Thursday, January 28, 2021

Planetfall: Won!

Septem 8, 11344 GY. 1810 millichrons GST. It is my third day shipwrecked on an abandoned settlement of an uncharted ocean world, once part of the Second Union, but long forgotten since the collapse. My sole companion is a natively manufactured utility droid B-19-7 who answers to "Floyd." The former inhabitants' architecture and technology is well preserved despite untold years of neglect, but much is in various states of disrepair. I have secured a source of unlimited vittling in a kitchen facility, and gained access to transportation between a dormitory complex and a science campus, where my hope of survival may lie with repairing and operating its machinery.

Ahab, ensign seventh class.

When I left off, I had made some good progress in Planetfall. I'd mapped out most of the complex, found transportation between the two main sites "Kalamontee" and "Lawanda," secured a place to eat and sleep, repaired some of the systems, and gained an inkling of what's going on here.

Usually when I decide to take a break and post a write-up, it's because I'm stuck and have no idea what to do next. But this time, there's quite a bit for me to do, now that I've activated the teleporter and can transport myself freely. The game hasn't felt this open since my initial landing.

The eastern site Lawanda, the science complex, has a computer in the library lobby that is full of useful but annoying to read background information. I spent some time perusing every subject available.

  • This planet was settled by Second Union colonists long, long ago, so long that their existence passed into legend and was only recently confirmed by archaeologists. A "Graat Hiaatus" plunged their society into a dark age, but they emerged on the other side into an era of fantastic technology and artistic achievements.
  • Recent technological advancements include the ability to cure nearly any disease, and to put patients with incurable ones in stasis, hydroponic farming efficient enough to replace all conventional agriculture, and advanced robotics. It notes that robots of the past were highly specialized (one robot sees, one hears, etc.), but are now designed to be multipurpose.
  • Geographically, nearly half of the planet was covered with land, or at least it was the last time the computer was updated. Climate change must have hit hard since!
  • A pandemic known as "Xe Dizeez" is somehow linked to cryogenics research. Two complexes were constructed high up in the mountains to freeze and monitor the entire population of the planet, and automatically revive them when a vaccine could be administered.
  • Plugs for Infocom's back-catalog.
And I learned a few more things from the two microfilm spools that I could retrieve without dying.
  • Piloting the helicopter requires an access card and a control panel key, which can be found in Transportation Storage.
  • Xe Dizeez's early symptoms include high fever and hypersomnia. Death always occurs within ten days of experiencing first symptoms.

A third reel with instructions on how to fix repair robots was sealed off in a radiation lab further to the east. Entering without protection works about as well as you might expect.

There remained a number of problems with no obvious solution yet.

  • Opening a locked door north of the rec room, seemingly operated by combination lock.
  • Finding a light source to explore the transportation supply room, where I could expect to find the helicopter's keys.
  • Accessing the planetary reactor. To the east of the lobby is an electronically locked door, and darkened stairs lead down.
  • Locating the other side of the conference room's locked door.
  • Fixing the Project Control system.
  • Interacting with a strange, rippling mural in the ProjCon office.
  • Retrieving the brown spool from the radiation lab.
  • Retrieving the miniaturization access card from the mutant-infested bio lab.

But another set of problems' solutions did present themselves, now that I had free reign of the place.

  • Operating the "Betty" shuttle to see if it goes anywhere new.
  • Repairing the Course Control system with parts and tools from the dormitory campus.
  • Replacing a laser's battery with a fresh one found in the science campus.

First things first, though. I teleported back to Kalamontee to get some sleep and to refill my canteen and stomach. The game notified me I was feeling weaker, and possibly developing a fever. Great.

Next morning, the fever was getting worse. I took some medicine found in the infirmary for some temporary Dizeez raleef, and swapped the laser's old battery with the new one. I grabbed pliers and a 90Ω bedistor, teleported to Lawanda, and replaced the bad one in course control, clearing the warning there. And then I rode Betty, but it just transported me back to Kalamontee.

Well, that's it for the easy problems. Time to look at the hard ones.

First, I went back to the rec area. A dial could be turned to any number from 0 to 1000. The only number I remember seeing here was the computer room's output referencing a section 384, but nothing special happened when I turned the dial to that number.

There are two dark areas, the transportation supply room where they keep the helicopter's keys, and the stairs to the reactor access. As in Zork, grues eat you if you go to dark places without a light source, and I didn't have one. My newly functional laser emitted blue light, but didn't seem to illuminate darkness.

The locked door by the reactor lobby did not respond to any of my keycards.

It wasn't clear what was wrong with the project control system, but again, the computer output suggested a malfunction in section 384. What to do about that remained unclear. A red light here indicated a computer malfunction, and Floyd told me Achilles used to teleport into the computer.

A mural in the adjacent office had a strange ripple effect, but I couldn't find any way to interact with it.

Inside the radiation lab is a lamp and a repair manual for repair droids - both of which would be very useful right now! But entering is deadly, and there don't seem to be any hazmat suits available. Floyd can't be ordered to retrieve them; he just says "after you."

Lastly, there's the bio lab, and what follows is probably Planetfall's most iconic scene. Here, Floyd offered to snatch the card inside, claiming the mutants couldn't hurt him. As he instructed, I opened the door, quickly shut it behind him, and re-opened as he frantically knocked, letting him through and slamming it shut before the mutants could get out with him. Floyd had retrieved the keycard, but the mutants had torn him to pieces.

Floyd's death is well written and poignant, but it doesn't tug on my heartstrings for a few reasons. First, I've been inoculated against this kind of manipulative sentimentality long ago. Call me a heartless curmudgeon if you like. Second, during this scene we sing Floyd his favorite song Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner, which gets four alternating tetrameter verses summarizing the plot of Starcross. It's practically a running gag that every Infocom game must constantly reference every other Infocom game, and I'm sure they thought they were terribly clever for doing this, but at best this is cute and self-referential, and this just doesn't seem like the time or place for it. Finally, there's another reason that we'll get to later, but for now let me just say this isn't my first time playing.

