Ninja by Softgold (1984)

Tweet Review:

A 2017 re-release of this terribly buggy game fixed all the bugs, but still left it terrible. Ninja is perhaps the slowest and most convoluted game ever to feature ninjas. Real ninjas and Commodore 64 owners deserved better.

Full Review:

Although America’s initial infatuation with martial arts is often attributed to the addition of Judo to the 1964 Olympics, it was David Carradine’s Caine who injected the art form into mainstream America during the 1970s via the television series Kung Fu. In 1980, the success of the television miniseries Shogun convinced Hollywood there was a market for sensible movies about feudal Japan, which led to Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja being released the following year, which is about as far from a sensible film about feudal Japan as a movie can get.

I was ten years old in 1981 when Enter the Ninja was released in theaters, although like most kids my age I didn’t see it until it made its way to cable a few years later. By then, Cannon had already released a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, and suddenly, like an ancient assassin, the ninja era was upon us. By the mid-80s, not only had ninjas infiltrated b-movies and movie rental shelves across America, but video games as well, including The Last Ninja, Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Warrior, and countless others. If a game was released with “ninja” in the title, I would play it.

Which brings me to Ninja, an interactive fiction game for the Commodore 64 released by Softgold in 1984.

When I think of ninjas I think of sleek killing machines; assassins so adept at blending in with their surroundings that their skills seemed borderline supernatural. I think of well-oiled machines; men trained so vigorously that their reactions became involuntary — their reflexes, swift and deadly. Sadly, Ninja (the game) does not remind me of any of those things. For starters, Ninja is an interactive fiction game — perhaps not the genre best suited for conveying quick action. Fortunately for players, there isn’t any here to be found.

In Ninja, you play a member of the Kubuto Ninja Clan on a mission to recover the Statue of Joken. The statue has been stolen from your clan by Grey Ninjas, and hidden in the Temple of Sharloon. I’d like to poke fun at this, but I can’t. I’ve definitely watched late night ninja movies with less plot than this. The introduction sets up who you are, and what you’re supposed to do.

To spice up the game’s presentation, Ninja includes both digitized sound and color graphics. Softgold promoted Ninja as a game in their “Talkies” series of titles, of which, I believe, there were two. The game’s digitized voice is mostly limited to speaking two phrases — “O.K.” each time a move is processed successfully, and “So Sorry” each time the parser fails to understand your commands — although later in the game you’ll receive a few “beware” warnings as well. The quality of the speech isn’t very good, and one can’t help but think the memory it consumes could have been used to improve the game itself.

The game’s graphics, on the other hand, can’t possibly take up much memory at all. They were drawn using the Commodore’s built in PETASCII graphics set, and convey only the most basic visual information imaginable. In one of the game’s first scenes, players find themselves standing in front of a bridge guarded by a samurai — except in the picture, there is no samurai. Unlike most other graphical adventures of the time, the items mentioned in room descriptions are not depicted in the accompanying artwork. The graphics do a good job of visually reminding players of their physical location within the game, but not much else.

The presentation of the game is fairly straightforward. Players move from location to location, gathering, using, and dropping items (players can only carry five items at a time, so anything that’s already served a purpose should be left behind). Location descriptions are often sparse (“I am in a damp dim cave. Several items lay scattered about.”) requiring players to use the “L” command to look for items in the immediate area. Half the game is spent trying to get into the enemy castle, while the other half is spent inside the castle incapacitating guards and avoiding crocodiles. Unfortunately it’s not as exciting as it sounds.

Like many text adventures from the early 80s, players should prepare themselves for frustrating bouts of “guess the verb.” The aforementioned samurai players encounter demands gold from those who wish to cross his bridge, and while “Give Gold” and “Pay Samurai” aren’t recognized, “Pay Gold” is. Don’t forget that each incorrect guess is accompanied with the same digitized response every single time and boy does seppuku start to sound like a good idea the hundredth time you hear the game say “So Sorry.”

To beat the game, players must find and arrange five jade idols into a specific design, the pattern of which is revealed on a secret parchment. The parchment is located two rooms from the game’s starting point, and I had to use a walkthrough to find it — and even then, the first time I went to the secret location, the parchment wasn’t there, despite the room’s description. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Willie Scott gets trapped in a room with six million bugs? Ninja has more bugs than that, including doozies like this:

In 2017, Commodore sceners Hokuto Force released a hacked/trained/patched version of Ninja that fixed several of the game’s bugs and added many new features. Among the features added are an in-game map, documentation, a walk through, and (perhaps best of all) the ability to turn off the digitized speech. In the bug-fixing department, Hokuto Force fixed some of the game’s graphical bugs, and prevented players from breaking out into BASIC and peeking through the game’s code to find solutions. In addition to documentation and a walk through, Hokuto also included a list of all verbs and nouns recognized by the parser, for players wanting to take a legitimate stab at solving the game. I can’t say their efforts made the game any better, but at least they made it playable.

Even ninja fans such as myself will have a tough time making it far in Ninja, a game that was created during the “wild west” era of Interactive Fiction, back before norms had been established and/or agreed to. Many times when completing a game while using a walkthrough, I’ll slap my forehead after seeing how obvious some of the solutions were. Not this time, ninja-san.

Link: Commodore Scene Database

Under the Sea: The Treasure of the Santa Tortosa by Heike Borchers (2019)

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

I think Heike once read an Aquaman comic and thought to herself, “Woah, this guy’s superpower is that he can talk to fish! This is the coolest superhero of all time!” She is the only person in history to have ever had this reaction to an Aquaman comic.

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

There’s treasure, exploration, friendship, puzzles, humor, and even romance to be found here. What more could an IF player ask for?

My Verdict:

I should probably resent this game for being a thinly conceived vehicle for unrelated and somewhat randomly chosen classic puzzles, but it’s so charming and fun I don’t even care. It turns out spending my life not interacting with sea creatures has left a huge void in my heart that I only now realize I must fill. Thanks, Heike!

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Heike Borchers appears to be a first time IF author of whom there is little public knowledge. Cynical voices might point at this game which is both well-designed and well-informed in IF history and argue it must be the work of a seasoned hand writing under a nom de plume, but I’ll refuse to believe this until the bitter, bitter end. To me, Heike will always be some German chick who digs IF and just started writing her own games in 2019. I welcome her to our community with open arms. By the way, do you think Dave Ahl Jr will ever write another game?

Download Link: https://ifcomp.org/play/2076/download

The 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition will not exactly go down as the most family friendly iteration in IFComp’s more than two decade history. Considering just the first four comp games I played this year, the first game featured recreational marijuana use, the second a dead fat guy, the third a dead cat, and the fourth a murderous protagonist. This is exactly the sort of material I’d want any hypothetical children of mine to be exposed to as early as possible, but I can understand why some parents might want to shelter their kids a little longer or at least keep them from falling under the influence of the sick sort of people who still write interactive fiction in 2019. Under the Sea stands out in contrast to the rest of the field as it is exactly the sort of game parents should want their kids to play. It has no death, violence, drugs, or sex. It’s innocent. It’s charming. It has puzzles which require some thought in order to solve but which eager young minds would be capable of solving. It even teaches sound moral values.

Even better, Under the Sea is also the kind of game you could describe in an overly excited tone of voice in order to get an 8 or 38 year old interested in playing it. You’re an adventurer! You’re seeking treasure! It’s buried under the sea! You’ve got to talk to fish in order to find it! There’s a bear! And an octopus too! Even I’m getting excited just typing this out. This isn’t the most intellectual game in the world, but it’s easy to approach and easy to relate to. I don’t know about you, but the only answer I have to the questions “Do you want to find some treasure?” and “Do you want to talk to fish?” is HELL YES.

Treasure hunting games don’t always have much of a moral compass. The whole pursuit is rooted in avarice, after all, and the trail of dead dungeon dwellers we adventurers typically leave in our wake while in pursuit of the shiny is only rarely considered. Under the Sea isn’t heavy-handed in its approach to morality, but it forces the player to choose what kind of adventurer he or she wishes to be. You can be a lying braggart or a kindly truth-teller. You can choose love over money or money over love. There are consequences to every choice, but none are severe or extreme. I loved the fact that I, a bitter old man whose sole guiding moral principle is to not eat people unless very hungry, got the ending with Keira and found myself nominated for an important adventuring honor on my first playthrough. That’s the best ending, I think, and it’s a good illustration that doing good can indeed feel good, particularly when you’re doing good in a text adventure and thus are not subject to all the bullshit people come up with in real life that can sometimes leaves no good deed unpunished. Under the Sea has struck a powerful blow for virtue and it deserves praise for that. On the other hand, I kind of liked the ending where I ended up dirty, stinking rich too even though it was less warm and fuzzy. Avarice is…good? “Awesome” would have more of a ring to it, I suppose.

