Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Adventure: Won!

Watering the plant a second time made it grow even more, at which point “CLIMB PLANT” from the bottom of the west pit led to a new corridor, leading to “giant room” with a nest of golden eggs and a sign saying “FEE FIE FOE FOO,” a room with a rusty door which opened after oiling it with oil from the east pit in the twopit room, and past that a cavern with a trident. Given that other rooms with signs had magic teleportation words XYZZY and PLUGH, I figured FEE FIE FOE FOO had to be another magic teleportation word. Turns out this teleports the golden eggs to the giant room, making it seem like a good idea to bribe the troll with these eggs, and teleport them back later.

The trident opens the giant clam, revealing a pearl which rolls down into the cul-de-sac, which prompts the program to acknowledge the clam was an oyster all along, and it apologizes for failing to recognize the right kind of pelecypod.

The barren room is a pretty simple puzzle; it’s just that some of the verbs involved are bizarre. Bringing food and keys to this room, I typed FEED BEAR to calm him down, then UNLOCK CHAIN to free him. TAKE BEAR to get him to follow you. Noting that the gold chain is valuable, TAKE CHAIN as well. When crossing the bridge back, the troll pops up to demand more payment. THROW BEAR and the bear chases the troll away. I did this without any outside help; it helps to think like a programmer and consider that memory space for vocabulary is limited, and that commonly used verbs should be reused whenever possible.

Exploring the dark passage past the plover room continued to bamboozle me, so this is where I turned to the Internet for help. Turns out “PLOVER” is another magic word, and teleports between the plover room and Y2. So with that I was able to teleport from Y2 to the plover room with my lantern, and from there explore the dark passage, leading to a single room with a platinum pyramid and a congratulatory plaque. Real clever, Don. Meanwhile I also checked a hint concerning the last lousy point, which you get by taking the magazines from the antechamber and dropping them in Witt’s End.

Now it came time to plan a way to solve the game. I had all of the pieces, I had a complete map with the locations of 15 treasures, and I knew how to retrieve them all. But I had to devise a plan to retrieve them all in one playthrough. Your lantern batteries do NOT last long, and you forfeit a perfect score by buying spare batteries, so I had to move fast and efficiently. Your inventory limit is seven items, and you don’t ever want to not be holding onto the lamp or axe, so that leaves five free spaces. The platinum pyramid can be retrieved pretty quickly by teleporting to Y2 and then to the plover room, but the emerald can’t be retrieved by teleporting. That leaves 14 treasures to retrieve, but the Ming vase must be dropped on the soft pillow or else it shatters, meaning we need to retrieve 15 items, which will take at least three trips.

So with trip 1, after retrieving the pyramid, I proceeded down to the caves normally, with the lantern, keys, bottle of water, and food. Picked up the rod, cage, and bird along the way, scared the snake and left the bird and cage at the HOTMK, and then went to the fissure to span the bridge so I could drop the rod. That leaves the lantern, keys, bottle of water, and food in my inventory, with three free spaces left. Soon enough the first dwarf threw his axe at me, which I took, leaving two spaces. I went to the lower levels, watered the plant twice, got the oil, and climbed the plant to the giant’s lair and took the eggs and trident. No spaces left.

I bribed the troll with the eggs, took the fork south to the barren room and fed the bear, freeing two spaces which I filled up by taking the gold chain and the rare spices in the north end of the fork. After using the bear to scare the troll away and returning to Bedquilt, I dropped the keys and the empty bottle, freeing two spaces again. Got and used the magazine to score the last lousy point, got the pearl, got the pillow. Inventory consists of a lantern, axe, trident, chain, spices, pearl, and pillow, and no space is left. I returned to the surface using PLUGH at Y2 to save some time, and dropped off all of the treasure and the pillow, making sure to EXTINGUISH LAMP before dropping the treasures to save the batteries. 10 treasures to go.

I went back to Bedquilt and to the Oriental room to get the vase, the emerald, and re-retrieve the golden eggs. Going back to the hall of mists, I retrieved the diamonds and gold nugget, and once again PLUGH’d my way back, dropped off the treasures, and PLUGH’d back into the darkness.

While gathering the last few treasures, all nearby, I ran into the pirate who stole them from me. No problem, I was going to rob him anyway. Into the maze, at the end of which was the pirate's stash, where I stole my treasures right back plus his chest. I returned to the building, and deposited everything.

And then… nothing. My score was 276, and I was pretty sure no treasures remained. I checked a walkthrough, and it turns out to go to the next and final section of the game, you need to go back into the cave and do nothing for a while. I did, retrieved my bottle and keys in the meantime, and after several turns of walking around in circles at Witt’s End…

A little while later…

Going southwest,

My inventory didn’t get teleported with me, so unlocking the grate didn’t work.

One last stupid little puzzle that I had to turn to the Internet to solve. There are rods in both corners of the room. Turns out the rods in the southwest corner are dynamite. Take one, run to the northeast corner, drop it, go back to the southwest corner, and BLAST.

I win! How are you remotely detonating the dynamite, though?

Alternate ending for blasting the southwest corner instead – I bet it would suck to guess wrong if you were playing this version without quicksaves, since real saves don’t work:

And a “special” ending for blasting while holding the dynamite (or just being in the same room as it):

I went in without much expectation. Adventure is famous for being influential – it created one of the major genres of computer games, after all. But I had never seen much critique on the quality of the game (unlike Zork, which is widely considered to be a good game), as if being the first of its kind puts it above criticism.