Anyway, with the card I could access the miniaturization booth and teleport inside the computer's damaged sector, where I found a speck of dust stuck inside a relay. Zapping it with my laser obliterates both the speck and relay - obviously this is no good, but on a reload I examined the laser and found a dial to adjust its power. Only the lowest setting can safely destroy the dust without damaging the computer.

On the way back, a gang of microbes blocked my egress! I've seen Fantastic Voyage, and what happens next isn't pleasant. Setting the dial all the way up, I shot at them repeatedly, to no effect. But I kept shooting to see what would happen - the laser got hotter, and eventually the game said they were being drawn to the heat. So I threw it over the side - I'm sure that's just great for the computer - and they followed, leaving a clear path for me to return... to an alternate receiving platform, located on the east side of the bio lab. Trotting krip.

I was in a lab office connected to the bio lab, where the mutants who eviscerated Floyd still lurked, and the only way back to the complex was through it. Looking around, I found a few buttons, one of them red and labeled "Eemurjensee Sistem" which dispensed some sort of pacifying agent into the lab, and inside a desk I found a gas mask. Wearing the mask, I pushed the button and ran through, but the mutants recovered before I could shut the door on them!

As I ran out of the bio-lock, mutants in close pursuit, an intercom blared "Revival procedure beginning. Cryo-chamber access from Project Control Office now open." So I ran there, where the strange mural slid away revealing an elevator, which I took downward, stranding the mutants.

This act ended the game.

The elevator closes as you leave it, and you find yourself in a small, chilly room. To the north, through a wide arch, is an enormous chamber lined from floor to ceiling with thousands of cryo-units. You can see similar chambers beyond, and your mind staggers at the thought of the millions of individuals asleep for countless centuries.

In the anteroom where you stand is a solitary cryo-unit, its cover frosted. Next to the cryo-unit is a complicated control panel.

A door slides open and a medical robot glides in. It opens the cryo-unit and administers an injection to its inhabitant. As the robot glides away, a figure rises from the cryo-unit -- a handsome, middle-aged woman with flowing red hair. She spends some time studying readouts from the control panel, pressing several keys.

As other cryo-units in the chambers beyond begin opening, the woman turns to you, bows gracefully, and speaks in a beautiful, lilting voice. "I am Veldina, leader of Resida. Thanks to you, the cure has been discovered, and the planetary systems repaired. We are eternally grateful."

"You will also be glad to hear that a ship of your Stellar Patrol now orbits the planet. I have sent them the coordinates for this room." As if on cue, a landing party from the S.P.S. Flathead materializes nearby. Blather is with them, having been picked up from deep space in another escape pod, babbling cravenly. Captain Sterling of the Flathead acknowledges your heroic actions, and informs you of your promotion to Lieutenant First Class.

As a team of mutant hunters head for the cryo-elevator, Veldina mentions that the grateful people of Resida offer you leadership of their world. Captain Sterling points out that, even if you choose to remain on Resida, Blather (demoted to Ensign Twelfth Class) has been assigned as your personal toilet attendant.

You feel a sting from your arm and turn to see a medical robot moving away after administering the antidote for The Disease.

This ending grates on me, with so many little contrivances. Saving the world, fine. But we don't find out why the Feinstein exploded, making it nothing more than a plot device without in-universe justification for it. Becoming leader of the planet seems unwarranted and also at odds with my duties to the Stellar Patrol. Blather's comeuppance assumes the player is invested in hating him, and I'm really not - he just wasn't important enough to the plot. Plus, there's no reason why command would demote him, let alone make him my personal P.L.O. It's that childish fantasy of seeing the bully that tormented you in school fail at adult life, grow up fat ugly and single, and get stuck in a menial position and having to personally lick your boots, only not as plausible.

It gets worse.

A team of robot technicians step into the anteroom. They part their ranks, and a familiar figure comes bounding toward you! "Hi!" shouts Floyd, with uncontrolled enthusiasm. "Floyd feeling better now!" Smiling from ear to ear, he says, "Look what Floyd found!" He hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddleball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel..."

I despise this trope. In general, I hate when a happy ending just undoes anything sad that happened earlier - sacrifice has no weight if you can just get it back later - but it's so much worse when it involves bringing the dead back to life, whether through magic, science, or fake-out reveal. It's the irreversibly of death that makes it sad, and if the rules suddenly declare that can just fix someone, then death is merely an inconvenience.

To conclude my time with Planetfall, I went back to see what other endings there might be by not fully repairing the planetary systems. If you only fix the project computer, then Veldina has this to say:
She turns to you and, with a strained voice says, "You have fixed our computer and a Cure has been discovered, and we are grateful. But alas, it was all in vain. Our planetary course control system has malfunctioned, and the orbit has now decayed beyond correction. Soon Resida will plunge into the sun."

Fix only the course control, and,
As other cryo-units in the chambers beyond begin opening, the woman turns to you, bows gracefully, and speaks in a beautiful, lilting voice. "I am Veldina, leader of Resida. Thanks to you, the cure has been discovered, and the planetary systems repaired. We are eternally grateful."

"Unfortunately, a second ship from your Stellar Patrol has been destroyed by our malfunctioning meteor defenses. I fear that you are stranded on Resida, possibly forever. However, we show our gratitude by offering you an unlimited bank account and a house in the country."


Fix course control and defenses but not communications, and instead this happens:
"Unfortunately, a second ship from your Stellar Patrol has come looking for survivors, and because of our malfunctioning communications system, has given up and departed. I fear that you are stranded on Resida, possibly forever. However, we show our gratitude by offering you an unlimited bank account and a house in the country."


