Reviews by Canalboy

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Quest for the Sangraal, by Jonathan Partington
A Slightly More Lenient Mainframe Muse from Dr. Partington, May 24, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Large, Mainframe, Treasure Hunt, Phoenix, Grail Quest.

On my latest Quixotic journey through the Phoenix Mainframe canon I have just completed this game and retired to Castle Moan with six other Knights Errant, porting the Sangraal in my gauntleted fist.

This 1987 game is the third of a loose trilogy with Fyleet and Crobe by the same talented author. You leave (or rather are expelled) across the drawbridge of Castle Moan beside a cheering crowd as they wave you on to certain death. Lovely eh? Something akin to Les Tricoteuses who sat in the front row for the best views of a beheading by Madame la Guillotine. And not even a lamp or sword to brandish.

Sangraal was rumoured to be slightly less dendrite exploding than other games from this super hard stable and so it proved to be; it took me about 40 playing hours as opposed to the hundreds I laboured through on Hezarin, BrandX , Acheton etc. However, easy it is not and there is still ample scope to screw up. As ever with these games, make sure you have a solid chronological set of saved games to dip into, all leading up to a maximum of 600 points.

Across its 167 locations Sangraal is jam packed with the usual pen and paper puzzles and there seem to be more of these in this game than others from Dr. Partington's mind; it is also unusual in that much of the game is open from the start. You can probably traverse around two thirds of the map without solving anything which is handy for mapping purposes.

There are a number of set piece puzzles here which tend to seal off the whole area you were just in when you leave. These include an oriental palace dedicated to the seasons and months of the year; a maze which rotates every move so mapping it is tough; a set of boolean logic gates (yes I know!) an area of Limbo loosely based on Don Juan which also features Alexander The Great and some ancient grease (groan); and my favourite which is a magnificently constructed area where you have to commit the Seven Deadly Sins in a certain order. This is a masterpiece of imaginative logic. And you get to rob a beggar and enjoy some time in a harem! There is also a thinly veiled criticism of Orthodox Jewry defining one puzzle.

The game is studded with references to other literary works too including Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci; the legend of Parsifal, Orpheus and Eurydice; and the Wooden Horse amongst others. There is also an absorbing set piece in a folly where you pit your wits against an evil wizard and have to solve a series of logic puzzles, word and number games. Thankfully you can save after each puzzle which surprised me. This is one piece of evidence backing up the slightly easier reputation of the game; Hezarin and Acheton would never have let you do that.

As a side task from the Sangraal hunt you have to collect a number of animals for Noah and amass fourteen treasures and deliver them to an appropriate location. Be careful though as some treasures double up as puzzle solving objects too so don't deposit them too early as there is no way to claim them back. Frying tonight!

The game has the usual T/SAL coding for these games; an excellent two word parser but without the examine command, a seven item inventory limit and unusually no lamp or keys. That is pretty unusual for games of this age and genre. The descriptions are of medium length and very well done. I only came across one typo in my picaresque journey.

There are a couple of puzzle solutions which aren't that obvious; namely disposing of the hitherto mentioned La Belle Dame and catching the lamb. And shouting out mint sauce isn't the answer. Most of the solutions though are logical.

There are the usual sprinkling of hilarious puns including the Gordian newspaper, the hitherto mentioned ancient grease and a pile of salt which looks a bit like a running woman (but not a lot).

Having amassed the requisite treasures, deposited them and sent Noah off happily on his way across the flood plains you have short endgame to enable you to procure the Sangraal. You will need several peoples'help to achieve this and fittingly the game ends on a number manipulation puzzle.

This game would make the perfect introduction to the uniquely intellectual Phoenix world. Just don't expect Fyleet to treat you as nicely as this game sometimes does.

Oh dear it may be time for Quondam next....pith helmets and chest plates on lads.


Hezarin, by Alex Shipp and Steve Tinney

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Hezarin - Spectacularly Difficult Epic Mainframe Game , May 3, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Massive, Puzzles, Topologika, Epic, Mainframe, Phoenix, Hezarin

At last. After 25 years on and off, 1,713 little blue tablets and umpteen visits to my psychiatrist I have beaten Hezarin.