Woods’ Adventure is a complete game, for sure, and apart from the wacky endgame it doesn’t feel experimental. There’s purpose to every room, passage, and puzzle, even if sometimes the purpose seems misguided (such as the maze of twisty little passages all different), Even though most of the rooms are functionally empty, they contribute to the vastness of the cave, and they have interesting and unique descriptions. Most of the sequences of connected rooms eventually lead to something, either a treasure, or a shortcut to a hub area, or a dead end with an interesting description. The cave layout has a deliberate sense of progression to it, starting out linearly with claustrophobic descriptions, opening up slightly into branching rooms, halls, and mazes, and at the bottom levels becomes more fantastic. The relatively small number of puzzles means that after getting past the snake early on, almost the entire cave is accessible, with only a handful of rooms gated off by puzzles. Aside from being randomly killed by the dwarves, which didn’t happen that often, cheap deaths don’t really exist. You can die in stupid ways, but they’re always things you obviously shouldn’t do, like typing “JUMP” at precipices or wandering in the dark. I never got killed for messing around with the troll or the bear or even the dragon, which I’d certainly been conditioned to expect by Infocom and early Sierra games. The parser is bare-bones, as one might expect, accepting only one or two word commands, and only a handful of action verbs are ever used. But despite that, the things it recognized often surprised me. One of the most fun things about text adventures and parser-based graphic adventures is doing silly things with the parser to see if the developers thought of a response, and enjoying the cheeky replies whenever it turns out they did. Adventure didn’t have a lot of those, but I was pleasantly surprised that it recognized any commands other than what was needed to win the game.

But there are just so many things about the game that irritate and annoy. Mapping is absolutely required, and it’s made annoying by the fact that you can’t rely on room descriptions to tell you where the exits are. They’re accurate more than 90% of the time, but the handful of invisible passages meant I just skipped reading the room descriptions and obsessively typed N/E/S/W/NW/NE/SW/SE/U/D each time I got to a new room. The non-orthogonal passages further made mapping a tedious pain, and there’s just so many of them. The dwarves were a constant nuisance, and I can’t see what benefit their non-zero chance to randomly kill you brought to the game.

It’s been said that the early adventure games were treasure hunts with puzzles, in the tradition of Adventure. My playthrough bears this out, although none of the puzzles here were particularly inspired. Most were easy, a few trivial, and a few ridiculous. The bridge troll, who can be bribed with a treasure at the forfeiture of points or chased away with a wild animal, anticipates King’s Quest, where the exact same thing happens, and happens several more times with more figurative bridges and trolls. Figuring out that FEE FIE FOE FOO were magic words was the closest thing Adventure had to a clever puzzle, though it was pretty obvious what to do with them. If the plover room had had just some signposting to indicate “PLOVER” was also a magic word, it could have been a good puzzle, but instead it’s just unfair.

Lastly, I couldn’t find a points list anywhere on the Internet, so I made one:

Start game 27
Decline instructions 5
Enter hall of mists or Y2 25
Drop magazine in Witt's End 1
Find coins 2
Find diamonds 2
Find emerald 2
Find gold chain 2
Find gold nugget 2
Find golden eggs 2
Find jewelry 2
Find Ming vase 2
Find pearl 2
Find Persian rug 2
Find pyramid 2
Find silver 2
Find spices 2
Find trident 2
Drop coins in building 10
Drop diamonds in building 10
Drop jewelry in building 10
Drop silver in building 10
Drop chest in building 12
Drop chain in building 14
Drop eggs in building 14
Drop emerald in building 14
Drop pearl in building 14
Drop pyramid in building 14
Drop rug in building 14
Drop spices in building 14
Drop trident in building 14
Drop vase in building on pillow 14
Cave closing 25
Enter NE end of repository 10
Blast out 39

Final map of Woods' Adventure :

Monday, October 29, 2018

The farther adventures

From the HOTMK, it was just a short trip north and down to the unexplored dirty passage, and from there I went down to the complex junction. This was around the place where Crowther gave up and left behind a confusing mess of tunnels that lead nowhere. Rooms like Bedquilt and the Swiss cheese room are still there, and they still have those passages that randomly go off in different directions, but this zone merges with several new ones added by Woods, and tends to take on a fantasy theme.

East of Bedquilt is a “shell room” containing a giant clam that I couldn’t get open, and an anteroom with the “CAVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION” sign, placed by Witt Construction Company, and copies of “Spelunker Today” magazine lying around. The magazines are unreadable (“I’M AFRAID THE MAGAZINE IS WRITTEN IN DWARVISH.”). Past the anteroom is “Witt’s End,” a maze reminiscent of Zelda’s Lost Woods, where you could get lost forever, but if you keep moving in any direction other than west, you’ll eventually escape.

One of the passages north from Bedquilt led to a large low room with passages southeast and southwest. Southwest led to a chasm with a bridge guarded by a troll who demanded treasure in payment. I tried throwing the axe, he just caught it and said “GOOD WORKMANSHIP, BUT IT’S NOT VALUABLE ENOUGH.” He accepted silver in payment. Past the bridge was a fork with passages north and south. North led to a chamber with some rare spices, and a “breathtaking view” with an unusually detailed room description:

Someone should tell Kentucky they’ve got an active volcano! There didn’t seem to be much to do here. Attempting to descend produced “DON’T BE RIDICULOUS!”, so I left by the south and returned to the fork.

South from the fork led to a “barren room” cautioning me there’s a “BEAR IN ROOM!” The puns continue

I couldn’t find anything else to do here, or find a way to proceed except to return past the bridge, and the troll demanded more payment to cross back. My spices sufficed.

Southeast led to an “oriental room” with a priceless Ming vase, and a passage leading through a misty cavern and to an alcove that I could only squeeze through by dropping my whole inventory. Past the alcove was a naturally lit “Plover room,” an emerald, and a passage further northeast which was too dark to explore.

