Ninja by Softgold (1984)

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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:

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, a 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 up on 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 a 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, and 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