This old mainframe game only survives as a port by Jon Thackray to the BBC under the auspices of Topologika and the beta testing of Peter Killworth back in 1990 but thank goodness it does as it must be the ultimate treasure gathering / picaresque odyssey of a text adventure game ever coded by mortal hand. It shares a lot of early IF tropes with its big brother Acheton; size, head bashing toughness, manifold opportunities to screw up without realising it and sudden death scenarios a plenty. However, unlike its forebear there are few mazes and most refreshing of all no lamp timer.


It was the fourth of the original 16 games written for the old IBM mainframe nicknamed "Phoenix" and despite my previous observations is still certainly one of the toughest from this stable, which really is saying something as they are universally didactic and always paddled against the mainstream of IF even as the eighties wore on and such hidebound shibboleths became at best uncool and at worst subject to the most vehement of derision. One suspects that the neophytes' jeers ruffled nary an intellectual feather with the Phoenix crowd.

The game itself is based on the old Mesopotamian epic poem the Epic Of Gilgamesh, although no prior knowledge of the poem is needed to solve it. Just patience, a keen eye for detail and pen and paper to note down clues on the way (or stab yourself with maybe). Oh yes and about two and a half decades of spare time as this thing sprawls over 300+ rooms and (by my reckoning) 86 objects. There are 1100 points to be gained and 45 treasures as well. If you manage to complete the game with a full quota of points there is an extra dump of information on the screen.

In the manner of the day treasure items are suffixed by an exclamation mark.

Hezarin will take you on a quest through several regions, that is in an area of fields by a village, an underground cave complex with a central cavern, another area of caves with its own fountain cavern, shifting halls, a dragon maze, a wild wood, desolate moorland, an ivory temple, a castle....and so on and on, deep into the night if you are like me.

The game has the standard Phoenix two word parser but atypically the examine command is useable and you will need it on more than one occasion. The inventory list is seven but there is a receptacle available somewhere to augment this number.

You don't so much play Hezarin as strap on an extraordinarily heavy suit of armour, oversharpen your figurative lance, clutch your Vorpal Blade and physically assault the thing. Be prepared to die or softlock and restart a thousand and one times. Unlike its predecessors from this stable the game will however sometimes show you mercy when you die, commenting "Would you like me to pretend you hadn't done that?" Upon commenting yes, it replies, "Alright, but be more careful next time!"

There are several puzzles which I would consider unfair here; as previously noted pretty much the norm for the Phoenix stable. Soft lockouts really do abound, and there is an horrifically cruel trick in one smoke filled corridor where using the save command renders the exit unreachable but beyond a description of an earth tremor this is not at all made clear. Another puzzle revolves around noting down part of a room description that only appears the first time you enter it (the music room) and this then needs to be interpreted and applied much later in the game. There is no hint as to the necessity of doing this. Another requires you to invoke an old piece of speleological slang which I was not familiar with. Think Bedquilt in Colossal Cave. And then there's the inn sign.....you get the general idea.

There is a graduated hint system which you access by typing HELP and referring to the appropriate problem number. A list of problems can be found under https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/phoenix/manuals/Doom3_Hezarin.pdf

Good luck (you'll need it!)

There are many NPCs in the game, nearly all of whom want to do you in and several laugh out loud moments as well. If you are not English one of them may go over your head, but the centuries old mural depicting shaven-headed, peace loving monks doing over some Millwall supporters had me in stitches. And the three bickering witches are hilarious too. I also liked the Adventurers' Lounge and Bar, complete with weary adventurers and serving wenches.

The denouement of the game involves a dangerous sequence of cat and mouse manoeuvering with the wizard Anjith and the final puzzle, fittingly, is extremely fiendish but certainly sums up the whole game. It rather reminds me of a much earlier Andy Phillips type sequence.

I estimate that the game consists of 402 rooms which would make it exactly 1 room smaller than Acheton. Whether this was deference or coincidence I am not sure; the fact that one of the treasures is the Acheton Database leads me to suspect it is the former.

It ran very smoothly in DosBox although I did manage to crash the game three times, when jumping from the east side of the air duct, throwing objects when in the air and attempting to open an object with the sword. Unusually for Phoenix games there are also a few typos.

If you have played other games from this stable you'll certainly know what to expect. If you get impatient boiling a kettle or cutting a sandwich you'd best avoid this multiple course banquet of frustration and essay reloading a modern game.


