Sunday, April 28, 2019

Game 60: Rogue

Download any number of Rogue versions here (I will be using Roguelike Restoration Project 3.6.3 DOS DJGPP):

Games that originated on mainframes have always proven philosophically troublesome for a retrospective approach. What do we count as the original release? They underwent continuous development, and though they lacked discrete “releases” in the sense that all commercial games were at some point considered done and distributed to consumers, these mainframe games were played by somebody at most stages of their development.

Often, the choice of which version should represent the game is limited by what’s available. Zork is listed on Mobygames as a 1977 release, but there are no binary copies out there, and the only extant copy of the source code is from 1979.

In the case of Rogue, one of very few mainframe-born games to achieve whale status, we have many different versions floating around, but the genealogy remains unclear. Rogue is listed on Wikipedia as a 1980 Unix release, with Glenn Wichman and Michael Toy as its original authors. There are three different “Rogue 1.0” versions released for DOS, all mysteriously credited to “Jon Lane” and “Mr. Mctesq was here.” The oldest files inside any of the archives are dated to 1983.

Then there are a few “Rogue 1.1” releases by Lane and Mctesq including source code, and some “.1” releases by Lane again.

The Rogue 1.0 versions have this title screen:

Ingame, it looks like this:

Another page lists various “Rogue 3.6.x” releases and is more consistent in its versioning. The page claims this was the first version ever widely released, in 1981. The earliest version in the list is two source code archives for 3.6, and the earliest binary is a DOS port of 3.6.1.

The 3.6.1 version looks like this:

Between version 1.0’s color graphics, the IBM-ASCII graphics, more extensive ingame help files, more DOS-friendly keyboard commands (such as support for arrow keys), and the 1983 copyright date and credit to Jon Lane, I must conclude that version 1.0 is actually more recent than 3.6.1.

But if this is the case, why is the “new” one designated version 1.0? And why is the filesize of the “old” 3.6.1 five times larger than 1.0, and the file itself much newer, dating to 2000? My guess is that 3.6.1 was compiled for DOS in 2000 using a then-modern compiler which added some bloat to the file, but the source code was relatively unchanged from its state in 1981, except for what was needed to make it work in DOS. And I would guess that the “version 1.0” is merely the first version distributed by Artificial Intelligence Design, and was based on whatever the mainline Rogue branch was like in 1983, but adapted to DOS and built with a more efficient compiler than the 2000 source port of 3.6.1.

Having spent some time with various versions, I’m most satisfied with “Roguelike Restoration Project 3.6.3,” which I think offers the best balance between authenticity to the 1980 original, stability, and convenience. It was built in 2006, but I can’t find anything anachronistic about it (except for support for arrow keys instead of vi-style hjkl, but you can use those too).

There is a big difference between the Windows and DOS versions; the Windows version defaults to a 120x30 character display mode while the DOS version is 80x25, resulting in the Windows version having larger dungeons.

Win32 Rogue and its extra wide dungeons

I don't know which one is more authentic, but I'm sticking with DOS since Rogue is hard enough without having bigger dungeons. I suppose I could get even closer to Rogue’ing like it’s 1980 by getting the 3.6 source code and building/playing in a Unix or BSD environment, but the work/reward ratio seems unworth it.

Incidentally, there's even a z-machine version of Rogue. The fact that it even works is both a testament to the genius of Infocom's coders and to the madness of Roguelike fans.

For my playthrough, there’s the issue of how to deal with Rogue’s permadeath. My policy, which I formulated with Rogue in mind, has always been that savescumming is permissible, but to limit potential abuse, I limit myself to saving only after 30 minutes of earnest, uninterrupted play since my last restore or restart. Rogue, of course, lends its namesake to the category of Roguelikes and more recently Roguelites, games with the distinguishing feature that they do not permit you to restore games in order to undo your mistakes or misfortunes. Rogue wouldn’t be Rogue if you could just rewind the clock after every bad outcome until you finished the game with a series of perfect decisions and dice rolls from start to finish!

