Sunday, July 31, 2022

Elite: Defense of elitism


Following a plethora of combat upgrades to my Cobra Mk. III, I spent several hours farming kills at the anarchic world of Riedquat, upgrading my rank and waiting for something cool to happen.

The beam lasers, of course, made the biggest difference, but they aren't a straightforward upgrade over pulse lasers. They can shred through your enemies, but they overheat so quickly that after two scratches you'll need to wait a few seconds to cool down before firing on a third. Depending on how tough the enemies, or how much you miss (it's often unintuitive to figure out exactly where you're supposed to aim, especially at a distance), they may overheat sooner - possibly not even killing one. This cooldown, I found, was an ideal time to fire missiles, which are otherwise easy to accidentally shoot down with your own laser fire.

I don't know if these lasers are more efficient than the stock pulse ones in terms of damage-heat ratio, but the extra damage is welcome. When three or four pirates are firing at you at once, it pays to thin the pack as quickly as possible.

My extra lasers made less of a difference, sadly. Rear-firing lasers are useful in theory, as you can engage targets on your tail and let your aft shield take the punishment while your fore shield recharges, but it is hard to keep them on your tailgun's line of fire unless you're going faster than them, and if you are, then the distance is increasing, you're hitting them less accurately, and the spawn timer becomes more likely to trigger reinforcements before you're done. Side-lasers seem pretty useless, as enemies rarely attacked me side-on, and besides that, if you're moving (as you should be), then an enemy approaching from the side will soon become an enemy flying behind you.

Combat at Riequat is basically unending. With skill and some luck, you might be able to fight off a wave of pirates before the next one spawns, but waiting for your shields and energy banks to completely recharge is out of the question. Either you reach the planet, or, more likely, your energy banks deplete and you die unless you warp out while you still can. It is crucial that you arrive in the system with at least half a tank of fuel, and that you plot an escape course before the shooting starts.

Bounty hunting, sadly, hadn't been nearly as lucrative as I hoped. A kill might get me around 10-15cr on average, but each missile cost 30cr, and with the cost of one or two per trip, needed to keep me alive, plus the cost of fuel, my finances were trending slightly downward. Occasionally I'd pick up some jettisoned cargo, and occasionally the "cargo" would be the ship's ejected crew, showing up on the manifest as slaves, and could only be gotten rid of by selling them in port. I choose to believe that I was really turning them over to the authorities and paid a bonus for bringing them in alive.

Eventually, I simply went back on my old trading route and quickly accumulated enough to purchase a 6,000cr military laser, which does even more damage, and overheats even faster.

After about another hour of fighting anarchists, my combat rating improving to levels like "above average" and soon after "competent," a special message popped up.

And when I docked, a secret transmission came through.

The ship had been last seen at "Reesdice," which would take several jumps to reach.

No problem. I had plenty of cash for fuel and missiles, and docking computers to automate landing after each jump. Getting there was just a matter of patience and avoiding anarchic systems. The handful of pirates fought along the way were no problem.

I arrived, and a handful of pirates attacked, but no Constrictor prototype. I docked, and got some info.

Arexe was in hyperspace range, so I warped over.

I went back to my trader ways, sniffing out an easy and moderately profitable local route, and scrounged enough for a galactic hyperdrive of my own. And let it rip.

New galaxy, same template. But the constrictor was nowhere to be seen here, and the locals hadn't a clue. Where could it be? Was I even in the right galaxy?

I wandered around a little, but not one planet in the vicinity offered anything. I turned to the Internet, where I found a video where a player went to "Orarra" in this galaxy. I have no idea how you're supposed to know to go there, but I did, and got an interesting tip.

So I flew around Orarra's high orbit, until something blipped on my radar, and I closed in.

The ensuing dogfight was long, but not challenging. The constrictor could take a lot of punishment, and thwarted my missiles with its ECM system, but I was able to spend most of the fight on its tail, keeping it on evasive maneuvers, shooting at it when I could, and occasionally having to engage my own ECM to defeat its missiles. I eventually broke through its hull. The trip back to medium orbit, which took nearly twenty minutes and brought on numerous dogfights with groups of pirates, was comparatively more difficult.

I'm satisfied to call this the end. I've more or less exhausted Elite's gameplay possibilities - you pretty much have to in order to beat this mission given that it basically requires a fully upgraded Cobra. According to Bell's own FAQ, you need to score 1,280 kills to unlock the second and final original mission, and 6,400 to attain the ultimate combat rating of Elite. I had attained Dangerous, and through some memory viewing I found that I had attained 627 myself, so I wasn't even close to either of these milestones. Spending another week farming kills in some anarchic hellscape just for the chance to fight endless thargoid marauders, let alone a month for some status line, just doesn't appeal.

GAB rating: Good

Prior to playing Elite, my only exposure to the space trading combat sim genre had been Wing Commander: Privateer, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I knew it borrowed heavily from Elite, but I had no idea just how much of it had been done already, and often just as competently, nearly ten years earlier on a system with a tenth of the power and with a fractional percentage of its program size.

The open world aspect is admittedly underutilized - the galaxy may have thousands of worlds, but there's not much distinguishing the actual experience of visiting one word from another - but Elite's solid space combat model made it fulfilling, engaging, and fun for days, and the system of open world trading and ship upgrades gave it a satisfying RPG-like power curve. As a worthy follow-up to Star Raiders, and a model for open world games for decades to come, I award it a harpoon, a place in the ivory deck, and consider it the strongest contender yet for GOTY 1984.

Elite: Mostly harmless

Restarting Elite, this time with more of a willingness to savescum following my unavoidable and fatal random encounter with thargoids (the original game even had a quicksave function available on space stations), I began as I did before - purchasing food and textiles to haul to the industrial world of Zaonce, at a cost of 81.6cr and an expected return of 140cr minus fuel.

High orbit over Zaonce

When you arrive at a world's high orbit out of hyperspace, things are pretty boring, as there's nothing to do except approach until something comes in range. What you want is the space station, but sometimes pirates, traders, or police vehicles show up first, and it's difficult to tell them apart at a distance.

