different era in game design.

    1. Judging by the packaging they charged $19.95 for this, and $32.95 for The Wizard and the Princess, so at least they and the decency to acknowledge that this game isn't worth as much as their others.

    2. Yikes... I remember mowing quite a few yards to buy Ultima 3 and 4 at 59.95$... 140$ today after inflation.

      My Tandy couldn't run Wizardry, but my best friend had a no name IBM PC clone with a nice green monochrome monitor. It was a fun but brutal game. Even a high level party could be wiped out in seconds on the lower levels.

      Good luck! Or consider cheating... save scumming at least.

    3. If I didn't savescum Rogue I probably won't do it for Wizardry, but I guess uou never quite know how hard a game will get.

  2. Hooray, you're back!

    Looking forward to reading your take on this weird game :-)

  3. "I have no idea if there's a difference between a diskette and a floppy disk"

    Sitting in the etymology armchair looking in retrospect, I might speculate that while the original, monstrously huge (8-inch) floppies were disks, "diskette" may have been floated to describe their later and far more popular smaller 5.25 and 3.5-inch brethren. Practically I've never seen an 8-inch disk in my life and have no idea when people started saying "diskette".

    (actually I do, and the results are inconclusive. )

    1. Thanks, I completely forgot about those whopping great big disks (which make the descriptor "floppy" make a bit more sense). You've probably hit on it correctly here.

  4. Hooray! I was worried you'd stopped blogging completely. I love this series; glad you're back.

  5. I join the ranks of those welcoming you back: we've missed you!

  6. Welcome back buddy. How in the world did you get a working copy of Balrog Sampler???? Asking for a friend lol

    1. With extreme difficulty, and I dread having to do it again to refresh my memory. I'll be sure to go through the process when I write it up.