Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ports of Entry: Realtime Games Software

Unknown lead platform:


Carrier Command

First released for Amiga in July 1988

Released for Atari ST in 1988

Released for PC in October 1989

Released for Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in 1989

Ported to Commodore 64 in 1989


Battle Command

First released for Amiga, Atari ST, & PC in 1990

Released for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, & ZX Spectrum in 1991


Select chronology: 

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
3D Tank Duel ZX Spectrum 1984
3D Starstrike ZX Spectrum 1984 1985 ports to Amstrad CPC & Enterprise
Carrier Command ??? 1988-7 Same-year releases on Amiga & Atari ST
1989 releases on Amstrad CPC, PC, & ZX Spectrum
1989 port to C64
Battle Command ??? 1990 Same-year releases on Amiga, Atari ST, & PC
1991 releases on Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum
Elite Plus DOS 1991 1992 port to PC-98

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Game 343: Karateka

"Karotica?" Is that like erotic karate? - "D"

Jordan Mechner's journals portray himself as a computer nerd, an appreciator of classical music, a college slacker, and with a level of interest perhaps second only to his zeal for programming, a cinephile with an eye for authorial touch. It could hardly seem more appropriate that his 1989 opus Prince of Persia, a 2D platformer with realistically proportioned and animated characters, actions and physics based on plausible human athleticism, and a focus on puzzles, set pieces, and use of cinema grammar to advance the plot visually, would retrospectively be labeled a cinematic platform game and considered the precursor to that subgenre of games with such design goals.

Mechner's road begins in 1982, though, and his first commercial product Karateka, though it isn't a platformer, and it ultimately didn't enjoy the enduring success of his later smash hit, a lot of the ambition and style comes through here, in this unassuming little beat'em up adventure from 1984.

Before working on Karateka, Mechner programmed and submitted Deathbounce, a crummy Asteroids Deluxe clone with twitchy keyboard controls and excessively slidey physics. It's not the worst Asteroids clone I've seen, but it isn't fun or very playable, and I don't feel extended analysis would enhance our understanding of Mechner's career.

Mechner would submit the game to Broderbund, and was personally advised by Doug Carlston to improve on certain aspects, and even sent him a free joystick and a copy of Choplifter! for inspiration. Blown away by its smooth animations, original gameplay design, and most of all, its sales volume, Mechner put Deathbounce on permanent hold in favor of a something much more ambitious that had been floating in his mind - an adventure with a martial arts film-inspired presentation, and an elaborate fighting control system.

Two years later, Karateka hit shelves.


Karateka opens with some silent film inspired storytelling techniques. Title cards, theatrical gesturing (made more fluid and realistic with rotoscoping), expressionistic use of light and shadow, and even three dimensional blocking to an extent. It's simple, but feels more modernly cinematic in style than anything we've looked at yet, or indeed anything predating Prince of Persia, and many things since, for that matter.

You begin ascending a cliffside, and soon encounter the first of Akuma's guards, and begin your first of many fist fights throughout Karateka's brief runtime. Sadly, Mechner's elaborate dual-fisted fighting system never came to fruition, and the full extent of its gameplay possibilities - and technical issues - are already seen by the time this fight is over. For instance, the gameplay speed is overall quite slow, and the presence of doorways and arches really exacerbates the problem, leading to lag and dropped inputs. Thankfully, the fight mechanics are quite forgiving, except in one regard - if you get hit even once while not in a fighting stance, you die. Apart from that, you're much more likely to be killed through your own impatience than by mistimed moves.

You have three kicks and three punches, low, medium, and high variations on each, but you can get by almost entirely on your medium kick. Walking is slow, and kicks just have better range than punches. You're basically invulnerable so long as you stand still and wait for your opponent to step within your kicking range before you let loose with your mighty foot - worst case scenario is that the first blow knocks him out of range, best case scenario is that he starts flailing with his fists uselessly while you land in multiple kicks.

Against these early starting enemies, though, you can walk right up to them and just pummel them to death with rapid-fire fists. There's a knack to doing this without getting kicked yourself while approaching, but it's not difficult.

After your first victory, more filmic techniques heighten the drama without too much gameplay interference. Tracking shots with parallax effects on Mt. Fuji follow your assault. Cross-cut shots transition in with wipes to show Akuma sending reinforcements your way, or the princess stirring in her cell.

The enemies don't fight much better just yet, but they start to have more health than you, making it unwise to trade blows too aggressively.

Enemies' kicks also outrange your punches.

Once you make it to the palace, enemies start fighting more defensively. Patience is key, but you also can't just depend on outlasting them through attrition - health regenerates, and if all you can do is land the occasional defensive kick, you'll just be at a standoff as that tick of damage keeps regenerating faster than you can deplete any more of them. Enemies love to kick the air in front of you, but if you can slip in between kick animations, or coax them into stepping within range of your own kicks, you can pretty easily hit them more often than they hit you.

Falcon PUNCH!

You'll have to deal with Akuma's falcon too, and this is the only place where high and low punches serve any purpose. A well timed and aimed swat gets it out of your face. A miss means you get clawed up a bit and have to fight the next guy with a bit less health. Not a big deal, really, unless you get taken by surprise and get falconed in the running stance. That means you die.

