Murder in the Marching Band by Sam Xenubius (1989)

Tweet Review:

A look back at high school marching bands (and homegrown text adventures) from the 1980s

Full Review:

The goal of eXoDOS is to “catalog, obtain, and make playable every game developed for the DOS and PC Booter platform.” The full installation of eXoDOS includes 7,200 games and consumes nearly 600GB of drive space. It contains every game ever released for DOS that you could possibly imagine, and thousands you’ve never heard of.

One you’ve never heard of is Murder in the Marching Band, a text adventure released for MS-DOS in 1989. I discovered the game the same way I suspect most anyone who has ever stumbled across it did, which was by searching for a different, similarly named game and finding this one instead. In an era where people post pictures of their meals online, somehow this game fell through the cracks. It appears on the Interactive Fiction Database (with no information) and GameFAQs (with no FAQ). Every other hit returns long lists of vintage text adventures with this one’s title nestled alphabetically among a sea of other games. A search of the author’s (I presume) alias, Sam Xenubius, returns less than a dozen results, all of which are tied to this game. Every reference to the author or this game contains the same single-line description: “A slightly buggy and extremely silly adventure game.”

eXoDOS leverages the DOSBox emulator to play old games on modern computers, and after a game terminates (normally or otherwise) the emulator gracefully closes the window. After launching Murder in the Marching Band, DOSBox closed after I had made only two moves. A second attempt ended with the same result. Curious as to why the game was crashing, I downloaded another copy of from the internet and launched it manually within DOSBox.

My assumption that the game was closing due to an error was incorrect. Instead, I was being killed in the game and unceremoniously dumped into DOS, at which point eXoDOS assumed we were all done and closed the window. By launching the downloaded copy in a standalone installation of DOSBox, I was able see what was happening and actually play the game.

Murder in the Marching Band begins not with opening credits or even the game’s title, but with a description of your current location instead: the Digby Corners High School auxiliary football field. As the school’s marching band, players will notice near them a sax reed along with multiple NPCs including the Drum Major, Mr. Redchipp, the band itself, and two strangers. Upon further examination, one of the strangers is revealed to be Mary Shanning, the band director of your school’s arch-rivals, Crountain Mest High.

If you examine Mary Shanning directly, the game lets you know “it looks like a plain old garden variety mary.” If you’re able to examine Mr. Redchipp before he wanders off, the player is informed “you’ve been in band for two years now, and ought to know what Redchipp looks like.” Those two responses say an awful lot about the game.

Unraveling the game’s mysteries requires diving into the included README file. Along with some historical technical information documenting the game’s creation and lineage, the README includes information vital to beating, playing, and simply understanding the basics of the game. Two of the document’s four pages explain who the game’s protagonist is (“Samuel Benjamin Rochester Groakfield”), a history of the conflict between the two competing marching bands, and most importantly, the goal of the game: “It is up to you […] to ensure that Mr. Redchipp is spared the horrible fate of treating a 237 member band of hostile teenagers to pizza.”

Every writer knows it is better to show than to tell, and the same rule applies to the authors of text adventures and interactive fiction. All of this backstory could have been provided in the game itself, perhaps in location descriptions or, more compellingly, as NPC dialog. Why explain to us in the README file why these bands dislike one another when the same information could be conveyed through in-game dialog or action?

The technical information included in the README file is, to those who study the history of text adventures, of equal importance. The game was originally written in 1986 in Pascal on a VAX-11/750 at the University of Redlands, California, “where games are strictly forbidden.” That version was ported to Pascal 5.0 to create this DOS-compatible version. The documentation concludes with an open offer to provide the source code to any interested party who sends an email to Sam Xenubius. Unfortunately, no email or web address is included, and every Google result for the author’s name simply returns a link to the game’s documentation. (And now, perhaps, this review.)

The fact that the game’s engine appears to have been written from scratch explains a lot. The parser accepts “GO EAST” and “E”, for example, but not “EAST” by itself. Also, “LOOK EAST” works, but “LOOK E” does not. Many objects mentioned throughout the game lack descriptions. The verbiage used throughout the game is at times awkward; fortunately, the list of recognized (and sometimes awkward) verbs is included within the documentation.

Returning to the game’s opening location, we are informed that obvious exits are east and west; try to walk in either direction and the Drum Major will throw the contents of his pockets at you in rage. The items include a poker chip, a baton, and a whistle. These seem like the types of things a player would need to solve puzzles and/or offer to NPCs, and the obvious move is to pick them up. Collecting the poker chip and baton is no problem; picking up the whistle causes the Drum Major to fatally tackle you. Like every other death experienced in the game, and there are many, there’s no option to UNDO or RESTORE this seemingly harmless action. Instead players will find themselves staring at a DOS prompt, sitting amongst their hard drive’s files and folders.

Murder in the Marching Band includes the ability to SAVE and LOAD games, although as with everything else, the routines seem to be buggy. Attempt to load a saved file that doesn’t exist and the game will abort with a runtime error. Adding a period to the filename (and, one can safely assume, many other non-alphanumeric characters) also crashes the loading and saving routines. Even if you manage to successfully save and later reload a saved game, things seem off. I saved my progress in a room with four visible objects, and reloaded the same game to find only three remained. The item was not in my inventory and not listed in the location description; even more curious was the fact that I was able to still pick the object up (in this case, the poker chip) and add it to my inventory. A few moves later I handed the red chip to Mr. Redchipp (seemed like a logical move). After Redchipp accepted the chip and walked away, I noticed the chip was still in my inventory. Great trick for real life casinos, not so much in text adventures.

And so it goes. Early in the game the player will be required to enter and start a vehicle. After muddling through a traffic stop that exists only because this is a text adventure, the player can continue north until Sam ends up in the lobby of a hotel, still inside his car. At least this time the game prompts you to exit the car before killing you. Failure to stop for the officer will get you killed and dumped directly into DOS. The game will also kill you if you go west after entering your car, attempting to return to the field. Going east reveals a videotape in front of the police station; pick it up and the police will kill you. Players will spend a lot of time in this game being ejected from the game and landing in DOS.

They say everything exists for a reason, if only to stand as a bad example. On a positive spin, I’d say this game, and others like it, exist as a testament to just how hard it was to create a successful text adventure. A+ games required a compelling story with good writing and an interesting setting, running on top of a well-written parser. Issues with any individual component could turn players away from an otherwise potentially winning game. Games deficient in more than piece of the puzzle never stood a chance. It does seem merciful to point out that Murder in the Marching Band does not appear to have been a commercial release, and perhaps shouldn’t be compared to A-list titles as such. On the other hand, it was publicly released and remains publicly available, making comparisons to other games in the genre inevitable.

Murder in the Marching Band was probably a lot of fun to create. I’m sure “Sam Xenubius” and his friends (some of which are listed in the readme) had a fun time exploring this alternate version of their own high school band experience, and had a good laugh at all the in-jokes written into the location descriptions. Unfortunately, anyone unfamiliar with Mr. Xenubius, his inner circle of friends, or Digby Corners High School will have little incentive to struggle through this awkward adventure. The simple act of exploring the town in which you are meant to explore frequently leads to too many instant, immediate, and undeserving deaths.

The included README file contains a final parting gift. “You may not have heard the last of XENUBIS ENTERTAINMENT PROJECTS,” promises the author. Future adventures are teased with promises of advanced features including graphical maps and multi-player capabilities, thanks to a new adventure language (that the author is also developing) called Advent. Sadly, no record of Advent or any additional games from this author seem to exist.

Borrowed Time by Interplay (1985)

Borrowed Time starts with a frame-per-second animation of a guy breaking through the glass window on your door and then reaching around and turning the doorknob to let him in to presumably start smashing you next. On the PC, anyway! The PC version does this. The version I played for this review was the Amiga’s and the game’s introduction just shows a pretty sedate office without any violence whatsoever. I mean, I guess that was the biggest difference between the Amiga and the IBM PCjr: the Amiga’s most famous demo is a simple bouncing ball in a family-friendly box while the PCjr ran ads with an actor wearing the same mustache that killed six million souls in the Holocaust. But here we have the second biggest difference between the platforms in my opinion. The history of entertainment software for the IBM PC is that of a game having to try twice as hard because it looks four times as bad.

