Brian Howarth's Mysterious Adventures (IF)

This is a series of adventures written in the early 80s about the time that Infocom was getting its feat under them. Using the "Scott Adams" engine, they are simplistic games revolving around a series of two-word parser puzzles that are largely a matter of having the right item at the right time. Looks like a few of them were loosely connected, but not all. Each individual game will get a short review below.

01 Golden Baton

You start out in a SPOOKY [capitalization theirs] forest with a cloak at your feet and a pile of leaves. The entire room description consists of a single, plain sentence, with a short list of items and exits. EXAM leaves and bam, a sword. GO SOUTH and you see some briars. If you GO NORTH you will find a wolf, a tree, and a cabin. Pretty much right away you realize your chief opponent is the parser.

The basic structure of the game is to have the right item at the right time. With the right item in hand, you perform the right action and you will succeed. It somehow feels almost like a moral lesson repeated over and over. For instance, to KILL WOLF you must have the sword. Occasionally items will not indicate their purpose, and its up to you to find out through trial and error. In the case of the staff's runes, as a good example, it might be frustrating to think you have already moved on past something undoable only to find out that one item suddenly finishes the puzzle with no indication.

There are three elements to the puzzles. The first one is the "door/cover" type puzzle. These are only a challenge the first time or two, but come down to examining everything and, when you are in a room that does not seem to have exits, trying to GO SOMETHING (in the room with the wolf, above, the north exit is "GO PATH"). The second type of puzzle is the "item in hand" puzzle, which requires you to find the right item and then do something in it. This is the bulk of the game. The last type of puzzle is in the minority, but shows up in at least three or four areas, and is the worst. It is a guess-the-verb situation with no real hint. For the parser to be so limited, it can be frustrating to have to think up what possible synonyms might be required. The puzzle with the ring is the worst though the puzzle with the staff/quartz is also pretty ugly (but makes a little more sense).

Game ends up being short with padding largely being provided by the utter opaqueness of puzzles.

Only recommended to those who truly like old school IF, though I quite enjoyed it.

Review written on 16 Nov 2007

02 The Time Machine

Most of the description of puzzles and rooms from above can be applied here, first off. Same basic three-way puzzles (though the door puzzles have a new "maze" version).

This one starts you off in a fog. Probably the worst opening I have seen in a game in that you have to tell it three directions in a row with very little reference that you are right (though admittedly, the available exits slightly change). Once you get out of the fog, the gameplay returns to normal. There are a couple of these "fake mazes" in this one where most directions just return you back to the room at hand and movement is mostly guess work. None of the mazes are anything as bad as the "Twisty Passages" Mazes from Adventure or Zork, mind you.

The guess-the-verb puzzles are back again to trip the player up, though most of them were cracked (largely by a combination of brute-force-synonym attack) within 3 minutes of starting them.

The Golden Baton took me a couple of hours to figure out. This one took me only about 30 minutes. Wouldn't even say it is an easier game, it's just that getting used to the formula helps propel to victory pretty quickly.

Again, only for those who like very old school style adventures and have patience to play around but enjoyed by me.

Review written on 16 Nov 2007

03 Arrow of Death, Part 1

The madness continues. This continues the events of the first game (same guy?) after the baton goes crazy. Looking at the baton will kill you, so I guess that qualifies as crazy.

Game ups the ante by three increased aspects of difficulty. The first is an annoying habit of suddenly requiring the player to refer to the room itself in the look function, while the search command returns a constantly "nothing is here". As below (performed in the court yard):

> search I see Nothing special > look courtyard I see something

The second added annoyance is a couple of actions require multiple responses. One item has to be turned three times. I had to attack a monster three times to kill it. In the former, it says something along the lines of "O.K.! Something happens...". In the latter, it seems to report a failure the first two times and then works the third. If I hadn't of gotten frustrated and looked it up, I might still be wandering around, never realizing that I had to type it two more times.

The third, and worst, annoyance is the game's layout into several stages. These stages are divided by the character getting to some spot and then waiting for a mist to come and take them to the next stage. As far as I know, there is no return. And there are items all along the way that need to be found and kept. Since the game's inventory is limited, you often have to take a chance on an item and drop it before you go to the next stage because there are items you are sure are more important. Can cause you to have to restart a good amount just to get the combination down.

The game has the standard "out of the blue" guess-the-verbs but I think they at least make sense here. You have to RUB an object, again. And there are NPCs you honestly interact with, though in no particularly spectacular way. At least it helps to round out the world.

Would have ranked this one the top of the first three, but the Mist-divided stages can add quickly to a frustration level and force a lot nitpicky replay. I missed the first quest item (partly because I didn't realize that I was NEVER going back to the beginning) and wandered around the end game confused until I restarted with forewarning. This mechanic, along with the LOOK [ROOMNAME] and the "try it again!" puzzles with only mild prodding, makes it probably the weakest.

Review written on 17 Nov 2007.

04 Arrow of Death, Part 2

If you ignore the fact that the game needs you to type DIG at random to get the most useful item in the whole thing, and that you have an item early on whose effect is so subtle that I completely missed until I tried replaying (though I did laugh when I realized the logic); you end up an overall stronger game that the three previous titles. It adds to parser by allowing prepositional phrases to be entered. You have to say "GIVE ITEM" and then it will ask "TO WHOM?" and expect a two words answer of "TO NPC". This still allows for a couple of more interesting puzzles.