Returning back through the alcove and collecting my stuff, the program warned me that the batteries were getting low. I explored southward, past the oriental room was a passage returning to the Swiss cheese room. A little while later and a few more rooms mapped, my lantern finally died, leaving me stranded.

Another restart, another venture into and past the complex junction, to the last of the unexplored paths. This time I stopped first at the maze of twisty little passages all different first to pick up a spare battery so that I’d have more time to map. First, though, I checked out that secret canyon from the HOTMK. Turns out it’s not a sequence breaking shortcut to the rooms beyond Bedquilt after all, but it leads to a dragon, and possibly the most famously silly puzzle in the entire game.

This series of secret canyons eventually led to a dead-end reservoir, but also contained two downward passages to the rooms beyond Bedquilt after all.

Past the shell room was a useless arched hall and cul-de-sac.

Going south from Bedquilt led to a “twopit room,” a large room with an east and west end, each with a descendible pit. The east pit had a small plant begging for water, which I provided, and it grew to be 12 feet tall and demanded more water. I know several rooms had water running through them, and there’s a stream outside of the cave, but for now I left it alone. The west pit has oil, which I was able to put in my bottle but found no use for. I tried oiling the plant to see what would happen; it worked, but other than annoying the plant nothing happened.

Going up from Bedquilt sometimes leads back to Bedquilt, sometimes back to the dirty passage, and sometimes to a new junction of secret canyons. These canyons lead north to another “window on pit” with yet another shadowy figure I can’t interact with, and south to a stalactite from which you could drop back into the maze of twisty little passages all alike if you wished.

Going south from the Swiss cheese room eventually led to a canyon leading east and west, with dead ends both ways.

I think mapping is mostly done now. The only unexplored location I know of is northeast of the plover room, which I can’t get to yet because it’s too dark.

Wood’s Adventure has quite a bit more interactive content than Crowthers’, but it’s still pretty sparse. After getting past the snake, which was Crowther’s final puzzle, almost the entire cave is accessible. Both mazes are ungated, and almost the entire lower level, where most of the new puzzles are located, is accessible without needing to solve any of its puzzles. The dragon past the HOTMK’s secret passage only blocks off three rooms with nothing in them but a redundant shortcut to the lower level, and the chasm troll blocks off a forked passage leading to a few interesting rooms but is easily passed as long as you have a treasure, which you almost certainly do.

Next session, I try to solve the outstanding puzzles of Wood’s adventure. Including:
  • What do I do with the shadowy figures?
  • Can I open the pirate’s treasure chest?
  • Can I bypass the troll without paying him treasure?
  • What do I do about the bear?
  • How do I explore past the plover room?
  • Can the plant be watered further?
  • Is the oil useful?
  • How do I open the clam?
  • What’s the point of the magazines in the anteroom?
  • Did I miss anything interesting in the rooms I’ve been to already?

My map so far:

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Mazes and monsters

I restarted Adventure, continuing my effort to map out the first areas of the cave, and to note any differences. Getting back to the HOTMK took less than a minute, from here I could proceed through the west side chamber and to uncharted territory.

New discoveries included:
  • On either side of the fissure, you can now WAVE ROD to make a bridge appear (or vanish).
  • Going south from the crossover now leads to the west end of the long hall instead of going back to the hall of mists. This makes the map just a bit more confusing – going south from the crossover leads to the west end of a hall, but going west from the crossover leads to the east end of the same hall?
  • The maze of twisty little passages, all alike, has a completely new layout.
  • Turns out when you die, all of your items except for the lantern are left in the room where you were killed.

The new maze of twisty little passages, all alike, is considerably more convoluted than the old one. Further complicating things, a pirate wanders the maze, and will steal your treasure if he finds you, depriving you of your breadcrumbs. Between that and the constantly attacking dwarves, mapping out the maze is a real test of patience.

With lots of rooms and only a handful of non-valuable items that the pirate won’t steal, mapping out the maze took me a few tries. Eventually I’d run out of items to place and then plunge into unexplored territory, and get hopelessly lost or killed by dwarves. But my map got more complete with each game restart.

The maze continues for a few rooms past the brink of pit, where one room has an unmarked northwest passage, the only intercardinal passage in the entire maze, and the only reason I discovered it was because I’d been diligently trying the NE/NW/SE/SW directions in every single room regardless of whether the room description indicated a passage there or not. Through this passage is a dead end containing your stolen treasure, plus a pirate’s chest.

Returning to the long hall, the west end now joins with a north-south passage, and going south leads to a new area:

Another maze! The good news is that unlike the previous one, the passages are ALL DIFFERENT instead of ALL ALIKE. This means the description is slightly different in each room, e.g. “YOU ARE IN A TWISTY LITTLE MAZE OF PASSAGES, ALL DIFFERENT,” and if you’re paying attention to this then you don’t need to drop treasures as breadcrumbs. The bad news is that mapping this maze out in a coherent visual manner is nearly impossible, and I didn’t even try.

Up until now, I had been mapping Adventure with a combination of Excel and Trizbort. I hadn’t used Trizbort alone because you can’t rely on passages to connect orthogonally; going east doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll emerge in the next room from the west. Instead, I have made Excel tables to track each room’s exits, of which there can be up to 10; the four cardinal directions, the four intercardinal directions (NE/NW/SE/SW), up, and down. Once a room is fully graphed, and all connected rooms graphed as well, I attempt to draw it in Trizbort in a coherent manner.