Fyleet, by Jonathan Partington

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Monumental Mainframe Masochism, April 27, 2022

Stone the crows, the missus'll never believe this 'un! I have destroyed the evil Demnos and his temple, raized the fort to the ground and lived to tell the tale and I only died or locked myself out of winning about fifty times, which is pretty good going for me with these super hard Phoenix games. The review below contains some spoilers.

Fyleet has the reputation of being one of the hardest games in the excruciatingly difficult Phoenix canon and having wrestled mightily with it I would agree. It is certainly right up there with Acheton, Philosopher's Quest (aka Brand X,) Quondam, Hezarin and Xeno in the "Oh blast I've used the bandage on the dwarf and now can't clean the mirror" kind of restart exasperation.

Fyleet was written on the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University in 1985 and as far as I am aware never released commercially by Acornsoft or Topologika and was the first in a loose trilogy of games followed by Crobe and Quest For The Sangraal; all were written by that master of the mainframe mystery Dr. Jonathan Partington. Fyleet is considerably tougher than the following two games in the trilogy however. You may be better off dipping your tentative toes into the calmer waters of Sangraal before attempting this exquisite torture.

Several of the old mainframe games from Cambridge (including this one) saw a new lease of life when Graham Nelson, Adam Atkinson, Gunther Schmidl and David Kinder worked together to create the Perl script and Inform libraries used to restore them, as well as negotiating their release into the public domain where Topologika still held them.

Richard Bos has written a graduated clue sheet in z5 (available on this page) in the manner of the ones written for the commercial releases of the Phoenix games. The hints start vaguely then lead up to the final complete answer.

So; on to the game. It is, as has often been said of these games very old-fashioned and ticks all the expected boxes: almost two hundred locations; no examine command; a two word parser; sudden death endings; an inventory limit of seven items; magic words and a lamp and sword amongst other familiar tropes. There is, however, no lamp timer which at least makes exploration less pressured. And unusually you can move in the dark without breaking your neck, falling into a pit or any of the other typical deaths that darkness normally dishes out in these games.

You start above ground near the fort entrance. Go west and you are killed by a scarecrow. Go ne, se, sw, nw and you are killed by bandits. Try climbing a tree and you are hurled to the ground. Best dive underground quickly and start exploring!

Very early on you will find a prayer mat, which has three separate uses in the game, the first of which is far from obvious but needs to be performed above ground to obtain a vital piece of equipment which will enable you to skewer the scarecrow. I missed this al fresco task for ages and consequently became log jammed very early on. And be careful where you drop the aforementioned mat, as in most places it will disappear for good if you walk away from it.

There are the full gamut of posers here, from alphametics to Teutonic Helmets and a few head scratchers that seem to me to be rather illogical. Mapping the rabbit warren maze, crossing the lake and retrieving the parrot are three examples of puzzles where the solution doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me; bold experimentation is the answer. Knowledge of musical notation will help with one puzzle and the old pen and pencil will probably come out to solve the giant's maze and the three other mazes in the game. Fittingly enough for this puzzlefest the last puzzle is a Sudoku-type poser.

There are 25 treasures ending with a "!" in all to be amassed and deposited somewhere (which should be pretty obvious) to appease the god Hurgenpor and lead you into the short but tricky end game which should leave you victorious with 600 points to your hallowed name (or more likely trampled to death by a horse-like nightmare.) There are 65 objects in all and each one has at least one use.

The descriptions are of medium length but Dr. Partington is a good enough writer to create a sense of uneasiness and magic in the game. The proprietory T/SAL coding is naturally excellent and I only counted three or four typos. There are a number of NPCs but in the manner of the day conversation is pretty much out; actions speak louder than words when dealing with the (mostly hostile) beings you come across. Verbose and Take All are catered for, as is Back, but be careful where you use this, as in Monopoly's "go back three spaces" it can lead you into a whole heap of trouble. It won't work in the mazes and there are a few areas of the game where Save is disabled, in order that you won't cheat by saving every move in certain chaining puzzles. There are also a few of Dr. Partington's usual outrageous puns, my favourite of which is in the Gorgon's Lair.

There is a short endgame which consists of about three moves, fairly simple after what has come before. You may have to save before tackling this though as you need several objects with you which aren't obvious to start with.

