Arctic Adventure by Harry McKracken (1981/2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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