Thursday, December 23, 2021

Game 301: Early Datasoft & The Sands of Egypt

Our next whale of 1984 is Bruce Lee, by Datasoft, but as this is the first (and only) of the company, I have selected a few ancestors to play as a short retrospective. I am largely unfamiliar with Datasoft, having only heard the name a few times mostly in connection to Atari computer games, such as the Alternate Reality series and of course Bruce Lee, and as a publisher/localizer of Japanese arcade games and European computer games.

The earliest games of Datasoft are TRS-80 programs listed in a full-page ad in the March 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputer magazine:

Although Arcade 80 and Football Classics appear to be lost, The Resurrection of Iago has been dumped.

It's just Othello. Nothing unique about it. Iago plays a pretty strong game, which isn't an especially hard to program a computer to do. There are six selectable levels of difficulty, but on levels 5 and 6, the game either freezes a few moves in, or takes so long to calculate its move that I can't tell it hasn't frozen. Even on level 4, the AI can take between two and five minutes per turn except for the very first and very last ones.

I lost on level 4, but it wasn't a total curb stomp. I even managed to capture two of the corner pieces.


Later in the year, Datasoft partnered with Tandy and became one of the first third-party developers to support the new TRS-80 Color Computer, affectionately known as the CoCo. Despite the name, these computers are not color-capable versions of the TRS-80, and have virtually no hardware similarities, lacking even the Zilog Z80 CPU from which it got its namesake. Retailing for $400 in 1980, the machine cost only a bit less than the much more capable Atari 400, while also costing more than the VIC-20 machines it was intended to compete with. These machines failed to gain the sort of traction that the black & white TRS-80's had, and did not produce a single game that interests me in particular.

Nevertheless, the CoCo is an important part of Datasoft's early history, if just a stepping on the way to becoming an Atari shop. From 1981 to 1984, Datasoft released six original games on the platform (the originality of all but two is debatable) and three licensed arcade ports, most of them published by Tandy. The first of them is called Popcorn.

It's a technically fine conversion of Atari's Avalanche and controls as well as any paddle-based game I've seen yet. Avalanche is still a mediocre game, and Popcorn is more mediocre still.

For one, popcorn lacks any kind of difficulty progression; the speed you set at the start is the speed you get until you run out of lives, not even incrementing if you clear a screen. Missing a rock means the loss of a paddle, just like in Kaboom!, but in Kaboom! this handicap was offset by a decrease in difficulty, and you could earn paddles back. Neither happens here, and missing even means the stage resets to its initial state, so you're just trapped in a feedback loop where if you can't beat a stage in one try, it only gets harder for your next one. And if you can beat a stage in one try, then it doesn't get any harder the next loop and you can probably do it again, indefinitely.

Neither Iago nor Popcorn is interesting enough for me to rate or number.

In 1982, Datasoft released four games for the TRS-80 Coco; Card Games, a collection of, well, card games, Clowns & Balloons, a copy of Exidy's Circus, The Sands of Egypt, an adventure game, and Shooting Arcade, a clone of Sega's Carnival. One of these interests me more than the rest, and no points for guessing which one.


Game 301: The Sands of Egypt


Read the manual here:

My first thought while reading the manual was that Michael Berlyn must have played this. Not only is the premise nearly identical to Infidel - you play a Sir Percy, searching for a lost pyramid in the Egyptian desert after being ransacked, abandoned, and stranded in the desert by your own disgruntled archaeological team - but the backstory is even written as a letter from Sir Percy on a sheet with a hotel letterhead (nonsensically called "Hotel de Mecca"), just as we'd see in Infidel's folio packaging. It's played for laughs here, with Percy's excessive English poshness and not-so-secret judgmental attitude irritating the crap out of his colleagues.

Ok, so the writing isn't exactly on Infidel's level, but if I'm not mistaken, this is the earliest adventure game I've played with animated graphics. There's even some parallax scrolling when you move.

Huh, Moon Patrol wasn't the first!

If it isn't clear yet, this is a MOTLP, without much in the way of landmarks or changing scenery to help make a map, and you have no inventory items to breadcrumb with. It's potentially hell, but thankfully I found a shovel after a little bit of wandering. A snake was very nearby and I figured I could probably kill it with the shovel, but decided to map out the initial area first. A fairly low branch complexity factor makes mapping it more doable than most. Even though almost every screen has four exits, most just loop back on themselves, which you'll recognize if you dropped the shovel, and only one takes you "back" more than a room or two.

In the middle of the maze, there's a small cliffside area where I found a rope that disintegrates when touched but tells you it's made from palm fronds, which I'm sure is a clue. More desert is on the other side, and at the end of it, a pool area, which wouldn't even let me drink from it.

It's a joke and it works better if you've read the manual

"GO CAMEL" advised me to try "MOUNT," but that didn't work. "GO POOL" worked, and showed a cover in the water, but I couldn't figure out what to do with it.

Not only could I not figure out any way to lift the pool's drain or do anything that resulted in useful feedback, I couldn't figure out how to leave this screen either! And I died of thirst, waist-deep in a pool of water.

Restarting, I got the idea to try digging in every screen, which located a torch and magnifier scattered around. The shovel did kill the snake, leaving behind a puddle of snake oil, and opening the way to more desert, where I found a canteen. The procedure to drink was a bit confusing - I had to bring it to the pool, fill it, and then after DRINK didn't work, I eventually realized that filling it caused me to drop it without any indication that I had done so. Picking it up again, I could drink the water for a respite from my thirst. I brought it back to the snake oil, where I took one more drink, emptied the canteen, and got the oil.