The game Under the Sea most reminds me of is an AGT classic called Dragons In Chocolate Land by Eclipse. Both games feature a number of animals you must interact with, and both games have a whimsical feel to them. Eclipse, though, seems to have been much more serious about worldbuilding. She created about as realistic a game world that uses chocolate as a building material and is inhabited by dragons as she could, and her animals tend to act more like real animals, albeit animals with generally kind dispositions. Under the Sea in contrast never feels as convincing. The fish and the octopus act more like people than animals. While it’s fun to interact with the sea creatures, you know they’re there mostly to act cutesy and give you extremely unlikely puzzles to solve. You just have to accept that this world you’ve found yourself in has a fish that’s into Morse code and an octopus who likes devious word games. At times, the pretense can wear a little thin and the game can start to feel like a collection of disconnected puzzles.

That said, I mostly enjoyed the puzzles in the game. They all make sense and will be mostly familiar to veteran IF players. I have to admit when I ran into the Morse code puzzle, my first reaction was, “Oh HELL no!” Then I realized that I knew exactly how to solve this and had in fact done this kind of thing before. So I solved it and I felt smart. That’s a good puzzle. The other puzzles I found either straightforward or I solved them on my third attempt. That’s true even for the final puzzle which I recognized as a familiar logic puzzle but couldn’t remember how to solve it for the life of me. So I guessed and solved it on my third attempt. Then the octopus asked me how I solved the puzzle and I guessed the answer he wanted to that on my third attempt. Yeah, I guessed the answer to the puzzle question designed specifically to prevent guessing. It was both my finest and my least finest hour. I really felt like an idiot when I looked up the puzzle online and was reminded of the actual trick to solving it.

One thing that makes this game more difficult than it needs to be is that the parser responsiveness is poor and exact command matches are too frequently required. For example, the game’s parser will understand “say thanks” but not allow you to use thank as a verb. There should definitely be more synonyms implemented and perhaps some more guidance to show players how they should word their commands. The most extreme parser failure I noticed occurred in the opening scene. At this point, you’ve already been told that there’s a treasure map buried somewhere on the island you’ve landed on. You’re on an island and there’s a shovel. It’s pretty obvious what comes next, right? IT’S DIGGING TIME! The only problem is seemingly only one command will do what you want it to do, and every other reasonable command you try will lead to the generic message “I only understood you as far as wanting to dig.” The first time I played through this game I just walked past the scene and found the treasure without the map because I just assumed the map wasn’t actually implemented. It’s not a big game world so you don’t really need a map, but this still bugged me enough that I replayed the game and kept trying until I found that one command that actually did work. It made sense, and I probably would have come up with it long before if only the game had asked me, “Where on the island do you want to dig?” when I tried to “dig island,” “dig in ground,” or “dig for map.” I just needed a little feedback to show me I was on the right track. Is that so wrong?

If you can forgive the overly strict parser and enjoy solving puzzles, you’ll likely find Under the Sea a charming and fun game to play. It’s not a world-beater by any means, but it’s a pleasant diversion and offers a nice escape from more serious competition fare.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 28/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10 (This is a generally well-implemented game with no serious bugs, but the poor parser responsiveness makes it a much less pleasant playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

The Pawn by Magnetic Scrolls (1985)

It’s 1998 and I’m writing Trotting Krips reviews. There are some text adventures I am in love with that I never finish, because finishing means I can’t ever play them again. The Pawn is one of them.

I bought my copy through a mail order circular. It offered The Pawn, Guild of Thieves and Knight Orc for a total of $15. At low amounts of money, inflation comparisons sort of break down. It isn’t much now for three new games and it wasn’t much then. There’s so much I don’t remember regarding a document — the flyer — that was one of the most important pieces of paper in my life. While I do have some old price sheets for computer games in the mid 80s, I don’t have that one. Regardless, the games arrived and they worked on our computer, which had to have been an XT with EGA graphics. The Pawn was always thought, in my household, to be the “leader” of new age IF, what with its parser that understood complicated sentences and its opening title screen, still possibly the greatest opening title screen of its kind.

How can you not feel joy for the graphical text adventure in looking at that picture? Yes, it’s static, but computer games simply did not look like this when The Pawn came out. This is going into the arcade only to find Dragon’s Lair there. This is playing Far Cry for the first time. Or BioShock or King’s Quest, or whatever great leaps forward you have experienced in computer graphics.

It’s now 20 years later since Bryan, Ben and I started the Trotting Krips site. I didn’t feel I would ever have the time and the chops to correctly solve The Pawn without a walkthrough. I grabbed a few of them and had those up in a Firefox browser. I installed the Magnetic interpreter on my Ubuntu machine. I raised the scaling of the graphics by three times and started the game.

There’s that beautiful, majestic graphic.


That went a long way towards covering the fact that The Pawn is not a very good game, and intentionally so.

There are pieces to The Pawn that are meant to be parody. Can you imagine the audience for a full-on parody text game these days? It’s probably 100 people, 95 who quit after turn two. But they were such big sellers in the 1980s that it seemed entirely legitimate for The Pawn to have such scenes – a wandering adventurer that can steal items unless you kill him. A maze that breaks the fourth wall and states that you don’t have to bother with it. A mix of the real world and fantasy for no adequately explains reason – while attempting to meet with the Devil, in Hell, you pass by Jerry Lee Lewis, in what may possibly be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a text adventure. You get ten points for giving him some ale, keeping in mind that there is absolutely no special connection in the world between Jerry Lee Lewis and ale. Keeping in mind that Jerry Lee Lewis is from Louisiana and they had him say “Cheers.” Keeping in mind that if you are headed towards hell and you wanted to have someone related to “fire” and you were desperate about it – Jerry Lee Lewis (as of this writing) is still alive!


Christ, if you had to have Jerry Lee Lewis in your text adventure and wanted there to be something in the game that you could have the player give him in order to gain 10 points it should have been an underage cousin.

I don’t get parody that goes beyond a few minutes. You can spend all that time sending something up, but if you spend just a little more time you can have your own thing. And it’s too bad that The Pawn, which had the promise of something that fundamentally changed my life, is designed in such an awful way. There are good things in this game. Even if they wanted it to just be their Zork – a really good text adventure that did lazy fantasy – they had something to work with. You’re a nameless adventurer, sure, but you have a silver wristband on your arm that you want to remove. This is a great premise for a game where there are a lot of FedEx quests, because various characters can then ask you to do things. And if you can forget about the mid-game, the end-game to The Pawn (serious spoilers starting now) has a ton of potential – you are doing the bidding of the nasty wizard Kronos. You encounter the Devil. The Devil asks you to use a potion to destroy Kronos and then bring him his soul. You meet up with Kronos and take him by surprise and suck up his soul. You return to the Devil and he melts away your wristband and dismisses you with contempt. That’s not the greatest adventure ever set to text, but it’s something.


(The picture above is one of the greatest still images in the history of computer games. It was used in the promotion of the game and it’s easy to see why. Beautifully composed, gorgeous palette that took full advantage of the 16 shades of red and black they had available, it really does set a mood.)

But in the middle of that are some really poor scenes. There is a dragon guarding a horde. And a picture of the dragon, high upon the gold horde. The way you get past the dragon is to examine the shadows (that admittedly are mentioned) and figure out that there are hobbits in the shadows. You have to >point at shapes in the game, though at no earlier section did you ever have to use that verb. And while I played on not the greatest monitor in the world, there isn’t a single hint in the graphic for this scene of any shapes. Not a one. (Or I’m blind. Camouflage absolutely works on me, which is why I almost hit a deer three times a week when I drive out of where I live and into work.) When you kill Kronos there is a platform you can get on if you are not carrying too much, but this is the sort of game where the trowel came in handy a zillion turns after using it twice – the hell would you drop anything? You can sneak past the dragon if you are wearing Kronos’s cloak and pointy hat … once. If you try it a second time, the dragon kills you. Keeping in mind that this is where Kronos chose to live, I guess.


There is an awful bit where you have to >cast spell on tomes, even though at no point in the game do you have any idea that you can cast spells. And you aren’t able – as far as I can tell – able to do so again, just out of thin air. I think the bit was trying to mimic a scene from Adventure where, should you try to kill a dragon, the game asks how – with your bare hands? And you reply >yes and that’s the solution. The casting a spell thing came out of nowhere and it’s not clever, it’s not parody, it’s just bad. Please know how deeply I wanted to love this game before I started really playing it.