You can accelerate time if nothing's going on, but once you get close enough to the planet this stops working and you just have to wait, which can take minutes.

Once you enter the medium orbit zone - this is indicated by two things, an 'S' icon visible on the main radar dashboard, and that the smaller 2D radar indicator no longer points to the planet itself - you are safe from pirates, and you want to locate the space station. The small radar points you to it.

Elite's flight model, modeled more after aircraft than space ships, offers no ability to yaw, but instead pushing the joystick left or right spins the craft. To point the ship toward something on your left, as the radar indicates of the space station, you must first rotate so that the thing to your left is now above or below you, and then climb or dive until it's in your view.

But you can't just fly into this space station. That would be too simple.

This flying dodecahedron rotates, and you have to approach it from the perpendicular vector, approaching from the planet.

The more head-on your angle of approach, the easier the next step will be. Making small adjustments is no simple task - if the station is in front of you, then you're moving towards it, not parallel to it. And while the ship does have left view and right view cameras, a top and bottom camera would have been more helpful for this task, as you can only turn up and down, not left and right.

Not perfect, but better.

For the final approach, you don't need to hit the station perfectly dead-center, but you are supposed to match its rotation speed, a task made much easier with an analog joystick, so that the landing bay is oriented correctly when you touch down. In practice, the model is rather lenient, and you can get away with quickly spinning the ship into the correct orientation at the last moment, but doing it "correctly" is pretty satisfying if you can manage it. And potentially instant death if you can't.

Ba da da da dummm (bi bi. bu bu.)

After landing, Zaonce offered 150.4cr for my goods, giving the trip a profit of 57.6cr after a refuel.

Saving this time, I bought two computers at 136.8cr to take to Isinor as I had before, but this time there was no incident and they fetched 204cr total.

Just barely within range was Ensoreus, a rich industrial corporate state that my model predicted would buy food at triple the agricultural price!

Planet descriptions are also procedurally generated. It shows sometimes.


Buying 20 tons at 48cr and wishing I could carry more, I hauled them there and sold for a nice 160cr.

Isinor-Ensoreus seemed like a terrific trade route, and I got some computers and machinery to haul back to the backwater planet, where pirates, who had caught wind of the booty, waited in ambush.

Combat in Elite isn't terribly difficult and can pay dividends in bounty, but when you're this outnumbered and armed only with the basics, skill alone won't save you. Your energy reserves are both your lifeblood and your ammo, so even shooting at your enemies will eventually kill you if you don't neutralize them before it runs out. You can hyperspace out, but only if you've got enough fuel to jump somewhere safer, and I didn't.

They got me this time, but after a quickload, the same actions spawned only a solitary rogue who gave me no trouble.

I continued this route, making better and better profits each time, soon switching my Isinor cargo from food to higher-yielding furs as my capital allowed. Pirates occasionally intercepted me at Isinor, but I fared better than before, and as my loads got bigger, the pirates got more daring, and I became less hesitant to use my missiles in combat. At 30cr, they are not cheap, and the bounties won't offset the cost of using them, but my trades were yielding hundreds in profits.

Before too long, I could afford a 400cr cargo expansion bay, upgrading my cargo capacity to 35 tons, and almost doubling my profits. Almost every subsequent run yielded enough to upgrade my ship in a meaningful way, and I started equipping it for serious combat with ECM, multiple beam lasers, an energy bomb, and a rear-firing pulse laser (as recommended by the manual). In addition, I purchased a a fuel scoop, an escape pod (complete with a ship insurance policy, though your cargo isn't covered), and a docking computer, which automates the docking procedure erratically but 100% safely.

The escape pod also changes the HUD colors.

My final purchase this session was an energy unit which, according to the manual, doubles your energy recharge rate. A few things remained unpurchased. First, there was a mining laser, which is suited toward cutting valuable minerals and metals out of asteroids, but replaces your combat laser and seemed a poor tradeoff. Second, a 5,000cr "intergalactic hyperdrive" capable of transporting you to a new galaxy. I liked this galaxy just fine and figured everything Elite had to offer was already part of it. Last was a 6,000cr military laser, just a bit unaffordable right now, but I figured I'd just buy it when I had some more cash.

Next step - go looking for trouble and earn a reputation in this galaxy.

Transaction log:

Planet Encounter Bounty Credits Sell Refuel/Reload Buy Manifest

100 0 0 81.6 16 food, 4 textiles

18.4 150.4 11.2 136.8 2 computers

20.8 204 11.2 48 20 food

165.6 160 12.8 299.2 4 computers, 1 machinery

13.6 470.4 12.8 454.4 8 furs

16.8 745.6 12.8 744 12 computers
Isinor Pirates 10 15.6 1214.4 42.8 976 20 furs

211.2 1424 12.8 1248 20 computers
Isinor Pirates 20.5 394.9 2024 42.8 2102 Large cargo bay, 20 furs, 15 liquor

274.1 2444 12.8 2198 35 computers

507.3 3556 12.8 3978 35 furs, ECM, 2 beam lasers

72.5 3122 12.8 3098 35 computers, energy bomb
Isinor Pirates 25 108.7 3556 12.8 3359 35 furs, beam laser, fuel scoop

292.9 2576 12.8 2556 35 computers, pulse laser
Isinor Pirates 19 319.1 3556 12.8 2524.4 18 furs, 17 liquors, escape pod

1337.9 2134.8 12.8 3170 35 computers, docking computer

289.9 3528 12.8 1534 31 furs, 4 liquors

2271.1 2695.6 12.8 3670 35 computers, energy unit
Isinor Pirates 25 1308.9 3556 42.8 0 None

Friday, July 29, 2022

Game 327: Elite

Download any number of versions of Elite from Ian Bell's home page here:

There aren't many genres extant today where you can so clearly identify a single game as the template's originator, and fewer still where that originator came out in the early 80's, has no obvious predecessors, and feels complete in the sense that no crucial elements of the genre's modern form are missing. What Wikipedia awkwardly dubs the "Space trading & combat simulation," though niche, is such an example, and Elite is its comprehensive ur-text, offering an open-ended universe of galaxies and systems, a market-driven commodity economy, a variety of ship upgrades, weapons, and gear to suit different playing styles, a quasi-Newtonian 3D flight model, and lots of potential for space laser battles against pirates, renegades, aliens, and sometimes police and bounty hunters if you're naughty enough. Wing Commander: Privateer was my first (and until now) only example of this genre to go on, but apart from storyline, Elite did everything that Privateer did, did it nearly ten years earlier, and even had 3D polygonal graphics while Privateer "downgraded" to scaled sprites.