The final screen is protected by a guard with similar tactics and lots of health, and a nasty portcullis trap that will probably kill you the first time you encounter it.

The final area is the prison, where all of the guards have more health than you and fight defensively with greater speed and effectiveness, but once again, patience prevails. All those doors will slow things down terribly, but mistakes typically cost you one hit - a hit you can quickly regenerate back - and successfully stepping in range usually let you hit back multiple times.

Kick down the penultimate door, and you're in for a nasty surprise.

That damn bird! Timing your punches to actually land is tricky, and even unfair with how laggy the controls are, but on the other hand, it only has five hitpoints and doesn't regenerate. I have never lost this fight, to be honest.

Only Akuma remains, and the tactics that got you here will defeat him too. Like everyone else, other than the falcon, he simply can't harm you as long as you allow him to approach first. He'll stand just outside your kick range, starting at you for ages before approaching, but this can be a good thing if you need time to regenerate. I lost to him once, mainly because I got impatient and got in close too soon to trade punches while his own health was up, but after than I beat him down without a problem. It just took awhile - about two minutes.

Obligatory note - approach Mariko in your fighting stance, and she KO's you with a single hook kick.

Makes you wonder why she needed rescuing.

GAB rating: Average. Karateka's authorial style is visionary - apparently Mechner spent nearly two years making it - but the gameplay is kind of shallow and repetitive, even for the era, and it's all over in about twenty minutes, which would be too short if the gameplay weren't shallow and repetitive. But there's a forward-thinking elegance to its cinematic inspiration that you don't see in its contemporaries. Every scene and every room, despite the Apple II's cripplingly limited palette, is aesthetically pleasing, never seeming too cluttered, too busy, or out of place for the setting. King's Quest, another game with cinematic influence and where every "room" is artfully constructed, feels flat and garish in comparison. Thirty years later, Mechner would be involved in remaking Karateka for mobile devices, but even its visual style misses the mark, I feel, constantly bombarding the player with tutorials, flashing icons, and "gamey" touches like combo counters, chi-meters, and scoring bonuses and extra lives when the original was over that, even forgoing the concept of points when seemingly nobody else realized you could make a video game without them.

Further obligatory note - inserting the disk upside down causes the game to load and play upside down.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Game 342: Ghostbusters

Activision, formed in 1980 by former Atari employees, had created nearly 25% of the 2600 system's million-sellers, including its best-selling original title Pitfall. By late 1984, though, with the video game crash in full effect, and with Pitfall II pushing the aging system to its limits, it was clear that neither this console nor the 5200 successor was their future. Refocusing on home computers was the logical next step, and while they had previously created enhanced conversions of their most successful 2600 games such as Pitfall, Kaboom, and River Raid on Atari computers, nothing had yet been developed with computers specifically in mind.

1984 saw, in total, 16 Activision-developed computer games, many of them more enhanced ports, some of them original titles, none quite as successful as their glory days output on the VCS. The most successful of these, though still not a million-seller, was a tie-in with 1984's highest-grossing film Ghostbusters, originally developed for the Commodore 64 by Pitfall! author David Crane.

I never loved the 1984 classic Ghostbusters as much as its wide cultural footprint seems to suggest I ought to. I enjoyed it, sure, found it had a great cast and cleverly written dialog, but I only saw it one time and hadn't given it much thought after it ended. I remember finding it more pleasantly amusing than laugh out loud hilarious. Little except for its special effects make it stand out in my mind from the dozens of well acted, cleverly written 80's comedies, many of which I found funnier, more memorable, and more daring. And for having a budget comparable to The Empire Strikes Back, and a special effects director from ILM, you'd expect the special effects to stand out.

Hope you like the theme song. You'll hear it a lot.

The title screen opens with a synthesized voice that shouts "Ghostbusters! Ahahahaha!" followed by a bouncing ball singalong animation of the theme song, which was probably as much of a selling point as the actual gameplay. It's not bad by 1984 standards, but the SID can do much better. You can tap the space bar to make the computer sing along too. And by sing I mean shout "Ghostbusters!" again.

The city map, where you move a cursor around to pick your destination and the route to get there

Ghostbusters is an action/strategy hybrid that feels akin to something Electronic Arts might have done around this time. You are a Ghostbusters franchisee operating in a city that ostensibly isn't New York but clearly is. Your goal isn't necessarily to save the city from ghosts but to make money trying, but since saving the city nets you a $5,000 award, you might as well.


Throughout the game, which typically lasts about a half hour, the "PK" energy gradually rises, spiking whenever ghosts slip through your fingers, and as it climbs higher, the ghosts become faster, more destructive, and even the PK energy's general rate of increase accelerates. The result is a feedback loop where the game's pace starts out very slow but inevitably gets quicker at an exponential rate, and your inevitable mistakes compound until it's a losing battle against an onslaught of ghouls that you can't possibly keep under control. Once the energy level rises to 9999, which will happen quite quickly once it gets to about 5,000, the game either ends or transitions to a final showdown stage depending on how you performed.