GAB Rating: Good. My dislike for Planetfall's ending doesn't undermine the good time that I had reaching it. Everyone talks about Floyd - he didn't do much for me, but Planetfall's greatest success is in creating a believable, lived-in setting for a video game, in a way that most adventures since strive for, but none before really succeeded at. Exploring Resida evoked a sense of wonder that Zork and Starcross before it couldn't with their (in-universe justified) artificial worlds. Even if a good number of the rooms were corridors, bedrooms, and toilets, the world as a whole felt plausible, with a history that I couldn't wait to discover. And the well crafted critical path ensured that I did at just a gradual enough pace to satisfy while keep me wanting more.

It isn't a perfect game by any means. As I noted earlier, Meretzky can't really commit to the comedic tone that the manual and opening chapter suggest. The game's tone is overall pretty grim, and even horrific at times, with bits of humor reserved for Floyd's antics and some Easter eggs. Puzzles are a bit on the easy side, and while on one hand this meant I never got stuck, it also meant that I never felt clever for figuring anything out. And there are all these little things that drag the game's otherwise steady pace to a halt - the inventory limits, the constant need to eat, to drop what you're doing and go back to the barracks to sleep, or to refill your canteen. The many separate passcards and the need to carry the right ones with you whenever you want to go anywhere, and having to type out "slide <adjective> card through slot" every single time you need to pass through a door that needs one, specifying the specific one you need to use, was a chore.

I also feel that the several red herrings - the dark rooms you can never enter, the helicopter you can never use, the impassable radiation lab, and the microfilm spools giving clues that you can't use - may have been intended to enhance verisimilitude, but these had the opposite effect on me, reminding me that Meretzky put these things here to mislead. I mean, what are the odds that a deadly radiation lab would just happen to have two things in it that you want? This isn't a bad thing per se; we give signposting a break even when there's no in-universe justification for it, so why not have misleading signposts too, for the sake of challenge? It just feels at odds with the intended design.

Overall, though, Planetfall is one of Infocom's better games, a sign of their increasingly focused commitment storytelling through setting, and a great sign of things to come, not just from Incofom, but out of the adventure genre as a whole.

My Trizbort map:

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Game 234: Planetfall

Buy the Zork Anthology, which includes Planetfall, here:
Read the manual here:
Get Frotz (if native Windows execution is your wish) here:

1983 was a big year of expansion for Infocom. The previous year they had four employees as of June and three releases, all by OG implementors Marc Blank and Dave Lebling. By June 1983 they had 20 employees, and the year saw five new titles, three of them by fresh blood.

Planetfall is certainly the most famous of them, and its designer, Steve Meretzky, is arguably Infocom's most celebrated implementor. Three of the five titles that were re-released under their "Solid Gold" label are of his design, including Planetfall.

I've played Planetfall once, but I can't remember very much about it past its interactive prologue chapter. Mostly I remember the robot sidekick Floyd, who I must confess I found more irritating than endearing.

Hope you like that joke. You'll see it a lot in the packaging.

Planetfall's manual is prefaced with a recruitment brochure for the Stellar Patrol - a marine corps-like organization whose mission is to explore the galaxy in search of uncontacted worlds and integrate them into the empire - and this may be Infocom's highest quality feelie to date. It's not especially relevant to the game's plot; it's mostly just a bunch of silly jokes satirizing military bureaucracy and the mundanity of day-to-day army life juxtaposed with its promises of adventure and righteousness. The box also includes three alien postcards, an ID card, and a copy of the protagonist's diary, who mostly just whines about being a low-ranking recruit and cursing his commanding officer Blather. The contents of this diary are reproduced entirely ingame by way of a diary in your inventory.

Starting the game, we are aboard the starship Feinstein, en route to a remote planet, and assigned the unenviable task of cleaning Deck Nine. Exploring is pointless; you can go to the reactor lobby room or head up to Deck Nine, but Blather will keep you from going any farther and throw you in the brig if you keep trying. Before long, something explodes, and you must launch an escape pod which descends to the nearest planet, an ocean world dotted with a few small islands. As it lands, we are informed that the atmosphere is breathable, the climate tolerable, and as it lands on one of the islands, we can see a building complex. Finally it lands, and a panel opens up, revealing inside a survival kit containing three different flavors of nutritional paste, and a towel (never forget your towel!).

I left the escape pod, which had become submerged, and swamp up to a crag beneath the complex. A quick climb and run of the place turned up corridors. Lots and lots of corridors, mostly leading to barracks-like dormitories and bathrooms. A few of these corridors had locked doors, and on the east end was a lobby from which I could enter but not use two elevators and a teleportation booth. North of this area is a systems monitor room shows that several of the complex's facilities are malfunctioning. The same corridor leads south, and a storage room by the midsection holds a box full of electronics and an oil can. Further south is a reactor control room with steps down to typically deadly darkness, a tool room where we can get a metal bar, glass flask, pliers, and a laser cutter with low batteries, a machine shop featuring several colorful buttons and a chemical dispenser, and a machine shop with a bunch of broken robots. There's a fairly tight inventory limit here, with your starting gear already using up most of the available slots.

During this exploratory phase I also found that in Planetfall, you periodically need to eat and sleep. The food in the survival kit will tide you over for a bit, but not for very long.

Floyd was easy to fix; there's an access card to the lower elevator inside him, and once taken he can simply be turned on. The elevator didn't seem operable, though, unless I'm using it wrong.

A shiny glint reflecting through a crack in the floorboards in one of the corridors turned out to be a key, and could be retrieved with the metal bar, which is in fact a magnet. This unlocked a storage room in the mess corridor, containing food and a ladder, which I could use to reach the north end of the corridor. This led to a few new rooms including two offices where I found three more keycards.