I have beaten pedit5 and dnd without any sort of savescumming, but I had to. Those games, as with all PLATO games, can only be played online, with your save files hosted remotely, making it impossible to cheat the system by backing up your saves yourself. Beating them fairly was reasonable because pedit5 is short, and dnd is forgiving of cautious play. DND likewise is designed to remove your save file when you die, but I beat it within my own savescumming allowance, not having the patience to walk on eggshells through yet another early CRPG, not to mention having to deal with all of those horrible teleporters.

Rogue is neither short nor forgiving. Unlike dnd and DND, there is little opportunity to grind for better levels or gear, and doing so can even be hazardous to your health. I played Rogue long ago on my black & white Macintosh, and never came close to finishing it then, but I remember well enough that starving to death was a serious threat.

I don’t know if I can finish this game completely fairly, but I will try. Chester at CRPG Addict beat it fairly as his second RPG, but it took him 90 hours of play over four months. I can’t imagine devoting that kind of time to a game with less content than Baldur's Gate. I will play fairly for a minimum of 6 hours, and then if I’m not bored yet, continue playing fair until then. I expect I’ll be tired of replaying Rogue before beating it, in which case I’ll switch to my standard savescumming rules. I’d rather cheat in this manner than abandon the game unfinished.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Game 59: Mission Asteroid

Read the manual here:

Sierra’s last adventure of 1980 is also by far the shortest and easiest. Intended as an introduction to the genre for younger players, it can be beaten in five minutes, even with the very slow screen transitions. It took me barely an hour to finish, including making a full map and taking screenshots and notes, and multiple restarts as it turns out the game has a very strict time limit which affords little allowance for screwing around.

The manual tells us that a minor planet from the asteroid belt jumped its orbit and is headed on a collision course for earth, and as an astronaut, I am assigned the mission of flying to the rogue planetoid and blowing it up before it annihilates all life on earth.

It also laughably asserts that this game will provide “weeks” of adventure.

It all begins outside a building.

That beeping was my watch, which had a switch I could press to receive a message from mission control, to report to the briefing room immediately.

In the building, past the secretary was a junction, which I followed to the east at first, leading to a computer room.

This becomes an Atari and a Commodore computer in the respective ports, but the image remains the same.

I couldn’t use the computer yet, not without the general’s authorization.

More rooms included a supply room stocked with explosives, a gym which let me work out, and a shower room which let me take a shower.

The very end of the junction led to a rocket ship!

Guarded by nobody except a lanky doctor, I could get in and launch all by myself, but then the game ended, telling me I’d be lost in space without a flight plan.

Restarting, I headed east from the junction instead, leading to the briefing room.


Sure, of course we can leave earth’s orbit and intercept a planetoid in a little under seven hours.

Directly adjacent to this top secret briefing room is a press room, which the air force thought was a good idea for some reason. You can end the game by talking to them.


With the general’s authorization, you can use the computer to obtain a flight plan.
  • Right for 10 minutes
  • Up for 5 minutes
  • Left for 15 minutes
  • Down for 5 minutes
  • Left for 5 minutes
  • Up for 10 minutes
Sure, that's a good flight plan, because space is two dimensional, inertia isn’t a thing, the asteroid itself won’t be moving, and reaching the asteroid belt from earth orbit in 50 minutes is a completely reasonable expectation, right?

On my way to the ship, the air force doctor stopped me.

So I hit the gym and showers, and the rest was no problem, and I launched myself into space.

The flight plan is a bit convoluted, and time was short, so what if I simplified things? Could I just go left for ten minutes and up for ten minutes?

It worked!

Disembarking in my space suit, after setting the oxygen dial, I stepped out onto the barren asteroid surface.

Soon, I found a cave.

And deeper in the cave was a deep pit.

Here, I found, you must be very precise in the wording. The VERB-NOUN parser is badly suited to express what we’re trying to do here, to set the bomb’s timer to a number of minutes, and then to place the bomb inside the hole.

