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John Scriven hits the adventure trail - with some stops along the way for arcade games

Introduction

I first encountered an adventure game back in 1978. It was about six o'clock and after a busy day entering data into a mainframe, I was about to clear up and leave. More as an afterthought I checked through the library of files to see if there was anything more interesting than the usual rather feeble versions of Startrek or Lunar Lander. There, innocently enough, was the name: Adventure. Not knowing what to expect, I loaded the program and typed RUN.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. What now?

I remember sliding into bed at about four the next morning after a hectic night exploring the Colossal Cave. I even managed to bring out some gold and silver. The next evening I found out what "PLUGH" meant, discovered the magic beanstalk and finally became hopelessly lost at Witt's End - I was hooked!

The game I had unwittingly stumbled upon became an essential evening activity, and soon, others were becoming ensnared in the underground world I had discovered. Coffee breaks were spent discussing how the bear might be persuaded to give up his gold chain, or whether it was possible to retrieve your treasure once the pirate had stolen it. Eyes turned red, faces became haggard and even some marriages were less than secure as people arrived home in the small hours after "working late"! The insidious adventure bug had bitten hard.

Coming Down

The actual game had been brought back from the States and was a version of the original Crowther game written a few years previously; in subsequent months I discovered some of the Scott Adams' adventures, but again, these were not written for anything smaller than fairly large machines. I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with adventures a couple of years ago when micro versions began to appear.

The Dragon was short on adventures when it was released last year. Madness And The Minotaur and Quest were the only games available from Dragon Data, and it is only recently that a good selection has appeared on the market.

For those of you that are not too familiar with adventure games, here is a brief overview of what you can expect. In Crowther's Colossal Cave adventure, you could explore a giant cave system by using compass directions and up, down, climb, etc. Various objects littered the caves, some useful and some not. Every now and then, you would discover a treasure which would usually require a bit of thought before it could be removed to the little brick building at the start. There were, of course, unpleasant creatures who had to be outwitted of destroyed before this was possible. The whole adventure used only text - descriptive passages to tell you where you were. This was partly due to the fact that teletype terminals were far more common than visual display units in the early seventies, and also because even in machine code, adventures use up a lot of memory.

Madness And The Minotaur (Dragon Data)

Madness And The Minotaur follows in the path of the early adventures in being text only. In some ways this is not a bad thing - just as a well-written book is often better than the film, text adventures can summon up your own images of the places you visit. Quest is not really a pure adventure in the true sense, as it combines elements of trading games. You must acquire objects in cities that help you in your final siege of Moorlock's Citadel. The visual sections of Quest are limited to a useful map of the kingdom showing your position. More recently, some maze games such as Phantom Slayer and Sultan's Maze have incorporated 3D graphics to show you your position, but they could hardly be classified as adventure games.

The games I have been looking at this month show the influence of earlier adventures: although some are combining different approaches in an attempt to produce something new.

Black Sanctum (Dragon Data)

Dragon Data has gone for the traditional text-only adventure with its selection. Black Sanctum is set in a cold wasteland. If you can reach the cabin, you will find messages, objects and a sleeping figure upstairs in bed. Exploring further, you find yourself in an eighteenth-century monastery full of mysterious hooded figures and an over-powering sense of evil. This is not a game to play late at night, unless you have a crucifix or even bell, book and candle to hand!

Calixto Island (Dragon Data)

Calixto Island starts off in Professor Lagarto's comfortable study. Should you manage to find your way round the house collecting objects you will eventually discover a secret way down to the professor's laboratory. As you stand there clutching such unlikely objects as hiking boots, spectacles, a bucket and a pump, you may be lucky enough to discover a teleporting device. This is where the real adventure begins, although anything more I say will remove the fun (or is it just frustration?) from this game.