One of these keycards enabled the other of the two elevators, which took me up to a helipad tower with an inoperable helicopter. Also within the tower was an observation deck from which I could view the complex, and a communications room where I could listen to the Feinstein's final distress call. This room also had a manual override device for the malfunctioning coolant system, though the method of activating it remained obscure. The console had a flashing black light and a funnel-shaped hole. Finally, a "Send staashun" displayed a message on repeat written in a pseudo-pidgen:

"Tuu enee ship uv xe Sekund Galaktik Yuunyun: Planitwiid plaag haz struk entiir popyuulaashun. Tiim iz kritikul. Eemurjensee asistins reekwestid. <reepeet mesij>"

This is how everything on this planet is written, and damned if it doesn't get annoying, but at last we have some clue on what's going on.

Another card opens the door in the mess hall to the kitchen, where a protein drink dispenser still functions all these thousands of years later, and can satiate the hunger daemon whenever needed. I couldn't find an immediate use for the third card.

I eventually realized how to fix the coolant system. The black light corresponds to one of the buttons in the machine room, which I pushed to dispense a black fluid. Floyd amused himself with the dispenser, pushing all the buttons and getting chemicals everywhere. When I poured my sample down the hole the light turned brown. After repeating this two more times, the light stopped and the console displayed "Tranzmishun in pragres."

Around this time, the game warned me that I was feeling a bit weak, and not from hunger.

The downward elevator worked now - I assume that fixing the send station had something to do with it, and it took me to a shuttle car "Alfie" which I could operate with the shuttle card, taking me eastward to a "Lawanda platform" on a different island. This place had several new rooms, but I found I couldn't operate the shuttle again to return; it was inoperative in the afternoon.

  • North of the platform was another shuttle car "Betty," also inoperable in the afternoon.
  • An infirmary, where there was some medicine and a red spool labeled "Simptumz uv Xe Dizeez." Floyd here finds the rusted remains of his friend Lazarus, which sends him into a sobbing fit.
  • A repair room, where a robot "Achilles" lies broken and irreparable. Floyd can retrieve a fromitz board from an alcove too small for you to enter.
  • A planetary defense room, with a console warning that one of the circuit boards has failed. An access panel reveals four fromitz boards. Only one can be taken, and replacing it clears the warning.
  • A course control room, warning that the planet is off-course. A cube contains a 90Ω "bedistor" fused into its socket.
  • Yet another bathroom. 
  • A "ProjCon Office" with a logo depicting a sleep chamber and a computer room with several hundreds of pages of output. The final page suggests a malfunction interrupted the project.
  • A miniaturization booth, inoperable.
  • A lab storage room, where I found a battery, a labcoat, and a teleportation access card in its pocket.
  • A radiation lab with a brown spool labeled "Instrukshunz foor Reepaareeng Reepaar Roobots." Entering is quite fatal, but Floyd gets a good laugh as your hair falls out while you puke nonstop.
  • A bio lab with a miniaturization access card inside. Opening the door gets you torn to pieces by a pack of mutants.
  • A library lobby with a computer and a green spool labeled "Helikoptur Opuraateeng Manyuuwul." In the library is a microfilm reader.
  • Another teleportation booth. By using the card found in the labcoat, we can teleport to and from the teleportation booth found earlier, or go to a third one attached to a conference room.

There's a lot to do here, and the teleportation booth gives me a way back, so I figured this was a good enough stopping place. I don't know how much of the game is left to map, but I've mapped out 96 rooms already, making Planetfall significantly bigger than Starcross. It's enjoyable, but isn't the farce that the various reading materials made it out to be. The tone is mostly serious, even gloomy, with you being stranded and alone on a dead planet dotted with the crumbling remains of a civilization, and your only hope of survival to find a way to repair its ancient machinery. There are a few jokes and sly references here and there, but Floyd's clowning constitutes most of the comic relief. It's not exactly a redux of Starcross, but in many senses it feels closer to that than it does to Space Quest, that other game about being a space janitor.


My Trizbort map so far:

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Game 233: Empire

Although Data Driven Gamer mostly follows a linear timeline, I sometimes go back and play a noteworthy title that I missed out on in years prior. Usually this is because it precedes a planned whale of the current year, such as when I played Temple of Apshai and other early Epyx games as a very extended prologue to their breakout hit Jumpman of 1983. Less often it's simply one I felt was worth doing retroactively, with no particular reason for the timing. I think I've only done this once, when I covered Dungeon Campaign a few months ago, which isn't obviously of historical importance, but it was quick.

Walter Bright's Empire, not to be confused with John Daleske's Empire series on PLATO, is obviously of historical importance, being a major influence on Sid Meier's Civilization, and therefore of the entire 4x strategy genre. There are earlier games that anticipate it - Daleske played with 4x-like mechanics in the earliest incarnations of his Empire before refocusing on action, and an identically titled Empire by Peter Langston sounds even more Civ-like than Bright's despite being independently developed, but Bright's Empire alone is a verified inspiration.

Like most mainframe games, getting the original experience is a problem without a satisfying solution. Bright's homepage has links to the original FORTRAN code, but I wouldn't know what to do with it. I can emulate a PDP-10 with SIMH, and there are TOPS-10 images floating around, but I don't know how to get files onto said images, or how to compile the game if I do.

There are two DOS versions that I know of which predate Empire's later commercial release.

The earlier one of the two is curated by Ray Shoop, has a file dated to 1983, and appears to be based on an unathorized VAX/VMS port. The second is by Bright himself, and is a rewrite to MS-DOS in C. Neither one is exactly the same as the FORTRAN original, but I believe the former is the closer of the two.

