A mere forty years after it was released and the prize was claimed (a wonderfully anal Ring of Power and a rather more materialistic sum of money to buy BBC computer products) I too have claimed the Ring of Power and returned it to the wizard.
To be more exact, Castle of Riddles was written by Peter Killworth of Cambridge University Oceanography and Philosopher's Quest fame as the first text adventure competition game; this started something of a trend. Released in February 1983 via Acornsoft although written in 1982 this is regarded as a real toughie of the old skool and so it is.
The plot, such as it is, involves you, a down-on-your-luck adventurer, returning the above mentioned ring to a wizard after it was stolen by an evil warlock. Any treasures you find on your wanderings can be kept for your own avaricious ends up to a maximum of 250 points.
Although compact in size to fit into the 32K memory constraints of the BBC microcomputer the game requires much careful pencil and paper planning and the ability to cope with frustration levels racheted up to 11 on the "bugger it I've screwed up" amplifier.
There are three main areas to the game which are all reached via shimmering curtains of light (Bank of Zork anyone?) and can all only be entered once so the choreography of play is extremely strict. One area contains a well and the three bears minus Goldilocks although there is a hilarious picture of her, another contains a nasty jet-black maze and a shooting gallery and the third a tricky corridor of doom. Choose the wrong entrance and you have softlocked the game potentially very early on. Only much repeated play will reveal the correct order to tackle the regions in. There is also a very nasty trick around the metal rod which has two essential uses. Unfortunately to solve the first one of them involves using it in a way that loses it permanently which makes the second use of the rod impossible. The only way to get around this is to solve the first rod-related puzzle, make a note of your findings and restart. All should then become clear. Obstacles like this would never of course be encountered in modern adventures but back then they were as accepted as norms; patience was as valuable a commodity as deduction.
In Killworth's traditional manner the majority of the puzzles are difficult but logical; one of them involves looking at two ostensibly similar objects but being able to glean a subtle difference between them; there are several beautiful chaining puzzles which require exact timing and unsurprisingly two innovative mazes neither of which can be solved by merely dropping objects. The solutions to the mangled cushion and antique clock problems are two of my all-time favourites.
There is naturally a lamp timer although this can be recharged once and isn't as tight as in some games of this vintage and an inventory limit which is generous enough not to be too much of an issue. Moving in the dark is nearly always fatal. The only NPCs encountered are of the potentially fatal variety so shoot first metaphorically speaking and ask questions afterwards.
The parser is of the old two word variety but in all honesty is quite sufficient for game play and naturally no examine command, something that I know Killworth felt strongly passionate about. Descriptions are of medium length generally and all in upper case white on black. I played via the excellent Beebem emulator which enables you to double the original speed of the game.
All in all a nice wallow in cerebral nostalgia.
Despite the author's name at the top of this particular game it seems to have been written by Dian Crayne, a prolific science fiction and text adventure author who released several games in the early eighties under the Temple and Norell Data Systems software labels.
Most of the games use a structure akin to the old Colossal Cave game, with a thief (masquerading as a swordsman here) a pirate (a seaman in this particular game) several mazes and randomised combat, in this case noblemen instead of dwarves. Keep on the move and you should be able to avoid any bloodletting on your part.
Castle Elsinore was the last of Dian's games and probably the best. Some others like Granny's Place are unfinishable because of bugs.
The version I played came from 1983 although there is an archived version from 1992.
The quest takes you back to Shakespearean England in 1602 and your task is to collect sixteen treasures while placating various members of the Royal Family and solving a tightly timed endgame.
Mapping is essential as the forest in particular zig zags all over the place and the gardens and cellars are similarly disorientating. It weighs in at over a hundred locations and the descriptions are quite compelling in places. As you solve puzzles, different areas of the castle become linked by hidden passages and moving walls. My particular favourite here is the secret passageway from the King's Chamber to the Maid's Quarters.
You will meet the guilt-ridden King Claudius, a depressed Hamlet, a quidnunc Polonius, what is left of Yorick (alas!) and the Queen amongst other characters. They are however pretty one-dimensional and really only serve as human locked doors to standard puzzles. You also have to commit an act of manslaughter against an individual.
The game has a fairly large inventory limit and a lamp timer, although it can be refilled and should not present a problem.
The hardest puzzles come right at the end, one involving a time delay and another solving an obscure riddle.