I'm sure you already have your opinions on these old games; personally I love them and intend to carry on my quest to solve them all - hopefully before the Sun turns into a Red Giant and swallows the Solar System.


Philosopher's Quest, by Peter D. Killworth and Jonathan Mestel

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mainframe Juggernaut From 1979, April 1, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Phoenix, Mainframe, Puzzlefest, Peter Killworth

I set myself the ultimate challenge this year - to complete all the games in the Phoenix canon.

I realise that this is somewhat akin to that other masochistic pastime blindfold bomb disposal but after recently completing the epic brain sizzler Hezarin I thought I would go for a game I last attempted when I was doing my 'O' Levels - one Geoffrey Chaucer had just started shaving I think.

Peter Killworth, Oceanographer extraordinaire wrote this mainframe game under the name Brand X back in 1979 - Acheton, the first game in the collection to be started, was only half completed at the time.

It is available to be played in the mainframe version (upon which this review is based); a cut-down 250 points 1982 Acornsoft version released for the BBC and retitled Philosopher's Quest; and a 1987 Topologika release which is almost identical to the mainframe version but still called by the last name.

The game is rather more compact than the other early releases from this stable (just over 100 locations as opposed to over 400+ locations in Acheton and Hezarin) but shares the same rigidly unforgiving intellect of those other two games. Due caveats as to its unforgiving nature are given at the beginning: "You don't need any instructions, so you won't get any!" Learning by death, softlocks via experimentation and formal maze mapping were assumed as didactic inevitabilities in these early games and they didn't disappoint. Indeed, there are two problems right at the start of the game (the opening location and a room to its immediate south) which have had their very fairness debated many times. I think the second problem is just about excusable but the very first poser (removing items from the Antique Shop) would seem to me to be on the wrong side of fairness. It is almost as if the creator were laying down warning markers for what was to come.

The latter two versions of the game do at least have a series of progressive hints. The mainframe version leaves you very much to fend for yourself. Purist that I am, I went for the original uncut and unaided release. Hair shirt time.

At its scholarly heart Brand X is very much a treasure hunt that really cares nothing for mimesis; a long plank cum mathematical puzzle just happens to run along a cliff by the seaside; there are several elaborate chaining puzzles and of course there's an invisible dog and an ancient mariner! The game amounts to a group of beautifully constructed set piece posers like this, all pretty logical when you have gleaned the solution but head bashingly difficult until then. Underpinning the treasure hunt is your search for an old lady's missing dog, but appearances can be deceptive. For me working out the chronological order for solving them was as difficult as the actual solutions as it is incredibly easy to render the game unwinnable and be blissfully ignorant of the fact until much later in the game; this is a familiar trope to those of you who have played these games before.

Several of the set pieces have biblical connections as well: there is a Tower Of Babel where nobody understands anyone else; a Jonah And The Whale puzzle; also a Garden Of Eden puzzle with a less than friendly snake. The game also name drops such literary luminaries as Coleridge and Steinbeck and a maze is dedicated to that indefatigable maze creator Maurits Escher. You knew they'd be mazes didn't you? Yup and there is also my least favourite hardy perennial in early text adventures, namely the lamp timer. Switch it off at every opportunity. I don't think the timer is quite as tight as in Acheton but you still can't afford to leave it switched on al fresco for very long. When a game is as difficult as this I feel a little more slack should be cut for the player in terms of daemons.

The game is imbued with the author Peter Killworth's usual dry wit. I love his mordant description of the "living granite" in one location in particular and there are some excruciating puns to boot.

The two word T/SAL parser is certainly adequate and I never found myself unable to phrase what I wanted to say although of course there is the lack of an "examine" command (in common with most Phoenix games) together with no "verbose" although "take all" and "drop all" are recognised. I did occasionally find it annoying that I had to "look" to get a list of exits when revisiting a room and this of course uses up more lamp time. When these games were ported to Inform the boys left the parser as untouched as possible; quite rightly in my opinion. It's trad, dad.

The location descriptions can be quite long in places but are never less than interesting and there is an inventory limit of seven objects; this is standard fare for the Phoenix games.

There is a last lousy point too; as far as I can tell it is as unclued as in Colossal Cave but try a magic word you found near the beginning of the game at every recurring shape on the walls. I'll say no more.