The main threats you'll face are:

  • Roamers, who are seen on the city map, always enter from the corners, and fly towards Zuul, where they'll raise the PK energy by 100 points each. They can be captured while driving around - this doesn't earn you any money, but it does delay the endgame, therefore giving you more time to earn it.
  • Slimers, who haunt individual buildings, which will turn red to signify a call. Entering a haunted building launches a minigame where you try to catch it and earn some cash. Failure, or ignoring the slimer until it leaves on its own, raises the PK energy by 300 points.
  • The keymaster and gatekeeper, who wander around and will end the game early if they both arrive at Zuul. Catching ghosts tends to reset their positions, but when the PK energy is high enough, this stops working.
  • The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man just shows up and starts wrecking buildings once PK energy hits 5,000. Your ability to prevent this will make or break you.


Buying a car

Equipping a station wagon

Before starting the game, you must select a car and equipment for it. The classic white hearse seems the most sensible choice, as the cheap, slow compact hasn't got enough space for toys, and the pricier station wagon doesn't leave you with enough money for toys, but in truth, all three cars are viable options - even the compact, as playing with a destitute budget also means you don't need to earn as much to turn a profit. The high performance is less so, as you can't even afford it unless you've beaten the game before (Ghostbusters has something akin to a New Game+ mode with more starting money), getting a $15,000 return on the investment is quite difficult, and to top it off, it has the second lowest capacity of all vehicles.

The gear, sorted from most to least important in my opinion:

  • Traps are absolutely required, and the game won't let you start without at least one. You can actually softlock yourself by filling the car to capacity and not buying any traps. More traps means you can catch more slimers before you have to return to HQ to empty the traps, and I find three is a good number, but you can get away with one if you're driving the compact.
  • Ghost bait is also absolutely required, as it's the only way to stop marshmallow attacks. Go without it and you will lose.
  • The image intensifier makes slimers more visible. Without it, they'll turn invisible on certain portions of the screen, and depending on the building this might be a large part of it. You can reckon their locations without it, but this tool makes catching them easier. And since catching slimers is one of the most important things you do, making it easier is a good thing.
  • The ghost vacuum is needed to catch roamers, which sounds more important than it actually is. Catching roamers buys you more time, but you can do without it, especially if you're on a destitute budget. Once the PK energy reaches about 3000 this becomes moot as you'll be too busy hunting slimers to worry much about chasing roamers, who will soon be moving too fast to catch reliably anyway.
  • The PK energy detector highlights haunted buildings in pink as you move the cursor past them, revealing slimers' locations earlier than normal. Pink is no guarantee that the slimer will show itself when you enter, but it still helps with efficient route planning, as a pink building might turn red by the time your car gets there. It becomes less useful later in the game, as you'll be so busy trying to keep up with the red-marked buildings that you don't have time to inspect pink ones. Certainly worth buying if you have the spare cash and space for one, but if it's a choice between this and an extra trap, I'd take the extra trap.
  • The marshmallow sensor highlights buildings adjacent to the cursor in white before the Marshmallow Man wrecks them. It seems nearly useless; by the time attacks are an issue, you simply don't have the leisure of moving the cursor all over the city to search for his targets, and even if you happen to find one, it's not clear to me what you can do with that information as you can't pre-emptively stop an attack - all you can do is bait him once he shows, in the few seconds you have before he stomps his target. Furthermore, there can be more than one target, and the one you find first might not be the one he destroys first. This would be a bit more useful if it showed all targets on the map, but it still wouldn't be great.
  • The portable laser confinement system holds up to ten slimers without having to empty your traps at HQ. Convenient? You bet. Worth $8,000? No way.


My best attempt took the station wagon with three traps and all of the gear except the marshmallow sensor and laser system (obviously).

Plotting a route from G.H.Q to a slimer sighting

Driving is a minigame where you have a chance to suck down any roamers that your route intercepts.

Once you arrive at a scene with a slimer, you play a minigame where you position a trap and two busters, and then activate their proton packs to try to force it into the trap's ghost catching zone. Or you can just wait for it to fly over and trigger the trap and hope it doesn't fly out of the way. In any event, this minigame becomes much easier when you realize that you can not only move left and right, but up and down too. You'll want to position everything as high up as possible to make the slimer less able to fly out of range, and it's puzzling why the game even gives you the option to place anything below the highest possible line.

I found that the slimer never moves far to the left of the screen, making the left-hand ghostbuster kind of pointless. The best strategy is to position the busters apart, backs facing, and let the slimer approach the right-hand buster before activating the packs and then "pull" it into the trap, but there's not much you can do if it stays at the top of the screen out of your reach. Annoyingly, once you position everything, there's no way to move either buster away from the trap, only toward the trap, so if the slimer flies over you, regaining control will be tricky. And, of course, don't cross the streams, but this won't be an issue if you position them correctly in the first place.

The first 20 minutes of the game are, sadly frightfully dull, as the roamers move so slowly and the slimer hauntings are few and far between. You'll spend a lot of time just waiting around for something to happen that you can react to. And the better you keep things under control, the longer it takes for things to get interesting again. But it's also during this slow time that you have the most opportunity to make money.

