Reviews by Canalboy

Phoenix

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1-6 of 6


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.


Kingdom of Hamil, by Jonathan Partington

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Kingdom Of Hamil - Jonathan Partington Shows Signs Of Mercy, April 20, 2021
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Phoenix, Topologika, Mainframe, Kingdom of Hamil, Parser

With Kingdom of Hamil , or just Hamil as it was originally known in its mainframe form, the author Jonathan Partington chose to be a little more lenient with his player. He was the most prolific of the Phoenix IF authors in the seventies and eighties, with a particular penchant for large and innovatively tough mazes. While Hamil still has it fair share of them (including one maze which is included in the Phoenix version on this page but was omitted for reasons of space when the game was released by Acornsoft) the overall standard of puzzle is slightly easier than most he created over the years. Having said that there is still ample scope to make the game unwinnable which I managed several times. The inventory limit is set at seven items which seems to be the par for most of these games. Some objects have multiple uses while only one seems to be a red herring.

Mercifully there is no lamp timer in the game unlike Professor Partington's earlier co-authored work Acheton and it is significantly smaller than most of the other Phoenix efforts so easier to map. By modern standards it would still be considered large however. Location descriptions are brief but adequate with just the right amount of atmosphere thrown in. There is no option for VERBOSE, BRIEF etc. so full descriptions are only repeated when you LOOK. The converted mainframe version scores up to 300 points while the scaled down BBC one has a maximum of 250 points.

Like most of the Phoenix games the plot is merely a flimsy framework to support the pure beauty of the puzzles; you have discovered you are the heir to the throne of the kingdom and set out to try and reclaim what is rightfully yours. As well as this odyssey there are the usual treasures to collect and deposit in their rightful place to trigger the one move endgame. There is also an interesting twist at the end which reappraises the reason for your journey.

Most of the puzzles can be worked out either with a pen and paper (the game has its own code system which you will need to play around with at the beginning and very end of the game and mazes where every turn is crucial) or by trial and error. The game is not too strict in which order you choose to address the puzzles although there is one near the beginning that has to be solved in its entirety or victory is cut off. This should become apparent when you find it.

The terrain in the game is very unstable and there are frequent earthquakes and rock falls which add to the complexity of several areas and prevent backtracking. Try and leave nothing behind and deposit your items in a central location.

There is a particularly elegant problem involving a vampire which took me an age to crack but had me applauding when the penny finally dropped. Another that centres around Lewis Carroll's Hunting Of The Snark is also very clever and I think would have defeated me had I not played other games by the author and knew the way his mind works. I suppose this is rather like recognising the style of a cryptic crossword compiler in a daily newspaper.

A couple of annoyances include sudden death by one of a multitude of creatures if you hang about too long in one place and an object that it is impossible to hang on to for more than a few moves. This latter problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is impossible to SAVE your position in two of the game's mazes.

I would recommend a player try this game before attempting the other titles from the Cambridge stable with the possible exception of Sangraal by the same author.

There is the usual excellent two word parser and lack of an EXAMINE command which has polarised opinion over the years. TAKE ALL is implemented however.

Solve this and you may be ready for even tougher challenges from the Phoenix authors.






Parc, by John Rennie

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Parc - Old Phoenix Mainframe Game From 1983, March 18, 2021
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Mainframe, Phoenix, Treasure Hunt, Alchemist, Parser

Parc by John Rennie is one of the lesser known of the Phoenix IBM mainframe adventures written between 1978 and 1989 and also one of the least large; I say least as that is only comparing it to monster games from the same stable like Acheton and Hezarin. It still weighs in at over 100 locations including two clever mazes (one external and one internal).

The back story (if ever these games really had them) is that you have volunteered to usurp an evil Alchemist named Ping Narott, a name which sounds like an anagram but isn't. His experiments have been making the good folk of Parcs' lives a misery. There are also 25 treasures to amass and store away somewhere inside the Alchemist's castle. Some of these treasures have dual roles as puzzle solving objects as well.

The game has the traditional excellent two word parser (TAKE ALL is allowed) and no EXAMINE command but this is seldom needed anyway as everything you need to know about an object is there for you.

Parc is atypical of the Phoenix games in so much as it has a strong chemical basis behind the plot; the usual mind bending mathematical posers conjured up by Jonathan Partington, Peter Killworth et al have been replaced by problems involving Indium, Zinc Sulphide, Radium etc.

The game takes place in three main areas: Inside the castle; West of the river and North of a chasm. Like most of these games there are a lot of one visit only areas and opportunities to miss a vital object and make the game unwinnable. Leave nothing behind as I only found one object that is never used out of about forty.

Having bashed my head against most of the Phoenix games I feel that it is one of the less difficult ones, but compared to Quondam and Xerb almost every piece of Interactive Fiction ever written would seem easier.

Richard Bos has written a .z5 file of progressive hints for Parc. I barely had to use them which is unusual for me when playing Phoenix games.

Most of the problems can be solved by lateral thinking or a visit to Wikipedia to check out the properties of a particular chemical compound, but there is one particular problem that had me stuck for ages; having seen the solution I can confidently aver I would never have deduced it between now and the Sun becoming a Red Giant and swallowing the Solar System. Suffice to say it involves an IBM 370 Mainframe computer and a FORTRAN IV Manual. Well quite. Thirty-eight year old in-jokes do pall somewhat.

I found one proper bug involving freezing an object and a few typos but nothing to affect the playing of the game itself.

There is the traditional endgame if you manage to vanquish the Alchemist and store all 25 treasures but it is something of a let down.

If you manage to stumble on a Pig's Ear in the game (and I expect you will) it means that you have screwed up and can't win. A change from Acheton's hideous voice I suppose.

Parc is of course Crap backwards but I feel that Yhtrow would be more appropriate.

I played the game via WinFrotz v 1.19. Kudos to David Kinder, Adam Atkinson and the rest of the boys for making these old games available to play on modern pcs.



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