We had the real folio package of Borrowed Time in my family.  I’ve spilled a lot of ink on the Internet about software piracy but I don’t think we actually warezed that much software, all told. I didn’t have the kind of money to buy this when it was released, so I assume my father paid for it as he was the only one working in the family in 1986. A year after he bought this game for my brother and me to play he had a heart attack and I have no memory of the events before and after that, an absolute brain blackout for something that should have been firing off the thickest (?) synapses I had at the time. Every year we got from my dad after his heart attack was a bonus, we didn’t take any for granted after his bypass surgery.

So this was a replay of Borrowed Time because I had it as a kid and got pretty far but also a replay because I sure didn’t remember much beyond the opening. While (re) playing the opening, I kept coming back to the wonderful things this game does as a text adventure. One of the pitfalls of my own interactive fiction is that the “>talk” command starts solving all problems. It’s easy to get into a very small subset of commands which gets the player’s brain trained upon those commands and makes anything out of the ordinary a verb that must be guessed. Borrowed Time doesn’t do that – within the first ten minutes we have an >answer phone, a >read case files, a >hide (it took me a MONTH to implement hiding in Cryptozookeeper during the scene where the character Ben plays turns people into stone if he sees you to early, and this game just elegantly makes it the obvious command as shots start firing) a password you can sleuth out and then a wonderful scene where you get a slow motion play by play of the hired muscle (“Rocco”) emerging through a doorway where you can smash him in the head with a candlestick. We use the >hide command in the end game as well and I do like how it is implemented – you have the most obvious “hide” command at the beginning of the game (and you are specifying what to hide behind!) and in the end game you also need to hide behind something (trash in this instance) but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

After this crazy opening, there is an entire little town to explore and that leads to the biggest misstep of Borrowed Time – it will kill you if it feels you aren’t making enough progress. It deserves to get dinged for this but the MiSTer and other Amiga emulators have you covered because saving to a slot on the ADF file itself works – this gives you a chance to save after the game’s opening and run around town to see what is going on and restore after this picture:

You have about 10 moves after the game tells you that “you hear a gun cocking somewhere” – in getting the screenshot up above, the thug shot me right outside a police station, which – hey, you’ve got to give a guy with skin pinker than Sinestro and the exact same mustache as Sinestro credit for having the balls to do his job even if the environmental conditions aren’t ideal. This is a man who does not subscribe to the 2022 mantra of “nobody wants to work.”

The mid-game has you finding evidence to put away the crooks in town that want to end you, Boss Farnham included, who seems to be the mastermind. There is a “give a dog a bone” puzzle, that old classic, and a better one where you have a confrontation with Boss Farnham and observe that he uses the word “Hiyo” to calm his ravenous Dobermans, which you can later use yourself to stop them from ripping your throat out.

The constant anxiety created by the daemon that kills you if you dawdle is there until the end game. I wish I could see the source code to see what’s going on. It’s tough because this is a game without much to say, but you still want to take time to look at objects and yet you do there is that sensation that the Murder Clock is ticking. Even when firmly into the game’s final puzzles – escaping the act of getting tied up, showing a bunch of evidence to the cops – you still get the listings that you feel watched and that death is coming.

There are some other problems that aren’t solved by modern technology as well. Whereas Infocom’s text adventures can show you more text on the screen this century, thanks to Frotz and other interpreters created well after the games were released, you get six lines at about 7 words each for the game’s text, so when a couple of things are happening at once, the economy of words it can present is pretty stifling. I don’t see anyone making a modern Interplay interpreter and even if someone did, the content from a writing standpoint just does not exist.

Is this worth playing in 2022? The inability to take your time and explore without reloading really distracts from what you can learn from this game. But! It has some really good bits if you’re looking to learn something about adventure game design. Borrowed Time puts on a masterclass in the opening and has enough interesting pieces throughout. It’s not really noir, although it uses a lot of the marginalia from noir –  everything does get wrapped up in a neat bow, there really isn’t a femme fatale of much note and there is absolutely no “voice” present from a hard-boiled private dick. For me, though, I am glad I spent a couple of weeks with it again. This is a game of place and time. This is a game that will always remind me of the neighborhood I grew up in. My brother and I were excited to have something like this to spend weeks on. The men who owned homes in the neighborhood I grew up in are all passing now, the husbands and fathers all dying as they hit age 77 and beyond. They lived life in a way I should probably try to emulate, while they were all PC gamers, they certainly didn’t spend evening after evening staring at a computer screen.  They all knew how to build houses (with what, their bare hands? >yes) and raise kids who had infinitely easier and better lives than they did, all while ensuring their wives and loved ones were financially taken care of when they started dying. This game makes you feel like you are never more than 5 moves away from getting gunned down and as I grow older I see the same thing pretty regularly in the generation that came before me. I’m trying to appreciate what I have around me as we crawl through the middle(?) of a deadly pandemic. But I’m gonna be honest. After the last couple of years it definitely feels like each day is just some Borrowed Time in real life too.


The Christmas Party by OldGrover (2007)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I can relate to spending Christmas morning searching the trash, but I personally do it for those last few delectable drops of whiskey rather than the orphans.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and this is a great Christmas game. I just wish I could play with my fairy buddies or mine with a dwarf in this one just like Winter Wonderland. Honestly, I’d be a pretty lonely dude without fantasy creature interactions in my IF.

My Verdict:

This game captures the true spirit of Christmas: ceaseless, selfless laboring on behalf of the less fortunate. I mean you are also trying to bang a chick, but the level of self-sacrifice exhibited here is truly astounding.

Game Information

Game Type: Alan

Author Info: OldGrover is one of those guys who briefly danced into our lives for a time, stole our hearts, and then vanished. The Christmas Party seems to be his only text adventure. He had a website called Is Random Random which mainly talked about an RPG project he was working on called Deal With the Devil, but it only exists on the Internet Archive now. I couldn’t find anything else about him so I’m thinking he made his deal with the devil and it didn’t go well. I’m sure we’ve all considered trading in our soul to level up our Blender skills and gain the other abilities needed to create the best damn 2D tile-based sci-fi RPG in history, but the lesson of OldGrover is that it just isn’t worth it. Never forget OldGrover, kids. Then again, maybe Grover just got a C&D letter from Sesame Street and decided to delete everything as a cautionary measure. It takes a brave man indeed to stand up to Big Muppet.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: None known

Christmas can be a lot of work. My parents weren’t the types to don Santa suits, go ho-ho-ho, and drink themselves silly. Sure, the holidays were about presents, family togetherness, and kindness, but in my household they were also about SUFFERING. Lots and lots of uncomfortably sober suffering. For my mom, Christmas meant hours upon hours of cooking and soothing irate relatives eternally on the warpath. My dad seemed to grow progressively more resigned as December proceeded until he gained the strength for a sudden flurry of intensely focused holiday activity. Acquire the tree, trim the tree, affix the tree to the stand, test the lights, replace the bulbs, place the lights. Then he could relax and pretend like none of the festivities around him were actually happening. Christmas Dad was a bit like a Predator with a saw and electrical outlet for attachments in place of the speargun and disc. He would emerge once more briefly to leave the denuded Christmas tree out for junk pickup. Then he’d go, “What…the…hell…are…YOU? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA” and throw me on the pile as well. I always felt like this was a rather upsetting way to end the holiday season, but I still use the decompaction and landfill swimming skills I picked up back then today. I guess it was a tough love kind of thing. There was always a hot meal waiting for me when I got back home several days later so I can’t complain too much. Anyway, the point of the story is I don’t do a whole lot for Christmas any more. It can be quite a bit of work after all.