Stuck, I turned to a walkthrough. What you have to do next is type "GO TREE" from the pool area. This is a situation where the interface is lying to you, as it lists "pool" as a goable location, but "pyramid" is also listed but unresponsive to commands, and "tree" isn't listed at all. You have to rely on the graphics to divine that possibility, and I didn't.

Dropping everything allowed me to climb, where I saw fronds that I couldn't figure out how to interact with, and dates that I could take. Feeding them to the camel let me mount it, and ride to the pyramid.

Examining the carving here showed the pharaoh engraving to be holding an actual scepter, which I could grease with the snake oil and pull out! The pyramid could be climbed too, and an axe was sitting at the top. At this point, I was hitting the inventory limit, and I'd have to start leaving excess items at a centralized location. I picked the pool for this, where I swapped the snake oil for more water. The axe cut the palm fronds, which I could braid into a rope.

I thought I could lift the pool cover with my hooked scepter, but once again, none of the commands I could think of trying worked. Nor could I find a way to convey my wish to lift the pool cover with my rope instead. "TIE ROPE" was accepted but demanded a followup, and "TO HANDLE" didn't work, nor "SCEPTER" or "COVER" or "HOOK" or any permutation I could guess.

The answer, shown in walkthrough is to type "HOOK SCEPTER," followed by "TO HANDLE." Right then. Pulling the scepter then opened the cover and drained the pool.

Leaving behind the shovel and dates, and taking with me the axe, magnifier, rope, torch, and canteen, I figured it would be dark beneath the pool drain, and that I'd need to light the torch by using the magnifying glass in the sun. But my attempts to communicate this to the parser were in vain; "LIGHT TORCH" was recognized, but demanded to know how, and I couldn't figure out the expected verbiage. "WITH MAGNIFIER" did not work. Sure enough, going into the drain got me killed in the dark. I consulted the walkthrough again.

My verbiage was right. But it only works while inside the pool, and not on the screen outside of the pool where the sun is clearly visible. Arghh!

With light I could explore this falaj, and discovered a boat.

I could float it, but without any way to control it, the boat drifted east and over a waterfall.

Reloading, this time I took the shovel instead of the axe, and could paddle the boat.

Securing the boat to the pole, I got out and went through the archway.

TRANSLATE HIEROGLYPHS showed this meaning.

So I put the scepter back in the pharaoh's hands, and then a thin crack, just wide enough for me to carry my torch through, opened in the wall, leading to the inner chamber.


The treasures, we're told, are far too heavy to be carried by one man, but the ladder can be taken back to the entrance and climbed up and out through the drain, back into the pool. CLIMB STEPS got me out, I discovered after fumbling a bit more with the parser, and finally I rode the camel back to Cairo, victorious.

You have mastered The Sands of Egypt in 126 turns. This Adventure is over.

GAB rating: Below average. The animated graphics are what make The Sands of Egypt stand out from its contemporaries, and they are honestly not bad at all for the era. The warm-hued palette is more pleasing than the harsh six-tone graphics available to Apple's hi-res mode, and more appropriate for this kind of game than the cool colors typical of Atari games. It makes me think that the CoCo might have had untapped potential as a games machine, perhaps marketed as a cheap alternative to the very expensive Apple ][+ rather than trying to compete with the cheaper VIC 20.

But this isn't a particularly inspired or well designed adventure. Even padded with a MOTLP, which makes up the majority of the game's rooms, this is a tiny, inconsequential game, without a single clever puzzle, and the only difficulties I had were the difficulties with its parser. This is still preferable to the downright player-hostile design in Sierra's late-era Apple adventures, but it's overall not much of an experience.

Datasoft's last TRS-80 CoCo game would be 1984's The Dallas Quest, and would reuse the engine of The Sands of Egypt, but I'm not particularly interested in playing it. The next ancestor I play will be one originally written for Atari computers, bringing us into that era and setting the stage for Bruce Lee next.


  1. You should reconsider playing The Dallas Quest. You don't need any knowledge of the show and in fact it introduces fanciful elements that make it fairly removed from the tone of its namesake. I have fond memories of completing the C-64 version as a kid, one of the few games I did so at the time (giving you an idea that it's not a particularly difficult game, all things considered).

    1. I gave it a try, TRS-80 CoCo version. I didn't finish it - made it to the jungle in about half an hour of play, but if I go south, the game crashes, and if I go any other direction, it loops on itself.

      I don't know how far in I made it, but the game seems to be leaner than The Sands of Egypt with less filler and no parser troubles. The puzzles are somehow both nonsensical and easy, but I did enjoy how the "obvious" solutions are subversively wrong, like how the rifle is completely useless, but the old beat up bugle found in the same room is just the thing to stop stampeding cattle. Or how you don't remove the rat with a cat, but instead with a sunglasses-wearing owl.

  2. Stupid adventure games. I always thought *I* was the stupid one. Only to find out, decades later, that they were poorly-written drek that nobody actually won. I thought if I was just smarter I could figure them out, and it must be me that was the problem. No, the problem was idiots who couldn't write a text parser and couldn't think outside the box.

  3. The Iago ad is something.
    "Well, how do you sell Othello games ?"
    "Just put the art of a RPG, "resurrection" in the title, and hope mix it up with a new opus of Wizardry."

    The Sands of Egypt is nice to the eyes.


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