In this maze, there are 12 rooms of twisty passages, and each one of them has ten passages, each leading to one of the other ten. There is the exception of the first room, from which the down passage leaves the maze and returns to the west end of the long hall, and one passage from a “LITTLE MAZE OF TWISTING PASSAGES” leads to a dead end, containing a vending machine. To map it all out in Trizbort would be insanity. I’m satisfied with this partial map that includes all rooms, but leaves out most of the passages, using the starting room as a central point.

In any event, the only useful feature of this maze area is the vending machine in the dead end, which dispenses fresh batteries for your lantern in exchange for coins, but also decreases your score.

That’s two mazes charted. I’ve deleted several redundant passages from the maze of twisty little passages all alike to aid its readability, but as far as I know every room of it is present.

All that’s left is the dirty passage and the secret e/w canyon from the HOTMK (which I assume I’ll be visiting from the other side), but I have a feeling I’m just getting started!

My map so far:

Friday, October 26, 2018

Game 30: Adventure 350

Download Adventure versions here:

Woods’ expansion to Adventure added numerous features, among them points. Numerous other developers have since expanded on Woods’ version, including Woods himself, and because adding content usually changed the number of points available to score in the game, the point count became a convenient way to distinguish between major Adventure versions.

Wood’s original revision had a maximum score of 350 points, and is sometimes called “Adventure 350.” Even then, finding a playable “original” version proved to be a puzzle in itself. The original FORTRAN source is available, but it’s dependent on the PDP-10 machine, and I’d prefer not to have to learn how to compile and run FORTRAN on an emulated PDP-10 if a suitable port is available. The page above lists several “original” versions, and most of them appear to tinker with the content in some way

Don Eckman’s DOS port seems to be the most authentic. It makes no changes I could notice, and even preserves the all-caps text whereas all of the other ports switched to a “normal” mix of lowercase and uppercase. But there’s one major snag; saving doesn’t work. Typing “save” produces this message:


But it’s just a leftover message from the FORTRAN program. There’s no way to actually load your game. You couldn’t in Crowther’s Adventure either, but with the small size you didn’t really need to. As noted in the Readme file:
The save and restart, under the old DEC system, were simply core saves,
with a couple of variables set to show that a restart is in progress.
I haven't yet implemented a save-to-disk feature.  This means, unfortunately,
that you must start over each time you play.  Ultimately I will get this fixed.

That was written in 1991, so I’m not holding my breath.

Then I noticed that there is an Amiga port of Ekman’s port. This would be acceptable; even if it didn’t allow saves, I could use quicksaves in WinUAE instead.

Getting WinUAE set up to play the game was somewhat of a challenge. To run it, I had to configure WinUAE to emulate an A4000 model, set up a Workbench environment in it, and create a virtual hard disk image pointing to a “software” folder on my real hard drive containing the adv350.lha file.

Unpacking the adv350.lha file was easier than advertised, I could just unzip it within Windows using 7z, and the files inside were usable within the emulated Amiga environment.

Once Workbench loaded, it showed my virtual hard disks, and I opened the secondary disk that I labeled “DH1,” and inside was the Adventure folder. Inside that was a runnable Adventure program. I double-clicked that, and got:


I noticed that answering “Y” here costs you five points. Type “Y” and quit and your final score is 27 points. Type “N” and quit and it’s 32.

Typing “save” outputs this message:

But that’s OK. I have quicksaves, which I plan to use responsibly.

I made my first session about mapping. It started off pretty much the same as before, with the road, hill, forest, valley, and grate, so I mapped it quickly, got the keys, lamp, food, and water from the building, and unlocked the grate to go into the caves below.

It continued pretty much the same for a while. Same cobble crawl, same hall of mists, same hall of the Mountain King, same silly puzzle involving the bird and the snake, same set of treasures scattered around the HOTMK, the same axe-throwing dwarf with bad aim, followed by knife-wielding dwarves with annoyingly good aim and tenacity.

 Some changes I noticed early on:
  • Beating the dwarves now requires you to THROW AXE rather than simply ATTACK, and you must also TAKE AXE after each throw.
  • There’s now an inventory limit. If it isn’t weight-based, then it seems to be seven items.
  • The “INVENTORY” command works now. The bottle and the water inside it were listed as separate items, but they seem to count as one item toward the inventory limit.
  • On the east bank of the fissure, if you try to jump, you die.
  • On death, the program offers to reincarnate you (“BUT DON’T BLAME ME IF SOMETHING GOES WR…… --- POOF ---“), taking you back to the building at the cost of some points and some “orange smoke.” Your inventory gets scattered too. I found my lantern on the road, but the rest of my things were either gone or deeper in the caves, because I never found them again that session.
  • You can go southwest from the HOTMK into a “secret E/W canyon” that was previously part of Crowther’s cave construction zone. This was originally a one-way passage, only allowing you to return to the HOTMK from the canyon. Since the southwest passage from the hall isn’t shown in the room’s description, this could be thought of as sequence breaking in a sense.
  • In the “window on pit” room, there is now a “shadowy figure.”

Soon enough I ran into dwarves again, and without my axe I had no way to defend myself and they eventually killed me two more times. The program then got snippy with me:

I suppose I could do it myself, but this seemed like as good a stopping point as any.

My map so far:

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Game 29: Adventure and the road to Adventureland

Download William Crowther’s original Adventure here:

Adventure games were my bread and butter during my formative gaming years, but my only exposure to text adventures was Infocom’s library. Scott Adam’s Adventureland is the next whale, and is considered to be the first commercial adventure game ever, predating all extant versions of Zork. Both Adventureland and Zork were primarily influenced by a PDP-10 game, Adventure, whose version history is much longer and more complicated than I would care to fully explore.

In short, Adventure was created around 1976 by William Crowther, as a text adventure set in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. In 1977, Don Woods took the source code and greatly expanded upon it, and this version formed the basis for countless derivatives and iterations since.

