Reviews by ChrisM

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Tristam Island, by Hugo Labrande

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Robinson Crusoe for the Atomic Age, March 7, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

A bit of fanfare preceded the release of Tristam Island which meant, unusually, that I’d actually heard of it before playing it (it got a couple of mentions on a well-known community forum; relatively speaking, a blaze of publicity) – so advertising does work, a bit. In any case, I’m glad that I was thus induced to play it, as it is pretty good.

The game is made with PunyInform which, my scanty research suggests, is a version of Inform optimised for 8-bit computers that would otherwise struggle to run a full-fat Inform game – something that appeals to the nostalgic, the curious and those who believe they are still living in the 1980s (which more or less covers the whole contemporary IF audience, I think). One feature of that is the ability to target lots and lots of different retro computer systems, which the author has exploited to the full: there are dozens of different versions of the game available, so players are free to run it on the obsolete hardware of their choice. I played the Windows version, but even there the retro vibe still shines through in the implementation: more sparse, perhaps, than the average ‘modern’ IF game but richer than a lot of the games of the period to which this harks back. I guess that a general sort of Infocomy feel is what is aimed at here, and I think it succeeds (although I haven’t played any Infocom games, I more or less know what they’re supposed to look like) – the parser is very capable, but doesn’t require too much of the player in terms of long and complicated commands, the descriptions are just long enough to fit comfortably within memory constraints, etc. There are also some explicit Infocom references in the game too (having done my research, I recognised a couple of them; there are probably more) which indicates quite clearly where the author’s heart lies, in case there was any doubt. Overall, the attempt to present an authentically retro-flavoured text adventure whilst avoiding authentically retro-flavoured frustrations is quite successful: which brings me to the game itself.

The setting is an abandoned island on which the player finds themselves stranded. There is, inevitably, a mystery here which is slowly uncovered during the course of the game through the player’s attempts to escape. The parser is reassuringly understanding and there aren’t any real guess-the-verb frustrations. The map is fairly large, with new areas becoming accessible as the game progresses, and there is a lot of exploring and puzzle solving to do in this solitary wilderness. There are no NPCs in the game (well, perhaps there is one – but you can’t talk to it), which works well to enhance the feeling of loneliness and isolation, while also handily avoiding the memory constraints and other difficulties involved with implementing NPCs effectively. The puzzles are generally well thought out, sensible and just challenging enough to feel satisfying – for me, they hit a perfect sweet spot between too easy and too hard that meant (much to my own astonishment) that I managed to complete the entire game without any external help at all (albeit with an imperfect score: I got 135/150). Some of the more complex actions in the game are implicitly handled (by MAKE or REPAIR etc.) which is a good idea for those players who can’t be bothered to spend endless turns entering each individual action involved in e.g. sewing a button on a shirt, and for the ones that aren’t, a bit of careful interrogation of things (especially the scenery) and lateral thinking is usually enough to put you on the right track. The most complex puzzle comes about halfway through the game and one senses the author struggling adequately to describe exactly what the set-up is here - he almost, but not quite succeeds. But for all that, it’s still not too difficult to figure out what to do especially as the required items are relatively close at hand, as with all the puzzles (a design of which I approve: who wants to get to the end of the game only to have to traipse all the way back to get the sea shell that they stumbled across at the start?). A surprising feature is the number of hints scattered throughout: surprising as we are told at the start of the game that help is not available (due to memory constraints). In fact, more often than not, careful examination will yield pointers as to what you need to do, which are generally helpful nudges towards the solution…so the help is there, you just need to go hunting for it.

The game strikes a decent balance between open-world and on-rails. There is a reasonable amount of wandering around and exploring to do, but the game is clearly compartmentalised into different sections that need to be traversed in order to progress (literally in one case towards the end of the game, where you pass a point of no return). That’s fine with me: I much prefer to be moving forward through a narrative to wandering around aimlessly. Each bit of the game is likely to take some time to complete. I never play these things in one sitting, but I’d estimate that it might have taken me around 3 or 4 hours to get through it all if I had – so there is a decent chunk of game here.