What I like best about The Christmas Party is the distinctly unsentimental approach it takes to the holidays. Bear in mind this is a game that was entered into a holiday-themed minicomp (Text the Halls, 2007). Not going the sentimental route in this context carries a certain amount of risk. You can’t accuse OldGrover of taking the easy way out here. While the game does place you in the role of a man who is tasked with setting up a Christmas party for local orphans, I’m pretty sure the working title for this game prior to the official release was Fuck the Orphans. OldGrover had to change the name when he sensed it was attracting the wrong sort of audience. Suffice it to say that you won’t be mentoring any troubled youths in this adventure. Your concerns are distinctly more practical and mundane than that. The Christmas tree isn’t going to put up itself, after all, and this dump needs a good cleaning too. There even might be some DIY repair work to do and future fire hazards to create. You could argue that while your character is not directly spreading holiday cheer as a conscripted handyman he is still doing all this work for the orphans. He has to care on some level, right? The problem with that take is that the game tells you exactly why your character is laboring tirelessly in obscurity: you’re hoping to score a date with your friend Melody who is actually the one who wants to feed the orphans. Your character really doesn’t seem to care much about the orphans or Christmas…all he actually wants to do is bang his friend. So while the game certainly gets points for relatability and realism I have a feeling no one was terribly surprised when this didn’t end up winning Text the Halls. Did I mention yet that the protagonist’s description is, “There is nothing special about the hero” and that he doesn’t have a name? He’s not the Christmas hero we need or want, but he is the one we deserve and there’s a good chance that Melody won’t just be sucking down eggnog this magical Christmas night.

Incidentally, I’m not totally down with the whole banging your friends thing so let me preach and ramble for a bit. I was browsing /r/TwoXChromosomes recently and I kept coming across these stories of women with male friends who suddenly decided to make passes at them despite sometimes years of prior platonic friendship. These women felt shocked, upset, and betrayed, and I understood why. We distinguish friends with benefits from other types of friends because the benefits of regular friendship tend to involve things like having someone who’ll help you move, someone who’ll bail your drunk ass out of jail, and someone who’ll talk to you at 2 AM when that’s what you need rather than ass access. I do see it as a violation of friendship to suddenly make a move on someone who has given no indication that they think of you as anything but a friend. But I can understand things from the other side too. Sometimes you aren’t initially that drawn to someone, but then you get to know them better and find yourself deeply attracted. It can take time to fall in love, after all, and we’ve all heard romantic stories of slow burn romances that emerged out of lengthy friendships. In that situation, do you always stifle your feelings for the sake of the friendship? For me, it would depend on what kind of signals I was getting from the other person (bearing in mind that signals can easily be misinterpreted), but I like to think I’d still tend to default on the side of friends staying friends. We talk about people being just friends or hoping for more than friendship as if friendship was inherently lacking in comparison to romantic love, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes friends are the only ones that are there for you while lovers abandon and betray you. There are also plenty of people who’d make great friends but not good partners or fellow Bang Bus passengers. I personally wouldn’t trade a good friend for a mere uncertain chance at romance and/or sex that could also happen to make my friend feel shitty and post on Reddit about what a creepy asshole I am. Plus, if you start leveling up self-control you can eventually start having attractive married friends and perhaps even be allowed to be in the same room as your stepsisters again. Baby steps to glory!

Obviously, The Christmas Party guy feels differently about the situation than I do. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt because maybe Melody did give out signals that she was interested. We definitely don’t know the whole story here. Maybe he’s right to do all this work to win a date with his dream girl. Maybe she’ll even be flattered. Maybe she’s actually already interested herself and just wanted to see if she could score some free work out of the deal before the situation got too steamy. In my mind’s eye, though, I’m seeing an aftermath where Melody is posting on Reddit about how she thought her “friend” really cared about the orphans and her but really just wanted to guilt her into having sex with him. I’m envisioning a world where Christmas will never quite be the same again and the orphans will likely be going hungry from here on out all because some dude wanted to get laid without using Tinder like a normal person would.

Now that we’ve gotten the complicated sexual politics of this game out of the way, it’s time to focus on the all-important core mechanics. I’d sum up the general situation as “puzzles gooood, parser baaaaaaaaaaaaaad.” I like how in the beginning you don’t exactly know what you need to do. Melody wants the joint spruced up and looking Christmasy, but the player has to figure out just how to handle that task. You have to use your prior knowledge of Christmas customs and what orphans crave to put together this party. The puzzles you come across tend to require interesting DIY improvisations of the kind you might have tried in your own home when you didn’t have access to proper parts or tools (i.e. every single fucking time you ever repaired something). I’m pretty sure you violate multiple fire and public safety codes as you hack your way through your mission, but at least the orphans are going to be well-fed before they start roasting on an open fire. I’m generally not that good at repairing things, but after setting up this virtual Christmas party I think I’m now ready to start handling all my own electrical and decorating work from here on out. I also have discovered a new environmentally friendly way to make popcorn thanks to my man Grover.

The parser definitely makes the game much less playable than it could be. The whole trio of parser horror is here: lazy oversights, missing descriptions, and unreasonable pickiness. Coming up with the right verb is generally the hardest aspect to solving the puzzles, and this isn’t the type of game that exactly encourages judicious use of synonyms. I can accept that from time to time I’ll have to call a cord a plug in a text adventure even though the description called it a cord, but I actually had to use the verb “unball” to win the freaking game for the first time which goes well beyond the limits of basic human decency. That’s the kind of verb I’d prefer not to use for any reason whatsoever if I had my druthers. To be fair, I found out “unfold” is accepted as well on another playthrough, but I still got the distinct impression that OldGrover wanted only eunuchs to be able to solve his game. I had to beat it partly just to spite the guy and for the sake of ball pride.

I suppose a Christmas game that is fundamentally about home improvement and trying to bang your friend is probably never going to win anything, but I think The Christmas Party would be recommendable if only the parser was more responsive. The game subverts our expectations for Christmas games in an interesting way, and it actually manages to vividly capture a seldom seen slice of the holidays by focusing on one of their least heartwarming aspects: the labor. Like my parents, there’s always someone working really hard behind the scenes to make any holiday party or family gathering more or less successful. A lot of sweat goes into every cup of Christmas cheer. As 2021 fades into 2022, I want to wish everyone a happy new year and remind each and every one of you to drive safe and bang your friends responsibly if at all!

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 4/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 4/10

Puzzle Quality: 7/10

Parser Responsiveness: 2/10

Brave Bear by John Evans (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I can’t believe the doll likes the monkey more than me. I hate netorare.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wanna be brave just like Brave Bear. Fear me, shadows!

My Verdict:

This is what happens when you come up with a decent idea for a game, implement about 25% of it, and then click submit just for the hell of it.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: John Evans has been creating text adventures since the early 2000s. His work is known for being ambitious but is also often accused of being unpolished and buggy. He has a website which is kind of…well, unpolished and buggy. If you really want to plant the Chaoseed (I don’t know what that even means), you can check out his Twitter and Tumblr.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: Castle Amnos, Gilded, Order, and more.

IF authors have realized for decades that there is a simple shortcut to immediately invoke feelings of nostalgia and childlike innocence in your audience. All you have to do is put characters who are stuffed animals or other toys into your game and the feels will inevitably follow. It’s a fairly foolproof strategy as long as you don’t have the toys murder anyone which is the part I’d struggle with. John Evans’ great realization, to the extent he had one, was recognizing that the formula that worked for David Dyte in 1997 is still potentially just as pleasing in 2021.

I’m honestly not even a stuffed animal kind of guy really, and yet this stuff still works on me. Prior to my participation in the Great Taxidermy Shop Raid of 2002, I had had exactly one stuffed friend in my life. It was a bunny, and because it had been my sister’s before it was mine it was a little worn down. It was also soft, adorable, and an all-around solid kind of friend for a little kid to have. Due to an unfortunate breakdown in the parental-child lines of communication, the news of the changing of the guard never reached my sister, and she reclaimed what was once hers before too long. She still has it, I think, and I still have my grief all these decades later. It was a formative moment in my young life that taught me a few important things. People steal and take. Friends are more easily lost than gained. And as for me, I wasn’t going to be screwed over ever again. So, yeah, the point is if you put a stuffed animal into a game it’s going to invoke some stuff.