I'm a little surprised that David Braben and Ian Bell chose the BBC Micro as their lead platform rather than the comparatively democratic ZX Spectrum, which it did indeed roll onto the following year with a few bells and whistles, though at the cost of some performance. Coming from a US perspective, the education-oriented BBC Micro is a weird platform that draws parallels to the Apple II that dominated American public schools of the day, like an upgraded yet cheaper model that doubles the CPU speed, adds superior color and resolution, but can't really take advantage of them thanks to a lack of RAM. If it weren't for Elite, possibly the only game to originate on it and become known outside the UK (albeit entirely thanks to its many ports), I don't think I'd have any reason to touch it.

The system's multicolored, multisized text abilities are very impressive for 1981, but no graphics are possible when using them.

Elite uses a medium-res monochrome mode and a low-res color mode simultaneously, and its 3D graphics are software-rendered by a 2MHz 6502.

Like The Lords of Midnight from earlier in the year, Elite comes with a novella titled Elite: The Dark Wheel, which tells the story of pilot Alex Ryder and his quest to avenge his father's death, which he achieves mainly by trading goods on various planets and collecting bounties until he can upgrade his Cobra into a proper death machine. And like The Lords of Midnight, it's not particularly well written, coming across at times as gameplay instructions awkwardly composed as narrative (e.g. The Cobra on the screen ducked and weaved. The temperature of his forward laser began to rise dangerously. The Cobra ahead of them launched a missile at them and Alex shot it, not even bothering to program the ECM. ) It does, at the least, establish some backdrop for the otherwise generic spacefaring adventures you'll have in the same universe as Alex, but I feel the manual does a better job of illustrating it with personal details as well as outlining their relevance to gameplay when applicable.

Venturing into the world of BBC Micro emulation, BeebEm is my emulator of choice here. With some difficulty, I was able to get a joystick working, and to my surprise, the game was responsive to analog input! It's not as precise as one might wish, but it's better than digital.

The adventure begins docked in a space station orbiting Lave with no immediate objectives except to make money.

Medium-orbit zone of Lave, the starting world

I started off by visiting the surrounding worlds to observe their prices and to see if I could establish a pattern. The manual tells us that the economy type is the prime determiner of supply and demand - agricultural worlds produce cheap food for instance, and rich agricultural worlds such as Lave will pay high prices for luxury goods that are produced more cheaply on industrial ones, but I wanted to see if I could find something more concrete.

What I found, after sampling prices on each of the starting worlds and doing some analysis is that, for the majority of trade goods, if not all of them, "economy" is in fact treated as a single-dimensional attribute rather than a two-dimensional one, going on a scale from "poor agricultural" to (presumably) "rich industrial." Food, textiles, and radioactives consistently fetch the lowest prices at the most agricultural worlds and the highest at the most industrial, while luxuries, computers, and machinery are the reverse.

I also found that Riedquat is a horrible place where anarchy reigns and swarms of pirates will invariably pick your under-armed Cobra apart for scrap metal.

Another wimp eats flaming plasma death.

Testing a linear regression schema where "poor agricultural" worlds are assigned a value of 0 and "average industrial" (the most industrial in the immediate vicinity) have a value of "6," some of the price ranges, like luxuries, fit a linear slope almost perfectly, even with such limited data.

Slave prices, on the other hand, fluctuate wildly.

And narcotic prices, as one might expect, are all over the place.

I did entertain the idea that government type affects prices, and, at least for slave prices, this seemed to hold some merit. But with limited data to support this theory, without a single corroborating commodity fitting the same pattern, not to mention the moral and pragmatic (the law will frown on this) reasons to avoid dealing in the slave trade, I'm regarding it as a weak and unproven hypothesis for now.

People aren't cargo, mate.

I made a rough goods price analysis breakdown based on the data available, and they are presented in order from least industrial to most industrial.

  • "Base price" represent the average cost on a poor agricultural world.
  • "Industrial mod" is the amount to adjust the price for each level of industry in a world. E.g. - a poor agricultural world with no industry won't use it at all, a rich agricultural world will raise (or lower) the price by this value multiplied by two, and a rich industrial world would multiply it by seven.
  • "Average flux" is the average price deviation I've seen from the linear slope. This is certainly at least partly attributed to a  random factor, but may also be attributed to certain variables that I just haven't discovered yet.

Base price Industrial mod Average flux Notes
Furs 51 5 7%
Slaves 8 2 38% Illegal
Liquors 21 2 8%
Radioactives 20 1 3%
Food 2 0.8 5%
Textiles 6 0.3 3%
Minerals 10 0.3 8%
Alloys 40 0 12%
Gold 38 0 2%
Platinum 70 0 6%
Gemstones 19 0 12%
Luxuries 101 -3 7%
Machinery 66 -3 2%
Firearms 88 -5 2% Illegal
Computers 101 -6 2%
Alien Items 65 -6 2% Never sold
Narcotics 88 -9 20% Illegal

Following this analysis, for example, we would expect furs to average 51cr ±3.6 on a poor agricultural planet, and 81cr ±5.7 on an average industrial one. This fits my observations, where they were seen as cheaply as 47.6cr, as as expensively as 80.4cr.