Overall, I’d say the game is a pretty good investment of your time and money – but it’s not perfect by any means. For one thing, the plot is quite hackneyed: the grand revelation about the mystery of the island towards the end of the game was no revelation at all, and I was left feeling that something more original might have been attempted. There are also several bugs in the game, including a couple of fatal ones, that I would have expected to have been picked up in play-testing especially as the game is being marketed commercially (albeit for pin money). I’ll report them back to the author but it’s disappointing to come across them.

Those negatives aside though, this is a very well done an enjoyable game that I would certainly recommend. I’ll be playing more by this author.

The Golden Apple, by Simon Wadsworth

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Unguessably hard retro 'fun', February 24, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Picture the scene: it is a Saturday afternoon in 1983. Thatcher has just won her second term in office, TV-AM has awoken a startled British public to the UK's first breakfast television service, and the Queen has bestowed a knighthood on Clive Sinclair for inventing the means by which Ant Attack and Manic Miner can be bought into being, at last. But you shun the empty calories of such vulgar arcade-stuff: you want something more wholesome and cerebral, something that will engage your critical faculties and lateral thinking skills. In short, you want to play a text adventure. Happily, you have such a thing to hand in the form of The Golden Apple, from Hull's illustrious 'Arctic Computing' software house. You pop the cassette in the tape recorder, adjust the volume to 7.5, and crack open a bottle of Panda Pops and a packet of Monster Munch while you wait for your afternoon's entertainment to load. You hope to have made good progress by tea time, maybe have it finished in time for Sunday dinner. You're not expecting it to be a walk in the park, but you're a clever young man and you've had previous form with these sorts of games. How difficult can this one be, authored as it is by a bookish A-level student with an interest in computer programming (perhaps one day you'll be just like him)? The tape has finished; you admire the colourful loading screen and then, with baited breath, press a key to begin...

I am on the road, near a mansion

Time passes...

You play for a while. Quite a long while. In fact, a very long while. 37 years later and the Panda Pops has run out, the Monster Munch has all gone. The Berlin Wall has fallen, electric cars are on the roads, your fridge-freezer has become quasi-sentient, and the Tories are back in power, again. You should probably have left home and had a family by now; you vaguely remember your parents moving out and leaving you to it. You've grown a Methuselean beard and you haven't looked away from the flickering TV screen in over three decades. And yet, you still haven't got all the treasures! How can the game be so difficult? The parser is a quite adequate two-word affair, the locations are concise, the map easily navigable, the objects more or less commonplace. And yet, somehow, from the mind of a 17-year-old youth has sprung a game so difficult, so utterly intractable, that it is formally impossible to complete without the aid of a walkthrough: mathematicians have proven that even an infinite number of monkeys pounding the rubber keyboards of an infinite number of ZX Spectrums could not do it. They would give up in frustration before even the final heat death of the universe had occurred. You type HELP, desperately, for the 10,000th time and still the same mocking message appears (how could it have changed?): a help sheet is available from (a residential address in Hull). Perhaps you should have bitten the bullet and sent off that self-addressed envelope after the first 6 months. Was three and a half decades leaving it too late? It must be worth a try. But maybe you'll do that tomorrow, after a final attempt. The answers must be here somewhere, you just need to look more carefully (although not much can be EXAMINEd, it is true). You've got the orb and the tin of paint, you've sung the glass case into fragments, the parrot is squawking Hamlet at you, and you've fed salmon to a crocodile. All you need is a little more time to figure it all out. Now, concentrate...

Crocodracula: The Beginning, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Resurrected reptilian runaround from early '90s, January 27, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

An entertaining runaround with a silly story and no pretensions beyond being a bit of harmless fun, this retro game is decidedly my kind of thing. I haven’t played any of Ryan Veeder’s self-authored games, but from what I can gather the style here is, coincidentally, not dissimilar: it’s light-hearted and frequently quite funny, the writing is witty and concise, the puzzles are relatively merciful, there is a large map to wander around and explore and plenty of characters to chat to. I haven’t finished it yet – games of this length I tend to play on and off, so it will take me a while – but from what I’ve seen so far, I would highly recommend it.