In Brave Bear, you play Brave Bear, a stuffed animal with a firm heart, steely gaze, and plush claws that delight in shredding evil. In the house where you, your owner, and your other toy pals live, something doesn’t seem to be right. For one thing, mysterious phantasms have invaded your domain and are blocking various exits in an incredibly rude manner. This won’t do at all. When Brave Bear senses wrongness, he doesn’t debate or ponder…he SMASHES, SLASHES, and EVISCERATES. However, even Brave Bear can’t do it all on his own. He needs help from his friends, and his pals happen to mostly be other stuffed animals and toys. Sometimes they have the special abilities that bears crave while solving puzzles. At other times they just provide moral support. Their help is clearly essential because this thing that’s going on, whatever it is, is definitely going to require some good old-fashioned teamwork to overcome.

This game got me very interested for a while when I realized I would basically be leading a whole gang of toys. Finally, true power would be at my fingertips. Once my team was assembled, I spent a good amount of time trying to direct my followers to solve problems for me a la Frenetic Five. As eager as I was to start fucking shit up, I ran into one major issue very quickly: most members of the team don’t seem to bring very much to the table. Nightlight, the one non-toy in the bunch, is the least exciting fictional character I’ve encountered since Barney the Barnacle Who Refuses to Ever Detach. Nightlight theoretically gives you light and helps you see your way, but all he wants to talk about is how he won’t leave his room no matter how much you need him. One major obstacle you face in this game is a dark room that needs illumination. Can we call on Nightlight in this situation where his powers would undoubtedly come in handy? Hell no we can’t. Nightlight doesn’t move, remember? He’s literally less useful than an actual nightlight would be because a regular nightlight wouldn’t put up a hissy fit just because I wanted to plug it into another outlet in a different room.

At least Nightlight is semi-functional. The Transforming Robot should theoretically be able to turn from a robot into a car, but I wasn’t able to get him to actually transform despite numerous attempted verbs. I would’ve probably spent hours turning the robot into a car and then into a robot again, but since it didn’t work I wasn’t able to use his incredible abilities to do anything at all. What use is a Transforming Robot who doesn’t transform or robot or car? The robot isn’t the only thing that doesn’t work very well here. Frog Reporter looks cool with his coat and webby hands/handsy webs, but can we use him to climb stuff and flash people? The answer appears to be a resounding, “No!” And then there’s Doll who literally just stands around and looks pretty. Is this really the kind of strong, independent female role model we want our young, hypothetical daughters to encounter when playing IF? The weird thing is there’s a whole sequence where we help rescue Doll so I was expecting her to become an important part of the story…but she just isn’t. We rescue her, she follows us around, and she proceeds to do a whole lot of nothing. It’s as if the Germans stuck Lenin on a train, he went back to Russia, and then there was not even a single attempt made at revolution. Maybe Lenin and Kerensky shared some polonium-free tea together and Vladimir Ilyich grudgingly decided parliamentary democracy might be worth a try after all.

We’ve gotten to the point where we can note that literally the majority of team members do absolutely nothing useful whatsoever throughout the whole game. For my money, there are only three toys who pull their own weight in this whole crummy operation. Monkey has the best redemptive arc in the story. When you realize his only skill is grabbing things, it’s easy to assume the worst. This stuffed simian is no Monkey Weinstein, however, and no doll butts are grabbed during the course of this game…well, at least not by the monkey. Monkey’s grabbing skills are needed to solve one of the puzzles, and that alone is enough to make him one of the most useful team members because as we’ve already established most of the toys are straight up bums. While Plastic Car and Music Maker seem like minor characters — Plastic Car doesn’t even follow you around because he’s an outdoor car — they also absolutely come up huge at the exact moment when you really need them. You know, the way friends are supposed to. That was totally directed at you, Nightlight.

It often seems like the first room in a game can tell you all you need to know about how good the parser is going to be throughout the game. In the case of Brave Bear, you wake up in a bed surrounded by blankets with a dim light shining in the vicinity. You can look at the blankets, but the bed and the light don’t even get descriptions. Meat Loaf didn’t do a song called “One Out of Three Ain’t Bad” because one out of three is, in fact, pretty bad other than in baseball. The parser doesn’t improve much after that first room. Most things you try won’t work in this game. It’s particularly frustrating because the toys are fun and interesting characters. You want to interact with them and see them use their skills. Unfortunately, very little actually works. You can talk and hug most characters. In a few specific situations, you can issue a basic order like “stormtrooper, get tiara.” Beyond that, crickets. The parser is by the far the biggest source of frustration you’ll encounter in this game.

Sometimes I wonder just how a game like this comes to arrive in its final state. John Evans had a pretty solid idea for a game, and a Frenetic Five type of game with sentient toys could have ended up being pretty cool. Instead, the final result feels more like a fragment of a game than a completed work. The game is short and simple in an unsatisfying way. At the very least, I would have liked to see each toy have to use its abilities at least once to move past obstacles in this game. Having a transforming robot that cannot transform is a crime against game design. In fact, most of the characters feel severely underutilized. The ending attempts to explain what’s going on, but it comes completely out of left field and isn’t foreshadowed or even hinted at during the game so it also feels more hastily cribbed together than planned. Perhaps the comp deadline crept up on John Evans and he suddenly realized he had to submit the game pronto. We’ve all had “I can’t do it. We’ll do it live. We’ll do it live! Fuck it! Do it live!” moments in our lives that have left us no time to do anything but improvise. Some of mine have happened this year on this very website. Unfortunately, the ultimate cost of hurry and underdevelopment is that we don’t have the good game we could have had. I would definitely advise anyone in this kind of situation to delay their game until they get it right. You can always enter the next comp, but it’s a lot tougher to revise a game that’s already been released and judged.

Simple Rating: 3/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 4/10

Writing: 5/10

Playability: 3/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Off-Season at the Dream Factory by Carroll Lewis (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The whole reason orcs as a concept exist is because sometimes you need mindless, murderous brutes to make a story complete. Sure, you can turn around and say, “Oh, but this particular orc reads books and doesn’t like violence!” but at that point your orc tale is basically indistinguishable from an ugly, green human tale and God knows we don’t need any more of those. Must woke IF authors destroy all of my fictional role models?

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wish I’d had an uncle like Uncle Carroll when I was growing up. I definitely could have used a few spells of my own to ward off playground bullies and turn their attacks back on them. My actual uncle did know Wax Lips, but he was never interested in teaching the spell to me despite my pleadings every time I came to visit. On the plus side, my time with Uncle Charlie did leave me with permanently waxed lips and now I have to consume all fluids and nutrients intravenously. I was always a pudgy kid, but weight gain is no longer something I have to worry about!

My Verdict:

My showstopper closing sentence for a fifth grade book report on this would be, “It didn’t make any sense and it was very entertaining.” If Miss Pembroke doesn’t appreciate that line of genius, I’m dropping out of school and joining the circus.

Game Information

Game Type: Adventuron

Author Info: Carroll Lewis is the kind of name you get when your parents decide it would be fun to take the name of a popular Victorian children’s author, reverse it, and then slap it on their firstborn, irreparably scarring you for life. The good news is that a reverse Lewis Carroll is probably not going to turn out to be a pedophile. The bad news is I can’t Google this dude even when I use quotes and as such I was not able to find any information about him which makes for a rather pitiful Author Info section. We found a way to enjoy it anyway, though, didn’t we?

Play Online Link:

Other Games By This Author: I have no idea. Maybe none?

I think the primary difference between fantasy and science fiction is that scifi tends to have rules. Despite the futuristic technology, sexy aliens, and exotic planetscapes, you still expect a consistent world that probably resembles our own world in highly significant ways. When it comes to fantasy, there aren’t necessarily any rules. Things don’t have to make sense and the world doesn’t necessarily need to be consistent. The only real limit is the author’s imagination. In fantasy, a powerful spellcaster can leave destroyed armies and toppled empires in his wake only to be stopped in his tracks by one willful, precocious child. When this kind of thing happens in science fiction, it’s annoying as hell and people create angry threads about it on the Internet, but when it happens in fantasy, it’s completely normal (and also annoying as hell).