All versions come with documentation, and it paints a picture very reminiscent of a stripped-down version of Civilization, one with no economy, no technology tree, but the same orthographic map and exploration, and a similar combat system. The goal is to conquer all of your opponent's cities - no diplomacy or space race here. City management exists but is limited to deciding what kind of military units should be produced there, of which the options are:

  • Armies. The only land-based unit. Cheap, and needed to conquer cities, but they're slow and weak, and can't cross water without transports.
  • Fighter. Fast, but no stronger than an army, and limited fuel forces them to refuel in cities or carriers. Will be destroyed if they try to attack a city. Primarily useful for scouting, intercepting submarines and transports, and to a lesser extent armies.
  • Destroyers, cruisers, and battleships. Three standard naval units, of incrementing strength and expense. All naval units move 2 spaces per turn.
  • Submarines. Devastating to destroyers and transports, and capable of good damage when punching above their weight class.
  • Transports. Used to bring armies across water, but also equal in power to a destroyer.
  • Carriers. Used to transport and refuel fighters, but also equal in power to a cruiser.

I played for several hours to figure out the ropes, and then started a new game.

On starting, Empire generates a new world map. This can be fairly quick, but one time it took nearly 20 minutes, even at 10,000 DOSBox cycles. It offers a difficulty estimate, and I'm not sure what it bases this on, but you can reject the estimate and get a new number without having to regenerate the entire map. In this playthrough it offered me a maximum difficulty of 10, and I took it.

Starting off you get a single city, indicated by the letter O. This one is bordered by land to the north and sea to the south-east. Your first decision - what kind of unit do you want to build? I decided to start with a fighter for short-range reconnaissance, and then had the game just advance turns until it was built.

A confusing, vi-like aspect of the interface is its three "modes" - orders, move, and edit. "Move" mode is for moving your units manually, or giving them other movement orders like sentry or other conditional waits, or random movement. "Edit" is mainly for changing cities' building orders and waking up units in sentry mode, and also for changing the sector of the world visible on the screen. Units may also be given waypoints, and cities can be assigned waypoints to send fighters to upon landing. "Orders" is mainly used for switching between the other two modes, but has a few game options too, like summoning the help screen or quitting.

I switched the city to build my first army as I had the fighter scout around the immediate vicinity. It didn't take long at all to find some neutral cities to conquer.

Neutral cities are marked by a *. This incarnation of Empire is unkind to the eyes.

Cities are conquered with armies, but each attempt has a 50% success rate. If you fail, your army is destroyed. If you succeed, the city is yours but the army disperses, reassigned to guard duty. Combat in general is always resolved instantly with the destruction of one unit and possible damage to the other, resulting in loss of HP and in the case of transports and carriers, capacity. Armies and fighters, having only 1 HP each, are all-or-nothing battles. City invasion is, essentially, an army-vs-army battle.

Internally, combat iterates over a number of rounds. During a round, each unit has an equal chance of winning, and the winner does damage to the loser. All units do 1 point of damage, except for submarines which do 3. Once one unit has taken lethal damage, it is destroyed and the combat is over.

The first city soon fell. Being land-locked, it was only useful for building armies and fighters, but I continued my scouting.

Soon I had the island conquered, fully explored, and overcrowded, and there was nothing left to do but built a troop transport. As it built, I had my fighters scout as much of the sea as they could reach.

The transport holds six, and getting everyone in is a bit cumbersome.

And my transport took them southward to conquer more stuff, while I kept building more armies and transports to ferry them.

Soon I found an enemy city!

Enemy units are in lowercase, but cities are X's.

The fight to take it was long and difficult. The continent was full of armies and the channel patrolled by destroyers, fighters, and transports. The city changed hands a few times, and I only had one city capable of building sea units. The tables turned when I rallied my fighters on the west island and send them on suicide strafing runs, routing their armies and leaving the continent prime for a beachhead.

This didn't last though. The city continued changing hands, but ultimately attrition (and a suspect RNG that caused an entire transport's worth of armies to lose to a single city) wore me down. By round 262, they even invaded my starting city, and then I just didn't feel like playing any more.

I did play a few more sessions, but never finished a game.

Here I had better luck securing multiple cities early on, but marshaling my forces en masse to break through the enemy's shores was just tiresome. I lost multiple full transports to destroyers, and ragequit.


In this playthough I started on a big landmass with plenty of vulnerable cities and built many armies. But only one coastal city that had direct access to the sea, my ability to build a fleet was severely bottlenecked. I tried scouting and exploring with submarines, but while waiting for them to build and micromanaging most of them through the strait, my inland cities kept building more armies with nowhere to go. Rounds dragged on and on, and I quit out of boredom.

GAB rating: Average. Empire is impressively deep - staggeringly, even, when compared to other strategy computer games of its era, and although overall the interface is archaic and borderline user hostile, it's also surprisingly forward-thinking in many ways - I certainly didn't expect to see unit movement waypoints or city rally points, for instance. Despite all this, I didn't find it much fun to play. Games can quite literally go on forever, often nothing happens for hours, and when things do happen you are at the mercy of the RNG to a pretty extreme extent.

Bright's own DOS port, dated 1986, has a number of features over the earlier one I played, apart from looking so much nicer with its color IBMgraphics support.

  • Simultaneous multiplayer via COM-connected terminals (not supported by DOSBox)
  • 2 or 3 players, with any possible combination of computers and humans including all computers and all humans
  • A revamped, less confusing interface, with more useful information at your immediate disposal.
  • Automatic scrolling when your cursor hits the edge of the screen
  • Much, much faster world generation and AI routines

Missing, though, are the game's sarcastic remarks when you perform suicidal actions like attacking your own garrison or running ships aground or marching your armies into the sea.

I'm sure I'd have had a better time playing this than I did the older port, but these enhancements are anachronistic in the context of playing a game dated to 1977. Just a year later, it would go fully graphical with Interstel's commercial release of Empire: Wargame of the Century, which is likely the version Sid Meier played, and I'll get to playing that when the time comes.

In the meantime, here's a GIF of a 400-round computer-vs-computer game being played at warp speed, because I can.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Games 231-232: Styx & Manic Miner

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Our next whale is a mining-themed platformer by a programmer who previously sold ripoffs of classic arcade games for the TRS-80.