There’s one scene I almost liked – you meet a character named Honest John early on, who will sell some items if given a coin or coins. You finally get a coin about three quarters of the way through by searching a cushion. Okay, fine, not bad! That’s where coins go. But when you return to the area where Honest John is, he’s not mentioned in the game’s description. I am pretty sure I had verbosity on. So good luck if you didn’t map and write down the precise location of where he is. I mean, dude selling plot-necessary wares not making it to the room description – that was a bug in 1985 and it’s a bug now.

But really, the great bulk of the game just leaves you asking why – why is there a snowman in Kerovnia, blocking your way? What’s his deal? You can save the princess and get zero points, but the object you need to do that is the only way to get a full score later in the game. Why? I can’t imagine how many months it would take to map this game and figure out that there is a closed path there. Why did they do the things they did? There is no discipline whatsoever in the design of this game.

Then there is the ending. Once the wristband is off, you head to a door. You knock on it. You’re asked if you’re wearing a wristband. If you got it off, you meet the programmers of the game. Who leave, because hey, someone finally solved the game. And you can now wander around the game without being able to be killed. Okay. This is a bad ending. It was a bad ending in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but they at least ran out of money, or so I have heard.

(Okay, there is one thing I liked that emerged – the trowel was very useful for things. This really is a story about a guy and his gardening equipment. If the original creators ever got together to make a sequel, I hope they announce it with just an black and white outline of a trowel and a date.)

I’ve read stories of members of Magnetic Scrolls sort of buffaloing the gaming press by showing some of the neat parser tricks during interviews. The Pawn can handle some stuff just fine, like stacking commands, but even consulting a walkthrough I screwed my head up at having to use the word “lever” as a verb because nothing else did. The game tries to get across concepts that are way too advanced for it. I suppose I can’t get too worked up about Magnetic Scrolls showing happy paths in their demonstrations, really – it’s what happens in demos. I remain baffled why so many sentences lack a period at the end. When I was a kid I thought it was a house style. As an older guy on the Internet, who has seen one moron after another on various forums fail to use any capitalization or punctuation, it just looks stupid. This was the game I looked up to, thinking that there was something wrong with my puzzle-solving skills, thinking it was okay to have a mish mash of unrelated garbage in a game and not follow any sort of plot circle or proper design because, hey, The Pawn didn’t do any of that stuff.

I’ve had dreams of taking one game a week that I have not finished since the 80s and doing just this – refreshing my memory, liberally consulting a walkthrough, liberally allowing for design errors, putting to rest these icons from my childhood. Every game is amazing when it’s an unimplemented design and every game that goes unplayed in my Steam library is an incredible multi-genre masterpiece until I see that it has 7 unskippable opening logo screens. The Pawn has been a small but constant companion for decades, now. I had the poster that came with the game hanging up in my college dorm room. When I worked at Xerox for my first IT job, I printed out the scene I in-lined above with the Devil on the luxury color laser printers I tested. I still have that picture around. I had picked up things over the years that gave me a heads-up that it would not be a good game, but at least now I know. And I don’t really hold it against it. Goodbye, Pawn. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you and for that you’ll always have a piece of my heart.

(For an album of my other screenshots while playing, see below.)

 

The Pawn

The Secret of Vegibal Island by Ralf Tauscher (2019)

Tweet Review:

A tribute/parody/homage of/to The Secret of Monkey Island. Fans who loved the original LucasArts game will get all the references and be able to overlook all the grammatical and programming issues. Others may find the game more confusing than the island itself.

Full Review:

While the official goal of The Secret of Vegibal Island is to unravel the mystery of the island, a secondary and personal goal of mine was to determine what exactly a “vegibal” is. My original assumption (that “vegibal” is slang for “vegetable”) was disproved, I think, when I encountered, examined, and ultimately conversed with the vegibal late in the game. The vegibal “reminds you talking to that silly guy at the tiki bar that looked like a tiki bar,” and “carries nothing.” If you had planned to look to the internet for the answer, I’ll warn you up front — Google autocorrects “vegibal” to “vaginal,” so now my Google Image cache is completely pink and I have a meeting with my boss on Monday.

An introductory teaser written by the author references “a famous point-and-click adventure” and “revisiting that island,” and if you needed even more clues, the protagonist’s first name is “Buyshrug” — an anagram of Guybrush (as in Threepwood), the protagonist of The Secret of Monkey Island. This game, The Secret of Vegibal Island, is a little bit tribute and a little bit parody of the original LucasArts game.

The game begins in the “real” world with Buyshrug on the wrong side of a locked gate that leads to a vacation resort. Accessing the gate requires possessing three separate wristbands, obtained by completing three separate tasks. Of the three tasks only one was challenging; fortunately, the game gives enough in-text verb/noun hints to nudge players towards the slightly surreal solution. Moments after I had waltzed through the gate, kicked back in a lounge chair and began sipping on a White Russian, poor Buyshrug was hit in the head by an errant cannonball and woke up a prisoner aboard a pirate ship. Escaping your locked quarters leads to the second half of the game, which involves exploring and ultimately learning the secret of Vegibal Island.

If you aren’t familiar with The Secret of Monkey Island, most of the characters, objects, and jokes in this game will be lost on you. I won’t lie — the last time I played the original Monkey Island, I had to reconfigure my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to free up conventional RAM so my sound card and CD-ROM drive would work at the same time. If it’s been that long for you and random references to bananas, manatees, and leather jackets don’t elicit an immediate chuckle, this isn’t your game. Many characters such as the Voodoo Lady and the three-headed monkey from the original Monkey Island series make appearances here, and some scenes (like the giant gorilla head puzzle) are lifted directly from The Secret of Monkey Island and transcribed into parser format.

Because I haven’t played the original in so long, there were a lot of objects I wasn’t sure what to do with and a few puzzles I left unsolved. Toward the end of the game I had 35 objects in my inventory, two-thirds of which I never used (including, among other things, thirteen large pigs). Along the way I encountered multiple things that seemed like puzzles, but didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the game. Because the game has no score, it was impossible for me to tell how many tasks I left unaccomplished.

It is obvious that English is not the author’s first language, so there’s no sense in beating up the game’s bountiful grammatical quirks. Some of the text is so awkward that it feels like it was translated using automated tools, except there are so many misspelled words that I am pretty sure it was done manually. None of this makes the game or puzzles unplayable, but several times I was unsure what exactly the author was trying to convey.

Along those same lines, the underlying game engine only performs the bare minimum when it comes to logic and error checking. Default parser rules prevent you from eating lounge chairs or picking up people, but I was able to pick up a filled waterbed mattress and store it in my backpack (along with a dozen pigs). Gamers who stick to the intended script may or may not encounter such oddities, but advanced (or simply curious) players will quickly be able to manipulate the laws of physics in ways that don’t make sense.

The Secret of Vegibal Island is a fun little homage to The Secret of Monkey Island, with additional references to Disney (and at least one SCUMMVM joke that made me laugh) thrown in for good measure. The game’s estimated two-hour play time includes solving every single puzzle; those looking to blast through the game and discover the secret of both Vegibal and Monkey Islands in the shortest amount of time possible should be able to do so in less than an hour.

Link: The Secret of Vegibal Island

Meeting Robb Sherwin by Jizaboz (2019)

Tweet Review:

A parser-based slice-of-life game in which players assume the role of the author (Jizaboz) and attend Robb Sherwin’s wedding. Throughout the weekend, players will explore bits of downtown Denver, spend time at a hipster draft house, and hang out with… me?

Full Review:

Of all the experiences I’ve had in 40 years of playing text-based games, perhaps the most jarring was stumbling across a digital recreation of myself inside one of those games. To be clear, I don’t mean simply discovering a character that reminded me of myself; no, I mean literally encountering my name and physical description inside this game.

Meeting Robb Sherwin is a “slice-of-life” adventure. For those unfamiliar with that particular flavor of game, allow me to explain. Forty years ago, early text adventures offered very little narrative and were instead content with presenting players a series of puzzles which, when solved, would save them from (an often excruciating) death. Over time, text adventures evolved and matured into interactive fiction — text-based games with deeper stories that seamlessly mixed the art of fiction writing with more narrative-driven puzzles.

Meeting Robb Sherwin is neither of those things. Instead it is a digital recreation of a specific event — Robb Sherwin’s wedding — which took place in Denver, Colorado on June 30, 2017. Sherwin invited a couple hundred personal and online friends to join him that weekend. This game is a retelling (or perhaps more accurately, a reliving) of that event through the eyes of the author.