A small but significant band of hardy (masochistic?) traditionalists will continue to hold these games in high esteem; progressives will no doubt continue to pour scorn.


Warp, by Rob Lucke and Bill Frolik

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Warp - Enormous Game And Enormous Fun, February 6, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Parser, Large, Mainframe, Warp, Treasure Hunt

Infocom's Zork Trilogy cast a long shadow over IF for many years, but one of its more obscure spin-offs was another extremely large mainframe game begun soon after the authors (Rob Lucke and Bill Frolic) had completed the original mainframe Zork in 1979. They decided they would write an even larger game, with a more sophisticated parser. They certainly succeeded in the former as Warp is more than double the size of the original mainframe Zork, but the latter (the game was written in Pascal on an HP3000) is miles behind Infocom's ZIL even after its 4 year and 38 version development.

While Warp understands clever commands like BACKTRACK X, where X is a number of moves and also interprets whole sentences it will often fail to understand many synonyms and objects in the location you are in. Many times I found myself banging my head against the wall looking for a verb / noun combination the game would understand. It also allows for the creation of macros, but this feels more like unnecessary frippery than a clever construct to help the player.

Not until the endgame (yes there is one and it's even more difficult then the main game) is the macro function useful as SAVE GAME is disabled here and I found myself nesting ten macros inside another one to get me back to a point deep in the aforementioned endgame. I would probably have given up otherwise as it would have necessitated several hundred turns to get me back to the position I was in.

The game is set on a contemporary island resort and involves the collection of 49 treasures and 1216 points which are to be stored somewhere, although where is for you to find out. It encompasses many areas, including desert, a massive ocean that needs thorough mapping as it is studded with reefs and atolls as well as a less than friendly galleon, rainforest, mountain, city centre, shopping mall, underground areas and even a nudist beach and French café. That's not including neighbouring islands which you can swim or sail to, although the former option may well see you added to a Great White's dinner menu.

The player will soon recognise the many Zorkian influences as the game has its own versions of Zork's troll and thief as well as several other NPCs who seem rather static compared to many modern games. One in particular would not pass muster at a Labour Party Momentum meeting, but I suppose you have to allow for the rather less politically correct times in which the game was written. A rather racy magazine would get the thumbs down on campus nowadays too.

The game includes the DIAGNOSE command so you can check your health during a fight or the effects of certain toxic substances, both animal and mineral.

A skein of Lewis Carroll style surrealism pervades the whole thing, both grammatically and physically; the title lends itself to a large wonk in the game.

As in much IF of this vintage there is a large and rather difficult maze complete with Beatle's song reference, a lamp timer (although there is a way around this) and an inventory limit. The endgame even includes an homage to Zork III's Royal Puzzle.

It is very easy to put the game in an unwinnable position and unfortunately one of these comes very near the start of the game. Just make sure you map very carefully and keep lots of saved games in reserve. Spoiler below.

(Spoiler - click to show)You need to visit the bank early on the first day to procure a treasure - a clue lies in the President's Office .

The game also includes a large amount of ASCII art, far more than mainframe Zork does and this adds to the immersive feel of the game; circa six thousand lines of ASCII art if you please.

The whole experience took me two months to fully complete, playing along with Jason Dyer and Russell Karlberg via Jason's excellent Renga In Blue blog. We all experienced a few bugs and crashes but nothing a reload didn't seem to cure. There are numerous typos sprinkled amongst the fairly lengthy location descriptions too.

One innovative and enjoyable feature is God mode, which you only achieve upon completion of the end game. This provides you with the ability to take items from anywhere, GOTO any location in the game, check your map using SHOW LINKS, LIST all the puzzles and even walk on water!

Many thanks to Dan Hallock, guru of the HP3000 who has made the game easy to play for a whole new generation of players via the links above.

All we have to do now is find FisK somewhere.





Crystal Caverns, by Dan Kitchen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Enjoyable Large Old School Sprawler Of Intermediate Difficulty, January 16, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)

This rather large and well crafted text adventure was originally written for the Apple II in 1982 and then re-programmed for the Commodore 64 two years later.

It is a nice throwback to the days of Mainframe games, with more than a nod to Zork, Colossal Cave and Acheton although I wouldn't consider it as tough as any of those.