This time, though, the story is happening on the other side of the pond, where Londoner Matthew Smith's weapon of choice would be the iconically British ZX Spectrum rather than the all-American Atari. But his earliest game credit was, like Bill Hogue's, a TRS-80 arcade-style game.


Delta Tau One


It's just Galaxian. To be fair, it's a competent enough port. The system's limitations certainly show, but not nearly as much as you might think. The sound effects are even halfway decent considering the TRS-80 wasn't meant to have any sound at all. It plays much faster than the real thing, and hitting targets isn't nearly as difficult, but avoiding hits is much more so, especially from the kamikaze attacks once the fleet size drops to three or fewer.

The most radical thing here is hyperwarp option that jumps you ahead a number of levels. You have finite warps, but each can take you anywhere from 1-10 levels ahead - you just hit the corresponding digit key.

Overall it just isn't interesting enough to bother giving a number or GAB rating, so I didn't.


Delta Tau One sold a whole 15 copies through the Molimerx catalog, but got the attention of Liverpool software publisher Bug-Byte, who offered Smith a contract and a ZX Spectrum loaner.

Game 231: Styx


Smith's first game with Bug-Byte is an arcade-style game very obviously inspired by Wizard of Wor, but it isn't quite a knock-off.

The action of Styx occurs over three phases, each taking up one third of the screen's height.

First, there's a maze of spiders, and here the game most resembles Wor, and is also the most interesting. The design doesn't work terribly well, though. There are three maze sections, and the spider mother in the upper-right corner of the last section is the source of all spiders, so it doesn't matter very much how you go through the maze's first two sections; just do them quickly enough and you wouldn't need to worry about spiders until you reach the third. And when you do, because your laser gun can only fire horizontally, there's only one sensible path through the third section; going directly into the top row where you can fire a shot at the spider mother. Getting in without touching the spiders is a question of luck and timing.

There's one interesting detail - your lasergun has a limited power supply, but this isn't evident at first. Fire it too often, though, and you'll notice that its effective range gets shorter and shorter until it's completely useless. This certainly caught me off-guard until I realized what was going on.

Next there's a river infested with piranha. They never stop spawning, and dead ones respawn right where you need to be, so it may actually be wiser not to kill more than you need in order to slip through the school.

The final part is pretty trivial; a mass of spiders wriggle around in a space between you and the boatman Charon, but you can just snipe them from the safety of the brick antechamber to the arena. Then once their ranks are thin enough, you can just slip through them and shoot Charon in the face with a laser. Then the game repeats on a harder setting.

GAB rating: Below Average. Styx is mechanically fine, with responsive controls (even if the QAOP layout common to the Spectrum is a bit weird), fair hit detection, and avoids the attribute clash so common on the system. But it's a bit trivial and not very well designed.

Game 232: Manic Miner

The title screen treats you to an off-key Strauss performance.

Manic Miner was Smith's second game for Bug-Byte, made in eight weeks and released the same year as Styx, and is the first of his two whales.

Fifteen minutes of playing was all it took for me to realize my standard saving rules weren't going to get me through this with my sanity intact.

Controls are dead simple - you move left or right, and when you jump you have no control until you land. It's like Donkey Kong or Miner 2049er but without any ladders.

As early as the first level, the path through to collect all of the keys and unlock the exit is very narrow and unforgiving. The timing window for getting through any obstacle is harsh, and I got killed so many times by brushing up against something lethal. Getting through is all about memorization and perfect execution. And you've only got so many lives - maybe six if you're good about scoring points for bonus lives - to beat all 20 levels. I allowed myself a save every 10 minutes, knowing I'd probably need one on almost every level, as the loss of a life would be unacceptable unless very close to the end.

One cute detail - although the ingame music (a rarity on the system!) is pretty bad and I shut it off almost immediately, the icons representing your spare lives do this cute little dance when it's on, and stops when you turn it off.

After the first level, the next few ones were comparatively easy.

Another level "Eugene's Lair" challenges you to leap over walking toilets and time your movements to avoid a levitating humanoid egg.

Collect the last object and Eugene will start glowing, move toward the exit, and stay there. So save the closest one for last.

Levels get progressively harder. Some reference certain popular video games.

And movies.


And current events.


That one's pretty unfair with stuff crashing down without warning faster than you can react, sometimes even mid-jump. There's a few breather levels after, but then it gets even more ridiculous.

The Warehouse's disintegrating platforms mean you can't stand still, but the bear traps and other hazards mean you need to time your movements perfectly, which is no small task when you can't stand around and wait. It's quite easy to accidentally have Willy jump vertically instead of horizontally - it's not enough to press a direction, but you have to hold it just long enough for him to move at least a pixel before you press a jump key - and the number of times I screwed things up because of this alone is crazy.

The amoebatrons in Amoebatrons' Revenge aren't so bad. The bad part is jumping over the minecarts without bumping into one above, especially the green one above the fast purple one. I had a bad time here until I realized it's possible to stand just to the right of the purple one's range and wait for an opening, and even then, reaching that part was pretty difficult.


The Solar Power Generator is a special kind of hell. Right off the bat these colors give me a headache, and thanks to my colorblindness I can barely see the gold (are they gold?) objects moving over the green background. So many jumps here require absolutely pixel-perfect timing - I'm talking with your heels barely touching the edge of the platform before you jump off it it - and on top of that, touching the reflecting light beam drains your air supply fast.

The hardest part here is getting back up from the ground after getting the lower key, but if you go for the bottom key first, then you'll waste time you don't have, as getting the key on the upper-left section will force you down to the bottom floor anyway, forcing you to make the tricky set of jumps back up to the platforms once again.


The last level isn't too bad - it's tricky, but not even close to the extreme difficulty we've seen before. First, avoid the hopper without hitting the spiders by jumping vertically as it passes under you, grabbing the keys above. The timing is strict but it's doable. Then hop on the conveyor belt at the right time so that by the time you reach the end of it you can jump over the floating eyeball - this may require some trial and error, but the timing window is generous. Then get the key, loop back, and exit, to find out that the password is.. fish sword?