On top of that, set the timer too short, and you won’t be able to get back to earth safely before the asteroid explodes. If you’re still in space, then flying pieces of the asteroid destroy you. Set the timer too long, and the asteroid will strike earth first.

Unfortunately I had wasted too much time, and didn’t have a chance to get back to earth on time, so I had to restart again. Retreading my steps quickly, I set the timer, planted the bomb, skedaddled back to the rocket, and flew back to earth.

Once again, this isn’t a particularly great game. It’s very short, and there’s not much in it to do except follow directions. The time limit is too strict to allow for experimenting, wandering, or really doing anything except enter in the exact sequence of commands necessary to win the game. The parser is as frustrating as ever, often refusing to accept commands that seem like they should work.

And for such a short game, where it would seem reasonable to expect more polish, both for its brevity and the need to be beginner friendly, it's probably the most unpolished of the three High-Res Adventures. For instance, misusing the rocket ship controls will get you stranded in space, even if you’re not actually in space.

But I never left earth!

Still, there’s still a sense of wonder and thrill as you leave the familiar setting of earth, and explore the strange new asteroid environment, aided much by the use of color graphics. Drifting in space for the first time is tense, as even with directions, there’s no indication whether you’re doing things right nor not, and one wrong move could get you lost in the void forever. The barren asteroid and its view into space isn’t particularly well drawn, but is atmospheric with the grey landscape and blue earth in the horizon, conveying the sense that you are far from home.

My Trizbort map:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Wizard and the Princess: Won!

It took sixteen minutes for me to return to the island where I left off last time, most of which was spent waiting for the Apple II’s display to slowly redraw the game graphics.

Flying over the north beach, I reached the mountains, and knew I had to be near the castle. Encountering a rickety footbridge across a chasm, the game warned me it could not support much weight. I wasn’t sure what to do, but figured that rather than tediously drop everything one item at a time, I could just use the magic word LUCY to instantly lose everything, and then at least explore the other side for a little while.

This turned out to be the right thing to do. I found all of my stuff in a cave on other side of the bridge.

Recollecting all this stuff took FOREVER. The whole screen has to slowly redraw itself every time you take something!

This mountain region had two ephemeral events that required immediate action, or else the game would become unwinnable. First, one screen had a rainbow, which would vanish the moment I stepped away.

Here, you have to type “GO RAINBOW,” which takes you to an otherwise inaccessible room with a gold coin. If you don’t do this immediately, the sun comes out and the rainbow vanishes.

The second event is the appearance of a peddler, hawking some goods. When you leave this screen, he and his goods will be gone forever, whether you bought one or not.

Only one of these items will be useful, and you’ve only got one coin, so you just have to keep a save file right here until you know which item you need. This would have so much potential for cruelty, except for the fact that the the next obstacle, where you will need one of these items to proceed, is dead ahead.

Harlin's castle, two rooms north, is the next obstacle, and you blow the peddler’s horn to lower the drawbridge. Why would announcing my presence to the enemy cause them to just let me in like that? I'd expect them to raise their defenses, not lower them! Or possibly get zapped back to the desert by an alerted wizard, or worse. Who knows.

There’s a rather large maze in the castle, but mercifully, every direction in it is clearly indicated, and it mostly obeys Euclidean geometry. Other rooms in the castle seemed to attract the attention of the wizard, who would magically teleport me away, either back to a previous room, or to a courtyard with an angry boar I could easily kill by feeding it my apple, or to a prison cell with no apparent way out.

The maze leads to the dungeon and a few rooms beyond, including a tower with a bird flying around.

I had to resort to a walkthrough to progress. That bird is the evil wizard! There's no way to deduce this except for after the fact; once you kill the bird, the magic attacks stop happening. By rubbing a sapphire ring found earlier in the mountains, I turned into a cat and ate him. I'm not sure if Harlin is actually a bird or if he just turned himself into one for some reason, but either way, this puzzle stinks.