Armed with this data, I bought 16t of food and 4t of textiles on Lave, filling my 20t cargo bay, for a total of 81.6cr. I took them to Zaonce, an average industrial world where they'd fetch the highest price, and sold for 139.2cr. After refueling, this granted about a 50cr profit - not a bad margin, but not nearly enough to buy a meaningful ship upgrade, which started at 400cr.

The next logical-seeming thing to do was to haul two computers, costing 69.2cr each, back to a poor agricultural world. Lave would have paid 89.6cr each, but a poorer world might offer around 100 for a 61.6cr profit minus fuel.

I did this, and selected "Isinor," a poor agricultural confederate world as my next destination and hit the hyperdrive.

Unfortunately, something interrupted my jump. Something which, going by the manual lore and novella, was probably a fleet of nasty thargoids. Now stranded in the middle of space without enough fuel to start the hyperdrive a second time, I had no option but to fight my interceptors, futilely.

I was too surprised to take a screengrab so here's another shot of my wreckage. Iron ass indeed.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Game 326: Free Fall

We're not quite ready for Elite - it turns out there's another ancestor or two to look at - the juvenilia of co-creator Ian Bell.


His first game, Reversi, is just what it sounds like.

Running on the BBC Micro, Reversi offers 4-color graphics at 320x256, something comparable to IBM CGA, but with a much more pleasing palette than the ugly RGBI palette typical at the time. However, this mode used 20KB of the 32KB available on the most common "Beeb" configuration, leaving little for anything else. Most graphical games would either run in half the resolution or in monochrome.

Bell's Reversi is bare-bones, giving no play options except your pick of color. There is no two-player mode, and no difficulty options. The AI, though quick, plays a pretty mediocre game - it's competent enough at denying you the corner spots, but utterly fails to take advantage of this. I beat it by an embarrassing margin on my second try despite losing every corner spot.

This is like letting him have the center in Tic-Tac-Toe and winning anyway.

Bell's Reversi isn't interesting enough for me to rate or number. His second game is, but barely, and I almost didn't.

Game 326: Free Fall

Dear lord. What's even going on?

There are, thankfully, ingame instructions, and it's better than nothing, but still not really enough.

These are too many controls for a simple arcade game. Can't beat that text clarity though.

What I gathered is that you jetpack around a zero-gravity arena, one which is continually rotating, though this is not conveyed visually (presumably the "camera" is rotating above in perfect sync), and consequently your movements occur in arcs rather than straight lines. There are aliens that you have to punch and kick, though it's more like you helplessly flail your arms and legs (hey, you try punching in zero gravity), which is lethal but has absolutely pathetic range, doesn't even work half the time, and randomly lags when it does. There are also bombs bouncing around the arena, which in theory you can grab and throw at the aliens, but grabbing them rarely worked, and when it did, throwing them never worked, and they'd just explode in my arms.

Most of the time when I died, I had no idea what even killed me. Other times, it would be a bomb, and while the bombs emit a warning beep when they are about to explode, I often wouldn't know which bomb it was when there were multiples bouncing around the octagon. And I still have no idea what the meter on the right side of the screen means.

GAB rating: Bad. The premise is different, which I can appreciate, but playing it wasn't fun at all, just chaotic and confusing. The pseudo-Newtonian physics model isn't altogether a bad idea, but without responsive controls or reliable way of fighting, this is wasted potential.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Game 325: Star Trader

Download my fixed codebase of Star Trader here:

Download a compatible BASIC interpreter here:


Elite, the next whale, is seminal, combining two precedented genres - space combat and trading - and establishing the open world space combat trade sim template, which to this day is niche but nevertheless in use by games such as Egosoft's X series, No Man's Sky, EVE Online, and of course the Elite series itself, now owned by original co-creator David Braben's Frontier Developments. SunDog: Frozen Legacy attempted something similar earlier the same year, but with less success, doing neither aspect particularly well, and also blending Ultima-style world exploration in a way that far overstayed its welcome, becoming more of a hinderance to gameplay progression than an interesting element in its own right.

The space combat precedent to Elite is clearly Atari's Star Raiders, and possibly a bit of Star Wars for its vector graphics. Space trading had been done (rather badly) earlier by Broderbund's Galactic Trader, which I had speculated, and still do, may had been influenced by the 1974 BASIC game Star Trader, which is known to have inspired the Drug Wars family of trading games as well as the multiplayer game Trade Wars. I don't know if any of these early space trading games directly influenced Elite - Wikipedia alludes to the possibility - but either way, Star Trader seems too important to ignore.

Star Trader's original HP BASIC code has been preserved, but it initially displayed some formatting errors when run with Tom Nelson's interpreter. I have tweaked the code for better formatting, but it isn't perfect. I have further tweaked it to allow solo play; the initial program required at least two players. To use it, download and extract the interpreter, my code, extract the two files into the same directory as Basic.exe, and drag the file $TRADER onto Basic.exe (or run "BASIC.exe $TRADER" from the command prompt). Ensure Caps Lock is on.

In solo mode, Star Trader provides you with two trade ships, each commanded separately and with its own inventory, and four planets to visit and trade on. Two-player mode has eight planets, and three or four players get twelve. I played solo, and named my ships the MARY M and the NITE W.

One of the common features of these games is the concealed price information, forcing you to look at regional pricing to figure out where each good can be bought low and sold high, but this isn't the case here. All goods fit into two categories - raw material, and product. The consistent rule is that raw materials - uranium, metals, and gems, are bought cheaply on "undeveloped" worlds and sold at a profit on "developed" ones, while products - heavy equipment, medicine, and software - are the opposite. In a solo game, SOL is the only "developed" world.

Your ships start off loaded with products, so I sent mine to the nearby worlds of REEF and KIRK.


Although you can count on making a per-item profit with every trade, you can't count on consistent supply and demand. Here, REEF only needed 3 of my 15 heavy equipments. For this, they offered $12,700, which I was able to barter up to $14,100.

The trick to bartering, I discovered quickly, is to divide the offer by 0.9 and round down to the nearest $100. It works every single time.


When buying goods, you can get a bargain by dividing the asking price by 1.1 and rounding up to the nearest $100. Software and gems, incidentally, take up no space at all in the hold.