If that was all there was to it, then this review might end here – but there is a real-world backstory attached that is as interesting as the game itself. The game is a long-forgotten relic, based on and contemporary with the spooky Crocodracula US kids TV series from the early 1990s, a copy of which was discovered by prolific IF author Ryan Veeder and ported to Inform for the convenience of present-day IF aficionados. UK TV historians (there are a couple of us) and players of a certain age (there are many more of us) may recall that, in 1993, this quirky series did air briefly in the UK on Tyne Tees’ Saturday morning children’s show Gimme 5, before it was pulled after a complaint from Thames Television citing the 1990 Broadcasting Act (an obscure stipulation of which was that all children’s TV shows broadcast on the ITV network before 12pm on Saturdays should have a minimum 15% UK production stake). The show was replaced by the homegrown Danger Mouse after just three episodes. It could therefore reasonably be claimed that Margaret Thatcher killed Crocodracula, at least in the UK – after chewing up the nationalised industries and eating the NUM alive, she had this show for afters, and no more was heard of it ever again.

We should be grateful to Mr Veeder for unearthing this obscure but entertaining cultural artefact and resurrecting it for the pleasure of nostalgic oldies – and, perhaps, for introducing a whole new generation of fans to this most obscure of TV franchises.

The Key to Time, by P. J. R. Harkin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Journey Through Space and Time, January 25, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

In search of a little retro text-adventuring to play on company time, I stumble across this curious artefact from the nostalgic 1980s of my childhood: a Doctor Who-based adventure game! How my 8-year-old self would have coveted such a thing, if he had known it existed; how inconsolable would he have been had he known the inconceivable span of time that he would have to live through before he would get the chance to play it. Nevertheless, here I am, half a lifetime later with the very thing at my fingertips and I can’t help but ponder the question – was it worth the wait?

The Key To Time is a typical product of the grey economy of the 1980s British home-grown adventure game scene, where anyone with a copy of the Quill and a bit of spare time could declare themselves proprietors of a software label and flog self-penned games from their residential address, often blithely borrowing copyright assets along the way. In this instance, the rather off-puttingly titled ‘Lumpsoft’ really do go the whole way, shamelessly borrowing the undisguised title, concept and characters from the Doctor Who TV series and even including the TARDIS police box image on their packaging and loading screen. Of course, the BBC had a considerably more apathetic attitude to copyright infringement in those days. In fact, they tended not to show much interest in their assets at all – after all, by the time this came along they’d spent the past couple of decades methodically throwing away most of their archives because all those old film tins were becoming such a bother to dust – so it’s not too surprising that this sort of thing frequently passed under their radar, and in hindsight this represents an enormous missed opportunity for game authors (where, I ask in vain, is the text adventure version of Howard’s Way?) More astonishing and riskier by far, as anyone familiar with the reputation of Terry Nation’s agent, Roger Hancock, will be aware, is Harkin’s appropriation of the Daleks into his game, both in word and image (there is even one on the loading screen!). How on earth the impudent P.J.R. managed to get away with that without receiving a visit in the dead of night from Hancock’s heavies is a mystery. Or maybe he didn’t, and that’s why Lumpsoft’s output mysteriously ceased after their second game (a rip-off of The Avengers that time) with an advertised third never to be released? It’s likely we shall never know.