Above is an almost hilariously oversimplified roadmap to Adventureland, which was made as an attempt to adapt Adventure to a 16KB microcomputer. In truth, an accurate graph of the versions of Adventure by Woods would look like a maze of twisty little passages, all different.

I don’t know which version of Adventure was played by Scott Adams, or by the Zork team, or by Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams, who often wrote about Colossal Cave Adventure and its influence on her. I don’t know which version formed the basis of Microsoft Adventure, which was the first IBM PC game ever. But I am satisfied that there exists an original Crowther version, that there is an original Woods version based on its final revisions, and that the original Woods version is the template and namesake of the entire commercial adventure genre, as well as a major influence on MUDs and by extension MMORPGs.

Crowther’s Adventure was presumed lost for decades, but the source code was found in 2007, and subsequently ported to Windows. Rather than figure out how to emulate a PDP-10 and compile FORTRAN, I’ve decided to play this Windows port, confident that I’m not going to miss out on much by playing a text-only port of a text-only game.

The package comes with two identically sized executables named “advf4-11” and “advf4-31,” which represent the state of Adventure on March 11 1977 and March 31 1977 respectively. I did check the differences in the source code and dat files, and it looks like the main differences in the 3/31 version are that some line numbers and variable names have been changed, and a subroutine called “SHIFT” is added, though I can’t deduce its purpose. Some bugs have been fixed too. For instance, the command “ENTER STREAM” isn’t recognized by the 3/11 version even though there is code for it, while it does produce results in the 3/31 version. Woods claims the 3/11 source and data represents Crowther’s original work, and I’m assuming the changes in the 3/31 version are Woods’, so I played the 3/11 version.

Immediately upon loading it up, the output window shows a cryptic message that I’m guessing is a vestige of the PDP-10 environment:
PAUSE  INIT DONE statement executed
To resume execution, type go.  Other input will terminate the job.

Typing “go” proceeds, and the game offers these instructions:

The “help” command prints these hints:

You start in a location called End of Road, which is connected to a building with a key, a lamp, and some other items. This outdoor area also has a forest, a valley, a stream, and a locked grate leading to the cave system below. Intentional or not, this is a good example of gating in game design; the grate seals off the vast caves until you’ve located the building within the relatively small area above and taken the keys, and then you’ll likely have also taken the absolutely necessary lamp and other items before you go spelunking.

Down below, it got dark, so I turned the lamp on (“light lamp” since the game only recognizes two word commands). The first few rooms of the cave are laid out in a linear manner from east to west. Along the way are more items, a cage, a rod, and a small, singing bird which can be taken if you have the cage, but not if you are carrying the rod. The helpfile mentioned this. At the end of this passageway are steps leading down a pit.

On the next level things got more cavernous. A “hall of mists” connects to three new rooms:
  • “Hall of the Mountain King” to the north, with more passages off in all directions, but a giant snake blocks them all off except the one I entered from.
  • “East bank of fissure,” warning me that the fissure is too wide to jump. Jumping would have certainly killed me in an Infocom game, but here it just says “THERE IS NO WAY ACROSS THE FISSURE.”
  • “Nugget of gold room,” containing a gold nugget and a warning on the wall “YOU WON’T GET IT UP THE STEPS.” True enough, you can’t return to the first level from the hall of mists when holding the golden nugget.

In this area, a dwarf chucked an axe at me, missed and ran away, so I took the axe. I tried to kill the snake with it, but the game just didn’t recognize any of my attempts to command it. “THROW AXE” prompted a suggestion to use the command “ATTACK” instead, but this too proved useless, as it responded “ATTACKING THE SNAKE BOTH DOESN’T WORK AND IS VERY DANGEROUS.” A second, knife-wielding dwarf showed up in the hall of mists, but quickly fell to my axe. A third showed up immediately after, who was just as easily killed. No more showed up after that.

At this point, the snake was blocking my only way forward. I dropped my gold nugget, returned to the first level, grabbed the rod (the bird didn’t mind), and descended again, recollecting the gold. I tried waving the rod at the snake, but nothing happened. I dropped the bird, and it chased the snake away! Go figure.

Past the hall of the Mountain King are a south chamber, west chamber, and a north passage with a hole leading to a lower passage. These rooms contain jewelry, coins, and silver bars, which I took, and the west chamber continued “west and up.” I took the north passage to a large room with a rock marked “Y2,” and then –

I typed ‘PLUGH’ right back – I knew about this already – and got teleported to the building, where I dropped off my treasures. PLUGH took me right back to the Y2 room. From there, there were passages leading to a dead-end room described as a “window on a huge pit,” a jumble of rock, and a passage from there leading right back to the hall of mists. There were two unexplored avenues, the hole in the north passage, and the west chamber of the HOTMK. I took the hole.

This led to a third level with only a few rooms laid out simply. The west passage led to a room of dusty rocks and another hole in the floor. The east passage led to the brink of a climbable pit with nothing in it but a tiny stream. Third level fully explored, I went west and down the hole.

Down on the fourth level is a room called a “complex junction.” Here, there is a literal warning sign of the game’s unfinished nature:

It’s not kidding. Past this point to the west, a new room is described as:

Half of these directions don’t work. East goes back to the complex junction. West goes to a room described as having walls like Swiss cheese. The rest sometimes loop me right back to bedquilt, and sometimes new rooms in a network of canyons that all eventually lead to dead ends, or to the Swiss cheese room, or back to the dirty passage, or even all the way back to the HOTMK. The Swiss cheese room and rooms past it likewise indicates passage in directions that don’t work, have passages that randomly send you off to canyons or back where you came from, and one passage outright crashes the game! Interestingly, this is also the only area of the game where inter-cardinal directions (NW/NE/SE/SW) work, which suggests that this feature, along with the semi-random navigation, were late additions.