I effectively traded 17 products for 14 raw materials at a gain of $36,800.

You then have to decide where to send the ship next, and annoyingly, the game doesn't update you on your ships current cash load and inventory before asking. The straightforward decision, which I took this time, would be to alternate between SOL and undeveloped worlds.

What I eventually wound up doing, after an unprofitable return to SOL where I was carrying too many unsellable products rather than the raw materials they needed, was to only return to SOL whenever my raw materials manifest was larger than my products. Otherwise, I'd go to one of the other undeveloped planets. It was also clear that each system's supply and demand was persistent and growing over time; otherwise it would have made sense to just go back and forth between REEF and SOL ad nauseum.

Generally, I made cash profits in the range of $30k to $70k with each trip, selling my needed goods high and buying up planetary goods low. There were only a few trips where I lost cash, all of them at SOL, where I bought many more goods than I was able to sell. Incidentally, the most profitable trips of all were also at SOL, when their raw good demands happened to align perfectly with what I was able to bring from the outer worlds.

At SOL, you can also deposit your cash in the bank, and I did this with every visit, depositing every dollar to maximize interest. As I was already making a cash profit with each visit to the outer worlds, I did not once find myself unable to snatch up cheap goods on the proceeds from sold products. In fact, only one trip, to REEF near the end of the game, even had a disappointing yield.

Eventually, January 2075 rolled around. REEF upgraded itself to a class II world, switching its economy type, but it didn't matter. The game was over, and I had myself a tidy capital gains of $889,484 up from my initial investment of $280,000. Perhaps I could have optimized my strategy better by taking into account supply & demand trends as well as prices, and by taking route paths into consideration (the KIRK-SOL route was very long, and HOOK was far from everything), but I was satisfied.


GAB rating: Below average. Star Trader is just too simplistic to be all that enjoyable. At least it's brief, and not a broken mess like Galactic Trader. Maybe I'm not giving it a fair chance by not playing in multiplayer as intended, but I have a hard time imagining that this accomplishes much more than just boring multiple people at once. The only real strategy I can see, apart from just being better at math than your opponents, is to interfere by screwing with the supply chain - e.g., unloading gems at SOL so that your opponent can't sell his there. Even this doesn't seem like a viable strategy with any fewer than four players, as with 2 or 3, there are exactly as many developed worlds as there are players.

I kept a trading log of my session. Note that the final column, representing total cash, does not include the value of goods nor of interest earned.

MARY M System Δ

NITE W System Δ
1/1/2070 SOL

0 35
1/1/2070 SOL

0 35 10
4/12/2070 REEF 14 -17 36.8 14 18
6/22/2070 KIRK 18 -21 40.5 18 14 87
7/16/2070 SOL -14 36 -28.3 0 54
12/13/2070 SOL -18 26 16.4 0 40 75
3/8/2071 HOOK 19 -25 65.6 19 29

4/3/2071 KIRK 18 -22 52 37 7
4/8/2071 REEF 20 -21 67.2 20 19 260

8/3/2071 SOL -17 33 -15 3 52 245

3/18/2072 HOOK 20 -26 69.2 23 26 314
9/17/2072 SOL -35 47 88.3 2 54

12/28/2072 REEF 0 -5 30 2 49
3/29/2073 KIRK 18 -20 43 41 6 475

9/27/2073 SOL -36 48 90.1 5 54 566
10/26/2073 HOOK 20 -21 39.2 22 28
1/22/2074 REEF 13 -6 10 18 48 615

12/13/2074 HOOK 21 -21 36.9 39 27 652
12/14/2074 KIRK 18 -22 52 40 6


Thursday, July 21, 2022

Ports of Entry: Gremlin Interactive

Unknown lead platform:



First released for BBC Micro and Commodore 64 in 1987

Ported to Amstrad CPC, MSX, Thomson MO, Thomson TO, & ZX Spectrum in 1987


Techno Cop

Released for Amiga, & Atari ST in December 1988

Released for Commodore 64 & PC in 1988

Ported to Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Ported to Apple II in 1989



Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, PC, & ZX Spectrum in 1991


Nigel Mansell's World Championship Racing

First released for Amiga & Atari ST in 1992

Released for SNES in March 1993

Released for NES in October 1993

Released for Amiga CD32, Amstrad CPC, Gameboy, Genesis, & ZX Spectrum in 1993

Ported to PC in 1993 by Astros Productions

Space Crusade

Released for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, & ZX Spectrum in 1992 by Gremlin Graphics

Released for Amiga and Atari ST in 1992 by Rapier Design

Released for PC in 1992 by RW Software

Mobygames says the 16-bit versions are ports, but I'm not sure this is correct. Why would Gremlin Graphics design a game for 8-bit systems in 1992, and outsource a 16-bit upgrade to other companies? It seems more probable that the game was originally developed externally, and publisher Gremlin handled the 8-bit conversions. If this is correct, then it seems most likely the PC version by RW Software is the original design, as its VGA color far surpasses the color capacity of Amiga & Atari ST.


Hogs of War

First released for PlayStation in June 2000

Released for PC in September 2000

Select chronology: 

8-bit era:
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Percy the Potty Pigeon Commodore 64 1984
Bounder Commodore 64 1985 1986 ports to Amstrad CPC/PCW, MSX, & ZX Spectrum
Monty on the Run ZX Spectrum 1985 Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC & C64
1986 port to Commodore 16
Jack the Nipper ZX Spectrum 1986 Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC, C64, & MSX
Krakout ??? 1987 Same-year releases on BBC Micro and C64
Same-year ports to various European microcomputers
Dive Bomber Commodore 64 1988 Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, & ZX Spectrum
1989 port to PC
Techno Cop ??? 1988-12 Same-year releases on Amiga, Atari ST, C64, & PC
Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum
1989 port to Apple II