Off-Season at the Dream Factory is definitely fantasy by my definition. It’s not a world much like our own, and not everything makes sense or is explained. The game takes you to the kind of place where songs can be sung in color, dreams are bought and sold like commodities, items can travel freely between dreams and reality, newly planted cabbages spring up from the ground fully-formed, and orcs don’t necessarily like to kill things. In particular, the orc you play — a morose teenager named Zildud — is strongly pacifistic by nature. That’s problematic because your job at the local Dream Factory is to play a monster and fight with adventurers in their prepackaged, purchased dreams. You simply show up, barely put up a fight, and get “killed” over and over again like an unusually green and charmingly hapless Bill Murray, enraging your manager who insists adventurers want monsters to give them a good fight and even defeat them from time to time.

If you still have any doubt as to whether this game is actually a fantasy, I think the Dream Factory’s ostensible business model should effectively settle the matter. Who exactly is going to fork over good money to explore dungeons and fight things in their dreams? I like a good dungeon crawler and monster (sorry, Zildud) basher as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to have a bad day because my head got smashed in by an ogre in the dream I FREAKING PAID FOR. If Excedrin and a free sandy beach and palm tree dream aren’t included as part of the dungeon package, I’m guessing the Dream Factory has a terrible Yelp rating.

OatDF does several things quite well if you can look past the whole not making much sense at times thing. Personally, I AM quite inclined to look past it. It’s fun to shut your analytical brain off temporarily and go on a mad adventure every now and then. The quality writing throughout the game tells the story of Zildud’s journey through the realm of dreams and back quite vividly. The puzzles are fun though straightforward. The parser is solid, and the author does a good job of providing descriptions for everything and responses to many common verbs. The gentle game design makes errors easily irreversible — even the final fight can be repeated without needing to reload a save or restart. I tend to think it is generally good to have consequences, even dire consequences at times, in interactive fiction, but I also think forgiving games like this one can be very good for newbies who might need a more gentle introduction to the medium. There are times when the game spells things out only after first giving the player the chance to figure things out for him or herself. For instance, an experienced IF player is likely to figure out Zildud’s mom is giving him directions before the game breaks it down explicitly. Similarly, you have the opportunity to find the sponge by looking around before you get pointed to it more directly. There are also a number of secrets to discover that often give you extra points but aren’t vital to the story. I feel like there’s enough here to interest and please IF players of all skill and experience levels.

Combat in Off-Season at the Dream Factory is essentially a series of simple puzzles, but watching Zildud somewhat reluctantly climb up the ranks at the Dream Factory is one of my favorite parts of the game. For some reason (and yes, this is another thing that doesn’t make much sense), Zildud’s morality allows him to cast spells that turn his opponents’ attacks back on themselves even as it frowns on Dud making direct, physical attacks on anyone. I suppose the idea is that anyone fighting Zildud could choose to back away and not have anything bad happen to them because the spells only affect them when they try to attack. The test of each battle ultimately is to find the correct spell to thwart your enemy’s particular type of aggression. The opponents are interesting, fun, quirky, and among the most interesting of the game’s NPCs — I could imagine the demonic couple or the angels of death popping up in a Robb Sherwin game or a Slayer game for that matter.

The combat and Zildud’s attitude towards combat is the backdrop for the one major moral choice in the game: ultimately, is Zildud going to turn out to be a killer like the orcish stereotype or is he going to be true to his initially more pacifistic nature? I would say Carroll Lewis definitely and unambiguously has a preferred path he’d like to see players follow, but at least he gives us meaningful choices and appropriate endings that more or less fit the choices. I did find myself wondering if it was really so bad to kill people in dreams. Yeah, it’s bad when Freddy Krueger does it, but that’s because people tend to die in the real world when he does his thing and there’s no consent for any of it. If it stays in the dream and has no significant real world consequences, is killing really so bad? When Zildud is confronted with real world, remorseless evil, the game still seems to suggest killing in that situation might be wrong. I think it could actually be more wrong to NOT kill under circumstances like that. It’s to the credit of Off-Season at the Dream Factory that it makes you think a little when it’s not busy being silly and fantastic. Even if you struggle to relate to Zildud and his moral qualms at times, his sensitive heart is fundamental to his character. He’s consistent even if the human controlling him is not. Unfortunately, however, the evil Zildud ending I was hoping for never quite materializes because no matter what Dud does he never seems to get roasted by Heather Langenkamp starring as Heather Langenkamp.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 8/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

An Amical Bet by Eve Cabanié (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I’m hoping the sequel will focus more on the hot lesbian action and less on the item gathering.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

A cell phone? Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

My Verdict:

It certainly has its charms, but the gameplay is more basic than pumpkin spice. It is more basic than sodium hydroxide. I’d even go so far as to say it is more basic than 10 PRINT “HELLO WORLD” 20 GOTO 10 which is rather basic indeed.

Game Information

Game Type: Quest

Author Info: Eve Cabanié is a French game designer, graphic artist, and student. You can view her art on ArtStation and Instagram or buy prints from Displate. You can also play her other games on her though sadly An Amical Bet seems to be her only text adventure so far.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: Free Ticket, CUBI

My first thought I had while playing this game is that it was probably the author’s first text adventure. It has that feel of having been created by someone who is still experimenting with the form and who is creating rooms, NPCs, and objects on the fly largely because she can. I don’t hold that against the game — we all have to start somewhere, and sometimes our early beginnings are interesting in their own right. We must first learn and become comfortable with the basics before we can improve and achieve mastery. It’s all part of the process. Taken as a first game, An Amical Bet is not even close to being the worst of its kind that I’ve played, but playing it feels more like you are looking at a hastily put together sketch in an artist’s sketchbook rather than viewing a fully realized, polished masterpiece in an art gallery.

The game has an interesting enough concept. You play Svetlana Asimov, a noted thief, who is living it up in an Italian villa with her romantic and business partner Jodie following a successful joint heist. Jodie has an interesting challenge for you that for once doesn’t involve your cunnilingus skills. Your paramour wants you to steal an item or a group of items that meets three criteria: there should be something shiny, something useful, and something unexpected. If you were to add a goat’s head to the collection, you would have everything you need to make a bride of Satan’s special day truly memorable. There’s a large villa with interesting objects available for the taking. Go forth and steal, young lady!

There’s a parallel universe where this game takes place in a VILLA OF SECRETS. There young Svetlana must dodge guards, traps, and the suspicious wealthy to complete her death-defying mission. Unfortunately, in our universe the game takes place in a villa of yawns. It is mostly empty, and our intrepid thief faces no opposition whatsoever to her stealing whatever she wants. Indeed, there are no puzzles to solve or obstacles to overcome here. You simply go from room to room and gather whatever you need. No item is hidden. There’s no secret passageway behind the bookcase and no trap door under the rug. It is the most straightforward and simple text adventure you’ll ever play. Quest’s built-in mapping feature and clickable objects and verbs make it even more trivial to solve than it would be otherwise. The best Quest games hide verbs that are unusual but essential to completing puzzles so as to not make solutions obvious, but An Amical Bet only recognizes a handful of verbs and you can easily click your way to victory. Things that are mentioned in the room descriptions but aren’t listed as objects can never be examined or otherwise interacted with.

The only thing that keeps the game from being a total snoozefest is Eve Cabanié’s lively and often humorous writing. There are some hilarious one-liners when you try to pick up or otherwise interact with certain objects, particularly the ones you don’t need for your quest. At times, it feels like Svetlana (and by association Eve) is having a conversation with the player. When you try to pick up a vase, you get told, “And where do I put it ?… Don’t answer that.” There’s a statue you can try to talk to; the response is, ‘”Having fun ?”. Of course, no answer. “What a bitch.” Joke’s on you, cause she probably speaks latin.’ When you read lines like that, you know this game isn’t really THAT far from being good even if it doesn’t quite make it. Eve has style, a great sense of humor, and verve which are all qualities that are not easily taught and which many IF authors lack. She uses a word in this game I’ve never seen before and which I immediately assumed was a typo or an English fail until I actually bothered to look it up. This is probably the only text adventure in the world which has a fastuous corridor and it is fucking fantastic. There are some genuine typos and grammatical errors around like “somptuous” being used instead of “sumptuous” but they hardly seem worth mentioning considering Eve correctly used the word fastuous in a sentence and as such is automatically better at English than I will ever be.