Free to explore the castle, Princess Priscilla was only one room away, secretly transformed into a frog.

Kissing the frog, of course, freed her.

Two rooms over was a closet with some shoes that had another magic word printed on them.

WHOOSH took me and Priscilla back to Serenia, ending the game.

Thanks, but wasn't I supposed to get half the kingdom?

So ends another early Sierra game, and it’s an improvement over Mystery House in every way, and also the most King's Quest-like of the Apple II Sierra games. It's not surprising, then, that Sierra's quintessential series would eventually return to Serenia, establishing it as part of the setting canon. The princess-saving quest format which anticipates so many King’s Quests may seem trite nowadays, but considering that most of the adventure games I’ve looked at so far were variations of Adventure’s treasure hunt, it’s almost a novelty to see this template used instead, and it fits the limited technology of the Williams’ basic parser and world modeling better than the underdeveloped Mystery House could. The world design is linear compared to other adventures, with a clear thematic world order of Desert->Forest->Sea->Jungle->Mountains->Castle, but this promotes the feel of adventure, as every leg of your journey north brings you tangibly closer to your goal. When you finally arrive at the castle, there’s both a sense of accomplishment at how far you’ve come, and a sense of dread at what lies ahead.

There are still plenty of stumbling blocks, and the most damning of them was that there wasn’t a single puzzle in the game that made me feel clever for having solved it. The world model is about on par with Scott Adams’ adventures of the day, and is poorly suited to complex Zork-like puzzles. But the simple puzzles by Adams occasionally felt satisfying, thanks to some signposting that gently nudged me toward obscure solutions for unsolved challenges. Wizard and the Princess never managed this, and every puzzle that I solved either felt trivial or felt as if I had stumbled upon the solution by accident. Whenever I did need to look up a solution, with the sole exception of HOCUS, I just felt annoyed, as if there was no way anyone could reasonably intuit that solution on their own.

The desert area, with the search for the one rock that won’t kill you is the worst part of the game. The parser is improved but still bad, still bad, and the graphics, though possibly the best in the world available to consumers in 1980, are amateurish. Prose is a bit improved from Mystery House, and the game occasionally gives responses to actions you aren’t required to do – a luxury the Scott Adams adventures never had - but we’ve got Zork to compare it to.

We also see most of the adventure game sins of the type that Sierra would become infamous for in the 80’s and early 90’s, though this doesn’t bother me that much per se. It eventually became an unwritten rule that an adventure game must be reasonably beatable with a single save game file. To ensure this, there are a number of things an adventure game must not do; it must not kill you without fair warning, it must not have puzzles that require knowledge of events that have yet to happen, it must not allow you to waste items that you will need later on, and it must not have missable items or events without allowing you to backtrack to them.

Wizard and the Princess breaks all of these rules, ensuring that you can’t reasonably beat it on a single save file, but again, this doesn’t bother me that much, because I don’t see why an adventure game must follow that rule, so long as it is upfront about its design and the player’s need to keep multiple saves. I can certainly see why a designer would prefer this kind of design. LucasArts practically codified it and got superlative mileage out of it, but I feel there’s room for more than one kind of design philosophy. Infocom’s most complex and satisfying puzzles wouldn’t be possible if every move was guaranteed to move you closer to the solution without fear that it might have locked you out of the solution instead. Wizard and the Princess hasn’t got any complex or satisfying puzzles, but the final area does instill a sense of unease, which it couldn’t have if you went in knowing a designer’s safety net was always underneath you.

My Trizbort map:

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Game 58: Wizard and the Princess

Read the manual here:

As Wizard and the Princess is a color game, I considered using ScummVM to play it. Not only is it sharper than AppleWin, but it avoids the rainbow artifacts in the text area.

But when I tried it, I quickly changed my mind. Although it is sharper looking, the colors feel off compared to AppleWin in its Color TV mode.