As for the game: it’s a fun Quilled effort, with a decent number of locations spread out over different zones to add a bit of variety. You play the first Doctor (the game is, rather amusingly ‘respectfully dedicated to the memory of William Hartnell’ – what the perpetually out of sorts Bill Hartnell would have made of this is anyone’s guess, but he passed away in 1975 so was spared the indignity), engaged by the White Guardian on a 1978-flavoured quest to collect the five segment of the Key to Time, for reasons no more adequately explained here than in the TV version on which the plot is based. Gameplay consists of hopping between different planets and solving a series of simple puzzles to locate segments disguised as everyday (if often rather incongruous) objects that can be transformed into their true forms with a touch of a magic wand. The means of transport between different zones is, of course, the TARDIS – rendered (presumably due to budgetary constraints) as just two rooms, one containing the famous console which here bears no more than a single button and a lever. This makes navigation a more straightforward affair than depicted in the TV series, and the imagination can easily fill in the missing Bakelite radio knobs, switches, sticky tape and vacuum cleaner parts seen on screen.

Our first port of call is the Dalek’s home planet of Skaro, depicted as a handful of sparse rooms and a corridor (as seen on TV). The most exciting thing here is a control room swarming with Daleks! But sadly, we’re not allowed to explore it but instead encounter a singular Dalek guarding a statue of Davros (the Daleks’ weird fetishization of their creator, who they hate, being nicely illustrated here). Of the various items we come across on the alien world of Skaro, a tin of baked beans is perhaps the most surprising (we must suppose that a plucky Thal dropped it during a reconnaissance mission), but it proves to be so central to the plot that, presumably, Harkin could find no more suitable substitute.

Next, we’re off to an unnamed planet and an encounter with the Cybermen (forever doomed to reside at number 2 in any ‘greatest Dr Who monster of all time’ poll) or rather, lone Cyberman, in a rather lacklustre run around with overuse of an unimaginative USE command to get us through to the next segment of the Key. This seems like lazy puzzle design to me, but at least it avoids the usual three-hour guess-the-verb marathon that is the staple of 1980s text adventures.

Moving on, we find ourselves face to face with the spooky, bewhiskered, telepathic, plate-footed Sensorites – unarguably one of Dr Who’s greatest ever potentially good monsters trapped in a crap story. We encounter them in their ‘Temple of Senses’, a minimally-implemented post-modern sensual gallery where each of the senses is indulged through a single, stark artefact. The identity of the disguised segment here is rather curious, but I suppose convergent evolution can account for most things and after all, it has to be disguised as something.

Our next destination is a trip to the zoo, and some animal antics with monkeys, piranhas, a giant bird and three bears (including porridge, excluding Goldilocks). This is certainly the least Doctor Who-ish of all the episodes and may appears wildly off-topic to some players (unless they’ve seen The Chase, in which case it seems pretty sober) but there is more to do here than anywhere else and it is probably the most entertaining part of the game; I wouldn’t be surprised if this section started life in some other unfinished project and ended up incorporated here. Whatever the case, there is barely time to pause for breath before we’re back in the TARDIS operating our singular button and lever once more, and arriving at our final destination…

Gallifrey, the Time Lord home planet. Originally depicted in the 1960s as aloof, sanctimonious, omnipotent guardians of time pontificating quietly over the fate of morally inferior beings (i.e. everyone else in the universe), the Time Lords went through a strident glam-rock period in the 1970s before devolving into a group of venal degenerates endlessly bickering with one another and trapped forever in the conference suite of a 1980s budget hotel; it’s fun to imagine the upholstered beige walls and uplights of the contemporary screen version while reading the spartan location descriptions, although the plot is rather 1976 (those familiar with The Deadly Assassin will be at an enormous advantage here). Like many senescent empires, Gallifrey is corrupt, insular, and utterly complacent – so finding the priceless and all-powerful artefacts of Rassilon stowed carelessly beneath a cushion on the only chair, and a pillow on the bed in the President’s quarters, is not really that much of a surprise (I don’t think I can be spoiling here, unless you really weren’t going to look beneath that cushion and that pillow). Once those treasures are procured, there is a bit more fiddly unlocking and inserting to do before the final segment is won and the game ends in a (typically abrupt) triumph.

