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:


  1. nice progress.

    i remembered it took me months to get where you are back around 1983

  2. The written language is probably based on a satirical suggestion for an English spelling reform, often misattributed to Mark Twain. The page I read about this on appears to be gone now, but the Internet Archive still has a copy:



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