Reviews by Wade Clarke
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In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.
The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.
The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.
Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.
In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):
Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.
(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)
The Pyramid of Anharos hails from the heyday of Eamon, a time when Eamon authors who were making what you might call serious adventures – rather than jokey or personally expressive ones – were constantly trying to come up with new ways to outsmart (read: destroy) players who by now had about 100 different paths to hack or cheat their way around standard Eamon mechanics. Where swathes of powerful monsters might not ultimately stop a PC, difficult custom-programmed puzzles that paid no heed to the PC's engorged stats or superweapons probably would. Thus solidified the tradition of difficult, player-killing puzzle Eamons.
My speculation is that this author versus player attitude was exacerbated within Eamon because of authors' infuriating visions of character-hacking, upstart players who really needed to be facepunched to the floor. After all, if you had slaved away at making a challenging Eamon adventure, and you'd finally got it out there back in the days when getting it out there was infinitely more difficult than it is now, would you enjoy the thought of having your game cleared promptly by cheaty types?
Pyramid of Anharos definitely facepunches the player to the floor. It's not really wrathful about what it's doing, but if you put a character you like in the disk drive, it's guaranteed that they will be killed and deleted, probably multiple times, assuming you backed them up or cheated in the first place. The reason this is so tiring in Eamon is because you do have to keep cheating, hacking, breaking the game off and switching disks if you want to complete it, restarting every time. Your saves are deleted, too. Pyramid has tough puzzles and one undoable instant death after another. I reached a point where I become too annoyed with all this to want to risk experimenting any more, so I hit the walkthrough.
The puzzle collection and overall coherence of this game is actually pretty good in an adventuresome sense, and that's why I give it three stars – I consider it a worthy example in the Eamon catalogue of the kind of hyper-frustrating aesthetic I've described. I don't recommend playing it today if you're seeking an entertaining challenge; I only recommend playing it to see what these killer games were like.
There's a desert maze you can overcome if you just hire a guide. Glyphs you can read to learn secret words you need to say. Mummies you can search to find magic items. A few annoying riddles to answer. A gauntlet of deadly rooms with increasingly ravaged corpses on their thresholds as a warning. You also need to keep your water supplies topped up or you die of thirst. The main problem with Pyramid is that you get killed just for trying things out. The other problem is that it's particularly variable in its implementation approach. Sometimes important items are picked out, sometimes they're buried in the scenery. Sometimes you find a secret door by just LOOKing again, sometimes you need to examine a specific unhighlighted object. This amounts to you having to try interacting with everything in about four different ways to pluck the needles from the haystack. And in Pyramid, nothing is not in the haystack.
The author, Pat Hurst, was known for throwing some moral content into his Eamons, mostly of the 'help a beggar or pay later' variety. There's another beggar in Pyramid, though weirdly there's also a desert raiders camp where you basically need to pick which group of folks you'll hack down in order to get to the other side – the children, the women or the men. Tom Zuchowski's walkthrough opts for the women; like he says, it's the most direct route. And when a game is as unreasonably difficult as Pyramid of Anharos, you probably don't want any more indirect routes. It has notable production values, but it's also a prototypically devilish player-killer from middle school Eamon.
The relative explosion of H.P. Lovecraftian text adventures occurred in the non-commercial period of IF dating from the 1990s and onwards. It might have happened irrespective of all external factors, but because Infocom released The Lurking Horror in 1987, that game is an obvious landmark. I was therefore a little surprised to find an earlier example in the form of 1984 Eamon adventure The Tomb of Y'Golonac. This game exhibits most of the qualities of the later Lovecraft games – reverence towards the subject matter, wide-ranging knowledge of the author's made-up mythologies and a competent or better pastiche of Lovecraft's writing style, liberally sprinkled with words like 'loathsome' and 'unwholesome'.