El Diablero (Dragon Data)

The next adventure from Dragon Data caught my eye when I saw it was written by Kenneth Kalish, who writes some pretty good games for Computerware in the States. El Diablero also seemed the most interesting of all the plots. You awake in the middle of a desert, dazed and confused. Apparently, an old man has been teaching you sorcery and his enemy, El Diablero, has begun to work his magic. Aha! I thought as I began this game. Having spent a portion of my youth reading Carlos Castanedas books about Yaqui Indians and desert sorcery, I imagined I would have a head start.

Unfortunately, after a week of wandering round the desert and finding only a crow and a strange rock I gave up. Obviously my knowledge of Don Juan's secret power couldn't help me in this game. I shall have one more try before I send off for my extra clues from Dragon Data! Undoubtedly I am missing something glaringly obvious, and most of you will probably have no difficulty in getting started at all. It does, however, point out a constant problem with adventures, knowing where exactly to aim the game: too easy and there's no sense of achievement; too hard, and the player gives up in disgust.

Dragon Mountain (Dragon Data)

The last game from Dragon's own software house in Wales is Dragon Mountain. While the previous programs are all in machine code, this is written in Basic. The response times are therefore longer, but that does not interfere with the game. In contrast to El Diablero. I managed to reach the treasure in just over an hour, and there was little point in playing the game again. Maybe I was lucky, but it did seem to lack much challenge.

The game starts outside a mountain where a sign reads: "You are entering Dragon Mountain. Great wealth can be yours if you can slay the guardian of the treasure." Each time you play the game the locations stay the same, but the position of objects and creatures seems to change. There are one or two small inconsistencies, such as entering GET ELF when one is near produces the message "I don't see that here. An elf is in the room." This sort of reply is not uncommon in adventure games, as an enormous amount of memory would be needed to consider all possibilities. What would have been better (and cheaper on memory) would have been to reply: "You can't do that" to all but the correct response. Once you have discouraged or destroyed the three guardians, it is an anticlimax when you reach the treasure - you don't even have to fight your way back out with it. If you are new to adventures then you might find this game a good introduction, and it is priced reasonably at £4.95. If you want something to get your teeth into, the other Dragon Data offerings are better value, although more expensive at £7.95.

Williamsburg Adventure, Mansion Adventure and Jerusalem Adventure (Microdeal)

Microdeal must offer one of the largest ranges of Dragon software now available. I enjoy some of its games a great deal - Phantom Slayer, for instance - but I have not been so impressed by its adventures so far. Mansion Adventure involves exploring an old house: Williamsburg Adventure a colonial town; and Jerusalem Adventure, naturally enough, Old Jerusalem. Of the three, Jerusalem Adventure is more interesting, but still only of average difficulty. If you stray into the Arab quarter you get killed, which seems a bit unfair on the poor adventurer, and does nothing to improve Arab-Israeli relations. I don't wish to appear over-sensitive, but "a hooded figure from the casbah has just ended your life" is less provocative than "you are attacked by an Arab and he kills you".

I wondered why these games seemed less impressive than the original Colossal Cave adventure and I think that the answer must lie in their relation to books. Colossal Cave contains beautiful descriptions of underground volcanoes and the colour of the rock crystal - even the smoke from disintegrating dwarfs is described in oily detail. If the game only says "I'm in the front room. I can see a TV", then you lose a great deal. These games don't even make up for their thin plots by using a few graphics and are mainly pretty humourless. They are only on a par with Dragon Mountain in terms of excitement, and seem expensive at £8.00.

Franklin's Tomb (Salamander)

Salamander Software has got round the problem of detailed graphics by issuing purchasers of Franklin's Tomb with a 20-page booklet, containing pictures of most of the locations. Arriving in the usual smart packaging, this game has been written with some care, even if the tongue is firmly in the cheek. "My name is Diamond. Dan Diamond. I'm a cop, at least I used to be. That was then, this is now, and nobody knows what tomorrow will be..." The start reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Oashiel Hammett, and the game itself : played in the crypt of an eerie graveyard, goes from Private Eye through Hammer Horror to Space Fantasy.