Things eventually pick up.

And this guy can ruin your day.

Once the PK energy reaches 5,000, it becomes impossible to keep things under control. Roamers are too quick to chase, slimer sightings are called in faster than you can trap them, and Stay-Puft starts showing up to smash some city blocks. Stopping him should be your top priority - expect him to appear every time you leave a building, and be ready to hit the 'B' key immediately to lure him away. If you're too far away, this won't work, so what I did is to completely avoid going into any buildings on the edge of the map except for G.H.Q., and even going there should be considered risky. Getting more cash from whatever slimers you can catch is nice, but far less important than baiting Stay-Puft, and forget about wasting time chasing the roamers.

At this point, it isn't long before the keymaster and gatekeeper join at Zuul. 


At this point, if you've made more money than you started with, which isn't hard if you kept the trampling to a minimum, then you have one last challenge - sneaking into the building. If not, you lose - the world is doomed, and even worse, the bank forecloses on you.

To win here, you have to get two of your three guys inside, timing it so that you enter the door as Gozer is hopping up and over it. The window of timing is pretty lenient here, but if two of your men get flattened, well, you still win the game because you avoided insolvency. Get two men through, though, and you get a tidy cash bonus and a neat animated sequence.

Now you can try again, or you can use the provided account number as a password function to restore your new credit line at a later date. With this much cash you can easily buy that sports car and fill it with gear including that laser containment field you couldn't possibly afford as a startup, but good luck getting an ROI.

GAB rating: Average. Ghostbusters manages a good deal more sophistication and style from the C64 than was ever possible on the old VCS, blending action and strategy cohesively, but the strategy layer isn't as deep as it ought to be and the action-based minigames aren't particularly challenging or interesting. It took me a few tries to figure out how to deal with each problem, but once I played enough that I felt I knew what I was doing, I found the overall experience rather monotonous.

Later ports to systems including the NES and Sega Master System added some more depth and content - more ghost hunting gear to buy, and more challenging minigames - but these were less well received than the C64 original. I expect that by the time they came out in the late 80's, consumers expected something more substantial.

Data Driven Gamer will be on sabbatical, as "D" and I have just gotten married and intend to spend the next few weeks relatively unplugged. See you again around late October/November!

Friday, October 7, 2022

Ports of Entry: Palace Software

Unknown lead platform:


The Evil Dead

Released for BBC Micro & Commodore 64 in 1984

Ported to ZX Spectrum in 1985 (exclusively bundled with Cauldron)

Mobygames credits suggest that the BBC Micro is Colin Tanner's original design and that the C64 version is a port by Richard Leinfellner. Wikipedia, however, says Leinfellner's C64 version is the original.


The Sacred Armour of Antiriad

Released for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, & ZX Spectrum in 1986

Released for Apple II in 1987


Dragon Lord

Released for Amiga & Atari ST in 1990

Ported to PC in 1990


Select chronology:   

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Valkyrie 17 ZX Spectrum 1984
The Evil Dead ??? 1984 Same-year releases on BBC Micro & C64
1985 port to ZX Spectrum
Cauldron Commodore 64 1985-4 Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum
The Sacred Armour of Antiriad ??? 1986 Same-year releases on Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum
1987 release on Apple II
Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior Commodore 64 1987 Too many to list here
Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax Commodore 64 1988 Too many to list here
Dragon Lord ??? 1990 Same-year releases on Amiga & Atari ST
Same-year port to PC

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Suspect: Won!

The first thing I discovered, on re-searching the house, the crime scene in particular, was that in Veronica's mask, a single dark hair was caught in the silver mesh. Only the women show their hair at the party, but Veronica's is blonde, Linda's red, and Alicia's, as I suspected might be, dark. The detective would analyze this when asked, showing that it matches Alicia's, and had been pulled out, not cut. This evidence, along with suspicion cast on Cochrane from showing the incomplete P&S document in the office and his threatening note, took the detective's heat off me, and he'd spend the rest of the night and morning mulling over things in the ballroom as the party died down.

Asking him to arrest Alicia causes an acquittal, and not too subtly hints that you're on the right track but failed to discover/prove a motive. Curiously, in the epilogue, the detective solves the case and makes the correct arrest despite the double jeopardy clause - is Alicia innocent after all, or is this just a scripting oversight?

Further evidence-based interrogations:

  • Michael is totally uncooperative. On showing him the page he tore out of the trust folder, with his name on it, he protests "I have no idea what this has to do with me."
  • When showing Ostmann the P&S agreement, he confirms its authenticity, that Veronica wished to move further upcountry to more suitable land for raising horses, and adds that she surprised him by insisting on putting off the signing until after finishing some business.
  • Marston says the same concerning the agreement. When confronted about the trust folder, he remorselessly admits to fleecing the Ashcroft estate, threatening a libel suit should you print anything.
  • Cochrane all but cackles at Ostmann's misfortune, certain that Michael will sell now. He confirms the business card warning is his own, delivered under the door at 7:45, but denies any malicious intent. For now I believe him.
  • Alicia only responds to being presented with her own overcoat and hair sample, and only with righteous indignation.
  • The detective happily accepts the trust folder and missing page as evidence, but isn't impressed with Alicia's wet overcoat. He will not fingerprint the lariat, bullet, or fairy mask when asked to, bizarrely stating that it wouldn't reveal anything.