Early 16-bit era:
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
HeroQuest ??? 1991 Too many to fit here
Top Gear SNES 3/27/1992
Zool Amiga 1992-7 Too many to fit here
Nigel Mansell's World Championship Racing ??? 1992 Same-year releases on Amiga & Atari ST
1993 releases on various consoles & computers
1993 port to PC
Space Crusade ??? 1992 Too many to fit here
Top Gear 2 SNES 1993-9 1994 ports to Amiga, Amiga CD-32, & Genesis
Zool 2 Amiga 1993 1994 ports to Amiga CD-32, Jaguar, & PC


DOS era:
Title Date Contemporary ports
VR Soccer '96 10/30/1995 1996 ports to Mac, PlayStation, & Saturn
Slipstream 5000 1995
Whiplash 1995
Normality 1996
Realms of the Haunting 1997-1


32-bit era:
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Hardwar Windows 9/11/1998
Hogs of War ??? 6/19/2000 Same-year releases on PC & PlayStation
Wacky Races Dreamcast 2000 2001 port to PS2

Monday, July 18, 2022

Cutthroats: Won!

At the end of my last session, I found the sunken treasure ship São Vera, but got stranded in its middle deck, unable to ascend topside nor descend further thanks to a tipped bunk blocking the exit.

It turns out that the thing I needed was part of a room description:

This area is full of barnacle-encrusted iron bars, probably pikes used by the sailors for fending off boarding parties.

Normally, things you can interact with are listed separate from the room description, but you can take a bar here and lift the obstructing bunks out of your way with it, and they can be propped up with the bar so that they don't fall down again and crush your air hose.

The passage leads below deck, where I found a giant squid that kills you if you stick around too long, and two chests, each by a porthole. I couldn't find a way to open either chest, but either can be taken out the portholes, where they can be tied to Weasel's line. The other one can be used as a footstool to get back to the middle decks. But I could find no way back above deck, and was doomed to run out of air and drown.

Turning to a walkthrough, it first confirmed something I suspected - Weasel is indeed a traitor, and you're supposed to have exposed him by now. Too late for that, but I was determined to see this timeline to its end. The way to get back above deck is to grab a sword (in a room below deck where the game doesn't tell you there's a sword to take), and then in the middle deck, use it to cut a rope that the game explicitly told you was out of reach. Then you can climb it above deck, and depending on which treasure chest you sent up (is there a way to know which is the good one)?, either find that it contains garbage and go home disappointed and broke, or find it contains gold and then Weasel cuts your throat.

I had a feeling that envelope in McGinty's office was key to exposing Weasel, but how could I get it?

Restarting, I went to the back alley behind McGinty's and noticed a window as well as a door. This had to be the trick. Going in while McGinty's in, though, will get you killed.

I restarted and went through the motions up until meeting Johnny at Outfitter's International. This time, Johnny's treasure was a Hollywood Cruise dinner plate instead of a Portuguese coin, indicating that the shipwreck would be the S.S. Leviathan this time, and being only 150ft deep, this time Johnny rented the Night Wind for only $89, leaving me with $529.

With this much money, I could afford an electromagnet, and figured it would be required given that the São Vera rental doesn't leave you with enough for one. I figured the nautical charts and diving books weren't necessary, and was able to purchase one of everything else - an air compressor, net, anchor, flashlight, shark repellent, putty, dry cell, and C battery, at a total cost of $515.

I then went to McGinty's and hung around until 12:15, when he came back from his little conspiracy with an envelope, and then loitered for another 20 minutes until he left for another smoke break. I circled around the back, and was able to sneak in through the window, steal the envelope, and leave for the Night Wind.

There, I waited for the crew, and gave Johnny the envelope, proving to him that Weasel works for McGinty. Turns out this is the wrong move - he chases Weasel off, leaving the ship short crewed, and calls off the hunt. But holding onto it is no good either; Weasel will see it on your person and kill you.

I instead hid the envelope under my mattress, and gave Johnny the coordinates as before. After arriving, I retrieved and showed it to him, and he went above deck and forcibly restrained Weasel.

Now I had to dive, and being in shallow waters, I'd need to use my wetsuit and air tank, which I could fill with the compressor. As before, I needed the flashlight and shark repellent to reach the wreck. The Leviathan is more of a maze than the São Vera, but apart from one deadly passage between decks full of mines that explode should you try to cross it, it isn't too bad, and I soon located a safe in the middle deck, behind a watertight bulkhead that kept the other side of the deck dry until I opened it. 

The ship had a portable drill, which I figured could help crack the safe, and it operated on the C battery. Incidentally, is that even a thing? The weakest cordless drill I've ever had was six volts, and that thing could barely drill cardboard.

I worked my way back to the wreck site, this time taking with me everything except the anchor, which was too heavy. The drill worked, using the awkward phrasing "drill safe with drill," revealing a postage stamp collection in a cracked glass case, which I sealed with putty. Unfortunately, some water got in already, and the motion from ascending to the surface ruined the stamps.

I'd need to get through the mine-filled corridor and avoid opening the bulkhead to keep my side of it nice and dry. And I was sure the electromagnet was needed here, but turning it on just causes a loose mine to detonate.

The solution, which I had to look up, is to first touch the electromagnet to the mine before turning it on. After doing that, dropping the electromagnet causes the mine to be held in place, and you can now swim upward to the middle deck, and get to the safe.

I'm having a hard time visualizing this solution. The initial problem here is that the loose mine blocks your way. Nothing indicated that the correct solution causes the mine to move out of your way (and indeed the wrong solution does, causing it to touch something and blow up). All we're told is the magnet is holding the mine in place. I don't see how this helps, and I also don't see what's stopping the mine from bobbing around with a magnet stuck to it.

After drilling through the safe, I had to very quickly get the case, go back to the mine room, dive down, swim around and back up to the dry half of the middle deck, and then use the drill to enlarge the crack and drain the water. Do anything too slowly, and water leaks through the crack, ruining the stamps. You can't just seal the crack first either - you only have enough putty to plug it up once! This took me a few tries, as everything, including some finagling with the oxygen tank to fit through the Leviathan's narrow corridors, must be done perfectly, and even carrying too much stuff, as you likely are if you don't know which items are necessary, can mess you up.