Being Eamon, this is Lovecraft done as a kill-em-all-before-they-kill-you explorathon, but Tomb's writing is decidedly above average for an Eamon. It creates an underground world of dank corridors and weird landscapes, and is capable of generating suspense about what dangers may lie ahead. A plethora of weird stains, evil smells and inexplicably dreadful feelings mark the corridors. While this atmosphere is likely to impress a new player, numerous harsh gameplay difficulties become apparent as one spends more time with this game and, unfortunately, they stop it from being fun in the end. Y'Golonac does have cause to be hard. As Pat Hurst pointed out in his review of the game back in the day, it reproduces the core aesthetic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, itself a logical extension of the implications of Lovecraft's stories. That aesthetic consists of players having an incredibly low survival rate due to them being frequently smitten by the powerful and unknowable horrors from other universes encountered during play.
It's easy to make an Eamon hard in a thoughtless kind of way: Just give the monsters massive stats and pack the map with unheralded instant death rooms. In Eamon's time there was a degree of competition to make 'the hardest Eamon ever', and I don't blame people for trying to achieve this using the relatively limited toolset which was available. Eamon evolved pretty quickly during the 1980s, and later versions of the engine (6 and 7 especially) gave authors the ability to do more sophisticated stuff. Y'Golonac is a version 4 Eamon which mostly hacks the player down using a combination of big-statted regular monsters, super monsters which can kill with one blow and hard-to-avoid instant deaths. The SAVE command is locked and a cave-in prevents players from escaping back to the Main Hall if they want out early. The kicker, once all of these features are in place, is that 90% of the game's secret doors aren't clued at all, and can thus only be found by walking into every wall in every room. The map of 90+ rooms has been slyly arranged to maximise the difficulty of making real progress and the player who discovers the nature of the secret doors after a long spell of vigilant mapping is likely to feel as great a deflation of their spirits as I did.
For its atmosphere and quality of writing alone, The Tomb of Y'Golonac is a remarkable Eamon. It's also significant for being one of the earlier Lovecraft-themed text adventures around. However, the standard of unreasonably difficult play the game adheres to is most definitely of its time. I enjoy the challenge of discerning and hacking out the path through some of these harsh old combat adventures, but Y'Golonac is meaner than even I can stomach. I lost count of the number of times I died, restarted, missed exits or cheated without success (cheating with BASIC hackery is an easy and common tactic in Apple II Eamoning). Eventually I broke out the Eamon Utilities disk and used the Dungeon Mapper program to look at the parts of the game I hadn't been able to reach or find on foot. So while I don't regard Y'Golonac as worth completing for bragging rights, it is worth sampling for those interested in Cthulhu mythos text adventures, especially those interested in actually fighting Lovecraft's grotesque monsters rather than just imagining that they might be slithering about nearby. Y'Golonac doesn't become insanely difficult immediately, but those things which are good about it are present immediately.
This entertaining and incidentally educational Eamon sees your character plucked from his or her usual fantasy setting and transported to the present day (of 1983) to explore the Tower of London from the perspective of a tourist. The tone is a bit whimsical; your unusual dress and armour don't draw too much attention because the tower is already heavily populated with guards wearing funny traditional costumes and brandishing funny ornamental weapons. Just before you're hurtled through time, a couple of big suggestions are offered as to how you might play:
BECAUSE YOU'VE HEARD RUMOURS OF AN IMPENDING ATTEMPT TO STEAL THE CROWN JEWELS FROM THE TOWER OF LONDON, YOU DECIDE TO GO THERE... TO PREVENT THE THEFT?? OR TO STEAL THEM FOR YOURSELF!!
The only disappointment, then, is that the game doesn't follow up on actions you might have taken towards or away from either of these ends when it reaches its own end. It just finishes with the default "You ride off into the sunset" message and the pawning of your (likely enormous) haul of bounty. It's easy to play either protector or thief, though it's easiest to play both roles at the same time: To both kill all the thieving bad guys you will encounter on the premises, ranging from the pickpocket to the American tourist, and to also grab every treasure that isn't nailed down, including the Crown Jewels.