ScummVM is also missing a graphical effect of the Apple II gradually “painting” each screen. The devs probably thought it would be a quality-of-life improvement to skip that part / speed it up, and while it can get tiresome to sit through, it still feels inauthentic to not have that transition effect at all.

On top of that, ScummVM is very particular about which disk images from this series of games. For Wizard and the Princess, only the disk image from The Roberta Williams Anthology will work. For Cranston Manor, which never got officially released in any emulated form, they have essentially ensured nobody can play it in ScummVM except for the ScummVM devs.

So I’m sticking to AppleWin for this game and any others in the series.

This time around, there’s a printed instruction manual with a brief backstory. You’re a “happy wanderer” passing through Serenia, and come across a town square crier proclaiming that King George’s daughter Priscilla has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Harlin, whose castle lies beyond the mountains far to the north across the great desert. Seeking a grand reward, you head to the desert, warned by a villager that Harlin is “very powerful and bad.”

Loading the disk, you’re dumped right into the game, no title screen, no ingame instructions, and in the 1980 disk image, not even a copyright notice. It lends some more credence to my theory that the extant version of Mystery House, which had all of these things, is a re-release. Then again, maybe the Williams’ just decided to nix these from this game now that they had a printed manual instead.

The first challenge is to pass the desert. Going north, a POIIIISONOUS SNAKE! prevents further northward travel. Endless desert spans in all other directions, with rocks everywhere which conceal scorpions that killed me when I tried to take them.

The desert isn’t actually endless though, it’s just yet another Maze of Twisty Little Passages, and can be mapped, using slight variations in the positions of the rocks as breadcrumbs, at least on the screens where there are any. One of these rocks can be taken without getting stung by a scorpion behind it. Have fun, I didn’t!

The rock that doesn't kill you

And you thought the tambourine puzzle was bad!

Further north was more desert, but arranged in a reasonable grid-like manner with more visual features to keep my bearings straight. Rattlesnakes seemed to crawl around randomly, but didn’t impede my progress. I picked up some junk here, including a locket, a stick, a cracker, and some notes with unreadable “strange writing.”

Another rock in the desert pinned down a helpless snake, and when I picked it up, he announced that he was a King Snake, and rewarded me with a magic word, “HISS,” which temporarily turned me into a snake!

I reached the end of the desert and got stuck at a chasm. HISS wasn’t helping. I had to look up a solution; you say HOCUS.

Surely they couldn’t have just expected you to just guess that, could they?
In retrospect, I figured out the clue. It was in those notes I found in the desert.

Combine them vertically, and you get:

On the other side of the chasm:

Roberta seems to be having trouble with geography again. The bridge is to the south, but the cottage is to the east!

In this woods area, a gnome swiped my stuff, but I pressed on, exploring this new woods area. A mysterious hole in a tree led to a staircase heading down to a door locked from the other side. Another tree was climbable, and gave me a view of the ocean. A bank to the north had a conspicuous crevice that I could slither through as a snake, leading me to the other side of the door, and a cache of my stuff.

Back in the woods, I gave the cracker to a parrot, who rewarded me with a magic vial that would change me into a bird for a short time.

On the beach to the west, a rowboat was rendered in a curious way.

When these games draw graphics on screen, you’re more or less seeing a line-by-line recreation of how the artist drew it! The rowboat has a visible hole in it at first, but then the hole is textured over concealing the hole. This would not have been evident if I was using ScummVM or a port to a computer platform that used shadow buffering. Clearly Roberta intended to draw a visible hole in the boat at first, but did she deliberately conceal it with texturing, or was this unintentional? Either way, there’s a hole in the rowboat, and you’ll drown if you try to launch it without plugging the hole. My blanket suffices.

A surprisingly straightforward row across the ocean later, and I arrived at an island.

X marks the spot, but I had no shovel. But I had an island to explore, and within it, I found a shovel up in a treehouse that I reached by drinking my parrot potion. Sure enough, there was buried treasure under the X, but when I tried to open it, a pirate emerged from behind a tree and grabbed the chest, darting off to a nearby cave. No matter, I went into the cave and opened the chest without further incident, finding a harp inside.