The fact that the command to fingerprint items is even recognized, strange as it may be that he can't be bothered with the actual murder weapon, told me this ought to be useful somewhere. This wouldn't have occurred to me at all if the command had worked on the lariat and bullet but revealed no prints but my own. When I asked him to fingerprint Veronica's broken glass, the results were productive indeed.

...partial prints were recovered from a dry area. These were compared with prints of Veronica Ashcroft taken by Sergeant Duffy at the beginning of his investigation. It is our conclusion that the prints on the glass are not those of Veronica Ashcroft."


Ah ha! Things are taking shape - before 9:00, Michael killed Veronica with my lariat, taken from the closet, and ransacked the room, taking the accountant's papers. Either he or Alicia pickpocketed a costume bullet to plant as evidence. "Veronica," seen at 9:00, was really Alicia, either wearing Veronica's costume or a nearly identical one. At 9:02, she spills her drink, retreats to the office, plants her mask by Veronica's body, and gets out, ditching the costume for her coat and whichever pieces of the harem costume couldn't be worn under the fairy queen gown. Then she shows up soaking wet at 9:18.

A few things still don't make sense to me, though, but I suspect these are nitpicks unimportant to the mystery's solution:

  • Veronica must have been killed after the party started, but why was she in her office and not hosting the party?
  • Alicia, I assume, must have arrived at the house before the party started, but how could she have avoided being seen by anyone? And her coat must have been on the premises or else she'd be wet from the rain, but where could she have kept it, unseen and retrievable?
  • Alicia can be seen in disguise on her way to the office by 9:09pm. The rain slows at 9:10. What time did she leave the house and get her coat soaking wet?
  • How could Michael have ensured nobody saw Veronica's body too early, especially with Asher sitting right there outside the office?
  • Why did Michael leave the P&S alone while ransacking everything else?
  • Why did Veronica put off the signing of the agreement?


I still needed some more proof, though. At this point, asking the detective to arrest Michael and Alicia works, and the detective says the evidence is almost enough for a conviction, but not quite, as Alicia wasn't present until after the murder.

I've got to digress again. How does he know when the murder happened? The body isn't discovered until after 10:00, well after Alicia showed up. And if he does know precisely when, thanks to the detective's magic portable crime lab or whatever, then shouldn't he know it happened before "Veronica's" last sighting, therefore blowing up Michael's alibi?

Anyway, I was pretty sure that the solution to Alicia's alibi involved her wet coat, even though this seemed unsatisfying. Just because her coat was wet doesn't prove she had been here before it stopped raining - maybe a car splashed her driving through a puddle? Maybe it got soaked getting into her car at home?

Unable to figure out how to work with the limitations of Infocom's parser communicate this to the detective, I looked at a walkthrough for the first and only  time, which confirmed my thoughts. The solution is to first observe the rain slowing, and then tell detective about the weather; a conversational verbiage which hadn't occurred to me given the mechanical nature of commands that typically pass as valid in these games.


The game was pretty much over, but just for completion sake, I used trial and error to determine precisely what evidence is required to convict Michael and Alicia:

  • Show the detective Alicia's coat to cast doubt on her alibi.
  • Tell the detective about the weather, having observed it earlier, to establish Alicia's opportunity.
  • Fingerprint the glass to establish Alicia's means.
  • Get the investment sheet from the fire to establish Michael's motive.


The rest of the clues are required too, just because:

  • Alicia's hair analysis
  • The trust folder from Michael's BMW
  • The manila folder in the office
  • Cochrane's business card, for some reason


If you have all of the evidence from the first list but fail to produce even one of the items the second, the detective will tell you that you don't have enough evidence, but provide no other hints. Get all the evidence, and you can have him arrest both.

Sergeant Duffy seems to read your thoughts, as he appears with Michael and Alicia in handcuffs. "Let's not have any trouble, now," says Sergeant Duffy, in his unique way. They head for the driveway, where a police car waits with engine purring.

Congratulations! Your testimony as star witness for the prosecution secures the conviction of Michael for the first degree murder of his wife, and of Alicia as his accomplice. Not only are they sent to prison with the proverbial key thrown away, but Colonel Marston is convicted in a parallel case of embezzlement and grand theft for his role in the milking of the family Trust.

Best of all, your syndicated twelve-part story of the tangled plot and its aftermath wins the Pulitzer Prize, and the book is number one on the bestseller lists for 42 weeks! (Not to mention the movie and book club sales.)


A further epilogue explains the who and how, but nothing I didn't already know.

GAB rating: Good, but it could have been better, and though I enjoyed the game, the conclusion still left me dissatisfied, and I fear I must dwell on Suspect's shortcomings more than its merits.