Tower sports a large and interesting roster of NPCs. It begins with the Friendly Woman who starts tagging along with you on the underground before you even get to the tower. On the grounds you'll meet numerous historical ghosts, everyone from Guy Fawkes to Sir Walter Raleigh. There are a bunch of beefy guards and yeomen stationed about the place, some friendly and some hostile, and lots of amusing and poorly disguised thieves. The Japanese tourist attacks you with his camera, while the weapon of the American tourist is his sharp credit card, that of the French tourist his loaf of bread. Fictional celebrities "Dr Hoo" and "Professor Moriarity" show up as well, the spelling of their names presumably tweaked to avoid any copyright issues.
I appreciate the authors' feat of converting the layout of the real Tower of London tourist site into a satisfyingly arranged game map, something that is fun to explore, a little bit tricky and consistently interesting. The prose in this game is very clean and vivid by Eamon standards, and there's also humour in your adventurer negotiating mundane features of the modern world like the gift shop, or having to buy tickets to enter certain areas of the grounds. A sign declares that weapons are prohibited inside the tower, and the programming enforces this – at least in the moment in which you try to step through the front gate. This gesture is probably intended to stop you from bringing in any superweapons from your previous adventures, and will cause you to instead arm yourself with something found on the grounds which is balanced for the toughness of the local monsters. I gave in to the sign's demand on my first play, but was later pleased to discover that there is a way to get around the sign built into the game. That's a pretty neat piece of design.
There's not much custom programming in this Eamon and there are no in-game payoffs for your play style vis-a-vis stealing the crown jewels or protecting them, but the recreation of the tower and the various characters encountered on its grounds are charming, and the humour of time travel and anachronisms is well used. The game may also be of historical value through what I suspect is its fairly accurate recording of the state of the Tower of London as a tourist destination in 1983.
One of the strange things about the mind is how seemingly long-forgotten information can be revived by the apprehension of brand new but similar information. Watching the floridly entertaining 1960s thriller Brides of Fu Manchu recently reminded me that an Eamon game called Superfortress of Lin Wang existed, and made me want to play it. So I did.
Superfortress is an out-and-out hack, slash and loot Eamon consisting entirely of exploration and combat. There are no secret doors or examinable room features, nor is there any custom programming. Bad guy Lin Wang has enslaved Japan and taken up residence in his henchmen-filled castle. Your job is to eliminate him, hewing through numerous ninjas, dragons and karate champions in the process and grabbing all weapons and treasures you see en route.
There are countless Eamon games in this vein, but Superfortress at least distinguishes itself with its clear aesthetic of martial arts bad guys and a sense of escalation of threat and variety. The author knows how to lay out a castle and to make the encounters heavier and more interesting as you progress. And the game's monsters don't just exhibit arbitrary stats. When you walk into a room with a dragon, both the prose and the nature of the preceding bad guys will have correctly cued you to expect that this will be a rougher fight.
With no puzzles or custom mechanics to test the player in other ways, this game is ultimately about how good your stats are versus those of the bad guys. Freshly minted characters who have completed nought more than Beginners Cave will get torn apart here. Even though I used the relatively tough Sam character from the Eamon Utilities disk, I died about five times before I won. (Proceedings weren't helped by the fact that there's a friendly NPC also called 'Sam' in Superfortress, meaning that reports on the status of his health were indistinguishable from reports on the status of mine.) There's always a chance that the worst monsters will take you out in two hits if you're simply unlucky, but if you save up all the hit points you can by learning the whereabouts of unnecessary fights earlier in the castle, you will optimise your chances of surviving on any playthrough.
Superfortress wasn't rated highly by the Eamon Adventurers Guild back in the day ("Once you've killed one Ninja, you killed them all" - Tom Zuchowski) but as an example of an unadulterated combat Eamon, it's decently designed and coherent. That counts for something, given the number of nothing-but-fighting Eamons in the library which aren't.
I find myself reviewing this game as a consequence of a series of somewhat stupid events.