So what to make of this strange confection overall? Stripped of its fan appeal, which gives it a hefty boost for anyone with an interest in the TV series, The Key to Time is a pretty primitive playing experience. The puzzles are for the most part simplistic and not particularly well clued (especially for those unfamiliar with the series), the locations are few and sparsely described and the parser doesn’t understand anything but the most basic of commands and can be frustratingly obtuse. And yet some care and attention has clearly gone into the making of this and it is not an entirely unenjoyable playing experience provided that one takes account of the era in which it was written and adjusts one’s expectations accordingly. It’s interesting to note that its original retail price in 1984 was £5.95, equivalent to around £20 today – a not inconsiderable amount of pocket money – and that the contemporary magazine reviews are all fairly positive. We may never know if P.J.R. Harkin shifted enough units to pay off his mortgage, but it does give an idea of the accepted standard of games and their retail value in the unsaturated UK text adventure market of the early 80s. Viewed from almost four decades later, The Key to Time is little more than a historical curiosity, but there are certainly more harmful ways of frittering away your time than playing through this thing (preferably with the CASA solution to hand, for those not blessed with infinite time or patience). I’d recommend it as a decent example from the era, with the added curiosity of it being based on some famous subject matter.

Century, by Zuuri

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Simple puzzler stuffed full of bugs, August 7, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Intrigued by the earlier one star review, and at the risk of giving this more reviews than it deserves, I had a look at this myself. Sadly, it seems the previous rating is more or less right. Ostensibly a simple puzzle game, of the sort that seems to spontaneously germinate from Adventuron, it is hugely marred by unnecessarily hidden objects, impossible to guess commands and an enormous extravagance of bugs that, if you were an electronic sparrow, would keep you sated for days (perhaps forever). But as a player, it's a rather maddening experience. On the plus side, I enjoyed the typical Adventuron bloopy noises and retro graphics, and this first-time author has obviously tried to do something that hasn't quite worked, so it feels mean to chastise too much. Two stars for the effort that has gone in.

Fabled Journey, by John C. Knudsen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Pleasant if unremarkable FF-style choice game, August 7, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

A fairly short, choice-based game with familiar Fighting Fantasy-esque trappings: potter about your medieval environs killing giants, talking to wizards and encountering mysterious mists etc. There are a few alternate paths but not much substantive variation between the two poles of happy ending or sudden death, but it is all very solidly implemented and written in an easy, confident style by an author who clearly knows what he is doing. Overall, this fulfils nicely my current primary criterion that games should be short enough to complete during work-time, but not so superficial as to feel like a waste of time (your employer would no doubt be happy to sponsor you playing this brief but worthy number), making it a solidly three-star experience.

Apparently, this has been written as an experiment in using a minimalist JavaScript engine (Quandry) to create a work of IF. Having not played much (in fact, hardly any) choice-based IF, I can’t comment on its relative merits compared to other systems, but it all works well enough as far as I could tell from my playthrough.

I See Leaf People, by balt77

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Blink and you'll miss the leaf people, August 4, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Completely linear, non-interactive, whimsical bit of prose poetry. I've had sneezes that lasted longer than this took to click through but, you know, it probably hasn't done me any harm - so there is that to recommend it at least.

Adventure in 20 Rooms, by 80sNostalgia

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Micro retro puzzle quest, August 4, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

An exemplar of the sort of minimalistic low-res, ultra-retro puzzle game that gives Adventuron a bad/good name [delete according to your opinion of what Adventuron is best used for]. Wander around a maze of 20 rooms, collecting objects and feeding cheese to NPCs, in a bid to escape to the 'outside world'. It's a little bit of harmless fun done with a good dash of humour, and an excellent way to distract yourself from that important work that you should otherwise be doing, for a good half hour or so. Possibly some of the references will be lost on a non-British audience (I'm not sure how far the cult of Roland Rat penetrated beyond these shores), but happily the associated website provides ample research material for those non-natives wishing, for reasons unfathomable, to immerse themselves in 1980s UK pop culture. I'm looking forward to the sequel!

The Familiar, by Stickscoder

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fun single-room puzzler with some sticky bits, July 28, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Fun little puzzler with a cute back story: you've been sent down into a cavern to complete some sort of spooky family coming-of-age ritual by summoning a familiar to be your lifetime magical companion. The trouble is, you haven't a clue about how to do it - so you've got to figure out the moves by yourself, using the disparate selection of objects lying around you.