In the game, players assume the role of Jizaboz, one of Robb Sherwin’s friends who attended the wedding. Throughout the game, players will retrace the author’s steps by seeing the same sites, visiting the same places, and experiencing the same things he experienced in Denver. That weekend, Jizaboz traveled from the airport to La Quinta, made a purchase at a local cannabis shop, had a few drinks at a “Hipster Draft House,” and eventually attended Sherwin’s wedding. Those who successfully complete the game will do those same things in the same order. It is not designed to allow players to skip locations, because that’s not the way things happened. Unlike many works of interactive fiction, the author’s goal was not to offer players total freedom of choice; in fact, the exact opposite is true. For the most part, the game offers a single path from beginning to end, corralling players into replaying the events exactly how the author experienced them that weekend.

In real life, I encountered Jizaboz twice that Denver weekend: once at the draft house, and again the following day at Sherwin’s wedding. In the game, you (as Jizaboz) will encounter me in those same two locations. While you’re chatting with Flack (er, me) inside the draft house, Robb Sherwin will arrive, just as he did that afternoon. Later, on the day of the wedding, Jizaboz introduces himself to Jason Scott. Other characters Jizaboz encountered that weekend also make appearances — the tattooed woman working the desk at La Quinta, the clerk at the cannabis store, the young man who sat behind us at the wedding, and the mysterious guest who stole a piece of wedding cake before the ceremony ended all have cameos.

Because the game is a recreation of actual events, by design, it doesn’t feel (at least at first) that there is much room for experimentation. Don’t expect to object during the vows, or skip the event altogether and go skiing instead. That being said, not everything in the game is on rails, and certain situations can be manipulated just enough to change history. For example, with a few poor choices it is even possible to make poor Jizaboz miss the wedding. By sticking to the narrative (at times game tells you exactly what to type in order to progress) the game is easy enough to coast through, but there’s definitely a little room for exploration during multiple playthroughs.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room — who exactly is the target audience for Meeting Robb Sherwin? Perhaps being so close to the source material, my initial instinct was that only those who know Jizaboz or Robb Sherwin would truly appreciate this game, but after a few days of gameplay, I’ve expanded the potential audience. The slice-of-life genre was new to me, but definitely has a following. Not everyone enjoys the sprawling worlds and mind-bending puzzles presented in many parser-based games. Those just dipping their toes into parser games or not interested in a week-long gaming session will enjoy a smaller and more linear game such as Meeting Robb Sherwin. Plus, you know, you get to meet Robb Sherwin.

(And me!)

Link: Meeting Robb Sherwin

Enceladus by Robb Sherwin (2019)

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

So this ship has a lady captain on the rebound (death rebounds totally count!) and a female crewmember whose primary interest is drinking vast amounts of alcohol yet Ja’Rod still can’t get laid. He has no game whatsoever. Varick would be deeply, deeply ashamed. I’m ashamed too, so much so that my new name for this guy from here on out is Ja’Rodless.

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

I personally feel that Wikipedia continues to be an example of the very best the Internet has to offer. While I didn’t enjoy the aspersions cast on the finest online encyclopedia known to man and robotkind alike, I did enjoy the rest of the game, especially the bouncy tunes!

My Verdict:

I’m no mathematician, but space plus werewolf plus hot sauce plus Robb Sherwin equals fun squared, baby! Or an extremely disgusting porn flick.

Game Information

Game Type: Hugo

Author Info: Robb Sherwin is the guy I originally started this website with back in 1999, one of the best IF writers of his generation, and surrogate father to all the demented denizens of Jolt Country.

Download Link: https://ifcomp.org/play/2045/download

Other Games By This Author: Chicks Dig Jerks, A Crimson Spring, Necrotic Drift, Cryptozookeeper, and many more!

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes this game feel a little different from all previous Robb Sherwin games. The best I can come up with is it’s a matter of luminosity. Enceladus doesn’t shy away from depicting evil, but it isn’t encompassed by darkness. In the past, I think Robb has often used his writing as a way of exorcising personal demons, and the result of that has been darkly funny games that are like nothing else in the world of IF. In this game, it feels like Robb is using his writing to accomplish a slightly different goal: sharing joy. The result is a light, funny game that is like nothing else in the world of IF. My guess is we haven’t seen the last of Dark Robb, but Enceladus should expose his work to a whole new audience who might not have been able to handle the darkness of some of his previous works. That’s a good thing!

For newcomers to Robb’s IF work, this game is a fun, accessible space adventure that will serve as a great introduction. You play the role of Ensign Ja’Rod Butler, crewmember aboard the starship Plagoo which is currently traveling in outer space near Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons. Everything is going well except for the fact that a werewolf has boarded the ship and is killing people. The werewolf is probably the most Sherwinian thing in this game, but the explanation is that the werewolf is the result of an elective genetic engineering procedure. In other words, he is a highly modified human being. That makes sense. I mean — let’s face it — that’s the sort of thing that’s definitely going to happen in the future. Some people will do the werewolf procedure in order to become better criminals like the one in the game, some people will do it because Teen Wolf is their favorite movie, and some people will do it because they’ve always felt like they were werewolves on the inside. The point is they will definitely be doing it so Enceladus is giving us a glance into our futures which is exactly what science fiction is supposed to do. The battle against the werewolf (who, it turns out, isn’t really the mastermind here) will ultimately continue on the surface of Enceladus, a frozen wasteland best known for hosting the only hot sauce bar this side of the galaxy.

For those of us who have played Robb Sherwin games before, we will inevitably come into this one armed with a certain set of expectations. These expectations might vary a bit depending on which game is your favorite, but, personally, I expect a Robb game to take place in a dystopian world or at least an environment where justice is in short supply, to feature numerous bursts of virtuoso writing, to be hilarious, and to be populated by a host of fascinating and weird characters. Enceladus is very funny, well-written, and features some interesting and quirky characters, but it also feels a little restrained compared to some of Robb’s other games in keeping with the lighter atmosphere. If we were talking about music, we’d say Robb’s latest release was a little tighter and less experimental than his previous work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I found it refreshing. We want artists to keep trying new things, especially when the results are good as they are here. Plus, “a little restrained” in this case still leaves room for a character as over the top as the thong-wearing Finnian, a case of near death by hot sauce, and the aforementioned werewolf. I also wouldn’t say the world of Enceladus is dystopian. Even though the crew of the Plagoo face danger in the harsh reaches of outer space, most notably because people are trying to kill them, the game environment never feels entirely unpleasant or hostile. Admittedly, Grimes might disagree with that assessment for good reason. Even so, this still feels like a game world where the AIDS Archer may well have hung up his bow long ago, where having pets is still a perfectly legal activity, and where Varick still works 9 to 5 because he hasn’t been driven to raid the last resting places of the dead by sheer economic necessity.

Enceladus does a nice job depicting the chain of command and job specialization on a well-run starship. As Ja’Rod, you are not the head honcho. Like everyone else on the ship, you have a job to do; in your case, you use your special X-ray glasses to scan nearby locations for DANGER. Like everyone else, you answer to the captain. Not doing your job and not following orders can get you and the rest of the crew killed. At the same time, you are given the creative freedom needed to problem solve and can speak freely without fear of retribution. This is an efficient outfit that clearly works well together. Linus Torvalds and Jeff Bezos could probably learn a lot about leadership from the unnamed but badass and utterly competent captain in this game. As a general rule, I like being in charge whether in an adventure game or in real life, but Enceladus does a great job of making you feel like your role is important even when you’re not the one giving the orders. All space games tend to remind me of Red Dwarf to a degree, and mentally I did classify Ja’Rod as Dave Lister in an alternative universe. Like Ja’Rod, Lister isn’t an insubordinate man by nature, and he would likely have served a capable commander with perfect rectitude. Ja’Rod probably wouldn’t have amounted to much if he had to work under Rimmer either, but placed in a positive work environment such as aboard the Plagoo he has everything he needs to shine.

Robb Sherwin remains a big believer in the potential of multimedia to enhance interactive fiction. In this game, there are just a couple of graphics that you see when you start the game and visit the about section, but there’s music throughout the game. In the past, I haven’t always been a big believer in the use of music in text adventures. I kind of like having text adventures be a silent, almost meditative experience, and it can be difficult to find music that truly complements a game. I even felt that way playing Cryptozookeeper at times because it felt like the music was doing its own thing, largely independent of the action in the game, and sometimes it actually distracted me from the job at hand. In Enceladus, however, the music perfectly complements the game and each song seems to match the scene it is featured in very well. Rather than serving as a distraction, it actually reinforces the mood set by the text. Robb has proven with this game that music truly can add something to the text adventure playing experience just as it does in other types of games. The loud red background color also seems to fit the game very well. Most importantly, it reminds me of AGT so it gets some bonus points based on that alone.