The rather diaphanous premise is that you need to collect sixteen treasures and ferret them away somewhere to become Crystal Caverns Estate Landlord (a rather upmarket Rigsby I suppose) by exploring the areas deep below an old Victorian Mansion. Unlike Rising Damp there is no view of the gas works but there are various views through the mansion windows of a rotting shed and various other decaying landmarks in the game. In fact an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude hangs over the whole scenario - there are rotten tree stumps, rusted hinges, broken shutters and skeletons sprinkled liberally throughout the game geography.

There are the usual tropes associated with games of this era; a maximum inventory of seven objects (the same number as the Cambridge Phoenix games); a lamp timer which can be ameliorated by finding an object that recharges it (thanks 8bitAg for the nudge there); a rather nasty maze for which there is some help although I didn't find it until after I'd spent many an hour solving it the old fashioned way of dropping objects); and a number of twisting exits that make map drawing excruciating. One of the more colourful descriptions in the game seems to have been lifted almost exactly from the Volcano View in Dave Platt's Colossal Cave extension.

The two word parser is pretty good for its age, that is not as good as Infocom, Level 9 or Magnetic Scrolls but better than contemporaneous games like Warp, Castlequest and Excalibur. The first six letters of any noun are recognised and it is a standard two word affair. The only exception I found to this was turning off the lamp when three words were needed as none of DOUSE, EXTINGUISH or LAMP OFF seemed to work. It understands TAKE ALL and EXAMINE although the latter seems redundant as it nearly always replies "It is nothing special" and only differs from this reply when READ produces the same result. OOPS, BACK and VERBOSE are missing. The latter omission of course means the location descriptions cannot be truncated or lengthened. Two of the puzzle solutions revolve around the use of rather obscure verbs and as far as I can tell there are no suitable alternatives to implement the actions I tried.

Response times via my C64 Vice emulator v 3.5 were good although the game locked up on me once.

The standard of puzzle I would put as intermediate. This would be a good introduction to a novice IF player as the majority of solutions are logical. The best (and most intricate) involves a Mainframe computer (gosh really?) a disk drive and a printer plus an amusing pun on the American Byte Magazine.

I found the American spellings somewhat jarring after a while (traveling, parlor etc.) Do you remember when we spoke of goose pimples not goose bumps in Blighty? Where is the guy to give a penny to at the beginning of November? And when something lasted 24 hours a day not 24/7? We want our language back! Sorry, I've taken a Valium and I'm back to the review...

There are very few typos in the game; offhand I can think of "hewed" instead of "hewn" or is that an Americanism too? And "eminating" instead of "emanating" but in a game of this size it is one of the better games in that regard.

There are no NPCs at all so don't expect any modern style conversations or pearls of wisdom to be dispensed by subterranean creatures; you are very much a solitary traveller here.

Points are awarded for finding treasures, more for stowing them away and the rest for solving particular problems. As far as I can see there are no red herrings although one object is not necessary to complete the game.

Unusually for a game of this vintage there are no sudden death endings and I didn't find a single way to make the game unwinnable. In fact I only managed to die once and that was tantamount to suicide.

Towards the climax I found myself wandering around with 440 points and with no idea as to what to do next. In the end I tried to address what I thought was a problem and to my surprise the game suddenly ended with me having 500 points. It is a strange and rather unsatisfactory ending, almost as if the author couldn't think of a way of wrapping it up. Anyway it doesn't really make sense. The fact that the maximum score is not given meant that I had no idea how near I was to completing the game.

If you remember Watney's Party Sevens and the days when crisps had flavour this will be right up your street. No, I don't think they'll understand that last sentence in America either.


Castlequest, by Michael S. Holtzman and Mark Kershenblatt

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A Real Trip Back To The Heady Days Of Mainframe Sessions In Messy Computer Rooms, January 11, 2022
by Canalboy (London, UK.)

I have always been a sucker for old text based puzzlefests and a double sucker for old Mainframe puzzlefests (viz. my efforts at getting Warp uploaded to IFDB) and when I read that Arthur O'Dwyer et al had discovered this old game from 1980 that had previously been on the GENIE network I couldn't resist.