I got stuck again, finding no use for the harp, and nothing more to do on this island. There was another beach on the north side of the island, but the boat could not be carried – unexpectedly, the game had a specific message when I tried, telling me the boat was too heavy. I also tried eating an apple I found in the cottage to see if it would turn me into a teacher or something, but instead it just killed me. The locket had “LUCY” written inside, which I tried saying, and then my stuff all vanished.

On consulting a walkthrough, I learned that I screwed up – I was supposed to use a rope to get to the treehouse, and drink the parrot potion to fly across the ocean over the north beach.

I foolishly hadn’t been keeping multiple save slots, even though the game allows up to 15, and I knew better than to think I wouldn’t need them. I’d need to restart from the beginning, and didn’t feel like replaying, so for the time being I’m done and will try again later.

My Trizbort map so far:

Monday, April 22, 2019

Game 57: Mystery House

Mystery House is public domain, and can be downloaded in DSK format for use in an Apple II emulator or in ScummVM.

Sierra games were my introduction to adventures. I had played Zork once before, but King’s Quest for DOS was the first adventure game I ever owned, and the first I had beaten. I re-bought the series on CD-ROM when King’s Quest Collection came out, replayed everything and some games I missed (such as the 1990 KQ1 remake), enjoyed the additions like the making-of videos and the King’s Questions trivia game, and read every design document, history, and article on the disc again and again. It’s there where I first heard of Colossal Cave Adventure, which was mentioned frequently as the game that inspired Ken and Roberta Williams to make their first game, Mystery House, which, according to Sierra, was the first graphical adventure game ever made.

At some point during the Windows XP era, when I was comfortable with computer emulators, I decided to go on a Sierra retrospective, starting with the Apple II High-Res Adventures. I played all of them, though not very much about them sticks in my memory. For Data Driven Gamer, I intend to replay the whales, but not necessarily go beyond that.

And so, I’m a little bit surprised that Wizard and the Princess, a game mainly known for being Sierra’s second graphic adventure ever (and often incorrectly cited as the computer game seen in Big), meets whale requirements with 36 votes, while Mystery House falls short at only 23. Even Mission Asteroid, a kid-oriented adventure with barely ten minutes’ worth of content, has whale status at 27 votes. This kind of situation is exactly why I have my method of identifying and playing notable ancestors, of which Mystery House certainly qualifies.

In replaying Mystery House, I opted to use AppleWin rather than ScummVM, due to the way colors are handled. ScummVM renders a sharper display in color mode, but aside from the title screen, Mystery House is a black and white game, and the Apple II video chip handles color strangely.

ScummVM, color mode

This should be white-on-black, but the vertical lines are green and purple! This is due to the Apple II’s unusual method of drawing colored pixels, where pairs of horizontally adjacent pixels generate artifact colors, only appearing as white when both pixels in the pair are "on."

ScummVM has a monochrome mode, but it renders everything in an unattractive green.

ScummVM, B&W mode

AppleWin has an actual black-and-white mode free of any color artifacts, and it’s also possible to switch to it and back without quitting the game, unlike ScummVM.

AppleWin, monochrome mode

There’s also a curiosity in the title screen. Even there, the title is “High-Res Adventure #1.” Did the Williams' already know there would be more? Or is this a re-release, and might there be a lost, older version where the ingame title is simply “Mystery House?” The fact that color is not used anywhere in the game except the title screen makes me consider this as a possibility.

Mystery House had no instruction manual other than the blue reference card, but there are ingame instructions, which seems to be a common thing in early Apple II games.

Ok, what is it with early home computer adventure games calling the game “Adventure” in the ingame instructions? Also, talk about spoiling the plot.