In any event, there’s nothing down here to be interacted with or taken, so that left the west chamber of the HOTMK as the last remaining area to explore.

Past the west chamber is a crossover, and a long hall leading to the west side of the fissure, with diamonds on the edge, which I took. Going south from the hall led me to this infamous location:

The infamous MOTLP! Almost every room in this maze has the exact same description, and at least three exits. To navigate, I would drop my treasures, one per room, to use them as breadcrumbs.

Eventually I had the maze mapped out completely. It wasn’t that hard; the maze layout is fairly logical and not terribly complex. At the end of the maze is a brink of a pit, which I crawled down, leading back to the bird room, and from there an easy way out of the cave. I returned to the surface with all of my treasure. The game doesn’t recognize this feat or any sort of victory condition as far as I can tell. There’s simply nothing more to be done, so I stopped playing.

It’s a miracle that this version even exists, so this is likely the only proof of Crowther’s original vision of Adventure we’ll ever get to see. It’s fairly bare bones and clearly unfinished, with several indications of things that were meant to come:
  • A scarcity of puzzles and treasure; there are no puzzles past the HOTMK, and all of the treasures are fairly close by. Afterward there’s nothing else to do but explore rooms.
  • Past the complex junction, where a warning sign suggests the game is still being developed, internal consistency just seems to fall apart, with navigation rules suddenly changing, directions not working like they should, and one passageway that instantly returns you to the surface and then crashes the game.
  • The rod item found on the first level seems to serve no purpose, even though every other item on the first floor is useful. The source code suggests it can be used to cross the fissure, but I couldn’t figure out how. The game accepts the commands “SHAKE ROD” and “WAVE ROD,” but nothing happens when you do.
  • Source code indicates “BLAST” is a valid command. When typed it responds “BLASTING REQUIRES DYNAMITE,” but there is no dynamite in the game.

Even in this primordial and unfinished Adventure, we can see fundamental and stereotypical elements of the genre emerging:
  • Focus on exploring nodal rooms, each with a unique description
  • Traversal of rooms through cardinal directions, plus Up, Down, and sometimes Exit
  • Game world structured as a mostly orthogonal graph, with persistent changes
  • Nemeses who autonomously wander the game world
  • Inventory items and treasures
  • A two-word parser, accepting “VERB NOUN” commands, and recognizing multiple synonyms for the same command
  • A “look” command
  • Lock and key puzzles
  • Moon logic puzzles
  • Mazes
  • Conditional logic (e.g. you can’t climb steps to the hall of mists if you are carrying the gold nugget)
  • Dumb ways to die
  • Dark rooms that require a light source to survive
  • Elements of a fantasy theme
  • Recognition when the user types swear words

Some crucial elements of the genre are not present at all, though:
  • Plot
  • Dialogue
  • Saving and loading
  • Any way of checking your inventory
  • Score
  • An ending

My final map - many redundant passages have been excluded for the sake of legibility.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Game 28: Super Breakout

Buy Super Breakout and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

After going through eight Atari VCS games with color and two player focus, it feels a little weird to move on to a single player-focused arcade game with black and white graphics (colorized with a cellophane overlay). And unlike Night Driver and Star Ship, which had fast and smooth scaling pseudo-3D graphics, I really don’t see anything here that couldn’t be replicated on the VCS without compromise.

As with Breakout, I played Super Breakout using my Slikstik Tornado, a much closer approximation of an arcade paddle controller than a joystick or mouse. Unlike Breakout, MAME was my emulator of choice here, and the arcade version is available in the Atari Vault, whereas the only version of Breakout available there (or commercially anywhere) is the VCS port. Again, it’s almost certainly due to the relative difficulty of emulating Breakout, and the relative ease of emulating Super Breakout.

The most obvious new feature here is having three selectable modes, a far cry from the launch VCS titles which had anywhere from 14 to 50 modes, but still a lot of gameplay variety for a game that wasn’t designed to be played at home. The mechanism for selecting the mode to play is almost hidden in MAME, buried under a “machine configuration” menu rather than being part of the controls. The score display is also rendered in a crisp digital font instead of huge chunky pixels, thanks to being powered by a programmable CPU instead of fixed circuits like in the original.

Aside from that, it seems little has changed from Breakout, despite being completely remade. The paddle is still tiny, the physics seems to be exactly the same, down to the spotty hit detection, the ball gets unreasonably fast pretty quickly, and the paddle still gets absurdly tiny once the ball hits the top of the screen.

I played all three modes and being terrible at Breakout, performed miserably in them all. Videos wouldn’t even be interesting. So I used slowdown cheats and performed much better. The videos presented are all taken from my best performance with slowdown, but played back at a normal speed.


Probably the most fun mode of Super Breakout. Rows of bricks arrive in waves, and gradually descend the well as you eliminate them. Since the walls are only four bricks thick, it doesn’t take long to break out and score a lot of points as the ball bounces up and down between the walls, putting lots of holes in both of them, and building up speed.

The real kicker is that before too long, the bricks descend every other time you hit the ball, and sometime after that, every time you hit the ball. It’s just not feasible to clear the bricks before you run out of space, and I’m not sure that you can really aim the ball well enough to drill a precise hole through a wall efficiently. At least the ball never got in danger of touching the top of the screen and causing the paddle to shrink.