After that, you're back on the first level. I don't know if the difficulty increases, but I don't really care.

GAB rating: Below Average. I did not enjoy Manic Miner. It invites comparison to Miner 2049er, a game that I found enjoyable but was hurt by excessively unforgiving difficulty. Manic Miner plays more slowly, controls more stiffly, looks uglier (and sounds ghastly), has less interesting levels, and is so much more unforgiving that it became a chore to play even with my lax rules on save states. I can't imagine trying to beat it honestly, where running out of lives means restarting from the first level.

Miner Willy will return for the 1984 phase of Data Driven Gamer, but my next game's going to go back a little further in time, as there's a particularly crucial genre-defining predecessor that I previously skipped.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Lode Runner: Won! + Lode Runner Legacy

It's over! I beat all 150 levels. In total I needed 49 saves to get through them all, each one representing 20 minutes or more of play.

On the last set of levels that I felt like writing about:


Level 124 can be made a whole lot easier by tricking two of the guards into dropping down into the depression near the lower-right of the screen. After that, the third guard tends to get stuck on the right ladder, leaving you free to gather crates from the rest of the stage at your leisure. False floors can trip you up, though, including a nasty one on the upper-right pocket that dropped me right into the guard's clutches. After clearing the stage, it may be necessary to free the trapped guards if they're holding onto a crate or two.

129 is just brutal. You'll need to drop down to the ground pretty often as this is not only sometimes the only way to evade guards on your tail, but four of the crates are suspended over false bricks that will drop you right there. Whenever you do, you'll have to reach the central ladder to get back into the action, and will probably have three or four guards to contend with, and whether you're getting flanked on both sides or have three or more between you and the ladder, it's bad news. Any guards on that ladder itself will also have to be dealt with. The really hard part here is putting enough distance between you and the guards so that you can excavate the middle dollar sign and grab the chests within without getting killed.

The winning strategy I found was to, through some mechanism I failed to completely understand, get two guards trapped in each of the corners at the top of the screen. That left two to patrol the level who could be managed much more easily than four.

131's another really hard one. Right off the bat, you've got to dig and drop down, where four guards approach from two directions - never a good time. Going for the chest buried below at this point might seem like a good idea, but it's asking to be mobbed. Even if you can drop down and survive, you're still getting chased by four guards who can go pretty much anywhere you can. I found you can kill guards and make them respawn in the starting chamber away from you, giving you free access to most of the level, but you can't get in now.

I found some luck is needed to get into the central chamber a second time with the guards far away enough that you stand a chance of escaping with the crate. After that, there's still the problem of getting the four crates above it. The solution involves dropping from one of the upper bars through a false brick.

141's so minimal, and yet really difficult. Only two guards, but there's no way to get them away from the top part of the level, which you have to dig through pretty deeply in order to get at the two crates in the center. Figuring out a digging path already takes some tricky planning, and ensuring you don't get killed in the process is a matter of both skill and luck.

The solution I found is to lure both guards onto one side of the screen, then trap them on the upper row of bricks and while they're stuck dig like mad to tunnel a path to one of the crates on the other side, and if they die pray that they don't respawn on your side. This was the hardest level in the game for me, and the only one that I had to use a save state in the middle of to complete.

146 isn't terribly hard, but the repetitiveness of zig-zag digging down the structure in the middle can trip you up when you reach the bottom if you fail to realize that one of the platforms is shorter than the rest and dig too far on the row right above it.

After that, try to keep both guards in the center area alive and get them over to the rightmost ladder as you excavate the wall by the left, then repeat for the area on the right, and finally the area on the right should be simple with just one guard.

Then we go right back to another obnoxious level right away with several false bricks and plenty of places you can get cornered by guards, which is guaranteed unless you exploit some of their stranger AI behaviors (and figure out exactly where all of the false blocks are).

148 is a breather, but gets pretty chaotic. Dig a LOT to keep the guards at bay, but don't dig yourself in so deep that you get trapped. They'll die, respawn and retrieve more crates, and with a little bit of luck you'll be able to get them all.


149 is rough. You've really got to know how to manipulate the guards here and keep them from congregating too much in the bottom-center of the screen, because you have to take a few trips into the structure in the middle, and the only way out is down. If a guard gets ahold of a crate late in the game, taking it back can be nearly impossible.

Finally, level 150 isn't that bad at all. It's difficult, but we've seen much harder. The side areas have plenty of places to trap guards, you just don't want to let too many creep into the center "V" area to bother you while you scoop up the crates there.

Two of the crates at the bottom, just to the right of the "V," look like a problem. How do you get them? Simple - dig a single brick at the bottom of the "V" and drop in through false bricks. But make sure you get them last because if you don't, there's no way out.

After this, there's no ending. The levels just repeat. The display bar will show level 151, but you're really just replaying level 1.

GAB rating: Good. For all of my bellyaching about it being overly long and frustrating - an issue that could have been remedied with some structural changes - I got more enjoyment out of the first few hours of Lode Runner than I got from several Good-rated arcade platformers that didn't have nearly as much content, and it delivered interesting puzzles right up until the end, if not consistently.

Lode Runner was one of the most successful games of its era, moving millions of units worldwide at a time when, to put it lightly, this wasn't common at all. Ultima IV, in comparison, sold 400,000, came out over two years later, and had the considerable advantage of brand recognition behind it. Between a third and a half of Lode Runner's sales were in Japan where Broderbund's founder Doug Carlston had forged strong business relations, and enjoyed numerous exclusive ports and sequels by Irem, Sega, Hudson Soft, Compile, and others.

The original game lives on, in a sort, through Lode Runner Legacy, a reboot/remake which includes a "classic" mode featuring the 150 original levels and a voxel-based visual style reminiscent of Minecraft but with Lode Runner textures, which is all too appropriate here.

