Reviews by Wade Clarke
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Voodoo Castle (1979) was the fourth game from Adventure International (AI). It was written by Scott Adams's then wife, Alexis, who had previously assisted on Pirate Adventure, and its opening enthusiastically proclaims that it is "DEDICATED TO MOMS EVERYWHERE!".
The goal of Voodoo Castle is to lift the curse that afflicts Count Cristo, a goal established after the player has opened the coffin in the game's first location and examined the man therein. In the context of the Adams game engine, this is a fairly abstract goal; recall that all of the prose must be extremely minimal (room descriptions generally come in at under 40 characters in length), the parser only accepts two words, and the whole affair has to fit into 16KB of RAM. Doing something like finding treasures and dropping them in a target room, ala Adventureland, is an easy-to-grasp concept in the context of these limitations, but accomplishing a goal as broad as lifting a curse is harder to think about in a vacuum, and potentially a little more intimidating to contemplate when you first fire up this game.
The game's castle isn't actually called "Voodoo Castle", but it is the castle where the action takes place, and Voodoo is clearly afoot. Fascinating paraphernalia can be found lying around in its corridors, including a voodoo doll, a Ju-Ju bag, a witch's brew and a room full of exploding chemicals. With no more to go on than the game's initial exhortation that the player lift a curse, he or she must experiment with these interesting props and advance through the solving of a succession of puzzles, and ultimately of the game. The experience is a lot of fun, and while Voodoo Castle's official difficulty label is Moderate, I find it to be one of the easier AI games. However, I should point out that this was not one of the AI games I had the opportunity to play back in the day. By the time I came to it in the 2000s, I was (a) way older and wiser, (b) had solved a lot of adventure games in general, and (c) had solved a decent number of AI games and acquired a strong sense of their workings.
What is interesting about Voodoo Castle is that there are no antagonists in it. While there are still lots of ways to die or wreck your game, including inescapable rooms and destructible crucial items, there are no people, monsters or other entities that are out to get you. In fact, a theme of Voodoo Castle (if 'theme' isn't too lofty a word in the circumstances) is that people who might seem scary at first are probably not threats, but sources of potential help. Except for the maid, who chases you downstairs if you happen to track soot through the castle. Back in the realm of objects, the cause and effect relationships between a lot of the game's artifacts and things that might happen to you during play are often unintuitive (E.G. "I've recently stopped being blown up by exploding test tubes. Why?") and require much trial and error and game saving to discern.
It would be a struggle to qualify any observations I might be tempted to make about the nature of games Alexis authored or influenced in this series versus the ones her husband authored, but it's certainly fun to speculate. My sense is that when Alexis was involved, the games were a little kinder in tone, though not necessarily in content. The absence of antagonistic characters in Voodoo Castle speaks to this idea, as does its altruistic goal for the player, and the very positive image with which the game ends. Scott of course gave us several games featuring instant death by bear mauling, and he gave us Savage Island Parts I and II, two of the most difficult and masochistic jaunts to ever grace adventuredom. But Adams also opposed the idea of the player having to commit any acts of violence against other creatures to advance in his games. The attitude of the AI games is that violent acts may be visited upon you, usually by nature, if you are stupid or unlucky enough - and we have to take the AI concept of player stupidity with a grain of salt.
Voodoo Castle features a couple of AI's most loveable/hateable guess-the-action and guess-the-verb moments (you won't believe what you have to do with the Ju-Ju bag, and I mean that in a banal way) but fortunately the AI clue sheet cyphers make getting help fun in these games. And I always particularly liked Voodoo Castle's clue sheet. It was the first AI clue sheet I ever encountered, and I encountered it as a kid well before I played the game, back in the Adventurers Corner column of a 1986 issue of Australian Apple Review.
If you haven't tried an AI game before, I wouldn't recommend this one to start with due to the abstract nature of its goal. It's probably best to familiarise yourself with the nature of these very early adventures by first playing a straightforward treasure hunt like Adventureland. But in the scheme of the AI series, Voodoo Castle sports some distinctive features, a castle stocked with lots of interesting objects, and a good dose of that elemental, imminent style of puzzle-solving which is the hallmark of the AI games.
Strange Odyssey, released in 1979, was the sixth of Scott Adams's games in the series today referred to as the Scott Adams Classic Adventures. This game was a childhood favourite of mine and remains a favourite in adulthood. In plain mechanical terms, it's a treasure hunt in space, but its use of multiple alien settings gives it a sense of exploratory danger which feels unique in the series. This isn't to say that the perils in the likes of Adventureland or Pyramid of Doom aren't exciting – it is to say that those games are about exploring one dangerous world, while Strange Odyssey involves visiting a series of unrelated dangerous worlds, never knowing what to expect as you step into each one.
This is a dense game even for Adams, whose Classic series entries each had to fit into 16kb of RAM. Many objects have multiple uses and need to be carted back and forth between different worlds. Time pressure comes in the form of the finite air supply in your spacesuit, and working out how and where you can refill it is a significant puzzle. Odyssey also has more locations than most of its siblings, but the reason it feels more expansive than them is because of its intergalactic nature. Its little text strings have to act as seeds to help the player imagine whole environments at a time, rather than just one room or a corridor.
The fundamental puzzle in Strange Odyssey, the one which is most likely to cause players to stand around for awhile going "Hm," is the one involving working out how to move between worlds. It is quite an abstract puzzle (dare I say Zorkian) in a game canon that rarely supported abstract puzzles due to the simplicity of the game engine and the necessary briefness of all the prose. Another interesting element of this puzzle is the way it mobilises split-second glimpses of text. Unfortunately, this special effect only exists in the original Apple II, Atari and TRS-80 versions of the game. I recommend against playing versions of the game which are missing it (C64, Inform, Spectrum) since the game's quality and sense are hurt by its absence.
Dying and dead-ending are frequent occurrences in Odyssey, so it's wise to save frequently. Just stepping through a door can kill you if the gravity or air happen to be unfavourable on the other side. Several objects can run out of gas or power, it's possible to destroy crucial items with your phaser and most of the wildlife is aggressive. When I was a kid, I loved all of this unheralded danger because I always liked stories in which you never knew what bizarre thing might be on the other side of a door or teleporter. This quality of the game still speaks to me today, and while Adams's games have come in for a lot of criticism over the years, Strange Odyssey's alien dangerousness seems to coincide perfectly with the relatively hostile nature of adventure games from this era. A major reason that a lot of old school adventures are disliked today is that players find it too aggravating that they can mess up by taking actions they might reasonably expect to have inoffensive consequences within the world of a particular game – if that game had much logic about itself. In Strange Odyssey, all of the hardships make sense and thus does the form of the whole. Space is dangerous, the worlds you visit aren't explained and alien hardware doesn't come with instructions. In retrospect, I think Strange Odyssey was one of the designs which best fit Adams's minimalist game system.
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