Like Breakout, but you have two balls in play per life, and two paddles in a vertical formation. Points are worth double as long as both balls are in play. The second ball appears right after hitting back the first, and it’s easy to miss it. This mode is incredibly frantic; even with one ball, there’s very little time in between hits to anticipate where the ball will land and move your little paddle in place. Two balls means not only having to anticipate where both will land in a short time, but often having a just a fraction of a second to move the paddle to catch them in quick succession. And as the balls don’t necessarily move at the same speed, figuring out which will land first is a challenge too.

With one ball in play this became a lot like Breakout, only with two paddles. The ball eventually broke out, hit the top of the screen, and shrunk my paddle, just like in Breakout. Clearing the last few bricks proved frustrating, as the ball kept bouncing back and forth along the same trajectories without accomplishing anything. I did eventually clear the entire wall of bricks, only to be rewarded with another wall, which I failed to clear with the remaining balls.


The wall has two pockets in it with captive balls bouncing around inside, making it look like the wall has googly eyes. Once you free a ball and it hits your paddle or the top of the screen, it will henceforth destroy bricks along with the ball you started with, and also double your score multiplier. Freeing and converting both balls gives you a triple score multiplier as long as you don’t lose any of them, but I could never hold onto two balls nearly long enough to hope to see what kind of mayhem three would bring.

Unlike Double, the bonus balls don’t come back when you lose a life. So once they’re lost (which happened to me soon after freeing them), this mode is simply Breakout, with one paddle and one ball. Once you clear the wall completely the bonus balls will return with it, but that’s the only way.

This had me wondering - what would happen if you could actually clear the wall while three balls are in play? Would two new bonus balls appear in the pockets, giving you a chance to play with five balls at once? With some additional cheating including slowdown and save states, I found out the answer; they would not. If you are a Breakout wizard (or a cheater) and manage to clear the wall while having more than one ball in play, the wall does not reset immediately, and it won’t reset until you drop your extra balls and have only one left in play.

Super Breakout is an improvement over Breakout, but it’s still much too hard. Progressive mode is a hopeless battle against a merciless crushing ceiling. Managing multiple balls in Double and Cavity was nearly impossible for long even with slowdown cheats, and without them, I lasted about as long as an armless jester in a juggling contest.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Games 26-27: Blockade & Surround

Game 26: Blockade

“It’s Snake,” said R, immediately on launching this game.

A lot of engineers from the earliest days of video games have commented that they weren’t terribly concerned with being accused of ripping off ideas. Gremlin’s debut title Blockade has the appearance of a game that’s been ripped off a lot. Be it Atari’s Surround, computer games like Worm and Nibbles, Mattel’s Snafu, the light cycles in Tron, or of course Nokia’s Snake, it’s pretty unlikely that they all developed this gameplay formula independently. Blockade, as far as we know, was the first, and is assumed to be the game that everyone else directly or indirectly ripped off.

R and I had another game session, this time starting with Blockade, to segue into Atari’s Surround.

There’s not a whole lot I can say other than that this is clearly the original Snake. It’s two players only, turns are 90 degrees, there are no action buttons other than the 4-way movement, and gameplay isn’t particularly speedy. Sealing off your opponent also means sealing off yourself, but if you have more open space than your opponent, you’re almost guaranteed a win.

There’s a lot of playroom for a Snake type game, maybe too much, as it can take a long time before you have to engage your opponent. One quirk is that it’s possible to reverse your direction and instantly crash into yourself and lose the point, which makes it risky to pull tight 180 degree turns. It’s easy to accidentally turn back too quickly and just crash right into yourself. Later adaptations (including Atari’s Surround) would prevent you from doing this by accident.

Game 27: Surround

Another launch title for the VCS, with 14 modes.

There’s a misprint here. Modes 10 and 11 appear to be identical, but mode 10 does not have the Speed Up function.

Like Air-Sea Battle, the modes here are fairly consistent and logically arranged. Every possible combination of the binary settings Speed Up, Diagonal Movement, and Wrap-Around are represented as modes, and comprise eight of the 14 modes. The remaining six are:
  • Two singleplayer modes against the computer, one with Speed Up, one without.
  • Two “Erase” modes, one with Wrap-Around, one without.
  • Two “Video Graffiti” modes, one with Diagonal Movement, one without.

Mode 1

Some things making this different from Blockade are already evident. The playing field is tighter, forcing players to engage sooner. As mentioned earlier, the game only accepts directions 90 degrees from your current heading, which prevents you from killing yourself by reversing your direction. These are both welcome changes, though you can make the game accept 180 degree direction changes by adjusting your difficulty switch.

Another feature, and one I’ve never seen in a game like this before, is that your snakes’ head pieces can occupy the same space without a crash, which causes your trails to merge for a while until your head pieces finally go in different directions. It’s a neat, if potentially confusing feature.

As with Blockade, games often ended with the arena separated in two, with victory going to whoever has the most space, and the loser just circling around their side of the arena until inevitably crashing. This scenario is a bit boring.

Mode 2: Vs. Computer

The same rules as mode 1, but now you can play against the computer.

Unlike Air-Sea Battle, there’s actually an AI routine here. But it’s unbearably stupid on the default setting. You can adjust it through the left player’s difficulty switch.

On hard mode, it’s less suicidal, but still pretty stupid. I’d go out of my way to give it opportunities to trap me, and it didn’t take them even once. Eventually the arena gets separated, and then the computer tends to squander the space it has to itself, forcing itself into a dead-end of its own making.

Mode 3: Speed Up

Speed Up progressively increases the round’s speed in five stages, accelerating about every four seconds. The snakes start off moving at 4 spaces per second. Then they speed up to 5, then 6-7, then 10, and finally 20 spaces per second, at which point the game doesn’t last much longer. Now it reminds us a lot more of Tron.