I really like the concept of Infocom's mystery games, and have to be impressed with how well realized the concept works in an engine meant for a game about treasure hunting and puzzle solving. Zork, like Adventure before it, was about exploring static and mostly hermetic puzzle rooms in search of treasure. All three Infocom mysteries have natural locations to explore, close integration between gameplay and plot, and multiple characters who walk around the place and react to ingame events, to you, and to each other.

But each game has its problems. The first, Deadline, is easily the best of them in terms of the actual mystery. The sequence of events is well thought out, evidence is tricky but logical, and puzzling out what happened is challenging. The critical path, though, feels arbitrary, obscure, and narrow, requiring very unintuitive actions to secure a conviction even if you've more or less figured the mystery out. The Witness is much more reasonable to solve, and even offers multiple solutions, but goes too far in correcting Deadline's faults and becomes rather trivial to solve (and personally annoys me by designating the less complete solution to be the correct one).

Suspect's difficulty falls between Deadline and Witness, as indicated on the box, but I felt it was still too easy, and the mystery is less mechanically interesting and more poorly thought out than either predecessor. Interrogating the wide array of suspects and hearing what they have to say about each other and the evidence is good fun, but turned out to be unnecessary to the solution. All you have to do is find all of the pieces of incriminati, two of them attained by the now tired convention of hiding behind an object while a suspicious character does something they don't want you to see - and present them to the detective. Consequently, it doesn't do that much with the angle of playing a framed everyman instead of a detective, and given that the detective will do whatever you ask him to, you might as well had just been playing as a detective again.

I wish that Lebling had thought out a precise pre media res timeline and committed to it better, because what's presented here is fuzzy and inconsistent. I'd have done more to ensure that Alicia can't be followed at the start, as it creates a big plot hole if you do. Even though ingame events will delay you for a few minutes, you can still follow her as far as the front hall and go into the office minutes later. It's even possible to get to the office before she does, causing Veronica's body to magically materialize one turn later. Maybe Alicia should have just been removed once she walks out of sight, and then have the southern office door locked from the inside, both delaying you and suggesting an escape route from the north door, and adding some evidence of this escape and costume change, which you'd need to find and puzzle out for yourself.

Suspect's shortcomings, unlike Deadline and Witness, didn't hurt my enjoyment so much as it made me wish for what might have been - I don't think Infocom ever truly returned to this formula even in their later mystery-themed games - and I still recommend it as their best categorical effort.

Also, can I just say, this might just be Infocom's ugliest cover art of all time.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Game 341: Suspect

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

I've noticed that outside of the Zork trilogy, Infocom often did not have their implementors stay in their element. Case in point, Suspect, the third mystery-styled adventure, continues a three game trend of never assigning the same designer twice. This time, after veteran designer Marc Blank's Deadline, and newcomer Stu Galley's Witness, Blank's collaborator on Zork & Enchanter Dave Lebling takes the digital quill.

This time, we're no detective, but a nosy journalist covering the biggest high society Halloween shindig of the season. This means no magic portable crime lab, no help from Sergeant Duffy, and, as the box tells us, no help or sympathy from the upper crust guests when a socialite gets deaded and the evidence points at you.

Feelies in the box, a crucial element to the mystery in prior games, are a bit more frugal here. No dossiers, lab reports, photos, or statements this time - after all, the crime is scheduled to occur ingame, but it's disappointing that there's so little opportunity to do any pre-sleuthing before booting up the game. Included are:

  • An informally-written memo from the editor-in-chief who recommends making a story of the festivities, suggesting an angle of old money families seeking respite from expanding suburbia.
  • A two-page "Maryland Rambler" article, referenced in the memo, regarding the ongoing yuppification of ultra-wealthy Montgomery County, MD, how the local blue bloods are rapidly selling off their huge and extremely valuable plots of land to the incoming D.C. upstarts to be used as single-family house plots instead of ranches and fox hunting grounds, often to the great benefit of elite real-estatier William Cochrane.
  • Also from Maryland Rambler, a brief article on the opulent Halloween bash at Ashcroft Farm, to be hosted by Ashcroft heiress Veronica Ashcroft-Wellman. Talk of the sweeping changes to Montgomery Country are certain to be on the minds of the hundreds of visiting dignitaries, and Colonel Robert Marston, family trustee, is quoted here saying that Veronica sees a threat to the Ashcroft way of light, but will have many sympathetic ears for the night.
  • A rental receipt for one cowboy costume from "Costumes Unlimited."
  • William Cochrane's business card, with a threatening note to Veronica scribbled on the reverse.
  • Lastly, the game instructions, taking the form of a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to murder party etiquette, advising the well-bred murderer or murderess on everything from the importance of accepting invitations with hand-written letters in the third person (a phone call, after all, rudely leaves no physical evidence) to how to command dignity and respect in maximum security.

It's Halloween night. Veronica Ashcroft and her mania for Halloween parties are putting new twists on a 110-year-old tradition. It isn't a very nice night for a party. The rain has been pelting down since early morning, but the weather hasn't deterred many guests. The ballroom at Ashcroft Farm is filled with oddly costumed visitors. The rather ridiculous western outfit you are wearing was the only thing you could find at the costumer's on such short notice, but it's out of place only for its relative sobriety and taste in this crowd.


