Spheres of Chaos is a rara avis indeed - that is a large text only RISC OS adventure consisting of over 250 locations written by Chris Grant in 1994 (his only adventure as far as I can see) and I played it via the RPCEmu Emulator.
It is a linear odyssey with the goal to collect seven spheres of chaos scattered throughout an impoverished rural kingdom in an indefinite (seventeenth century?) bygone age and then to harness their power to prevent an evil king using them to his nefarious ends.
The white text on black background display is easy on the eye and the excellent location descriptions show that the author has a real eye for creating a believable milieu. The game also features sixteen NPCS which is more than most adventures of its kind; these range from friendly ones (the Giant and the Hermit) to those of a less philanthropic bent (the somewhat incongruous Lager Lout who vacillates between trying to kill you and calling you his best mate). Most of them can be addressed and often they proffer up useful information or objects; some need bribing. Generally "say x to y" covers all conversational bases although I struggled with the jungle king and his guard. Some of the NPCs appear to possess an adventurous spirit as they wander quite widely across the game's canvas; I once stumbled across the farmer tidying up in the network of caves - I have a strong suspicion his ambit should not exceed the farmhouse. Another NPC (the shambling mummy) seems to be directly lifted from the mainframe giant Acheton although I doubt if it has had the pleasure of meeting Mike Oakley.
The landscape itself is split up into several regions, namely a windmill surrounded by corn fields, a large forest, a lake with a water mill and central island, an interesting "city in the sky" constructed of bridges and tree houses high in the trees of a forest, an overgrown crater, a large castle replete with cesspit (don't try swimming!) and a village. Some of the regions cannot be revisited so it is important to work out which objects you need when leaving one particular region as the inventory limit is set at six and is predicated on number, not weight. There are three objects for which there appear to be no use and a few small mazes but they can be entered and exited fairly quickly via random movements with the exception of the small maze in the mine which can be mapped in the old fashioned way by dropping objects.
Given the size of the game the actual puzzles themselves are not great in number and I can't help but feel that the acquisition of the spheres could have been made more interesting and difficult as none require strong powers of reasoning to acquire, with the exception of the Sphere of Despair. Maybe my exposure to much tougher mainframe adventures recently has improved my forensic abilities but few people should be stumped by the puzzles contained herein.
There are a few bugs scattered throughout the game, i.e. you can carry all seven spheres if you drop all and take all but only six of them if you pick them up one by one. Another annoying feature is that the HELP command admonishes you for your stupidity and exits the game play session. There is also only scope for one saved position so I ended up moving saved game states and renaming them as back ups.
The parser is run of the mill and recognises EXAMINE and TAKE ALL. The game has no score or progress indicator but does exhibit an occasional dry wit, i.e. attempting to kill someone who is not present elicits, "There is no-one here to kill. What a shame."
Overall an interesting and none to easy diversion but most of the problems come from the sheer size of the game, working out which items to carry on to the next region and the phrasing of commands when addressing the NPCs. I recommend drawing a map as some regions are difficult to reconnoitre from memory. Interestingly there are no dark regions at all and no hunger or thirst timers. I can't think of a similar sized game with no light source whatsoever.
I don't know if all IF players of a certain age who witnessed the evolution and flowering of the inchoate genre from the late seventies / early eighties have a game (or games) which they return to for reasons of nostalgia or masochism, but mine is this one.
Having first cut my adventuring teeth on Scott Adams' Adventureland in 1983 on a friend's Vic-20, I played many of the early games both good and bad in the late eighties; this included Castle Ralf.
Like many authors of the time, Doug Clutter and Steve Vance had completed Zork I and wanted to try and outrun the boys from Infocom by forming their own company, Douglas Associates. While this was a predictably futile task, they undoubtedly did come up with a very well coded and interesting puzzle fest with precious few bugs present. Aside from the odd typo there are no glaring ones that I have ever came across in many hours of playing.
The "explore/escape from a wacky building full of contraptions" genre was of course already somewhat anachronistic by 1987 when this game was first published but it remains one of the best examples of its kind.