The 50-level "adventure" mode, which you must play through the first 10 levels of before unlocking classic mode, ramps up the difficulty far too slowly, and the controls feel a bit slippery compared to the original, but classic mode is everything it should be, controls included.

The biggest change here is that classic mode does away with lives and instead challenges you to score points on a per-level basis, allowing you to replay any level at any time. To better suit this approach, where score is not carried on from level to level, it revamps the scoring system to give awards and multipliers for various technical feats. This gives it a very different feel from the original 150 stage marathon, but it's for the best. It does, somewhat pointlessly, give you partial credit if you beat a level but fail to do it without dying.

There are also a bunch of smaller quality of life features added here that fix issues I had with the original game:

  • Guards who carry gold now have this cute animation of coins falling out behind them. No more guessing who's carrying that last lousy crate!
  • Destroyed bricks turn into a miasma of pixels that change color to indicate how much time is left before they replace themselves.
  • The brick underneath your feet is highlighted to better show you which bricks will be dug when you hit a button.
  • False bricks become translucent after anyone falls through them.
  • Sound effects are taken from the Apple II original, except for the painfully shrill sound when your commando falls a long distance, which has been converted to a sine wave.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Lode Runner: Quicklode

For the sake of my time and sanity, I've relaxed my 30-minute saving rule to 20 minutes. Following the original rule strictly, my minutes all too often looked like this:

  • +0 minutes: Load a saved game at level 85, with 5 lives remaining.
  • +4 minutes: Beat the level 85, reloading after each failure.
  • +19 minutes: Beat level 86 after multiple attempts.
  • +20 minutes: Beat level 87 which turned out to be quite easy.
  • +25 minutes: Run out of lives on level 88. Reload.
  • +31 minutes: Re-beat level 85. Save on level 86 with 6 lives remaining.
  • +39 minutes: Re-beat level 86.
  • +40 minutes: Re-beat level 87.
  • +48 minutes: Beat level 88.
  • +57 minutes: Run out of lives on level 89. Reload save on level 86.
  • +59 minutes: Re-beat level 86.
  • +61 minutes: Re-beat level 87. Save on level 88 with 8 lives remaining.

That's a net gain of three levels in one hour of play, and only two of them were not trivially easy. To be fair, I've also learned how to beat level 88, seen level 89, and between this increased knowledge and my surplus of lives, I'll be better equipped to beat level 89 during my next session. This sort of glacial progress got me through Miner 2049er and Jumpman, but I've still got 63 Lode Runner levels to go! For now, a save every 20 minutes feels like a good compromise so that I can finish this game before I've spent more time on it than I spent playing Morrowind.


Continuing my pattern of writing whenever I feel like it:

This brain-shaped level isn't all that taxing on the little grey cells, but does have several false bricks to trip you up. To solve the level you'll want to take as few trips to the ground floor as possible, because the center ladder is the only way back up, and if all three guards get between it and you, you're sunk.

86 presents an interesting brain teaser. Just how are you supposed to get the inside the lower-left partition? Dig a space above it and drop through, and you're stuck. You could dig away the left wall first, but then you wouldn't be able to climb up and onto the wall to get the crate in the first place. The solution here is pretty clever and something I haven't seen yet - you do in fact dig away the left wall from the ladder, but before blasting the bottom tile, wait until the top one is about to respawn. If timed properly, the top two tiles will respawn, the bottom one won't for awhile, and you'll have time to grab the crate and leave through the left.

90 is hard! So many secret false bricks will drop you to your doom, like one below the lower-most crate that will drop you onto an non-diggable surface where guards might flank you from the directions of both ladders. Then there's a pocket on the upper-right of the board where multiple guards tend to get trapped as the stage drags on, making it an interesting challenge to snatch the crate inside without getting killed, and then get out. And there's a false brick above that pocket that will drop you right inside if you don't know it's there.

92 was just a bizarre level, all owing to the single tile-wide gap in the lower floor. The only way to reach the left side of the level is by getting a guard to fall into that gap and crossing over his head. The problem is, guards won't walk into pits that you didn't dig! And yet if you dig a hole just to the right of it, in this case one might. But then you'd have to find a way to get him out of that pit, and get him to drop the crate somewhere you can retrieve it, and I found that by the time I was ready to do this, I often had two guards "stuck" on the left-most ladder, their pathfinding logic utterly broken by the gap that could be spanned by walking across their comrade's head. I didn't feel like I "solved" this level so much as I messed around until the guards were cooperative with my goals.


In level 99 it's very easy to get the guards permanently trapped in the gaps between the "teeth" in the middle-right section and in the pit on the lower-right, which has a roof of false bricks. In fact it's difficult not to get them trapped this way. One problem - if they're carrying gold when they fall in, it's gone and you're stuck. And the leftmost guard is certain to pick up a crate. So you'll need to get it back before trapping them. Do this right and you're good.

Level 109 just gave me a headache from trying to read all this nonsense going on. Apart from that, the main difficulty here is that the guards tend to get stuck on the pockets on the lower left and right, and the only way out is through the bottom-center passage that connects them to the rest of the level. If you can lure them out, grab the crates inside, and leave without getting killed, then the rest of it isn't very hard, just confusing.

I'm now at level 124, and it's getting pretty difficult. Over the past eight saves, representing over 2 hours 40 minutes of play, I've advanced a mere 17 levels. I'm also finding that luck plays more of a role - whenever you kill a guard, the respawn location is random, and sometimes you need them to die and respawn in locations you can't reach yourself to retrieve crates there, and you have no control over that. Other times you just need to trap and kill a whole bunch of guards that are in your way and can't be evaded, and just have to hope the places they respawn doesn't put them even more in your way.

It's also not much fun to slog through any more. But the end's in sight, and I figure I can wrap this up in a few days.

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