Suspect opens in the packed Ashcroft ballroom at 9:00pm, where costumed partygoers dine, wine, dance, and gossip as an orchestra plays. Recognizable characters here include:

  • Johnson, the bartender, busy and wearing a domino mask.
  • Samuel Ostmann, unmentioned in the materials, as a vampire.
  • Michael Wellman as a sheik
  • Veronica Ashcroft-Williams as a fairy queen


Other characters encountered elsewhere:

  • Colonel Marston, as an African explorer
  • William Cochrane, as an astronaut
  • Linda Meade, as a ballerina
  • An unidentified werewolf
  • Alicia Barron, as a harem girl
  • Smythe, the butler, as a gorilla
  • Senator Asher, as a harlequin
  • A suspicious doberman


Michael gestures to join him and Veronica, but that's not how I ever start a game. I went exploring and Trizborting, keeping tabs on the script for any out-of-timeline clues.

The mansion and its grounds, consisting of at at least 55 interconnected rooms (not counting the upstairs rooms which are cordoned off and off limits to guests), is much larger than Witness and feels much larger than Deadline's.

  • The enormous ballroom, consisting of nine separate areas on a 3x3 grid, is central to the mansion, and has guests constantly entering, walking about, and leaving.
  • To the north is the dining room and kitchen, and the back door and porch, from where you can walk around the house to the garden and patio.
  • East of the ballroom, large French doors lead to the patio and pond.
  • A long hall west of the ballroom has the dining room at the north end, a coat closet in the middle, and a library at the south end.
  • The hall continues east to the pond, and has a bathroom and sun room.
  • The front hall, south of the ballroom, connects a living room, morning room, and entry hall. Further south is the front porch and driveway, which gives access to the east and west sides of the house.
  • West of the front hall, another hall goes from the garden, where the doberman stands guard, to a corner. Accessible from this hall are the garage, Veronica's office and media room, and another closet.
  • The corner continues west, and has another bathroom, linen closet, and a sitting room.


It took me a few sessions to map out the house, but Veronica got murdered each time, and could be found dead in her office, strangled with a costume lariat.

A general timeline of night events:

  • 9:02 - Veronica, while drunkenly talking about her upcoming horse show, spills her drink on her gown, and throws the glass onto the floor.
  • 9:09 - Cochrane emerges from the east bathroom and goes to the ballroom.
  • 9:15 - Veronica can be found dead in her office by now. It isn't possible to reach the office any earlier; if you attempting to follow her closely, you will bump into Smythe and be delayed just long enough to miss her by a few minutes.
  • 9:18 - Alicia arrives, late, rings the doorbell, and Smythe answers and takes her coat. Alicia goes to the ballroom. 
  • 9:21-9:23 - Linda and the werewolf leave the sitting room for the ballroom, stopping at the sun room on the way.
  • 9:22 - Cochrane leaves the ballroom for the east bathroom again, and returns.
  • 9:30 - Alicia and Michael dance together.
  • 9:31-9:49 - Smythe sweeps up Veronica's broken glass and dumps it in the kitchen trash.
  • 9:32 - Senator Asher, in the media room, leaves for the living room.
  • 9:45 - Colonel Marston, in the living room, leaves for the ballroom.
  • 9:47 - Asher leaves for the sitting room.
  • 9:49 - Band breaks.
  • 9:52-9:54 - Cochrane, Marston, and Michael argue about horse sales at the bar.
  • 10:00 - Cochrane, Marston, and Michael leave the ballroom for the office.
  • 10:08 - Cochrane, Marston, and Michael arrive at the office and discover Veronica's body. Michael calls the police, with Cochrane's reluctant agreement.
  • 10:09 - Band returns from break. 
  • 10:10-10:16 - Michael leaves the office and goes to the garage, taking a roundabout route, and gets huffy if followed. He returns to the ballroom after this.
  • 10:14-10:16 - Marston and Cochrane leave the office for the ballroom.
  • 10:21-10:31 - Marston tells us (if we were not present), Smythe, and Alicia, who responds with horror and elation, in that order, that Veronica was strangled and her office ransacked. Ostmann either hears this from Marston or Alicia.
  • 10:31-10:44 - A police car approaches and the doorbell rings. Smythe answers, and takes the detective, accompanied by Sgt. Duffy, to the office, where they examine the scene.
  • 10:44 - Michael goes back to the garage, and once again gets angry if followed, and returns to the ballroom afterward.
  • 10:45 - Marston leaves the ballroom for the library.
  • 10:48-10:50 - Ostmann and Cochrane argue.
  • 10:50 - Band breaks.
  • 10:52 - Michael, if he wasn't followed to the garage, meets Marston in the library and kicks you out if you are there so they can discusss something in private. They both leave soon after and go to the ballroom.
  • 10:52-10:58 - Marston goes to the fireplace and surrepticiously yet obviously burns something.
  • 11:09 - Band returns from break.
  • 11:19 - Michael goes to the garage for a third time.
  • 11:21 - An ambulance arrives and removes Veronica's body. The detective and Duffy leave and wander the house.
  • 11:40 - Detained by Sgt. Duffy and arrested.