If it sounds confusing, it is - but that doesn't mean that the game isn't fun to play. The screen is split up into three sections: location description, personal inventory of things you've picked up, and a list of available exits (start worrying when this is blank!). There is a save file facility to save your present position on cassette, which is useful just before you launch yourself into the unknown. As this contains merely your present position and inventory, it only takes 20 seconds or so to save.

As in all adventure games, you need to draw a map to know where you are when you need to retrace your footsteps. Seeing that most objects seem to be useful on the other side of the building you soon know your way from the bathroom to the aquarium. The object of the game isn't stated directly, although as you play it, you realise that some objects are only useful if dumped at a strange location at the end of the crypt, where you leave this game and start the next cassette in the series. A crafty marketing ploy it may be, but this game is certainly fun, and I shall look out for the sequel with interest.

The Ring Of Darkness (Wintersoft)

The first adventure I have looked at is from Wintersoft. At £10, The Ring of Darkness is more expensive than Dragon Data's and Microdeal's, so the question must be, is it worth the extra amount? On loading, an introductory program allows you to choose the character for your adventure. You can choose his or her name, distribute points for intelligence and strength, and select whether you require him to be a human, elf or dwarf, and whether he should be a wizard, a thief or a warrior. Other points are awarded according to the character chosen, then the main program is loaded from the cassette. After this Dungeons and Dragons start, the first part of the game resembles Quest. A map of the terrain appears, showing your position, as well as places of interest, such as towns and lakes. As you make your way using the cursor control keys, you are waylaid by assorted rogues, vagabonds, sorcerers and hidden archers.

At the beginning you have little in the way of weapons, experience and gold, but if your character choice was reasonable, you can win a few fights and reach a town with bulging pockets. Should you lose and be killed, you are resurrected with an increase in experience points - an interesting philosophical point that should appeal to Buddhists? On reaching the town, a machine code routine is employed to produce a high-resolution plan of the particular ptace that you are visiting. You need to keep your stocks of food fairly high, and you can buy weapons and transport (yes, even a hovercraft!).

When you are well equipped you can enter one of the underground mazes to continue your quest for wealth and fame. This necessitates loading in another program that displays the maze in hi-res 3D, even allowing you to see the repulsive creatures that attack you. Should you wish to climb the ladder to the surface once more, you simply re-load the original program, and your position and present state are merged into the new program.

I have to admit that this is one of my favourite games from this month's selection and shows signs of carefuf thought in its preparation. Seeing that it combines a traditional adventure with a 3D maze game, a trading game and a D & D-type character choice, it would seem to be worth the price.

In the above games I have attempted to give a flavour of the particular adventure mentioned. The problem is that too much description will take away the fun of exploring for yourself. It's always mors fun to make your own mistakes and then achieve success than to have someone tell you how to solve the mysteries. You may also find, as with all reviews, that you disagree with my choices. Ultimately, the best thing, as with all games, is to try them yourself and decide if you think they are the sort of program you want.

Drone Datatank (Cable)

Now, for those arcade freaks who thought they'd been neglected this month, some new action material for your Dragon. Drone from Cable Software seemed very familiar as I read the detailed instructions. You are in command of a Drag, a dataiank inside a computer, and the object is to destroy the evil ROM guardian who is corrupting the system with bugs. You meet drones, bits and bytes, and the so-called talking robot trainer is called Troff. Does this not sound rather similar to a certain Disney film? No? Oh, well, back to the game. The instructions are complicated, but so as to make your task slightly easier, a keyboard template is supplied (14 keys are used in the game), and there is this "talking robot". If you expected a synthesized voice from your Dragon you may be in for a disappointment. The reverse of the tape contains a recording of someone who sounds vaguely like David Warner speaking through an echo chamber.

The display shows the view through the front of the tank together with a laser sight, proximity indicators and various other devices. As you approach the ROM guardian, you can use logic cannons to blast your way through memory tunnels to the guardian's tower. I have to admit that I found the number of controls and displays tiresome, but others who have played the game enjoy it. If you want to emulate Flynn and save the universe from inside your computer, then maybe this is the game for you. After a few sessions on Drone, flying Concorde should be a piece of cake!