I downloaded the game from the intfiction.org website where it has been tweaked by David Kinder and others and can be run using the ¦asa pipe added to the executable command to allow an onscreen DOS session that doesn't close down when using the SAVE command but does still end your current game.

Castlequest is about as old fashioned a text adventure as you could wish to see this side of Wander and Willie Crowther; written in Fortran so the game only understands upper case letters it is in size similar to the original Crowther creation too.

The premise is two-fold, that is to find and kill the evil personage in his castle and then to complete the endgame which entails collecting ten treasures and storing them in a certain location. There are bonus points for carrying out certain actions and yes, a last lousy point which at least makes more sense than the the one in the original Colossal Cave.

It exhibits most of the limitations of games from this era, including a lamp timer, an inventory limit, mazes (only one of which is really annoying) locked doors, fearsome beasts to be slayed or otherwise mollified, an elevator, a boat and a limited two word parser which fails to recognise many objects in the described locations. These tend to be fairly terse but longer when needed.

There are several bugs, none of which are game killing but can be annoying such as a message when entering a number combination that is liable to put the player off continuing but is in fact incorrect. You should recognise this when you find it. There are also multiple solutions to some problems (in some cases these may be as a result of lurking bugs) and at least one problem which doesn't lead anywhere when solved involving an NPC. Some of the location exits also appear illogical, for instance when entering a dark tunnel you go down but also down to climb out of it. There are also quite a few typos and other grammatical infelicities. There is an odd way of giving objects to other NPCs too; without wishing to be spoilerish you will need to think laterally to achieve this.

The game does have a dry sense of humour, and I loved the discovery of what must be the world's largest contact lens. Bausch and Lomb eat your heart (corneas?) out.

Amongst the problems there are some nice original puzzles which up the difficulty quotient. There is also only the facility for one saved game so you may choose to hack the saved file and rename it if you want to store multiple copies of saved positions.

Lovers of IF antiquary will have a lot of fun with this.


Merlin's Golden Trove, by John Olsen

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Short DOS Fantasy Game With Easy Puzzles, December 20, 2021
by Canalboy (London, UK.)

This is part one of a small DOS trilogy written by John Olsen in the mid nineties.

If you have been worn down by tough long games recently (as I have) any game from this trilogy would be the perfect antidote. I played the first game (Merlin's Magic Forest) which amounts to about 25 locations, all tersely but adequately described. These are nicely displayed in a green font in DosBox-X.

I had to mount an image disk as an a drive to save games as I got an error choosing c.

The object of your mission is to find five ingredients and put them in a cauldron to free Merlin from his magic slumber. There are half a dozen puzzles to solve, all "do X with Y" and clues abound if you do get stuck. I spotted no grammatical faux pas although there a few bugs that revolve around the EXAMINE command. If there is a message engraved on an object in the room you are in it will give you the same parser reply whichever object you are actually examining.

So in summation hardly stunningly original but acceptable if you are at a loose end one afternoon and want something to finish before your 4pm cuppa.


The Guild of Thieves, by Rob Steggles

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Mid Era Magnetic Scrolls Classic, December 19, 2021
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Parser, Puzzlefest, Magnetic Scrolls, Treasure Hunt

This game was apparently voted Adventure Game Of The Year at the Golden Joystick Awards (somewhat ironically for a text adventure) and has long been a lacuna on my adventure CV. The following review contains mild spoilers.

I had previously only played The Pawn and Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls (this game was released between the two) and had found The Pawn rather intractable and Wonderland, well, wonderful. Magnetic Scrolls' games definitely improved as time passed. This is certainly one of the finest games of its genre.

The parser is superb for a game of its time; certainly I would compare it favourably with the Infocom example which is high praise indeed. There are also some graphical locations which were state of the art in their day but which I prefer to switch off. This isn't so much a question of speeding the game up as using my own imagination to evoke the long and clever descriptions; for me the hybrid trope of graphical adventure and text adventure has always been rather uneasy and I was surprised to discover that approximately two thirds of all IF ever written has been of this type (according to Graham Nelson I believe).

The game is unashamedly a puzzle fest in which you have to amass fifteen treasures and store them (there are in fact four places to leave your plunder which will then all end up in one place automatically) in order to join the emponymous Guild. The GO TO command is implemented enabling you to travel to any previously visited location via one command line instruction. You can also SEARCH for a lost object. Use these options thoughfully as it is all too easy to walk subliminally into a deadly trap.