I came across a few bugs but nothing that made the game unfinishable. The shopkeeper appears to change sex (although that seems acceptable nowadays!) the SWEEP and CLEAN commands elicit a blank parser response and items dropped in the castle mysteriously reappear in the crotch of a tree in the forest but can't be taken from there. I only came across one object which doesn't seem to play a role in the game.
I played via DOSBox-X which has scope for ten saved game slots and these are necessary as you are likely to die at the tip of a nobleman's sword more than once.
It took me about seven hours playing time to complete and I enjoyed it although as an inveterate map maker that's not surprising. I have only played one other of Dian's games, namely Hermit's Secret and I found Castle Elsinore to be rather easier.
Ferret is in some ways a unique game in the fifty-odd year history of the text adventure; in others it is decidedly old fashioned.
The background story is that you, Brian O. Darkins, have awakened from a cryogenic coma in which you were placed at your relatives' request in the hope that the fatal virus from which you were suffering could be cured in some future age. You awake you know not where, nor why.
Created by a group of anonymous authors on an obscure 16-bit minicomputer back in the days just before the micro revolution it seems to have started out as an attempt (as so many games of its time were) to trump the early markers in the genre, namely Advent and Zork. Indeed, the first eight phases of this enormous game follow a familiar path to the games of the time. The science fiction narrative is definitely playing second fiddle to the puzzles. The puzzles themselves tend to be very hard, and must have been nigh on impossible in the days before Google. Chess end games, degree level mathematical posers and sundry mazes meld with clever logistical problems.
Another unique feature of the game is the number of red herrings scattered about. Only much trial and error will reveal which items are needed and which superfluous. On the other hand there are several bottlenecks in the game where one can carry almost nothing onwards and these do act as a useful filter. At least you know you have left nothing vital behind at these locations.
The different writing styles and types of puzzle are clear as you travel through these early parts of the game.
One can hear the evolutionary tick of the modern IF era clock from Phase Nine onwards as the post acocalyptic Cold War story really kicks in and the narrative swells.
One way travel from here to Phase Sixteen is via an old train locomotive which chugs through the once affluent parts of SE England; English players will no doubt recognise the pleasant, leafy names of Sunningdale, Virginia Water, Epsom etc. These examples are cleverly juxtaposed with the contemporary apocalyptic wasteland that has transformed expensive Surrey, Kent and Berkshire postal addresses from all to die for des res locales into a monochrome desolation. In a similar vein all the NPCs you meet (and there are very few) are not alive. A silent automaton provides your only temporary companion and the only voices you will hear are mechanised ones from long dead sources and emanating from damaged machines.
Like Shelley's Ozymandius: "Nothing beside remains."
Every piece of equipment encountered, every window view is of a broken, anti-holistic world. We are indeed a far cry now from the early IF landscape. For caves, trolls and scrolls we have blasted buildings with their curtain walls jaggedly exposed, piles of mangled dead bodies and torn and slimy papers and documents.
To somewhat counterbalance the rather desolate mood of the game there is an homage to English comedic culture viz. The Goon Show and another phase is based around a cult science fiction TV series from the late seventies, namely Blake's Seven.
An odd feature of the game is that certain information to solve a problem in, say, Phase Ten will be discovered in Phase Fourteen, and sometimes these revelations entail visiting no exit locations. As a consequence of this need for backtracking it is a prerequisite to keep manifold saved games handy. You can also make use of command files where you can build a rerun of a section of the game by loading a file of preconfigured text. Other useful commands include "Notify" which informs you of each increase in your score and also "Test" which will run a cycle of various verbs on selected objects.
I found the multi word parser to be a very good one and recent updates to the current version at the time of writing to 10.3 have included the ability to chain multiple commands by using commas. There is also a lot of ASCII art contained in the game which fleshes out the various pieces of equipment and modes of transport that one encounters. In this respect it is very similar to another large mainframe game, Warp.
I had a constant dialogue with the authors which enabled me to send them details of any bugs (not many) and also to receive hints which were more than necessary in certain places. Indeed the story goes on as they are currently beavering (ferreting?) away at Phase Seventeen at the moment.
I thoroughly enjoyed my six months or so playing the game and look forward to future updates.
Acheton has finally bitten the dust for me. A bit like getting married, cleaning the windows or cutting one's toenails, I had kept putting off a full scale assault on this 1978 mainframe game until the last possible moment. My previous dalliances with it had led me to believe that a full score of 1500 points and the discovery of all 55 treasures would in fact be a triumph of hope over experience.