This final challenge completed, I ascended to the Night Wind.

You get out of the water and reboard your ship...

When your shipmates find that you've recovered these priceless stamps, they congratulate you. Johnny slaps you on the back. "Good job, matey!" As you return to the island over the calm, dazzling blue sea, you contemplate your wealth with a touch of sadness. You think of Hevlin and hope his soul is resting a little easier now.

Your score is 250 out of a possible 250.
This score gives you the rank of a rich diver.


Kind of an anticlimax. Say what you will about Infidel's sucker punch ending - and I did - at least its writing wasn't boring.

A walkthrough revealed that there are only two shipwrecks, so I'm done.

GAB rating: Below average. Infocom couldn't always reach the heights of Zork or Planetfall, but this is the first time one of their games felt like it was made to reach a quota. Infocom's worst titles, up until now (e.g. Seastalker), were at least interesting, if not always successful. To its credit, unlike Seastalker, Cutthroats generally behaves as intended, seems fairly bug free (though I still have no idea why McGinty bugs out when he sees you carrying your own bank passbook), and despite having to look up solutions a few times I feel inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt and say it's reasonably solvable, but the game world and design is just boring.

For starters, Infocom's prose is uncharacteristically dry, like so many contemporaries whose room descriptions merely described without providing character or flavor. Compare this description of your starting room:

You're in your room in the Red Boar Inn. It's sparsely furnished, but comfortable enough. To the north is the door, and there's a closet without a door to the west.
On the floor is a note that must have been slipped under the door while you slept.
In a corner of the room is a lopsided wooden dresser.

With the one from Berlyn's own Infidel the previous year:

You are in your tent. Golden rays of the sun filter through the open tent flaps on the southern wall, but no breeze makes its way through. The dry, searing heat in the tent would be bearable if only the air stirred, even a little.
At the foot of the cot is a large, unwieldy trunk. The trunk is closed and locked with a padlock.


Cutthroats' dull design is hardly limited to its prose either. Hardscrabble Island, which most of the game is set on, gives you so little to do. Apart from the subplot of exposing Weasel, and making the decision of what gear to buy at Outfitter's (itself an impossible one without forward knowledge of the situation), there are no choices, decisions, challenges, or puzzles here. You just meet up with Johnny and follow his instructions until it's time to leave. The treasure diving conclusions are more interesting, the wrecks acting as miniature puzzle dungeons, but are far too brief, and as if to make up for this lack of content, Cutthroats pads it out with multiple forced restarts from unwinnable situations that you can't anticipate.

This was Berlyn's last game at Infocom until 1997, when he'd team with Marc Blank on the promotional minigame Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, but we'll see more of his works before then. Until then, we've got two more Infocom games this phase, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Suspect.

My Trizbort map:

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Game 324: Cutthroats

Read the manual here:
Get Frotz (if native Windows execution is your wish) here:

Cutthroats is Michael Berlyn's third game for Infocom and the third in the adventure magazine-themed Tales of Adventure series, following Seastalker and Berlyn's previous Infidel. Normally this is where I'd say some interesting facts about it, but I don't know any, and the generally spoiler-free Infocom Fact Sheet doesn't really have any. So let's just dive in.

The issue of True Tales of Adventure, as in Infidel, serves as both a manual and an in-universe feelie, recounting gameplay instructions and lore through stories and anecdotes, this time mostly about deep sea treasure diving, though none are directly related to Cutthroat's plot or setting. More directly relevant are the two other feelies; a maritime equipment catalog with a tide-table appendix that looks an awful lot like a copy protection mechanism, and a book of famous shipwrecks in the local waters.


Nights on Hardscrabble Island are lonely and cold when the lighthouse barely pierces the gloom, ruminates Cutthroats. We play a treasure hunter, but an unsuccessful one whose fruitless expeditions surely haven't been featured in True Tales of Adventure. A local scoundrel Hevlin comes into our room at the hotel, asking us to hold onto a copy of the aforementioned shipwreck book that he "acquired." I've read Treasure Island. I already know this doesn't end well for him.

His last words here are "I've got to go find Red," before taking off. Then a scuffle outside involving three men ends with one getting stabbed, who may or may not be Hevlin. Either way, Hevlin is dead, and the Hardscrabble police have surprisingly few questions for us.

The next morning, a note is found under the door:

If you're interested in a big deal, be at The Shanty at 8:30 this morning.


Despite the urgent timeframe, I began with Trizborting, as always.

My room is sparsely furnished, with little but a bed and dresser, in which a bank passbook showing a balance of $603, a room key, and spare change of clothes can be found along with the shipwreck book. A small closet stored some diving equipment. As I left the inn, a man known as "The Weasel" could be seen heading from the lobby to the upstairs hallway where my room was located.

I followed Hardscrabble's main street, Wharf Road, which stretches east to the sea, and along the way noted a few establishments - the lighthouse, McGinty Salvage, Outfitter's International, and two trawlers, the Night Wind and Mary Margaret, both of which are described in the catalog that comes with the game.

The Shanty lay at the end of the street, where Johnny Red awaited, accompanied by one "Pete the Rat" as well as The Weasel. They asked me to help finance a treasure salvaging. Trusting them seemed like a bad idea, but to keep the plot moving forward, I agreed. Red told me to meet at the lighthouse by 9:30, warning me not to let McGinty find out.

I got up to continue Trizborting, and as I walked back west on the Wharf Road, stomach now grumbling (great, another blasted hunger daemon), I passed McGinty, who stared at my possessions, apparently visible and of some interest to him.

Hunger, and thirst, it turns out, won't kill you, but will produce distracting messages, and after about 50 moves, will cause you to randomly stumble and miss turns. Food and drink can be ordered at The Shanty, thankfully, and I finished mapping out Hardscrabble's accessible portions, consisting of 50 rooms.