Most of the instructions just concern how to use the parser, with commands like “N” to go north and “LOOK [OBJECT] to examine something more closely.” Notably, one page informs us that "north" corresponds to the top of the screen, "east" corresponds to the right, which would be very useful information if it weren't a complete sham.

The last page is a Clue-like suspect list that doesn’t give a damn about gendered adjectives:

Starting off in front of the house, I was almost immediately baffled by the parser. “OPEN DOOR” produced the message “I DONT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN.” Every cardinal direction just produced “I CANT GO IN THAT DIRECTION.” I also tried “GO HOUSE,” “GO YARD,” “GO DOOR,” until finally “GO STEPS” took me to the steps. I tried checking under the conspicuous welcome mat, but the parser wasn’t having it. The door was unlocked, anyway.

As promised, seven people are here, even though this isn’t the living room. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know why they’re here. I just know that some of them are going to die. And isn’t the south doorway labeled “DOORWAY” just precious?

Kudos, Roberta, for going the full nine yards with this whole ‘graphics’ concept. They aren’t good graphics, but she tried. Other developers might have been content just to type out the contents of this note in standard text, but here we get a graphic showing what this handwritten note actually looks like.

Another note sounded ominous:

Rejected Collins Crime Club manuscript: The 123 Murders

Soon after, I found the first body:

Inspection revealed it to be Sam the mechanic, killed with a blunt instrument.

Before long it got dark, and then I couldn’t see. There weren’t any grues, but the screen graphics area would just be black, so I restarted, knowing I’d have to find a light source before too long. I found a candle in the dining room, some matches in the kitchen, and went exploring the house.

Adjacent to the kitchen was a “forest” area that I couldn’t find any way to leave. Every direction just took me to more identical forest.

The second floor had a lot of “doorway” rooms that looked like they should go somewhere, but none of the movement commands seemed to work except to return me to the previous junction.

The third floor was an attic with an immovable ladder and a hammer. Sam’s murder weapon, perhaps?

Back on the first floor, I tripped on a rug and my candle set fire to the house. Roberta’s love for killing the player started off young.

Restarting again, I went to the kitchen, figuring it to be a good place to get water. The room description only tells you that the kitchen has a stove, a refrigerator, and a cabinet, but there is a sink in the picture, and “LOOK SINK” gives you a closeup.

It's right there!

More parser troubles plague the sink. “TURN FAUCET” and “TURN ON WATER” do nothing. The correct command is “WATER ON,” one of the few things I remembered from reading a walkthrough many years ago. To fill a water pitcher, “FILL PITCHER” doesn’t work, but “GET WATER” will.

The extinguished fire burned a hole in the floor, revealing a key!

But when I typed “UNLOCK DOOR” in the entry hall, it just said “YOU HAVE NOTHING TO UNLOCK IT WITH.” Not the right key, I guess.

Then I realized the doorway rooms responded to “GO DOORWAY,” giving me access to more mansion rooms. In a bedroom, I found the body of Sally.

A blond hair on her dress means it was either Tom the plumber, Bill the butcher, or Daisy the cook.

Entering another room, an unknown assailant with a lousy aim threw a dagger in my general direction!

Exploring more rooms, I also found the body of Dr. Green, who was stabbed to death, and Bill the butcher, strangled.

Four down. Tom the plumber, Joe the gravedigger, and Daisy the cook are left. I’ve so far refrained from mentioning that I already know Daisy did it. That much I can remember from my previous playthrough. I think at this point we’re supposed to conclude this and not think too hard about it, or consider possibilities such as that maybe Joe strangled Bill with some nylons that he found in a bedroom drawer, and then killed Sally and left one of Bill’s blond hairs on her body to throw the detectives on the wrong trail.

I explored as much of the house as I could, but still couldn’t find a use for the key. So I went to the forest in case I could find anything of value there, using my collection of items as breadcrumbs. I found nothing useful there; it’s the game’s own Maze of Twisty Little Passages, but I did find that you can return to the kitchen by moving “up” from the forest’s starting screen, if you can even find your way back there.