I served as a beta tester towards the tail end of this game’s development, and I’m very pleased with how everything turned out all in all. Some bugs needed to be squashed and typos eliminated along the way, but it’s a downright smooth and almost flawless playing experience now as long as you type all the same things I do. If you run into the text, “I aren’t in anything at the moment,” in the mine, I’m very sorry and have no idea why I only noticed that after the comp version had already been released. Finding a way to get Alexandra safe and sound and inside the airlock proved to be one of the most serious game development challenges. It’s much less confusing now than it used to be, but it’s still a little odd that Alexandra is listed as being present Before the Airlock and also said to be inside the airlock at the same time. Oh well, nobody likes a pedant. Apart from those small quibbles, the game works great now and I’m very happy to have played a very small role in getting it into its present form.

For better or for worse, Enceladus is a comp game through and through. It’s short and easy enough for just about anyone to finish. In practice, this means that the game ends very soon after it reaches its crescendo. You play through the best part, and then it’s just…over. I definitely found myself wishing there was more adventure to be had and that I could spend some more time with my crewmates, but at the same time I know authors can struggle to find the perfect length for a comp game so it’s perfectly understandable why Robb would want to keep it short. Even though Enceladus is about as straightforward as interactive fiction can be, there are probably a few people who still will have a hard time finishing it. I imagine any hardcore Twine fans who crossed over to play this game likely needed to ice their fingers after every few typed commands so that two hour comp game time limit really can be reached more easily than one might imagine. When I give out my numeric ratings, I’m mentally comparing a game to all the interactive fiction I’ve ever played even though that’s probably not fair. This can make it difficult for a short game to get a great score from me, but I really had to think a while about what rating I should give this game. You could consider Enceladus to be about as good as short and simple IF can be. It really is among the best of its kind, and I’m not sure a better game was entered into Comp ’19 — if one does exist, I definitely haven’t played it yet. At the same time, I still prefer my IF to be lengthier and a little more challenging. Be that as it may, the annual IF competition is all about celebrating short form IF, and Enceladus is fantastic short form IF so I’m expecting it to do very well.

Lastly, the fact that I have now reviewed two games in a row that both featured Enceladus has to be about the weirdest thing to have happened in the history of this site. Yeah, it’s even weirder than having all three of the original Trotting Krips review Pass the Banana. I had absolutely no idea Robb was working on an Enceladus-themed game until I’d already started writing my review of Saturn’s Child. What this all means I have no idea, but I think I can state with more authority than anyone else that Enceladus is the best Enceladus-themed text adventure there is. Admittedly, Saturn’s Child did feature an awesome space birth scene (though in my opinion it would have been better if the baby had been named after Jim Bexley Speed), but Enceladus is pretty much superior in all other respects. So, if you can just play one Enceladus game, make it this one!

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 34/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 8/10 (Whoever beta tested this game did a fantastic job!)

Puzzle Quality: 4/10 (It’s not that the puzzles are bad per se; it’s just it’s pretty much always bleeding obvious what you should do next so it’s not very challenging.)

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Looks Like AGT: 8/10 (Color is good!)

 

The House on Sycamore Lane by Paul Michael Winters (2019)

Tweet Review:

If you can get past the typos, scarce descriptions, and programming glitches, there’s a fun mystery to be solved within The House on Sycamore Lane. The game is unpolished and rough around the edges, but delivers a rewarding payoff for those willing to wade through its issues.

Full Review:

I was six years old when my father brought home our family’s first home computer, a TRS-80 Model III. One of the first games I ever played on that computer was Haunted House, a text adventure written by Robert Arnstein and published by Radio Shack in 1979. Forty years later, Paul Michael Winters wrote his own haunted house text adventure, The House on Sycamore Lane, and submitted it to the 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Like 1979’s Haunted House, the goal of The House on Sycamore Lane is to enter (and subsequently escape) the titular house. After entering the house, players will need to free the spirit that haunts Sycamore Lane before ultimately freeing themselves. Following an opening sequence that takes place outside a middle school, players are quickly funneled (and promptly trapped) inside the Sycamore house through one of two entrances. From that point on, the majority of the game is spent exploring the spooky old house while solving simple puzzles, most of which involve acquiring objects within rooms and using them to complete tasks in other rooms.

The game’s first puzzle, in which players must unlock their own bike lock, is less about knowing the combination to the lock and more about knowing the combination of words needed to unlock the lock. Unfortunately, this was not the only puzzle where I knew what I wanted to do, but couldn’t figure out how to convey it to the game. Later, inside the house, I got stuck standing underneath a latch in the ceiling with a hook in one hand and some twine in the other. I prefer parser games to graphical “choose your own adventure” point-and-click games and appreciate the level of work that goes into programming them, but there’s a fine line between delivering freedom and frustration.

The sparse descriptions give The House on Sycamore Lane an old-school text adventure vibe. Examining your dirt bike reveals “it is your trusty dirt bike.” A pair of pliers found are “rusty, but functional.” There are no humorous descriptions or long passages of narrative to distract you from the tasks at hand. Most objects are described using only a few words, while room descriptions max out with a few sentences. In this text only medium, descriptions are where moods are set and mental images are painted, and I felt the game would have been more effective with more vivid descriptions. Authors often use item descriptions to provide depth to a story, an opportunity lost here.

Most fans of interactive fiction enjoy reading, which makes them particularly skilled at spotting typos. Unfortunately, this game is filled with them, which gives it an unpolished feel. I tried to overlook the way the game uses “your/you’re” and “its/it’s” interchangeably, but was driven bonkers by a “peperoni stick,” which literally stumped me until I realized the game was requiring me to misspell the object to pick it up. For any text adventure, but specifically one submitted to a competition, a bit of proofreading would give it a more professional look.

With all that said, at the core of The House on Sycamore Lane lies an entertaining little ghost story. As players move throughout the mansion searching for keys to unlock doors and such, certain objects, when acquired, trigger brief flashbacks. Over time, the story behind who has been haunting the house on Sycamore Lane (and why) is revealed — and, more importantly, a way to free the tortured spirit also becomes clear. It’s unfortunate that this story isn’t teased earlier in the game, as it’s definitely interesting. If I were to rework the game, I would either drop the opening subplot involving the middle school bully, or — even better — find a way to tie it into the overall theme of the game, creating a bit more cohesion. A couple of paragraphs at the beginning setting the tone and hinting at what is to come might also help set the mood. The actual story, which is the most compelling part of the game, is simply buried a bit too deep.

I’m not particularly adept at text adventures and it only took me about half an hour to work my way through The House on Sycamore Lane. There are a finite number of rooms within the house, so everywhere I turned I found objects looking for a puzzle to solve, or puzzles awaiting a solution. I don’t think at any point I ran out of places to go or wondered what I should be doing next, and I like that in a game of this scale. The size of the house was appropriate, with lots of rooms to explore and secrets to discover.

The House on Sycamore Lane isn’t terrible. There’s a fun mystery to be discovered by players willing to stick with the game long enough to find it. Interactive fiction games require interesting concepts along with polished writing. Paul Michael Winters has the former part down, and I would love to play another game by him with a bit more attention spent on the latter.

Link: The House on Sycamore Lane

Saturn’s Child by Jerry Ford (2014)

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

If Wednesday’s Child is full of woe, then Saturn’s Child is full of cable up the butt. Seriously, in this game your character has a cable up his butt for most of the game, as does your girlfriend. When you and your girlfriend have a baby together in space, your kid eventually gets a cable up the butt too. This just reinforces my feeling that all space games are ultimately variations of Xtrek. Every. Single. One. Especially Planets: TEOS.

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

What an epic space adventure! I was totally absorbed from beginning to end, especially during the scenes on Titan and Enceladus. Admittedly the butt stuff was a little weird.

My Verdict:

I loved the adventure, the setting, and the developer’s ambition. I hated the bugs and the excessive focus on procedure. Also, the butt stuff made my butt wince which is never a good thing.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Following his unfortunate death in 2006, ex-president Jerry Ford decided to set politics aside and focus on a new way to reach the masses from beyond the grave: interactive fiction! No, this particular Jerry Ford actually hails from the mean streets of Pleasant Hills, CA, a veritable world away from the gilded cage of Rancho Mirage. He’s written several games that cover everything from crime to demonic seduction to space exploration. That’s why my nickname for him is Detective Jerry Ford, Demonfucker of Mars! Let’s see if that catches on.