There aren't a lot of horror games in the IFDB, and I had pulled up the meagre list of those that there are by searching for the word "horror". From there, I clicked on the link for the game The House of Horrors, thinking, "This will certainly be a horror game. Why, it even has the word 'horror' in its title." The game's homepage revealed it to be an Apple II Eamon Adventure (number 146) from 1987. I am well au fait with Eamon, so I downloaded the game and fired up my emulator, ready to take horror in the face.
I was bemused to discover that The House of Horrors is not a horror game, but actually a satiric sequel to the crappy but infamous (in Eamon circles) porn adventure called The House of Ill Repute, which was the thirty-second Eamon. Ill Repute was set in a brothel, but as per the majority of Eamon adventures, was otherwise about killing everything in sight and then returning to the Main Hall with the loot. The House of Horrors is not pornographic, and has the player re-entering the House of Ill Repute to recover funds stolen from the K.E.C. (Keep Eamon Clean) committee, clearing assorted bats and rats from the premises en route. In other words, your goal is to kill everything in sight and then return to the Main Hall with the loot.
The House of Horrors has a lot of poor spelling, grammar and punctuation, but is still written with gusto, and is also filled with in-jokes at the expense of dungeoncrawling in general and other Eamon adventures in particular. It even manages to demonstrate the nifty features of the Eamon parser by having a poem which appears to be part of a room description turn out to be a series of monsters, each one with the name of one line of the poem. In turn, the appearance of the four corpses (once you've killed the monsters) creates a new paragraph. There are a couple of neat trap surprises as well, and the overall mood is one of non-complex fun.
The House of Horrors didn't have any of the horror I was after, but playing it did turn out to be a happy accident. Still, I'm certainly not recommending that non-Eamonites contemplating visiting old Eamon for the first time start here. You should go with something more renowned or 'normal' first. And probably without all the weird spelling.
Kukulcan (1984) is an educational graphic adventure game set in 1519. The player takes the role of an Aztec scribe summoned by Montezuma to seek knowledge of the Feathered Serpent, in hopes that this knowledge may stave off the arrival of evils portended by recent omens. The Aztecs were right to have been worried around this time; the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez was soon to invade Tenochtitlan (the future site of Mexico City), arrest Montezuma and bring an end to the Aztec Empire. Thus Kukulcan is a game which allows you to experience some of the events, atmospheres and customs of the end days of that empire from the perspective of a man on the ground.
I spent a decent amount of time trying to work out Kukulcan when I was a kid, playing a copy a friend had made for me, and I probably progressed about three quarters of the way through the first of two floppy disks. This was with the friend telling me explicitly what to do at certain points, and also after I had listed part of the program to try to cheat. The game seemed pretty inscrutable. I would go around doing things like wearing slave clothes, peering at temple columns and sacrificing butterflies atop pyramids without any true understanding of why I was doing them. Admittedly I had already got the idea that you sacrificed people in this kind of game by hearing about another Apple II adventure called 'Mask of the Sun', in which you could SACRIFICE RAOUL. Kukulcan's game parser was of the two word verb-noun school – LOOK PRIEST – SACRIFICE BUTTERFLY – CLIMB ROOF – and within that school it was of the simplest incarnation possible. There was no real database of vocabulary, just code explicitly checking if you had typed something relevant to the location you were in.
In spite of its opaque qualities, Kukulcan had a distinct style, and numerous flourishes that other adventure games of the time weren't giving me. The opening sequence of the sun rising with some flickery birds flying overhead was semi-animated, and played a few notes of music too. The optional introductory sequence felt dangerous, as you had to enter Montezuma's presence and perform several actions exactly as instructed so as not to insult him – ENTER – BOW AND ADVANCE – and say MY GREAT LORD – though I was annoyed that actually typing 'SAY MY GREAT LORD' resulted in death. The graphics were clear, bright and extremely attractive, and offered additional close ups of certain items and architectural features, like beans that had fallen into a crack in the causeway, or a butterfly hidden in the eye of a skull. There was mystery and a bit of awe involved in wandering the game's majestic temples beneath its blue skies, and wondering what it was all about.