Android Attack (Microdeal)

After a game that uses tape for its computer voice, one that promises us "the first of a new generation of fast action, talking arcade games". Microdeal distributes Android Attack, a variant of Berserk from Spectral Associates in the States. This is one of the better programs from Microdeal and offers some improvements on the usual game. As your tiny figure rushes through a maze of electrified walls it is pursued by the androids of the title who can destroy by touch or by laser fire. When zapped by your weapon, they turn into mines, and later into ghost androids that siide harmlessly through the walls. As a bonus, you can attempt to pick up crowns from each room.

If you destroy all the androids on the screen, the next display is more difficult. The speech synthesis is limited to "Intruder Alert" and "Coward" as you run from a room, but it does grate out "I'll get you next time" if you clear the screen. After my previous criticisms of Microdeal's adventure games it is pleasant to be able to recommend this game as fun to play and good value for money.

Bonka (J. Morrison Micros)

Another arcade type game that is quite addictive is Bonka from J. Morrison Micros. The display shows six levels connected by six ladders that appear at random. Using the cursor control keys, you control a small man whose purpose is to lure some blue meanies close to you. Digging a hole with J. Morrison's Bonka for arcade freaks the space bar allows you to trap your enemies within, and allows you a few seconds to race to the hole and "bonk" the meany on the head. You can choose the speed of play from 1 to 4 (4 is so fast as to verge on the impossible) and also the number of meanies at the start. This is a well-graded game, providing skill levels from very easy to extremely hard, and automatically increases in difficulty as you improve. This is another good investment for the home arcade player.

To complete this month's selection, I have included two computerised board games: Backgammon from Microdeal and Cyrus Chess from Dragon Data.

Backgammon (Microdeal)

Backgammon starts by giving you a menu of options. You can play against the computer, use the computer as a board while you pfay someone else, or watch the computer play against itself. Difficulty level can be selected, as can the option to use a light pen, to input your own dice throws and to have sound accompaniment. There are no backgammon instructions, so you will need to know how to play the game before you start. Some tips can be picked up by watching the computer play itself, particularly at level 9. The display is reasonable, but not as clear as it could be due to the green background. As I haven't seen any other versions as yet, it is difficult to compare, but it certainly plays well and was difficult to beat at level 6. Whether this demonstrates the skill of the game or my lack of it is another matter!

Cyrus Chess (Dragon Data)

Dragon Data's Cyrus Chess program comes on a cartridge, which makes it rather expensive at £24.95. If you want a quick-reading, versatile game, then you may find this is worth extra expense. There are several options open to you, including level of difficulty, hints, automatic play, and even changing sides. The board may be set up for the solution of problems, and you can step backwards and forwards through the moves made so far, Cyrus employs two screens, a playing board showing all the pieces, and a record screen showing the moves so far, the difficulty level and the menu options available. Swopping between the two is done through the space bar. and moving pieces is simplified by use of the cursor keys.

Standard features such as castling, pawn capture en passant and pawn promotion are all handled by the computer as are stalemate and checkmate positions. The Cyrus program won the Microcomputer Chess Championship in 1983.

It plays a stronger game than the two Spectrum chess programs I have, but can be beaten at the lower levels once you see the type of game it plays. Like most chess programs, it is at its weakest during the mid-game. However, this program does provide a means of improving your game and learning some of the standard openings. Hints on where to move are useful at the start, but unreliable as the game progresses. The price is rather high, but when compared to a dedicated chess computer, it still represents good value.

And Finally...

Lastly, for those of you anxious to improve your adventure games, here is a one-line special to enter into your Dragons:

   10 INPUT "YOU ARE IN A DARK CAVE. THERE ARE EXITS N, S, E + W...";A$:GOTO 10

No prizes for the first correct solution!