Download Link: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/saturns_child.zip

Other Games By This Author: Dark Angel, The Devil in the Details

Before we begin in earnest, I have to tell you something I’ve never shared with anyone else: I’m biased when it comes to space games. That’s because I love space games. I love science fiction in general. I read the books. I watch the movies. I listen to Dimension X. I think about things like space colonization, alien culture, teleportation, and daily life aboard a spaceship on a regular basis. This is an enduring interest for me. Furthermore, I also tend to particularly enjoy interactive fiction set in space, whether it be Infocom classics like Planetfall, graphic adventure game classics like Space Quest, or shooter that occasionally bothers to tell a story classics like Mass Effect. If you want to know how deep the obsession goes, let’s just say I am a genuine fan (present tense) of the BASICA classic Alien and Super Z Trek. Robb reviewed both games fairly on the original incarnation of Reviews From Trotting Krips; I didn’t review either one because I knew I was way too biased to be fair.

So if you want a completely unbiased review of Saturn’s Child you’re not going to be satisfied here because this is definitely a space game and so I’m definitely going to be biased. I’m not so biased that I won’t tell you that the game has both flaws and bugs because it does have both. I’m not even going to write a glowing review because there are as many things I disliked about the game as I liked. It’s just that I have a feeling I enjoyed this game more than most players of interactive fiction will primarily because I love space games. If you don’t share my bias, you could very well think that this is an absolutely terrible game, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. When the average interactive fiction player (who also happens to be a stereotypical teenage girl) plays this, the results are predictably combustive:

“The bugs make this game sooooooooooooooooo annoying! Like there was one which made it so I couldn’t go back to my ship. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”

“Why do I have to press so many buttons and pull so many levers anyway? This is hella boring! Wouldn’t they have self-flying spaceships or voice-activated controls or something like that in the future?”

“What’s the deal with the whole cable in butt thing? Like ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! I bet the guy who did this is a total sicko!”

I bring up the average interactive fiction player’s potential criticisms of this game because they are totally valid. This game does have annoying bugs, it does have an excessive number of buttons, dials, switches, and levers, and it does feature troubling cable-in-butt action. But all that stuff doesn’t absolutely define the game, at least not for me. I prefer to think of the high points. For example, this game features an outstanding sequence where you help your girlfriend give birth to a baby on a spaceship (if your character is male) or actually give birth (if your character is female). This scene and its leadup are pretty intense. During my first playthrough as a male character, I found myself feeling deeply worried I was going to fuck up. After all, I didn’t know nothing about birthing babies. It turned out to be relatively straightforward in terms of what I had to do (which definitely was the easy part), but I was still sweating bullets by the time we were done. The magnitude of what had just happened — the birth of the first baby (human at least) off Earth — awed me. I’m not privy to the development history of this game, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Jerry Ford started out with a more neutral title like Mission to Saturn and then changed the name after writing the birth scene. This is a game that can and will alienate a player with its annoying bugs and insistence on procedure, but the birth scene is interesting enough to draw you back in if you get that far. You could certainly argue that the birth scene is too passive if you’re playing a female character — you don’t even get to push — but it remains powerful because you still get the overwhelming feeling that you’re doing something no human has ever done before. It feels genuinely fresh and exciting, too, because this just isn’t a theme that gets covered in adventure games all that often. I also really enjoyed exploring the Saturnian moons though I was disappointed they felt so similar to one another. To be fair, I should note that you’ll only see one moon in any given playthrough depending on whether you’re the male or the female player character.

The basic premise of Saturn’s Child is that you are in the space program and are on a mission to Saturn together with an opposite sex partner. Your task is to retrieve two probes lost on Titan and Enceladus, two of Saturn’s numerous moons. You can choose to be either the male or the female astronaut. This choice affects your path through the game ever so slightly; most notably, it changes the perspective of the birth scene and determines which moon of Saturn you’ll personally land on. Whether male or female your space duties will be extremely similar, and I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary to play both paths. Technically, you can also choose to have no sexual organs or be a hermaphrodite, but this just leads to an early game ending. According to this game, NASA doesn’t accept hermaphrodites into the space program. Even if true, pointing this out in a text adventure seems a little unnecessarily mean. Suffice it to say that hermaphrodites will always have a place in my space program, if you know what I mean. If you DO know what I mean, you definitely have the edge on me because I have absolutely no idea.

The game starts out with you and your partner in training. The first scene is a little similar to the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that you find yourself in a dark room with nearly no sensory information to go on. If anything does smell a bit this time around, it’s likely to be the cable you find securely inserted in your ass. You also don’t have any memories. Starting the game out in this manner made me think I wasn’t really an astronaut but rather a kidnap victim. In fact, the first character you meet actually makes an alien anal probe joke. Not exactly the best way to earn my confidence. I had a bit of a hard time buying that my loss of memory was somehow connected to my training as well. Later on, I started to suspect the government might be involved in the pregnancy too, especially when a scientist referred to my child as an extraterrestrial. For whatever reason, the game seems to go out of its way to downplay this possibility — you get your memories back, your baby appears completely human, and a short timeline for the impregnation (which suspiciously no one really seems to remember in any great detail) is provided. Even an explanation for the anal cables is given: the little buggers dispense medicine and report back important health information! In other words, they’re basically a more advanced smartwatch for your butt…who wouldn’t want one? So, no, I can’t exactly prove a secret government research project and alien sperm were actually involved in the birth of my child, but I was totally expecting an ending where my kid sprouted feelers and exhibited telekinetic powers. I’m afraid you’ll have to play the game for yourself to find out if that’s what really happens.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this game is that Jerry Ford’s ideas are generally good and his ambition is admirable. He’s genuinely succeeded in creating a virtual world that is distinct and memorable though not detailed. He captures some of the majesty and mystery of space and some of the dangers as well as the allure of space travel. The big ship, the lander, and the rover all feel like real environments — it’s easy to play this game and imagine yourself actually in space and actually manipulating these hulking machines. The problem is Ford seems so wrapped up in his ideas and his world that it feels like he sometimes forgets people will be playing his game for fun. I’ll take that back if it turns out NASA is actually using this game to prepare recruits for space travel. If that never happens, it’s very hard to justify what Ford puts his players through at times. For one thing, his favorite type of puzzle seems to be the puzzle of obscurity. One example is the treadmill. It takes multiple steps to get it working and to dismount it, but the most trouble users are likely to have with it is finding how to turn it on. It turns out the machine has an emergency power cutoff lever, but you have to stumble about for a while to find it. Looking at the treadmill won’t tell you anything about any cutoff switch. It’s much the same story with the difficult to find book or the first aid kit that doesn’t want to be used even when your partner is bleeding out. To be frank, it’s unclear if these “puzzles” are really intended to be puzzles or if the author just didn’t want to take the time to flesh his game out. Another point of annoyance is Ford’s love of procedure. Space travel naturally involves a lot of cool machines and electronics, and this game has a number of instances where you need to manipulate buttons, levers, and switches in a specific way to proceed. I can appreciate this to a degree because it does make the game seem more realistic, but it becomes downright ridiculous when you have to spend five minutes using a space microwave that’s exactly the same as its counterpart on Earth. Some parts of this game are downright tedious and dull. I think there’s a place for procedure when you’re doing something important and need to learn a skill you’ll use again in the game. For instance, I wouldn’t complain if I had to learn how to manually navigate a starship in a space game. I got absolutely nothing out of opening and closing the microwave, adding water to various food packets, putting the packets in the microwave, setting the power level, setting the cook time, and turning the power on multiple times, though. That’s just unnecessary tedium.