Exploring the house again and keeping my eye out for anything looking like doors, I found that the attic had a door leading to a storage room with a locked chest that my key could open.

Oh, my!

I got stuck here and had to resort to a walkthrough. The next thing I needed to do was in the study.

I had tried taking the painting before, but because of the game’s response, I assumed it wasn’t an interactive object, or perhaps that this was a window and not a painting.

Turns out it is interactive, but you have to call it a “picture.” Behind it is a button which opens a secret passageway.

The passageway led to the fifth victim.

Tom the plumber, stabbed to death, with a daisy in his hand. Come on, Roberta, your clues are getting sillier each time. What are we going to find next, Joe dead from eating a plate of poisoned spaghetti?

The hole in the west wall led to a passageway to a lone pine tree in the forest. I climbed it, and up there was a telescope pointed at the attic.

Heading down the tree into the forest, I would have been lost there, except I knew from exploring earlier that you can return to the kitchen by heading “UP” from one of the rooms, so I just wandered and eventually found my way back to the kitchen.

The big key opened the front door, but this didn’t really help me, so I went up to the attic, which suddenly had a trapdoor in the ceiling that wasn’t there before.

Masterful storytelling by a master storyteller.

I shot Daisy.

Wait, is she still standing up, or was she lying down before?

Daisy’s note:

God knows why she would write that down.

Returning to the basement, I could not figure out what to do next, so I looked at a walkthrough again. You’re supposed to type “REMOVE ALGAE.” Right.

This exposed a loose brick, concealing the jewels. Then I left the house.

I never found Joe the gravedigger’s body. Maybe he got away. If so, business is going to be great for him when he comes back.

Honestly, this is one of those games more interesting for the fact that it exists than anything else. I do appreciate the commitment to using graphics, making it more than just a text adventure that happened to have graphics in it, and I also appreciate that while the Williams’ chief inspiration was Adventure, they decided to make a murder mystery rather than just make another cave exploration and treasure hunt game, even though they didn’t completely avoid the treasure hunt aspect. In contrast, Scott Adams’ Adventureland, an Adventure-inspired game, plays much like an ultra-compact version of it, though with completely different puzzles and treasures. Later versions supplied graphics which did absolutely nothing to inform you of things other than what the stark prose already told you, and in some cases told you less.

But neither innovation is done well here. The graphics are even more amateurish than the intro screens of Akalabeth, and a murder mystery calls for a more well thought out plot and setting than a cavernous treasure hunt does. Mystery House hasn’t got it – the very concept demands an emphasis on plot and characters, but five of the characters have no purpose except to pop up dead, one doesn’t even do that, and none but Daisy (assuming she’s the one who wrote the notes) have any kind of personality. Nor is the plot any more coherent than Adventure and Adventureland, and in a murder mystery it ought to be. If the instruction card had just said something like “it is rumored that there are old jewels hidden in this abandoned house, and you and seven strangers are here tonight to loot it,” that would have been good enough.

It fares badly compared to Adventureland in other ways too; the puzzles are poorer, the austere room descriptions haven’t even got a minimalist charm, and the parser, though claiming to recognize over 300 words, still feels worse, with most of my difficulties in the game stemming from not knowing which set of words the game expected me to use to do a certain thing. Even exploration is worse than in Adventureland. The ingame instructions tell you that cardinal directions correspond to different sides of the screen, north on the top, south on the bottom, but this principal is violated almost constantly. In the dining room, for instance, north is left and south is right, which can't be determined in any way except by trying to move in each direction. Consequently, I'm never quite sure what direction I'm supposed to be facing upon entering a new room and have to use trial and error to establish this, whereas Adventureland prevented this by always telling you, in the status bar, which direction the room exits were.

One interesting note is that Mystery House got a release in Japan featuring entirely new graphics, still drawn in the same vector style, but drawn far more competently, with an almost cinematic flair.

Any enterprising coders want to try making a fan translation?

My Trizbort map (forest region is simplified):

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