This mode felt less strategic, with a lot more points occurring because one of us screwed up than because of a sound strategy. This could be partly blamed on the TV’s input lag, which would be a non-factor back in 1977. Without a genuine console and CRT for comparison it’s hard to say, but previous games didn’t feel laggy. Here, a lot of deaths just happened because one of us was caught off-guard by a sudden speed increase and mistimed a vital turn. Of course, maximizing your opponent’s chance to screw up while minimizing yours has potential for strategy too, especially in the first few seconds when you have time to think, and know that eventually you won’t.

Mode 4: Vs. Computer, the rematch

The other singleplayer mode against the computer, but with the Speed Up rules.

As one might expect, the computer isn’t any smarter than before, but the speedup doesn’t harm its performance in the slightest. It makes perfectly timed hairpin turns at the fastest speed, while you probably can’t. I certainly can’t. This does make winning more of a challenge, though still not that much of one. Trying to trap the computer is risky but very effective when it works. Simply trying to outlast it usually works fine. It’s just a question of whether it does something stupid before your reflexes fail you, and for me, most of the time it did.

Modes 5-6: Diagonal Movement

Now you can move diagonally, which increases your mobility – it’s unsurprisingly faster to travel in diagonal directions this way – and also leaves semi-passable walls, because you can pass through a diagonal wall by traversing it diagonally in the perpendicular direction. That maneuver is a bit risky because if you mistime it, you’ll just crash into it instead.

Mode 6 has Speed Up, and made it easy to travel diagonally by accident. Timing diagonal wall traversals was even riskier thanks to the increased difficulty in timing it.

Mode 7: Erase

Misleadingly named, Erase doesn’t actually erase any lines on the board, but rather allows you to move without leaving a trail by holding the controller button. When you release the button, you draw lines normally. Erase always has Speed Up and Diagonal Movement, likely because without Speed Up, games could go on forever, as a trapped player could just move in circles forever at a manageable speed.

There’s some real potential for interesting strategy here, but the combined difficulty of Speed Up and Diagonal Movement meant defeats were decided by our failing reflexes more often than victories were decided by winning strategy.

Modes 8-11: Wrap-Around

Another novel feature that I haven’t seen in any other Snake game. With Wrap-Around, there are no borders on the edge of the screen, and the playfield goes on infinitely in all directions until you start blocking them off. This completely changes the way you think about your strategy, opens up a lot of possibilities, and is, I think, much more fun for it.

As you might expect, mode 9 adds Speed Up, mode 10 adds Diagonal Movement, and mode 11 adds both. The Speed Up modes made it more difficult to maintain strategic action, with each round eventually becoming a frantic chase for survival.

Mode 12: Speed Up, Diagonal Movement, Erase, & Wrap-Around

Every feature is turned on at once, for the most chaotic game of Surround possible. There’s plenty of opportunity for creative strategy, but it’s hard to figure out a good one, and even harder to execute it.

Modes 13-14: Video Graffiti

These two modes are just drawing programs. It’s as dumb as it sounds. Mode 13 has 4-way movement and mode 14 allows diagonals, as if they were desperate to pad out the mode lineup.

Aside from the dumb video graffiti modes, I thought this was the best of the Atari launch titles, and the best Snake style game I’d ever played. The numerous options keep it fresh and interesting long after Blockade and most other games of this type get stale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Game 25: Basketball

Developed some time in 1978 by Alan Miller, who also developed the VCS launch title Surround. This is the first and earliest sports game I’ve looked at so far, unless we count motorsports or very abstract games like Pong.

I never much liked sports video games, or watching sports on TV, and I’ve always found the year-round hype over pro sports utterly tiring. Playing sports can be enjoyable. It’s good exercise, it’s competitive, and it’s a convenient way to do these things, but I never saw the appeal of sitting down for hours and watching other people do it, especially when so much of that time is spent watching replays and advertisements. My gripes don’t all apply to video games, but I still don’t see much point in playing sports simulations when I could play a real sport instead, or play a fantastic video game. The common retort that only sports video games let ordinary players play on pro leagues doesn’t sway me, since I was never interested in the pro leagues to begin with.

But here’s Atari’s Basketball, an unsurprisingly simplistic take on the sport. It’s strictly one-on-one, your only defenses are jump-blocks and stealing, your only offense is two-point jump shots. Unusually for an Atari game, there are only two modes; player-vs-player, and AI-vs-player.

“B” and I played a few matches.

What really characterized the matches is that stealing feels very unreliable. In theory you steal the ball automatically by moving within arm’s length of the ball, but often this doesn’t work, and when it does work, the ball might immediately be stolen right back. Jump blocks work when timed correctly, but depend on anticipating your opponent; jump when your opponent isn’t shooting, and they can easily run around you can cruise to the net unopposed. Jump too soon and they can aim the ball at a high angle and score a basket over your head. A common and very frustrating occurrence was that I would anticipate “B” shooting and press the button to jump block, but my player would instead steal the ball and then immediately throw it.

I tried the singleplayer mode too, and the AI is actually competent, but also very predictable and kind of boring. It seems to play perfectly when it wants to, and makes stupid mistakes every now and then to give you a chance. Interestingly, the manual claims that the AI defense improves when you are leading it, which I can’t confirm to be true but I believe it. I still couldn’t quite figure out how to steal reliably, and if you fail a steal, then the AI will just beeline to their shooting zone ahead of you and make a jump shot before you have any chance to catch up and block. The manual recommended using the difficulty switch to slow down the AI opponent, but this didn’t make things that much easier. The manual also suggests that if you can beat the AI by over four points without the handicap, then you are a skilled player. I’ll consider that to be a victory condition, but it’s out of my reach.

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