Ultimately, this game would need a lot more depth and challenge to be truly recommendable. As it is, the gameplay is just too shallow and simple. Even the quality writing can’t make a game where all you are doing is essentially walking around and picking up objects in plain sight interesting. A game without real puzzles like this one would at the very least need to give the player a lot more freedom to interact with the environment and offer more things to do to be entertaining. Even when it comes to the writing, I feel like there isn’t quite enough of it because portions of the game are quite underdescribed. It needs a little more of everything.

There are games I don’t enjoy which make me want to never play anything by that author again because I would not want to voluntarily experience that kind of mind-atrophying misery ever again. This is not one of those games. If I heard there was another Eve Cabanié game out, I would immediately go and play it. She has genuine writing talent, and the factors that keep An Amical Bet from being good could be remedied easily enough if she keeps honing her craft. This one won’t go down as a great game, but Eve is a young IF creator to watch in my view.

Simple Rating: 4/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 5/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Arctic Adventure by Harry McKracken (1981/2021)

Tweet Review:

A harmless, enjoyable, and mostly logical text adventure written for the TRS-80 in 1981 and reworked as a browser-based game 40 years later.

Full Review:

Every discussion regarding early text adventures eventually leads to Scott Adams. Adventureland, Adams’ first commercial release, is considered to be the first text adventure released for personal computers. Adams, along with his company Adventure International, released more than a dozen text adventures for 8-bit computers. These games were not only enjoyable to play, but they also inspired many budding programmers to create their own adventures.

Harry McKracken was one of those kids. A high school student in the early 80s, McKracken was inspired by Adams’ early games to create his own text adventure, Arctic Adventure. The game was originally released as a BASIC listing included in the book “The Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures” alongside an author’s biography that McKracken describes as being mostly incorrect. After a very limited release as part of a “tapezine,” Arctic Adventure quickly melted from existence. McKracken wrote a few more games, none of which saw commercial releases, and the only feedback he ever received in regards to Artic Adventure was from a disgruntled player claiming that the listing published in Captain 80’s book had a bug rendering the game unplayable — a fact McKracken was unable to confirm as he never received a copy of the book!

Fast forward forty years. McKracken finally tracked down a copy of the book through the internet and confirmed that the published copy of his code did indeed contain a fatal flaw. McKracken spent the summer of 2021 retyping his own code, this time feeding the game into a browser-based TRS-80 emulator. McKracken’s original code was updated to incorporate another BASIC game he had written (a simple slot machine) into the game. After making a few cosmetic changes, McKracken re-released his updated adventure 40 years after the original was published.

Arctic Adventure uses a pretty primitive parser, not unlike others from that era. All commands are verb-noun combinations, and common abbreviations (“E” for “GO EAST”) work. Like most early parsers, the game only checks the first three letters of each word. (“EXA SHO” is the same as “EXAMINE SHOVEL”, as far as the TRS-80 is concerned.) From memory, I think the game uses less than ten verbs in all.

The game begins with you, the player, inside an igloo along with a shovel and a coat. Every item in the game has a single use, so once you use it you’ll probably want to discard it as your character has a staggeringly limited number of things they can carry. After a while I began dumping everything I found next to the igloo, coming back for items as needed.

The browser-based emulator supports one saved game at a time. At any point along your icy journey you can type “SAVE” and your progress will be saved. Likewise, you can type “LOAD” (or simply “L” after dying) to revert back to your last saved position.

Like many early text adventures, Arctic Adventure is dying to kill you. Enter a location carrying the wrong item? Game over. Enter a different location without a specific item? Game over. Hang around a specific location for more than a couple of moves? Game over. Unlike modern interactive fiction games that offer UNDO features, death is swift and permanent in this game. Play like every move might be your last, because it probably will be.

For me, the most frustrating part of the game was the casino, in which players must win a certain amount of money in order to purchase a required item later in the game. The slot machine appears to be completely random, which means that players have to press the spacebar dozens of times in hopes of winning enough cash. I don’t know what happens if the player completely runs out of money but there were several times in which I thought I was going to find out.

Some of these old text adventures contain logic flaws that would take more code to fix than they’re worth. In at least two different areas, examining an item causes another item to appear, and examining the original item again causes the discovered item to respawn. That being said, while playing the game over the course of a week I found and reported two game-halting bugs which Mr. McKracken fixed almost immediately.

Unlike games of interactive fiction that allow players the opportunity to weave original stories and create their own narrative, text adventures were, for the most part, simple games where players maneuvered through maps, found objects, encountered puzzles, and solved those puzzles using the objects they found. In a nutshell, that’s Arctic Adventure. Explore all the locations, find all the things, and eventually the puzzles will solve themselves. (And if they don’t, there’s a radio waiting to nudge you in the right direction.) If you want to see what text adventures were like forty years ago without having to deal with floppy disks or emulators, put on your warmest pair of mittens and check out Arctic Adventure.

Note: the website below contains more of the game’s back stor, and a version of the game playable within your computer’s browser.


Aayela by Magnus Olsson (1996)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Well, damn. I was trying to forever extinguish the light and silence the music, but that really ended up backfiring on me. I guess violence really isn’t always the answer.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The protagonist is the best sort of hero. He’s someone who selflessly and without regret risks his life for those he serves, most notably his queen, yet receives no credit when he succeeds against all manner of hardship. I like to think my life is lived in a similar sort of way even though I’m terrified of caves and tunnels. If I’m ever needed to cavort with corgis, feast with foreign dignitaries, or give Harry a good spanking, I’m forever at the ready, my queen. Just don’t send me to war or make me go anywhere dark and/or slimy.

My Verdict:

Despite its shortness, Aayela offers a compelling study of darkness, a memorable game world, and a surprisingly emotional story.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Magnus Olsson is a Swedish text adventure author who was a major force in the IF community in the 1990s. He is a former editor of SPAG. You can visit his homepage — in fact, I really think you should. When is the last time someone wanted to share their public PGP key with you? You need this experience, dammit! He also has an IF page which probably hasn’t been updated since 2004. To be fair, I probably haven’t been updated since 2004 either.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: Uncle Zebulon’s Will, Atomia Akorny, The Dungeons of Dunjin, Zugzwang

Magnus Olsson’s name may not come up too often in IF circles any more, but Magnus stills looms large in my mind when I think about the history of our hobby. He was a major presence in the IF newsgroups during the 1990s and early 2000s, and I regard him as one of the best thinkers and theorists we’ve ever had. It’s tough to compare him to someone like Andrew Plotkin or Graham Nelson because Magnus only did a few games and perhaps never quite delivered us the magnum opus (magnus opus?) we may have expected. Nonetheless, I truly believe he influenced, encouraged, and challenged many of the best interactive fiction writers ever. We needed a really smart dude who could code and believed text adventures were serious business and truly worth thinking about, not to mention someone who didn’t mind spending time unselfishly mentoring others (or just telling them they were wrong). I personally still feel like he’s going to come back to this hobby any year now, put out some new games, and thoroughly kick all of our asses, but until that happens we should still remember him and everything he did for us. Thanks, Magnus. Thagnus.

Aayela firmly thrusts you into the role of a young knight who serves King Dargon. Queen Dahra, Darg’s favorite lawfully wedded squeeze, is dreadfully sick from some mysterious illness. Out of desperation, the king sends you out on a mission to retrieve a magical item, the Stone of Aayela, that might offer the only possible cure for the queen’s condition. Granted, it also might not really exist, but what sort of adventure would that turn out to be? Your quest lead you to the tunnels beneath the Dark Mountains, which are dark, twisty, narrow, and generally unpleasant. Supposedly, the Stone and the evil wizard who captured a spirit of light inside it are somewhere to be found here, but where?