It's a single location escape room, decently written, with an old-school feel: basically use every object in every combination until you work out what you're supposed to do. You can summon your familiar at any point in the came, but the outcome will be different depending on how you have set things up; the alternative endings add to the fun. I didn't manage to finish the game - it seems quite easy to get stuck and there is no help available. If I had a lot of time and patience then I could probably crack my way through with brute force, but as it is, I'll have to leave this review unstarred until inspiration strikes and I manage to progress (some in built hints would make playing a less frustrating experience).

There are a few little buggy bits here and there (eg you can get on the altar and drop things there, but can't pick them up again unless you get off the altar; you can use down as a direction off the altar, even though you're told 'You can't go that way' when you do so, you can put all your stuff in the unreachable crack in the roof but you can't get the thing that is already there without solving a lengthy puzzle). Nothing critical (unless that's the reason I'm stuck...) but nevertheless a tidy-up of those little bits would add some polish overall.

If you're in the mood for some good old-fashioned object-based puzzle solving, and you have some patience, then this could be worth a look.

Checkpoint, by Daniel River

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Solidly-written Cold War thriller, July 26, 2020
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

A straightforward thriller set in a fictional Eastern Bloc country during the exhausted fag end of the European Communist era (1989). You play a functionary in the state security apparatus, tasked with gathering some evidence to denounce your boss’s romantic rival while making your own plans to escape across the border.

The writing here is solid if rather functional – quite appropriate for the Soviet setting, with it’s monolithic, dilapidated government buildings and drab, identikit living apartments. There are some nice incidental touches that add to the atmosphere (the cigarette-stub littered floor of your office, the propaganda posters, the tv news programme) and your co-workers, one of whom is caught in flagrante with the Chief at a certain point in the game, are amusingly described. I would have liked them to have had a bit more depth: most of them have a function in the plot (although you main office buddy doesn’t) but there is not a lot to them beyond that. The same goes for the player character – I would have liked your motivations and background to be explored a bit more. Perhaps some personal touches in your apartment would have helped? As it is, it’s just a functional place to sleep, as prescribed at a certain point in the action. The enormous human interest potential in this evocative setting isn’t really explored at all, which wouldn’t matter much if it was played for laughs, but done straight like this, the omission is noticeable. There are other bits and pieces in the game (for example, a mysterious but irrelevant locked door and a car that you can go to the trouble of getting into, starting and driving off but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere) that suggest that the finished game turned out a bit smaller than originally planned; tying off those loose ends so the player doesn’t waste too much time trying to interact with such scenery would improve things.

The gameplay is linear and fairly puzzle-free, so there is not too much danger of getting stuck - for most of the game. If you find yourself at a loss as to what to do, just revisiting each location, and/or saying/giving the right thing to the right character should eventually show you the way forward. I say most of the game as there is something more puzzle-like at the end that wrong-footed me a bit as I wasn’t quite expecting it, but a bit of lateral thinking got me through. There is no HELP or HINTS in the game itself, which makes it feel a bit unfriendly, although it is packaged with a walk-through. A built in hint system would enhance it a lot, I think: it’s certainly a more satisfying way of progressing through the trickier parts of an adventure than following a list of ‘d,d,drop box,get key’ type instructions. The whole thing is competently implemented, although there is a bit of irritating door stuff that might be something Inform-specific rather than the author’s fault (I’m not familiar enough with it), producing exchanges like:

What do you want to lock door 309 with?
Which do you mean, the Talmak apartment key, the security office key, the car key or the memorial apartment key?
First you would have to close door 309.
You close door 309.
You lock door 309.

…when just locking the only available door (without having to specify the correct key, which I am holding) would be preferable, for me at least. But other than that, there are no real design problems that I noticed.

As a fairly easy, reasonably short game (finishable in a couple of hours at most) in a recent historical setting, this is well worth a look.

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