The robust parser rather oddly doesn't understand "take all" but does understand "drop all." On the whole however it is more than adequate and unlike many games of its type recognises most synomyms and objects in the many rooms of the eponymous castle. It also (rather atypically for its time) has a list of verbs on screen that you can access via highlighting and pressing the enter key so there is no hunting around for obscure verb / noun combinations. You can also use the COGITATE verb at many places to give you an abstract hint and boy will you need it as this game surpasses all but the Topologika games in terms of toughness but fairness in my opinion. The authors seemed to realise this and produced a hint booklet a la Topologika which is available online on this page. It runs to many many questions and answers and is designed to discourage straight through reading.
The game also features an auto mapper which can be switched on and off if you prefer not to use modern software like Trizbort and you will need it as the castle spans a basement and three floors over many more than a hundred locations. Initially the routes around the more far flung reaches of the building are time consuming to access, but as with games like Mulldoon Legacy and Curses short cuts appear to the various areas of the castle as puzzles are solved.
There are a number of complex machines scattered around the place, designed by the devious owner Dr. Bellefleur Q. Izgotcha III. One multi puzzle in particular involving a customised Skeet Shooter and a French Horn cum Crossbow spans multiple rooms filled with Heath Robinson like contraptions and more than rivals the Babel Fish puzzle from HHG in its complexity.
Many of the imaginative puzzles are more convoluted than "Do X with Y to get Z" but logically solvable with a bit (or a lot) of lateral thinking.
A dryly sparkling humour pervades the whole thing which stays just the right side of irritating. Try and COGITATE in the Long Dark Hallway for example! And apparently the Great Hall was designed by Nancy Reagan.
The game is mercifully free of mazes, hunger, thirst and light daemons and although it is possible to make the thing unwinnable in a couple of places this becomes apparent pretty quickly with one major exception - the machine with buttons. Just save often. There is an inventory limit but it rarely becomes much of a problem as a chosen central silo to store all objects in is accessible from most parts of the game as it opens up.
The game runs very smoothly in my version of DosBox (0.74) and the colours are customisable.
I have to admit at this point that I have still not beaten the game after returning to it several times in the last thirty odd years, although I have recently pushed my score up to 190 points out of a possible maximum of 300. There is no walkthrough available anywhere online (something I never resort to anyway).
There are few NPCs in the game aside from an exhibitionistic Hamster, an avariciously psychotic Chihuahua and a useful ghost that I have ever come across.
There is also a strange obsession with hats which will gradually unravel as you play.
Castle Ralf was originally a competition game where the person to solve it in the least number of moves by a given date would pocket 10% of the royalties. I have no idea if this was ever claimed.
Now where is the combination to that safe...
As a navel gazing IF puzzler of a certain age, I feel that Stephen Gorrell's neat medium sized TADS debut Recluse from 2008 deserves more trumpeting that it has hitherto received. That is, any trumpeting at all judging by a quick search. One review in over a decade doesn't suggest that it has become contemptible through familiarity.
Recluse bucks the modern IF trend, being a set of cleverly choreographed, sequenced puzzles leading to a surprisingly tangential conclusion. Surprising as the hitherto tenebrous plot suddenly takes on solid end game substance via several large screen dumps when you access the mansion. One NPC also displays chameleon like qualities late in the game.
The initial premise involves your efforts to deliver a package to a reclusive billionaire inside his mansion; after being summarily ejected using traditional methods of egress you explore the Infocom like grounds, finding various items to take and manipulate, including one early problem that had me stuck for days (Spoiler - click to show)taking the caterpillar requires a lot of repetition....
I liked the user friendly nature of play; no time or inventory limits, a warning if you have put the game into an unwinnable position (a rare occurrence thanks to its cleverly constructed nature) and built-in hints.
There are a sprinkling of misspellings and a few grammatical errors (again why these things aren't spell checked is beyond me when so much effort is put into other facets of the game) but nothing to really dilute the enjoyment of the game.
The ending of the game suggests a sequel, but as eleven years have now passed without one I imagine that the author has moved on to pastures new, although I can find no more examples of his IF creativity anywhere.
Rather like the only guy still wearing flared jeans on the bus, Recluse may be old fashioned but the denim is of fine quality.