  • McGinty's and Outfitter's International are initially closed. I was able to enter each at certain points, and the trigger to open them seems to be related to meeting Johnny Red. McGinty's eventually closes shop and throws you out.
  • A winding road west of Wharf Road leads past an impassable swamp, to the lighthouse, which is locked.
  • There is an alley behind the row of business establishments, which all have locked back doors. To the south is an impassable field of weeds.
  • Ocean Road, east of Wharf Road, leads south to Point Lookout, the highest point on the island, and to Shore Road, which leads to the Mariner's Trust and the Ferry Landing.
  • The two ships at the wharf are explorable and have identical layouts, with four decks around a wheelhouse, and more rooms below deck. The Night Wind has a drill in storage, while the Mary Margaret has a deep sea diving suit and a small, mysterious machine.

Some further observations about the locals' actions and other scripting matters:

  • The Weasel will, if you fail to lock your bedroom door, enter and ransack it, searching for the passbook (not the shipwreck book for some reason). If he finds it, then he won't show up at The Shanty - he'll be seen hanging out in the back alley behind it and will leave on the morning ferry - and Johnny Red will call the treasure hunt off.
  • After agreeing to the treasure hunt, Johnny Red goes straight to the lighthouse, and McGinty goes to The Shanty for a smoke before returning to his shop. The Weasel and Pete the Rat leave once McGinty shows up.
  • McGinty gets excited if he sees you carrying the passbook, and, like The Weasel, doesn't seem to care about the shipwreck book. He will then shadow you, and The Weasel will kill you if he's seen with you.


And some notes about time:

  • Game time doesn't advance past 8:20am. At first I thought this was a scripting trigger so that time doesn't advance until the plot is ready, until I realized the reason is much more prosaic. Your watch just needs winding. 
  • Outfitter's International and the Mariner's Trust open at 9:00am.
  • McGinty's opens at 9:20am, after he returns from his morning smoke. At 10:20am, he closes shop and goes to the bank, then to Outfitter's International, and returns to his shop after 11:00am.


Hardscrabble now mapped out, I restarted to play for real. I went to see Johnny Red, locking my bedroom door behind me, and agreed to his little treasure hunt. Regrouping at the lighthouse, he gave his plan - my first job is to identify the location of a wreck, based on a salvaged gold coin dated 1860 and stamped with King Peter II of Portugal. I must also supply $500 for provisions, and do the dive. Red captains, of course, Pete cooks, and Weasel crews. We are to meet up at Point Lookout at 10:45 with the money, get provisions, and finally meet back at The Shanty at 11:45.


The wreck is obviously the São Vera, which sank at 40'N and 45'E.

After this meeting, Johnny Red goes to Outfitters International before going to Point Lookout. The Weasel waits until 10:24, then makes a quick trip to the hotel, no doubt trying to break into my room again, before going to The Shanty. Pete leaves for The Shanty at 10:30.

I went back to my room to get the passbook and diving gear, then left, locking the door behind me, and went straight to the Mariner's Trust to withdraw everything, and went straight to Point Lookout, narrowly missing McGinty, and dropped my passbook here, where McGinty would be unlikely to see it. There, Johnny Red took my money, and confided in me that he'd been working with Hevlin, that he knows I have his shipwreck book, and that he doesn't trust Pete or Weasel.

This is more than a little suspect. Just how much time passed between Hevlin's egress from my room and when he got stabbed right outside of it, presumably by Weasel? Or was Hevlin the one who did the stabbing, giving him time to find Johnny, and then get killed after telling him everything? And if so, who did he stab? Why should Johnny confide anything in me when he doesn't trust anyone else? What does he (and Weasel) know about McGinty that he isn't telling me? All signs suggest he isn't being completely level, and if he is, then he's a fool to even go on a boat with these characters that he outright suspects of backstabbing murder.

But for the time, the only way to advance the story is to follow the script. Johnny asked if the treasure would be more than 200 feet deep, and as it was, we'd need the Mary Margaret with its deep-sea diving gear. We went to Outfitters International, where Johnny purchased some gear, leaving me with $189 to spend on stuff, and no clues on what Johnny already bought or what I'd need later. I saved here, knowing I'd have to revisit.

I used this save point to track the characters' movements over the next few hours:

  • Johnny goes to The Shanty and chats for a bit with Pete & Weasel.
  • At 11:30, McGinty leaves his shop and goes toward The Shanty.
  • At 12:00, Weasel leaves The Shanty and goes to the ferry landing. McGinty arrives later, looks around, and leaves for the ferry landing.
  • Weasel meets McGinty at the landing, hands him something, and boards the ferry. McGinty goes back to the office, where there is now an envelope on his desk with "Weasel's Merchant Seaman's card - collateral for deal" written on it.
  • At 1:50, Pete and Johnny leave The Shanty and head to Mary Margaret.


Regrettably, the store won't sell you spear guns, so it isn't possible to shoot McGinty and see what's inside his envelope.


I bought myself nautical charts, a flashlight, and a tube of putty, totaling exactly $189. Next I snuck aboard the Night Wind to steal its drill, returned to The Shanty for a drink of water, and returned to the wharf, boarded the Mary Margaret, and waited for everyone to join me. I gave Johnny the coordinates, we arrived, and Weasel beckoned me to dive. After helping myself to some breakfast and water in the galley, I equipped the dry suit and a flashlight, connected the air hose from the onboard compressor, dove, and at 150 feet got eaten by a shark.

I reloaded. I now knew I'd need to buy a flashlight and shark repellent, which priced me out of the $150 nautical charts. I bought the following:

  • Net
  • Anchor
  • Flashlight
  • Diving book
  • Shark repellent
  • Putty
  • Dry cell
  • C battery


Total bill is $185.

The shark repellent is immediately useful, and I arrived at the São Vera after diving 400 feet. A ladder down to the middle deck broke as I tried to descend it, stranding me on the middle deck, where I found a plaque of King Alfonso VI, a pushable cask, and an aftward exit blocked by debris. Unable to pass or get back above deck (I tried standing on the cask to no avail), I picked this point as a stopping point for now.

My Trizbort map (so far):

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