In the epilogue, you are acquitted by a hung jury, even though your lariat was the murder weapon and a bullet from your costume was found by the body. The detective and Duffy consequently solve the case, but you're encouraged to try again.


The first immediately suspicious thing is that Senator Asher is found in the media room, adjacent to Veronica's office minutes after her death. That he wears a clown suit and watches CNN is suspicious too, but doesn't really link him to the murder.

In Veronica's office, everything's been opened and spilled all over the room, except for one mysteriously pristine manila envelope inside her desk containing an unsigned purchase and sale agreement for Ashcroft Farm, to Ostmann Properties. Cochrane's business card with the threatening note is found in the trash. Veronica's body, when moved, reveals a bullet, and at this point, counting the bullets in your own costume shows one is missing. You can't count them at any time before this - I tried.

Michael's business in the garage is obviously something you need to observe, and by hiding behind one of the cars, I could observe him popping the BMW's trunk. After he left, I opened it with a crowbar found here, and discovered a stack of financial papers, including an accountant's letter suggesting that Ashcroft trustee Colonel Marston had been investing the family fortune into Southeast Planning Corporation, his own private firm. One sheet at the back is torn off. I could not figure out how to interrogate Michael or Marston about this.

By hiding behind the library chair, you can listen to Michael and Marston's conversation. All that occurs is that Michael passes a piece of paper to Marston, which I assume to be the same as what he burns. It can be retrieved from the fireplace before it burns, and on it, lists both men as equal investors in Southeast Planning Corporation.

By interrogating the various characters, I learned a bit more about who everyone was, and their interpersonal relations.

  • Michael, Veronica's husband, is new money, and liked by most but not all of the guests.
  • Samuel Ostmann is Cochrane's mutually hated business rival in real estate and mostly constructs town houses and office buildings. He regards Veronica highly and Michael as pathetic. Marston admires him but thinks he is out of place here.
  • Jack Johnson was hired through a friend of Veronica's and wants to be a lawyer.
  • Colonel Marston, manager of the Ashcroft trust, is thought to be fogyish and paternalistic by multiple guests. He considers Michael to be easier to work with than Veronica.
  • Bill Cochrane, the main driving force in local surburban expansion, has been drinking heavily. Michael calls him a crook, and Ostmann concurs. He is evidently frustrated that Veronica won't sell out to him, but thinks Michael might.
  • Smythe has worked for the family since Veronica's parents generation. He can't be spoken to.
  • The werewolf is Richard, Veronica's brother. Michael dislikes him, Ostmann calls him a parasite, and Marston calls him a manchild. Cochrane, Alicia, and Asher think him a pitiable wimp. He won't speak to you apart from growls until the murder is discovered, and admits he hates Veronica but would have killed her long ago if he could.
  • Linda Meade, Richard's girlfriend, also isn't liked much by Michael or Marston, who think she is riff-raff that doesn't belong in the Ashcroft family, and she resents Veronica and Michael for how they treat her and Richard. She further accuses Marston of holding out on Richard's share of the inheritance.
  • Alicia is a riding friend of Veronica and visits often. She thinks Veronica treats Michael poorly, and doesn't seem very approving of Richard dating Linda. Inviting a newspaper reporter to the party was her idea.
  • Asher is a junior senator and is supported by Veronica and Michael, who hope he will be president one day. None of the guests have anything negative to say about him. Cochrane mentions that he used to date Veronica.


I'm calling it now - Alicia and Michael are having an affair. I won't yet go as far as to say one or both bumped Veronica out of the way and that Michael's clandestine business with Marston is for securing their future, or that Alicia got me invited as a patsy, but it wouldn't shock me if this weren't far from the truth.

As far as opportunity goes, Michael himself has an alibi - he is in the ballroom the entire time. So is Ostmann and Johnson. Smythe and Cochrane can also be seen prior to 9:15pm. This leaves Asher, Linda, Richard, and Alicia, though the question of how Alicia could have gotten out of the office unseen and to the circular driveway in only three minutes has no obvious answer. Her coat is soaking wet, and the rain slowed at 9:10, but that doesn't prove anything except that she had been outside somewhere before then.

As for means, whoever killed her was counting on Veronica being in the office at 9:15. My only explanation is that Veronica's spill was a ruse to leave the ballroom for the office for some reason, possibly having to do with the P&S, and the murderer or a confederate knew this would happen. The murderer also either stole or relied on someone stealing my lariat and bullet, but that could have been anyone, having presumably happened some time before the game began at 9:00.

So far I'm enjoying this, though I can't help but get the sense I've already done most of what there is to do, and solving the game is just a matter of stumbling onto the right bit of evidence and/or finding a way to communicate my findings to the detective. This hasn't been a problem yet, but please, no hints or spoilers, at least not any that aren't ROT13 protected, until I've beaten this game. My next plan is to search the rooms more carefully, and also try showing the evidence to everyone, including the detective, to see what their reactions are.

My Trizbort map (so far):

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