When you have finished playing Croesus you are ready to enter the very tough endgame. This reminded me strongly of the Topologika games and the shadows of Dr Partington, Peter Killworth et al hang over it in a most satisfactory way.

I played the version from the Magnetic Scrolls site via DosBox-X and found only five or six trivial grammatical errors which is pretty good for such a complex game. It did crash on me four or five times however, and I am not sure whether the game file or DosBox-X itself was the guilty culprit. You also need to type in a word from the What Burglar? feelie if you start a new session but as this is now freeware and available to view online it shouldn't present any problem. You are also given three attempts to type the correct one in.

The puzzles themselves tend to become more difficult as you progress into the game and several objects are red herrings. There is also one garden based scenario which appears to be a set piece puzzle but isn't. This was something I banged my head on for some considerable time before realising it wasn't actually a puzzle at all. So I buzzed off and tried another puzzle elsewhere.

There is a conundrum towards the end which strikes me as unfairly described; if a slot is mentioned I tend to think of something long and thin and not die-shaped. As I was carrying four long and thin objects and there were four slots I made a natural but inaccurate deduction which held me up for a long time.

In the manner of games from this era there is an inventory limit and many chances to make the game unwinnable but there are no lamp timer or hunger / thirst daemons. There are also no mazes. As you progress you will come across a number of human (and non-human) NPCs in the game with some of which, thanks to the parser, it is possible to have fairly sophisticated colloquy and you will need to do this to find out vital information to finish the game. Likewise the game is littered with pamphlets, books, magazines etc. which contain more information necessary to bring the game to a successful denouement. Remember in particular to spend plenty of time in the Library; it contains a very large collection of volumes and the subjects range from the merely humorous to the very helpful.

There is a wonderful humour pervading the game, at times dryly sparkling and at others Pythonesque to remind you that "hey, this is only a game!"

As an old fogey I find it a shame that practically no-one writes long parser-based puzzle fest IF of any pith or moment any more. If modern players tried this they may be inspired to write something in a similar vein rather than short and Twiney.


The Castle of Hornadette, by Stephen J. Konig

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
It Was Never Like This For Bond, November 23, 2021
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: DOS, Puzzle Based, Parser, Castle

This old DOS game written in 1987 has the temerity to ask for a payment when you quit from it, which if you are like me will be fairly quickly.

It is taxonomised as an espionage game, but 007 would have retired to become a milkman or something equally mundane if he attempted the task that befronts you here; the idea is to find the owner of a castle, Lord Hornadette, who has been kidnapped and rescue him and the secret plans.

Right from the start the game is buggy as you can move NE and mention is made of you "following the robin's thoughts." Erm, what robin? It became clear later that if you don't move N then E at the start to the bank of a river you miss the robin previously mentioned. No conditional flag set there in the coding obviously. Poor programming and zero testing.

You now find yourself beside a castle with locked doors. Many geological ages passed until I tried something so hoary it should have been in an Ecclesiastical font. Surely it couldn't be the age old fairy tale password? Oh yes it could.

Once inside some of the objects are described as UNKNOWN STATUS? Unknown? Huh? And TAKE AWARD or TAKE TROPHY elicits the ambiguous response "You can't take the award" followed by DONE. Yes it is in your inventory.

I eventually discovered a safe and OPEN SAFE presented me with ENTER COMBINATION OF SAFE: I wrestled with the parser for some time trying combinations of numbers that I had, ENTER followed by numbers and so on but nothing worked. After a set number of moves soldiers break in and arrest you, thereby ending your misery.

The parser is dreadful with few verbs and objects being recognised, and the ones that are often misleading. There must be more atmosphere on Venus than in the room descriptions too. You can add unclued and badly coded puzzles to the unheady mix as well e.g. sudden death by pirahna fish in a river that can't be examined and timed capture by guards. In summation a sloppily programmed work: unimaginative; never tested; no atmosphere or puzzles worthy of your consideration. Needless to say, typos and grammatical errors abound.

If you really want to play an excellent DOS based puzzle fest from 1987 then try Castle Ralf but avoid this like a lucky dip in a snake pit.



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