And so I pulled out my etiolated, half completed maps penned in the days of Filofaxes and mobile phones the size of an engineering brick, squinted at them, shook my head and filed them under "Ignore."
Once more into the breech....
Acheton was one of the first, if not the very first, game to be written in England, begun by two Cambridge postgraduates Jonathan Thackray and David Seal (who also wrote the proprietary T/SAL programming language that would become a standard for the Cambridge few) and doubled in size by Dr. Jonathan Partington after he had completed the first half. The whole thing took around two years to write. It took me about that number of man hours to solve it. The version I played was the Phoenix version converted to Z Code and it has some minor differences to the Topologika version released for micros. The advantage of the former lies mainly in the fact that a typo doesn't cost a turn, which in this game is often the difference between success and a sudden demise.
The game begins with a warning to would be players that it is considerably harder than the Adventure mainframe original upon which it is based and this isn't a frivolous piece of advice; deaths ranging from Cirrhosis of the Liver to being savaged by Ferrets almost certainly await you underground. Indeed a list of deaths and ways to make the game unwinnable would I suspect run to more text than the complete coding of some games.
All begins above ground at the end of a Good Road near a Farmhouse. Exploration throws up a few traditional items (and a handful of sudden deaths!) including two that ostensibly seem to lead to a route underground but don't. You have been warned.
When you finally make it down below, multiple routes soon lead to multiple routes. Most passages curl or bend sharply so mapping is somewhat tricky although Trizbort is a big help. In the days of yore I ended up with multiple ruined line drawings on A3 paper and empty biros.
My advice to any would be player is to not worry too much about tilting for victory early on. Explore, die, explore, die and slowly the map is pushed outwards and your score increases. Deserts lead to a Shoreline via an Egyptian Pyramid. Giant Caves lead to a Mine. A Wizard's Garden leads to a Roc's Nest. My advice is keep many saved copies, more so than in just about any other game. And remember that when this was written there was almost nothing else around so you couldn't become frustrated, give up and move on to one of the many thousands of other games that are now available. Put yourself in a Seventies mind set, convince yourself there are no other games to try and you will have those eureka! moments just when you thought you would give up. And the rewards are well worth fighting for.
In deference to the difficulty of many of the puzzles there is an excellent set of graduated hints which start at a basic nudge and usually finish in the total solution to a problem. These are not present in the Phoenix version. I can resist anything except temptation so I avoided the use of these.
The actual problems themselves range from "use A with B to get C" but usually in a very clever and subtle way, to chaining problems which run across multiple locations (very much a trait of Dr. Partington's games in general.) I can think of maybe only two puzzles I would call downright unfair. And some, like one inside the pyramid, are exquisitely constructed.
The thing that really made the game so tough for me though is the lamp timer. You will need to find a way to recharge it and even then it is tight to finish in time, as choreographing the jigsaw so that you can fit it all together in the life span of the lamp and not leave behind an object somewhere where you can't get it any more is just as challenging as the puzzles themselves. There is a built in transportation system which you will need to use in the game, for without it you will never get all your trinkets into the safe in time.
Unusually for these games there is an inventory limit of eight items; I think all the others have a limit of seven.
Magic words, short cuts to other regions and NPCs abound. The latter include a Mummy (an affectionate in-joke aimed at a certain Mike Oakley) a drunken Dwarf, an old Weaver, Pirates, Snakes, Scylla and Charybdis, a Garden Gnome, a Wizard... nearly all of them are out to put a spanner in your works.
I must confess that I got to 50 treasures and got completely stuck. Fortunately Adam Atkinson was on hand to give me some subtle hints and without him I really don't think I would have crawled over the finish line.
At the end of it all there is the inevitable (for its time) endgame which is something of an anti-climax. It is fairly straightforward and not particularly memorable.
In short, this game is everything that is unfashionable nowadays. That doesn't take away from its entertainment value if you have a decent attention span and come from an era before everyone had an allergy to something in the air or on their plate. Or to a lot of words on their Monitor.
The game has the standard (for its time) two word parser but it isa very good one. TAKE ALL works and TAKE and also DROP will assume the last object used. Unfortunately no VERBOSE or BACK or, of course, EXAMINE. This only really bothered me in one place, in the Wizard's Garden.
Given the latitude afforded by the mainframe space that the authors had available there are nicely evocative descriptions; long when they need to be with the occasional long text dump. There are almost no typos and no real bugs either that I came across in gameplay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.