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is that it takes place mostly in the dark. In other text adventures, darkness is often a problem to be combatted with effective lantern or other light source management or something to be removed by solving a puzzle (find the hidden light switch, learn the illuminating spell). In Aayela, darkness is something inherent to your environment. It can’t be beaten back — you must live with it, cope with it somehow. The darkness affects every aspect of gameplay. You must play by its rules for you are not the master of your domain here. The tunnels are rather large and expansive, but every room feels much the same due to the blackness. They can feel claustrophobic and confusing at times even when Olsson hasn’t stuck us in a maze. There are useful items to find, but you might stumble over them or find them only on a second pass over the same area because it’s just so hard to see anything. Luckily, there are no grues waiting to eat you in the shadows here, but the tunnels don’t feel exactly safe either. The general feeling is one of uneasiness. It’s a primal human thing. We’re afraid of the dark until we’re shamed not to be, and even then unexpected darkness is still alarming. We’ve also been trained by horror movies and other video games that darkness equals danger. Grues, vampires, werewolves, and all the myriad creatures of the night know just when to strike when we’re at our most vulnerable, and I haven’t even mentioned ravers yet. I think part of the reason it took me a long time to find one of the endings to this game is because I wanted to move through the tunnels as quickly as possible to shake the uneasy feeling. That caused me to miss an important item. Of course, it’s also easy to forget to look around when every room is dark, barely described, and looks much the same as any other.

Aayela is a simple, straightforward game to play through. Its puzzles, such that they are, typically only have a couple of reasonable possible solutions and only one of those will make sense in the context of your goal. This isn’t the type of game you’ll likely get stuck playing though one ending is marginally more difficult to reach as I alluded to earlier. You will need to spend some time navigating the tunnels and occasionally double back to trigger the appearance of an item or event. Even there, you’re not really solving a puzzle in a traditional sense…you’re just exploring, just wandering around really. I did feel like there could be more to actually DO in the tunnels. Adventurey type things, you know. Shouldn’t I be dodging falling stalactites, riding stalagmites, dangling from ropes, swinging on ropes, and bashing on dwarves who steal instead of largely just futzing around in the dark? The game does feel a little spare. I think it comes down largely to Magnus’ choice to enshroud most of the game in darkness. That would make doing any of those things I mentioned difficult. Plus, there’s the whole effect where every room in the tunnels feels similar to all the other rooms…you’d lose that vibe if there were more things to interact with. Magnus did it all for the vibes, and I can respect that.

Magnus Olsson is a very good writer and coder, and this is a well-implemented game. This is more than just a dungeon crawler. One important aspect of the plot is that you can communicate with the spirit of light not through language but through music and feeling. This could have turned out rather corny, but Magnus did a terrific job of making it resonate emotionally. Somehow in the midst of all that groping around in the darkness I began caring about and wanting to help the captured spirit; I felt bad when I failed my quest or when I got the ending I regard as less optimal because it didn’t help Aayela. I noticed no bugs, and the parser is solid. I did wish I could communicate more with the evil wizard — I was curious about what his goals were and why he had opted to live in the tunnels with his captured spirit. Were he and his magic behind the queen’s illness? How did he hope to use the spirit’s powers? Was he just another Gollum obsessed with trying to hold on to and in some sick way “protect” his precious? Unfortunately, he proved to be the generally noncommunicative sort of evil wizard and my attempts at conversation largely failed.

Some of the best writing in the game is saved for the endings. There are two paths to victory and both are worth playing. It would be a simplification to call one the good ending and the other the bad ending, but one made me feel a heck of a lot better about myself as it seemed designed to do. On the other hand, the less optimal ending gives you a chance at turning the tables on the wizard which was a nice feeling. One ending could be criticized for assuming too much and denying the possibility of you taking a less extreme, middle path. I personally didn’t mind it because it highlighted a future I regarded as possible albeit one I certainly wouldn’t have chosen for my character. Still, the path it shows my character walking is one many others in history have walked. If nothing else, it demonstrates a realistic danger that always exists when unlimited power is at one person’s fingertips.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Tenebrosity: 9/10 (One point had to be docked because the game starts out in a well-lit area plus the spirit of light is rather bright. Nonetheless, Brother Darkness gives it two bony thumbs up.)

Rambo: First Blood Part II by Microprose/Angelsoft (1985)

Twitter Review:

You have a better chance of surviving behind enemy lines in real life while blindfolded than you have of beating this game.

Full Review:

Since the dawn of video games, developers have attempted to reproduce the excitement and emotions experienced in movie theaters on video game cartridges and computer monitors. When converting action heroes, explosions and gunfire to small sprites made of smaller pixels, the thrills and chills that occur on the silver screen sometimes get lost in translation.

Even more challenging must have been taking one of the year’s highest grossing action films and attempting to reproduce those same levels of adrenaline through text. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Angelsoft from trying.

After releasing a series of children’s educational games based on the characters Tink and Tonk, Angelsoft decided the market they really wanted to conquer was text adventures based on books and movies. Between 1985 and 1987, Angelsoft developed eight text adventures, most of which (like Indiana Jones in Revenge of the Ancients and James Bond 007: Goldfinger) were based on others’ intellectual properties. The first of these games was Rambo: First Blood Part II, published in 1985 by Mindscape for the Apple II, IBM PC, and Macintosh.

The box cover of Rambo: First Blood Part II has a painting of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, holding a machine gun with as many bullets as Rambo has muscles. The picture is superimposed over a red sunset that matches both Rambo’s headband and the blood he is ready to spill. Against the clouds, nearly a dozen helicopters stretch back toward the horizon. I’m sure many an adolescent begged his or her parents to purchase this game based on the artwork alone, ready to help Rambo put a bullet into every wrongdoer standing between him and Freedom.

Unfortunately for those bloodthirsty adolescents, the game doesn’t resemble the cover. The closest you’ll get to graphics in this game is a black and white digitized picture of Rambo that appears on the Macintosh and PC’s title screens (the Apple II version contains no graphics at all). Instead, the game throws you directly into the action with paragraphs of text as Rambo has just leaped from an aircraft and is falling toward the earth. Your mission according to the game is to “confirm the presence of Americans still held in a Vietnamese POW camp without revealing your presence to the enemy.” Rambo has eighteen game hours to complete his mission, and a timer in the upper right-hand corner is a constant reminder that every move counts.

The game begins with Rambo standing in the jungle. Players are informed that the first rendezvous point lies three miles to the north. In perhaps one of the most brutal text adventure beginnings of all time, if the player doesn’t remove Rambo’s parachute and hide it immediately, he will be mowed down by enemy fire within two moves. Even worse is that if Rambo leaves the drop site on his first move, there aren’t enough moves remaining to both remove the parachute and stash it somewhere before deadly bullets rain down from above. The game plays coy, only stating that “you get the feeling [the Vietnamese gunship] must have been tipped off.” If the game mentioned something like “your progress is slowed due to the fact you’re dragging a parachute,” players would at least have an idea where to begin. Instead, players will get killed over and over again, forced to discover what is tipping off the enemy and how to prevent it from happening.

For players hoping the game gets easier (or even slightly less lethal) after the first puzzle is solved, bad news lies ahead. On the next move, unless players immediately perform another specific (and in terms of interactive fiction, somewhat uncommon) action, Rambo will once again meet his fate. Often, the only hint that death is waiting around the next corner is found hidden in one or two words buried deep within a description. Sometimes, the hint comes after Rambo meets his maker.

It is fortunate that Rambo: First Blood Part II provides nine slots for saving games, because players will want (need) to save their game after every single move. Move east without looking first and Rambo will be shot by a sniper. Walk north without carefully checking the bushes and Rambo will be blown to bits by a landmine. In some cases, an equivalent (but incorrect) verb will also lead to instant death. (“Examine” bushes will get you killed; “Survey” bushes will reveal important information.)