I’m afraid the bugs are going to get their own paragraph. Sadly, there are a lot of them. Some are easy to ignore, like the unmatched quote error early on. Some principally serve as an annoyance, like the way the scientist keeps telling you to dismount the treadmill even when you’re no longer in the same room if you fail to do the dismounting in time. I don’t think you actually CAN do the dismounting in time if you’re a male character, but it works if you’re a female. Maybe the game’s actually trying to make some sort of social commentary about the male tendency to monopolize exercise equipment. Women may take too long in the bathroom, but guys…uh…take too long on the treadmill? The little bastards just can’t get enough of walking without going anywhere, and Saturn’s Child is here to call them out on it. In any case, there’s a certain humor in having the scientist show up somewhere completely inappropriate, such as on Titan, but you’re likely to see that message about dismounting the treadmill a hundred times or more before you’re through with the game. That brings us to the last and worst category of bugs: the game enders. There are at least two bugs which will leave you stuck and unable to finish, and I ran into both of them. As a male character, you can get stuck on Titan through no fault of your own. I still don’t know what triggered the bug, but I somehow ended up in a position where the game said I had reentered my lander even though I was really still on Titan. My space helmet was removed automatically when I tried to reenter the ship so I found myself aimlessly wandering the surface of Titan, breathing in the atmosphere without a helmet and none the worse for wear. Weird all around. Jerry Ford’s strong belief in gender equality lead to him inserting a similar bug for the female character. This time the bug occurs during a radiation leak that occurs prior to your departure for Enceladus. If you don’t follow the proper sequence of actions, you can end up unable to advance the game no matter what you do. It turns out software bugs are ultimately more deadly than radiation. I think NASA knows exactly what I’m talking about, unfortunately.

In short, Saturn’s Child is a game for a particular type of person: someone who really, really loves space and doesn’t mind bugs, even game-ending bugs. Even though there were aspects of the game that I genuinely enjoyed, it turns out even I don’t love space quite THAT much. There’s just a few too many problems here to forgive and overlook or to expect others to forgive and overlook. The pity is that Saturn’s Child genuinely had the potential to be great…it just didn’t quite manage to realize that potential. In its present form, I suspect those who have some sort of weird cable-butt fetish will end up enjoying the game more than anyone else. If that’s you, this is definitely the game. If that’s not you, well, that’s why we have other reviews.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 22/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 3/10 (Sadly, Jerry Ford seems to struggle to look at his own games from a player’s point of view.)

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10 (The parser can be quite picky at times and some of the TADS rewrites for unrecognized inputs are downright bizarre.)

My First Stupid Game by Dan McPherson (1996)

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

I genuinely thought that this game was set at my old college right up until I realized you couldn’t piss on the Sammy Hagar poster. That’s definitely not the Pelling way!

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

I gave this one a ‘1’ in competition voting. There’s no place for such crudeness and vulgarity in interactive fiction.

My Verdict:

Dan McPherson has shown us authoritatively that college games don’t have to be a series of inside jokes. There’s also the urination option!

Game Information

Game Type: AGT

Author Info: Dan McPherson wrote exactly one game in his interactive fiction career that we know of. It finished last in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition, as it seemed designed to do, and Dan proceeded to ride off into that good night. What a man, what a loss. I hope he knows that we as a community need him now more than ever.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archive/games/competition96/first/

Excerpt from David Holstein’s Review in the AGT Times, October 13th, 1996:

College is as much a series of questions as it is a series of courses. Will I find out what I want to do with my life? Will I form a new crew and have tons of good times with them? Will I finally meet my one true love? Will I drop out after two months just like Uncle Charlie? In Dan McPherson’s amusing and nostalgic look back at university life, he suggests a few more questions undergraduates might ask if they attended the same institution he did: Where are all the toilets? What’s the deal with the talking bear? Will the best lineup of Van Halen ever reunite? Despite its self-effacing title, this is a quirky game well worth playing for adults, but it is inappropriate for the littlest adventurers due to some graphic toilet humor.

My First Stupid Game is designed to enrage a certain type of pearl clutcher who participates in the voting at the annual Interactive Fiction Competition every single year. These are the sort of people who demand IF creators take their competition entries seriously and frown on anyone who would dare call his first stupid adventure game My First Stupid Game. I think Dan McPherson knew exactly what he was doing here. He wanted to lower expectations with the title and then surprise people with the quality of his first stupid adventure game. Some competition voters — I’m looking at you, Davy Carmichael — automatically gave the game a ‘1’ because they judged it on the title alone in an extreme violation of the spirit of competition voting. McPherson’s next audacious move was to create his game using AGT. Bear in mind here the competition’s first incarnation in 1995 only welcomed Inform and TADS entries. Traditionally, authors submitting games written using less mainstream development systems to the competition have had a hard time of it, and Dan McPherson entered the lion’s den in its first year of truly open and desegregated competition. Thirdly and most importantly, My First Stupid Game is fundamentally about urination. You play this guy who needs to pee and can’t access a toilet and has scruples about pissing anywhere but in an appropriate urine receptacle. Considering that the median IF competition voter has neither urethra nor bladder, it is quite a lot to ask them to relate to basic human bodily functions. As a general rule, bathroom humor more often than not fails to connect with competition voters, likely because it is too sophisticated. Under these circumstances, it would essentially be impossible for an AGT game about urination called My First Stupid Game not to finish in last place in the competition in 1996 (or 2019), and the pearl clutchers did not fail to live up to expectations. In a just world, it wouldn’t have won but still would’ve finished higher. Let’s right a historical wrong right here and now.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to My First Adventure Game as MFSG from this point forward. I realize this acronym makes it look like I’m referring to Motherfucking Sodium Glutamate, but the game title is fairly long. Something had to be done. As I mentioned before, MFSG is about one man’s quest to urinate. He seems to be living in a dorm type of environment, and theoretically does have access to a communal bathroom. The problem is the only toilet in the vicinity is locked with a padlock. Judging from the smell of the hovel, most dorm residents prior to the protagonist have handled the locked toilet problem by relieving themselves wherever they want to, but our protagonist won’t entertain that notion for a second. No, he has standards, and if he finds a locked toilet he’s going to unlock it or die trying. I’m not joking about the dying part as this game features an epic, masterfully written urination death scene if you somehow fail to unlock the toilet in time (you can also be killed by a bear). In fact, this game sets new standards for writing in urination adventure games. Take this description of an Alex Van Halen poster for example: “The poster shows Alex Van Halen playing the drums. There is a copy of Playboy propped open on his drum set, and he is staring intently into it as if he were an orchestral percussionist and it was the score of a Mozart operetta.” If you doubt for a moment that this is the real deal, check out the almost proper use of the subjunctive mood and everything. Paul O’Brien wrote a extremely negative review of this game but noted of the writing, “Remarkably, I noticed no errors.” I see that as Paul O’Brien’s way of acknowledging that nothing he ever writes will ever be on the level of an AGT game about peeing. I’m sympathetic because I’m in the exact same boat.

I won’t pretend that Dan McPherson made no mistakes here. All have sinned and come short of the glory of Plotkin, after all. His biggest blunder was starting the game out in a room where five posters of Van Halen members are hanging on the wall, all of which are difficult to interact with. There is one poster which is absolutely essential for advancing the game which a clue will guide you to. The problem is the game expects you to first type “look poster” or “get poster” and hit ENTER and then answer the prompt to indicate whether it’s the David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, or Michael Anthony poster you mean. If you type “get eddie van halen poster”, it simply won’t work; neither will “pour hot sauce on michael anthony poster” or “drive sammy hagar poster 55”. At one point, the game assumed I meant “hagar’ as a preposition. There are a lot of questionable prepositions in the English language, but hagar is the worst of the lot undoubtedly. Another issue is that sometimes you get warned about needing to piss twice after an action. This definitely heightens the tension, but might not have been quite what McPherson intended. There’s also the fact that every now and then you die rather suddenly from an exploding bladder before you’ve had a chance to really explore the game. I tend to forgive this to an extent because the death scene is so great that every player needs to encounter it at least once but preferably five times. When you do die, there is a room description that is displayed AFTER the death scene unfolds which is quite difficult to explain; perhaps it’s the proof of life after death mankind has sought fruitlessly over the millennia. I also feel like there could be a bit more description in places, particularly considering we’ve got a very good writer at our disposal here. On the other hand, “there is nothing particularly interesting about the Michael Anthony poster” is biting musical commentary at its best. Some of the hatred directed towards Barney seemed a little immature to me at first (especially considering the highbrow content of the rest of the game), but then I remembered I myself once downloaded a patch for Wolfenstein 3D back in the day that enabled me to take a break from killing Nazis and kill Barney, Beavis, and Butthead instead. College kids really did hate Barney, and so this game is a valuable historical record of a very special time in online history.

