Reviews by Canalboy

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1-4 of 4


Acheton, by Jon Thackray, David Seal, and Jonathan Partington

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Mega Mainframe Madness From The Stupendous Seventies, November 11, 2023

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 unto 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.

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Quondam, by Rod Underwood and Peter Killworth

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The Toughest Game Of All?, July 18, 2023

Robb Sherwin once observed quite sagely about Zork that the game actively hates its player. That may well be so; in which case Quondam wishes to eviscerate the player, gouge his / her eyes out and wrap one's entrails around one's neck while forcing said player to watch the Father Dowling Mysteries box set plus extras. What we have here is unequivocally the hardest text adventure that I have ever played in my forty years of puzzling. Compared to most of the Phoenix oeuvre it is compact in size but almost every location provides ample scope to die or misuse an item in one's inventory.

This was the third of the seventeen games written on the Phoenix mainframe in 1980 by the author Rod Underwood. It appears to have been his only foray into the world of text adventure creation but he indelibly left his mark with this one. The original mainframe version is sadly lost (like Andrew Lipson's Xerb and Alex Shipp and Steve Tinney's Hezarin) and it only survives thanks to a Peter Killworth port to the BBC. We have no way of knowing how much the original version differed from the BBC Acornsoft version but you can be sure it was ball-breakingly hard as well.

I played this game after finally nailing Acheton, Hezarin and Castle of Riddles from the same Cambridge stable and was fairly convinced that no game could be tougher than that holy trinity of mind exploders. I was wrong.

The game itself is the traditional treasure hunt (up to a maximum of 250 points) with an interesting time travel theme, hence the title which is Latin for former. You need to collect all of the treasures available and deposit them somewhere, but finding out where is like attempting to untie the Gordian Knot. Suffice to say that some puzzles should be attended to in the present day and some in the past. And at least one in the past and also in the present. Exactly. This game has more obscure verbs and off the wall object manipulation than any I have come across in forty years of text adventures. I have currently visited 72 locations and have discovered 28 ways to die, many of which almost lapse into parody. There are also many ways to lock yourself out of winning, both obvious or not. Indeed it is possible to make the game unwinnable in your first move!

All the tropes of early games are here, including massive turn critical mazes and outrageous puns. It's just that in this game, like the giant spiders on the web maze, they come at you in swarms filling just about every location. As if these obstacles didn't make your task difficult enough, the game uses some objects in totally unexpected ways. I found myself desperately trying all kinds of obscure commands to boldly go where no parser has gone before and some of them actually worked. Having played around five hundred text adventures in my time I have successfully used three verbs in this game that I have never used before and I guarantee that you have never utilised a mirror or a harp in the ways necessary in this game. When stuck try anything and it may just work. The knight, the fanged customs official, the Spanish Inquisition (I wasn't expecting that) a man-eating vegetable being and the dragon are all puzzles that require endless experimentation to overcome and the solutions to each are unique in the text adventure canon as far as I know. There are a couple of apparently illogical answers to puzzles as well; one in the apothecary's shop makes no sense to me even though I solved it; I'd tried everything else and found the answer by default. Another oddity is that some objects are deliberately described in a misleading way. One in particular has two different descriptions depending from which direction you came when you found it for the first time.

Aside from the incredible toughness of the game and the necessity to perform actions in an exact order you can even die typing save or attempting to use an object. The desert affords you all of two moves before you die of thirst, in fact when you drink water the game reponds with "your thirst is removed" then avers "you are thirsty" in the same move. Boy that is one dry desert. There is also an unmappable area of trackless forest in which you must thrash about until finally emerging into familiar territory.

Playing via the BeebEm emulator at least allows you to save without it costing you a move as it did in the original. As I have spent a lot of time racing around a spider's web with the residents only one move behind me this at least has made things slightly easier than it was for those masochistic souls playing on their BBC micros back in the day.

It has the standard T/SAL two word parser and no examine command plus an inventory limit of eight objects. I have come across two items that have multiple uses thus far so discard nothing that you find. Some treasures double up as tools for solving puzzles and all are suffixed by an exclamation mark in the manner of the day. There is an inventory limit of eight objects so you will need to work out how to manipulate the in-game system for leaving items and picking them up later at a different location. Some areas of the game are closed off after your initial visit so you'll need to carefully consider which items you haul around with you in any given area. I have so far discovered 36 takeable items.

This game is described with classic understatement as being for advanced players. That is rather like describing World War 2 as a spot of fistycuffs.

An update: I have now finally completed the game and can quite honestly say that this is the most difficult text adventure game that I have ever played. I make it 35 ways to die in 79 locations. It has the most obscure verbs, the most tortuous inventory manipulation and the most soft and hard locks as well.

All this aside I would recommend it for die hard purists like myself as it has enough clever puzzles to satisfy the most avid dissectologist.

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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.

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Fyleet, by Jonathan Partington

3 of 3 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.

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