In retrospect I can see that the impact Kukulcan had on me was one that it would have been pleased to have had as an educational game – it provided my first encounter with Mesoamerican history, and I did not forget what it showed me. Even with nothing to compare it to, my younger self was able to instinctively feel the authenticity of what was being presented. I had never before seen words that looked like the ones I saw in this game, words so long or with such interesting spellings - Tenochtitlan, Quetzalcotl, Tzompantli (the 'skull rack'). The game also included captions and titles atop the graphics, describing where you were or what you were looking at. And the way that people and places came across in Kukulcan had that sense of alien but unremarkable conviction about it that is attendant upon most people's first encounter with a foreign culture.
More than twenty years after Kukulcan's heyday, I discovered that my chances of completing the game as a kid, using my pirated copy, had been zero. The game shipped with extra hardcopy historical notes that provided completely unguessable information vital to completing it. I also found out that you could type 'H' at many of the game's locations to glean additional historic information in-game. Today, you can use a walkthrough to reach the conclusion of Kukulcan in a quarter of an hour or so, but the unfurling of the game in response to the commands you will issue in the process remains amusingly baffling. The original documentation, which would undoubtedly fill in all the gaps, remains unavailable. Between this fact and the game's tiny parser, Kukulcan's solveability worth for a retro gaming passer-by is, frankly, nil. But the game's inherent worth is great. It is novel and attractive, and educational in the best possible way, the way in which learning isn't even a conscious issue. The game fascinates the player with its world, and after that, any learning tends to be automatic. I find I am able to recall various sights and words from Kukulcan to this day without any prompting. Especially the fact that a Tzompantli is a skull rack, which I've wormed into more than one game of Balderdash.
* Further information about Kukulcan is available online at the Gallery of Undiscovered Entitites.
This is the one of the best of the very early Eamons. A king hires you to rescue his daughter Rowina (sic.) so off you go to Hogarth's castle where she's being held.
The principal schtick of this game is that you should be loyal to your allies. Don't rip off your pals and don't rip off the king if you want to win... but of course in Eamon it's fun to see what happens if you muck everything up, as well.
Frequently saying the codeword 'HOWDY' elicits neat advice from your pals, which proves variously helpful or essential for the castle section. The castle itself is possibly over-elaborate, given that careful mapping can get you to your goal quickly and obviate the need to explore the whole thing.
In this fantasy adventure you must recover the eponymous sword which will save the world from oppression. The intro story is overly long for such a typical plot, but does set the scene for an atmospheric opening in which you are dropped off atop a cathedral by sky ship.
Unfortunately, the initial thrill of going on something like a thieving spy mission in enemy territory quickly gives way to some pretty aggravating puzzles. The precautions you must use to spirit the sword to safety without being detected are not unsophisticated in design or programming (you would hope not from a 2003 Eamon, as this is very much post-heyday) but they are well irritating, because you can wreck your game if you don't do the right things in the first few rooms, but you won't be told about your mistakes until you make it all the way to the end, at which point the game really rubs it in.
Other problems in this adventure are the stacked nature of some locations (in a handful of rooms, you need to examine almost every noun mentioned in the description to unveil a heap of embedded items - most other rooms contain nothing) and the vagueness of what you're trying to do once you get out of the cathedral. Some side puzzles have a lot of programming devoted to them but deliver unimportant payoffs which don't help you to complete the game. I spent ages trying to string together the right series of commands to achieve something in the blacksmith's shop.
In spite of its moments of undoubted sophistication, I found Sword Of Inari to be pretty hard going, even with its relatively small map - because of how easy it is to wreck your game without knowing about it, and how spread out and unpickable the most important puzzles are, and how hard it can be to dredge up the right command to interact with those puzzles.
Eamon#65 comes with a general thumbs up from the EAG, but I found it kind of tiresome. It's a bunch of straightforward combats set in a contemporary school, written from the point of view of a ye olde warrior (you) who has travelled through time to reach it.
The descriptions are arguably clever and consistent, but somehow I just found the overall effect monotonous. The school's boring, the combat verges on being sparse, and continuing to map the school required an effort of will on my part.
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