I think what makes MFSG work so well is that it absolutely knows what it is. It doesn’t want to do much more than make you laugh and be quirky, and there’s no point in the game where it ceases to be fun. Although the game never acknowledges that it takes place on a college campus directly, I feel like it’s a great addition to the college adventure canon. The bear in the hidden passage seems like an example of campus lore come to life, and the implied war between the Barney shrine builders and the Barney destroyers is every bit as compelling as your typical nerds vs jocks showdown. As a game designer, Dan McPherson’s strength lies in his anticipation of what the user will do next. Most authors doing a urination game wouldn’t bother coding a response for defecation commands, but McPherson refuses to participate in that old food fight. If you try to relieve your bowels in this game, you’re kindly told, “You don’t need to shit, you need to piss. Pay attention.” There are a number of unexpected responses to reasonable inputs in this game, and it makes you want to try different things to see what happens. No, it’s definitely not I/O, but McPherson obviously spent some time fleshing out the game. For an experienced adventurer, MFSG offers little challenge and the hints that pop up every now and then largely ensure that no one will be left behind, albeit in an amusing way. It’s an enjoyable ride in the country, not an obstacle course. All in all, I was extremely tempted to give this game a 7, but ultimately I decided the RANDOM DEATH TIMER was just a little too sadistic. Sometimes you’ll see a review that warns players that they need to finish this game in some arbitrary number of turns, like 79. That’s adorable. What this game really does is randomly explode your bladder whenever it damn well feels like it. I’ve died in this game on my first turn which is as hardcore as it gets. And, come to think of it, that does help explain the whole last place in the competition thing. I’d like to call this a bug, but every conversation I have with Dan McPherson in my head ends with him saying, “Yeah, well, I’m still keeping the random death timer.” Well fine then, your game is getting a 6 which is still the highest rating it has ever received from a publication not formally affiliated with an elementary school.

One side effect of playing this game is you’ll never, ever “hold it” again in your life. That’s the primary reason it receives the highest recommendation possible from the Society of Urologists Who Play Interactive Fiction — Zork is the only game that even comes close to MFSG in their rankings. Anyway, I’m now prepared to piss 24 hours a day regardless of circumstances. The first thing I do after getting dressed is fill every available pocket with guitar picks, just in case I need something to piss on later on. Only 90s kids who’ve played My First Stupid Game before would understand.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 30/50

Story: 5/10 (It’s not a particularly deep story, but if you’ve ever really, really needed to piss I think you’ll be able to relate.)

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 5/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10 (The game is pretty easy, but getting the last point does require a little experimentation.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Dormicity: 7/10 (The only way this rating could have gone higher is if you had a few drunk buddies around who were buried underneath a pile of beer cans and were lying in a pool of both their own and unidentified urine. Just a suggestion for Dan’s next game.)


Tube Trouble by Richard Tucker (1995)

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

I was personally rooting for my character to starve. Also, is this guy’s name seriously Dick Tucker?

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

I love quirky puzzle games!

My Verdict:

The best interactive fiction combines challenge with story. This game does not do that.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Richard Tucker wrote the original Tube Trouble in 1988 for the BBC Micro, but he didn’t quit there. In 1995, he decided to release more or less the same game under the same name but newly rewritten in Inform and enter it into the first ever Interactive Fiction Competition. For that reason alone, his place in the history books is assured, but I still wonder what might have been. In an old SPAG interview, Tucker mentioned he was working on another game which would feature a “guess the noun” puzzle (the poor chap sounded like he thought that was an original idea). This doesn’t seem to have ever been released, presumably because the author didn’t name it Tube Trouble. If I were Tucker, I’d have entered a new game called Tube Trouble written using a different development system into each yearly competition. That’s probably why I’m not Tucker.

Download Link: https://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/tube.z5

Other Games By This Author: Tube Trouble (1988)

I like to think of myself as being a person who can appreciate a good puzzle. When I play a game, I genuinely don’t want to have everything handed to me. I want that sense of accomplishment that only comes from overcoming adversity and solving problems. I actually like having to think and struggle a little! When a game doesn’t feature any puzzle/obstacle/challenge at all, it starts to not even feel like a game to me. On the other hand, a game that is JUST puzzles and doesn’t have much of a story or atmosphere or anything to really draw you in can be quite tedious in a way that’s just as bad as a game that offers no challenge. If you doubt me on this, I need but say two words in my defense: Tube Trouble.

I had a feeling Tube Trouble was going to be a trying experience fairly quickly. Because the game’s intro invited me to type “info” to get more information about the game, I did just that as my first action in the game. Delightfully, it warned me that I could expect to be killed without warning. Some games like that are fun, and I resolved I would try to get myself killed in as many different ways as possible. I soon discovered an empty electrified track that was described as “high voltage and extremely dangerous.” Sounds promising, right? I tried to jump on the tracks and the parser pretended not to understand me. I tried to touch the track and the game told me that would be extremely stupid. You can’t even have sex with the vending machine — I thought this was worth a try considering how my cousin Charlie met his untimely demise. RIP, Charlie…I hope you and that shortstack Frito-Lay machine are still together somewhere up there. The fact is that it’s easier to die in real life than in this game, and Senor Tucker should frankly be ashamed of the false advertising.

At least there’s always the specter of starvation following you around throughout the game. You see, the premise of the game is that you’ve been trapped in this tube station for days, possibly weeks, and you haven’t eaten anything in all that time. Don’t expect this to lead to any sort of intense race against time in which you’re battling every moment just to stay alive, though. In fact, if you solve the first puzzle you do receive some food. If you try to eat it, however, an official tells you can’t eat in the station. In response, you do NOT tell the official to go to hell and proceed to devour the chocolate in a single bite. Instead, you’re supposed to just accept this and go off and solve another puzzle. Is mindless obedience a side effect of starvation? Is our hero a man or a mouse? I just can’t relate to this tube man at all. He doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies as long as there’s another puzzle to solve. As it turns out, I don’t think you can really die from starvation in the game either…the worst that happens is that you get knocked unconscious.

I found myself particularly annoyed by the repetition in the game. There’s a tramp who’ll go through his script a million times if you let him. There’s a vending machine (the same one you can’t make sweet love to) which will give you an unlimited supply of chocolate and pound notes except for the fact it will also magically eliminate every existing chocolate and pound note you may have in your inventory or have attempted to hide in another location. There’s also a guy who will buy your hat as many times as you like, and he even lies about how much he’s going to pay each time. I suppose Herr Tucker wanted to give players extra chances if they screwed something up, but I felt like the game was just telling me, “Hey, don’t forget you’re supposed to be solving a puzzle right now,” over and over again. The repeated events and scripts broke all sense of immersion for me. There’s definitely no soaking in the atmosphere or messing around in this game. You’re either going to be solving a puzzle or the game will be nudging you to solve a puzzle the whole time you play.

Perhaps a game that really was just puzzles might still be fun if the puzzles were unique and engrossing. That’s not what we’re dealing with here. In Tube Trouble the puzzles are rather silly and while not necessarily all easy I can’t say I felt any better about myself after solving them. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, I had more of a sense of resignation as I plodded my way through the game…there’s just not a lot of joy or adventure to be found here. Instead, there’s just puzzles, and to be honest there aren’t even very many puzzles either. That doesn’t mean you’ll finish the game quickly. I personally had a particularly hard time with the second puzzle just because I thought the game had already told me that this one item was off-limits. Turns out it wasn’t really off-limits, and you had to actually mess with it in order to advance. C’est la vie! Richard Tucker does not do foreshadowing.

The game is functional, but not really noteworthy in any way. The parser is not very responsive and one puzzle arguably forces you into a guess the verb situation largely because Richard Tucker also does not do synonyms. As for those of you inclined to gaze at walls, you’re going to find out that absolutely none of them have anything special about them. No, not even the southeast wall…I couldn’t believe it either. The writing is minimalistic, with very limited descriptions throughout, but I thought Tucker did manage to at least give the tramp some personality.

If I had to say one thing good about this game, I suppose I’d mention that it does require you to observe and experiment until you win. In the world of the game, creativity and perseverance are rewarded (mainly perseverance, though). So I suppose this experience isn’t so much about having fun as it is gaining valuable life skills. For that reason, it might not be a terrible first text adventure for a kid or life dropout to play. No, I suppose it actually would still be terrible even for kids and life dropouts…terrible but useful at the same time. Just like Richard Tucker!

Disclaimer: any criticism of Richard Tucker implied in this review is offered only in a spirit of good-natured ribbing. After all, Richard is one of the best friends I have whom I’ve never met nor otherwise ever interacted with, and no negative review could ever change that. The man deserves credit for porting a BBC Micro game to Inform — he did his part to preserve our interactive fiction history. Plus, he helped playtest Curses which is a fantastic game.

Simple Rating: 3/10

Complicated Rating: 17/50

Story: 4/10 ( I think you COULD have an interesting game about being stuck in a subway station. Theoretically, anyway.)

Writing: 4/10

Playability: 3/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10