As if the game weren’t difficult enough, Angelsoft added random events to the game’s engine just to keep players on their toes. Enemies both on the ground and up above are constantly spawning in random locations throughout the game. Miss one of the cues and Rambo will end up with more lead in him than a pencil. Occasionally, enemy choppers randomly appear in locations where there is no place to take cover. In those instances, death is unavoidable. Nine saved game slots may not be enough to make it through the game. Ninety-nine slots may not be enough.

Let’s talk about those bloodthirsty adolescents for a moment who purchased Rambo: First Blood Part II based on the box cover’s artwork, assuming they were getting an arcade-style shooter a’la Commando instead of the world’s most difficult text adventure. I was one of those kids. I spent most of a summer playing this game on our family’s PC Jr, desperately trying over and over to make it more than two moves into the game without getting blown to bits. After weeks of struggling, it was my father who helped me solve the game’s first puzzle, only to discover that much more death awaited Rambo in the jungle. This game is like a sadistic Choose Your Own Adventure book where Rambo gets killed on every single page.

While it shouldn’t be particularly surprising given the source material, Rambo: First Blood Part II is surprisingly violent. Through much of the game, Rambo, as in the movie, is constantly rat-a-tat-tatting enemy soldiers hiding in bushes and behind trees. Later in the game, Rambo switches to his trusty survival knife. While we may be desensitized to bullets blazing and blood splattering from hoards of anonymous bad guys in movies or video games, there is something slightly unnerving about being forced to slice people’s throats in a first-person narrative.

Speaking of the film, watching Rambo: First Blood Part II should be considered a prerequisite to playing this game, as some of the game’s puzzles require knowledge of the movie to navigate. As a stand-alone property, this should be considered a crime as punishable as physically torturing captured soldiers. Requiring a gamer to recite a word or find an object based on something that happened in the film and isn’t mentioned in the game simply isn’t fair.

Even with the use of a walk-through, players may not be able to complete the game due to random deadly events. If it was Angelsoft’s intention to develop a game that was as difficult as one of Rambo’s missions, they not only succeeded but exceeded their goal. On the other hand, if their intention was to create a fair but challenging game that made people want to play it, I’m afraid they failed. By the time this game hit shelves, gamers were moving away from text adventures and toward arcade-style and role playing games in droves. It’s too bad Angelsoft and Micrprose didn’t spent a little more time trying to hang on to them with better design instead of releasing games like this which only helped push them further away.

Play (in browser): LINK

Waiting for the Day Train by Dee Cooke (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I would have expected a game with this much crack to be a little more amped up than this.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I want to save the day! Literally.

My Verdict:

It’s a dreamy, artistic triumph with a few nonfatal flaws.

Game Information

Game Type: Adventuron

Author Info: Dee Cooke is a British text adventurer, writer, and editor. She has written a number of Adventuron games which can be played on . She blogs at Spirit of Dee, tweets on Twitter, and posts photos and art to her Instagram .

Download and Online Play Link:

Other Games By This Author: Barry Basic and the Quick Escape, Goblin Decathlon, The Cave of Hoarding, and more!

Introductions are vitally important in interactive fiction, perhaps even too much so. Players count on the opening text to set the vibe and give a glimpse of the story that is about to unfold. I’m certainly guilty of discounting and dismissing games too early when they failed to grab my attention right from the start — it’s just easier to quit a game when your expectations haven’t been raised yet. On the other hand, when a game has a great introduction it’s tough to set it aside even if the rest of the game doesn’t quite measure up to the start.

Waiting for the Day Train absolutely nails its intro. The first thing you see in the game is moody, original art and thrilling, enigmatic text that tells you about a world ruled by angry spirits who seem strangely obsessed with keeping you from catching the day train. Is it all punctuated by mysterious, evocative background music? Of course it is! It’s honestly one of the most artistic and immediately involving game introductions I’ve ever seen. I knew right away that this was the 2021 ParserComp game I wanted to review first. The intro was seriously just that good.

In practice, Waiting for the Day Train is a game with two distinct moods. The verbose, richly drawn intro gives way to a sparse, more traditional text adventure that involves familiar activities like mucking about with rocks and sticking your hand into possibly moist, gaping crevices. I know little of day train despising spirits, but rocks and crevices are my jam. I won’t lie and say I didn’t feel a little disappointed at the game’s sudden change in approach because the beginning was so intriguing, but I think I can understand what Dee Cooke was going for. This work doesn’t tell a story so much as it evokes one. As a player, you know you need to get on the day train and avoid the spirits. It is revealed along the way that this is the last time anyone in this area will see the day…it’s going to be eternal night from here on out. Why? I haven’t the foggiest and it isn’t explained anywhere, but it does underscore the fact that getting on the day train is indeed a damned good idea. It would be cool to know the whole story of just what is going on, but if Dee revealed everything the game wouldn’t feel as mysterious and dreamlike as it does now. Though I generally prefer complete stories to mysterious fragments, Waiting for the Day Train works as a beautiful, intriguing art piece which doesn’t even try to offer us all the answers. You’ll have to fill in parts of the story yourself, but that’s not always such a bad thing. The way the game transitions between moods is quite well done. Drawings give way to photos; the music changes; the paragraphs shrink.

This game incorporates a clock which starts at 10:30 AM and ends at 12 PM when the day train arrives. It’s a short game: some actions take multiple game minutes, and each play session won’t take much longer than fifteen minutes in real time. If, unlike me, you actually know what you’re doing, you can reach the end game quite quickly with a lot of time left to spare. Otherwise, the limited amount of time you have to solve the game gives it most of its difficulty. I have to confess to not being a huge fan of move limits and timers. I’m someone who likes to play IF at a leisurely pace that gives me plenty of time to look at everything and mess around. That’s what makes game worlds seem vivid and real to me. So, as you can predict, my first couple playthroughs ended with me running out of time. Damnable clock! I freely admit I shrank under the time pressure…I think I even had a Varicella flashback at one point complete with all the night sweats and projectile diarrhea that necessarily entails. Ultimately after a number of attempts and a fair bit of save scumming, I did muddle through, and in retrospect I wouldn’t call the puzzles exactly difficult. Unintuitive to me at places, sure, but not objectively difficult. One I found tricky mostly because I had tried the winning solution in a different (incorrect) place and it hadn’t worked there for reasons that still don’t entirely make sense to me. Perhaps the lesson is just that location is extremely important. That’s certainly something I’ve found to be true during my sundry adventures in public nudity. For instance, at art museums you can pretend to be a statue while at mosques everyone (and I do mean everyone) seems to be quite angry and unappreciative all the time. It’s the subtle distinctions between similar places that always throw me off, but clearly location is very important.

I haven’t played a lot of Adventuron games before this, but I was favorably impressed with Dee’s implementation here. The parser even handled a four word input at one point like a champ. A lack of synonyms is my main parser-related complaint. For instance, the row of stones can’t be referred to as ROW — CROSS ROW won’t work and X ROW gives a generic description different from X STONES. At another point in the game, there are at least three reasonable verbs that would do all pretty much the same thing, but only one works. The most confusing parser mishap occurs at the stone outcrop. You get different descriptions if you type X STONE or X OUTCROP, but only one description tells you about something very important in the room which I found a little odd. One thing Adventuron clearly handles very well is multimedia. The music, sound effects, and pictures are all flawlessly incorporated into the game and play a big part in making it memorable. You might notice that Dee has two versions of the game available: both are played in the browser like all Adventuron games, but one can be downloaded for offline play. The big difference is the offline version doesn’t have the photos or background music that the online version does. The offline version has all the drawings (plus a placeholder drawing instead of the photos) and some cool retro sound effects. I recommend you play them both like I did. I’m glad Dee offers both versions since online games that use external resources tend to break over time. We’re going to want Waiting for the Day Train to live forever so we need that offline version!

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating

Story:: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Art: 8/10 (Sure, it’s a text adventure, but the bleak, otherworldly, and consistently intriguing art is one of my favorite aspects of the game.)