Most of the game pay is the same basic right item for the right action at the right time. But the items, this time, include at least more intriguing stuff like dynamite and briar pipes. There is a weed which, if you eat it, gives you some strange energy (*rimshot* ?). I think the way that the pipe is used was one of the highlights of the game to me, just because it is so very fanciful.

This game gets bit in the butt, though, when it requires you to type a SYNONYM for a word referred to in the room (the equivalent of expecting you to type GO STREAM when it describes a brook or GO COPSE when it talks about a small forest. This is on top of requiring an action which, albeit sensical giving the surroundings and which has a response if done at the right time (which I did, by luck), is not exactly prodded.

Overall, though, a lot of the comic and fun elements for work (keep in mind the engine is still fairly basic, so much comic elements require you think what something implied more than anything else). The game overall feels fairly solid and with a scream factor not as bad as the previous game. The quest actually felt more like a quest instead of running around in convenient rooms.

Recommended you probably skip the "Part 1" and play this one.

05 Escape From Pulsar 7

After 3-4 hours of playing, I found myself completely stymied as what to do next. I was assuming (correctly) that my next action was to bake a cake. I just couldn't figure out HOW using the parser. I had wandered through the maze. I had been through every room I could find, and had found pretty much nothing else that I could do. I had even found a couple of rooms that seemed pointless. I glanced at a walkthrough, figuring that it was some opaque verb guess that I was looking for, and noticed the command "MOVE PILLOW" being close to the early part of the game (the part of the walkthrough I assumed I was through with). I had not seen a pillow and so I went and replayed that part. Turns out that a needed circuilt board was unavailable until a pillow is dispensed on your bed. This could, I suppose, mean that you hid the circuit board in the pillow dispenser or it could imply that the board was on the bed the whole time but you just didn't notice it until you moved the pillow. Either way, this boded poorly for the sanity of the puzzles that I had yet to solve, and so I went and looked around in the walkthrough some more, eventually finishing the last half of this game with the walkthrough's help.

This game is a bad one, even by the previous four games in this series standards. As has been standard up to this point, the game adds in a couple of wrinkles for new challenge. This one includes both a Maze and Asymetrical Exits. In fact, the exits are SO twisted that I have trouble understanding how the spaceship is even built. If I go south from the kitchen, I end up back in the first room (whether or not I have unlocked the door, meaning that the key is never needed). If I go north from the Captain's quarters (which I had to go north three or four times to get to) I will end up beside the kitchen, which is north, apparently, of the starting room. If I go east of the Captain's quarters I end up in a room that can only be left by going down through the vents (presumably the exit I just entered through was swallowed by langoliers or something).

Ok, the maze isn't too hard and only took me 30 minutes to map out and then some. The twisty passages are annoying but can be somewhat ignored since there aren't enough rooms to really confuse you. What's much, much worse is the tricks the parser does to extend game play. Not only do you have a two part question, again (this time with a case of "HIT THING" "TELL ME HOW ?" "WITH TOOL"), but you have to examine (in two places) things not even mentioned in the scarce text of the game. Sure, it makes sense that the thing you examine (hint: its the "CEILING") is there, but considering that the thing you find in the ceiling is something that should have already been visible to begin with then this is an added command to stretch for time and complexity and it is horrid. Without the walkthrough, I probably would never have beaten the game since my patiences for guessing what possible objects MIGHT be in the world would have ran out.

Also, for the first time in the series, SEARCH THIS is a different command (in one single spot, with one single object) than EXAMine THIS. I figured it out very quickly, but was not thrilled.

On top of all this, there is a sense of time that mostly adds to the annoyance factor and not enough cues from the environment for you to know what's going on. This latter is very bad since there are a handful of buttons floating around. All in all, the lack of proper responses (instead of the default "You cannot do this yet" sort of thing) triple the difficulty of this game and require a couple leaps of faith to get anything done.

This is the least recommended of the first five and makes the third game seem like a balanced, well parsed epic. Of all the ones I have played so far, this one most could be fixed by a retooling. Too much of it is obstacles set up for pure gamist sake.

Review written on 18 Nov 2007

06 Circus

What does a ghost clown, a human cannonball, and a spanner have in common? They are all part of the game that helped me to stick with this series. After the painful Escape from Pulsar 7 I figured that I had one more game left in me. Its sort of like the Gamera movies. You haven't liked them since the third one, but you keep hoping for the best. Actually, though, this game fixes 90% of the problems the previous title had, and includes a quirky setting that is well mapped.

SEARCH and EXAM and LOOK are all roughly the same, which is an improvement. The flashlight runs out, this time, which is an "annoyance" but I approve. Infinite light sources feel odd in IF.

Of special note, this game includes a lot of British words, which adds to the flavor. In a few cases, it works fine by recognizing the American and British versions of the word. A spanner is also a wrench. A flashlight is also a torch. A boot is also a trunk. That sort of thing. There is only one word that I can recall, which is the "answer to a puzzle" that requires the British spelling and refuses the American spelling. If I had not had a walkthrough, I probably would have had no idea what I was doing wrong.

Though I enjoyed the game a lot, there were a few bad carry overs. In one place (hint: the TRUNK at the REAR OF THE CAR) an item is there, and sensibly so, but is not mentioned. I took a guess on that one. In another, a reasonable but somewhat "non-standard IF parser" verb-noun phrase is required. I walkthroughed that one. The last handful of puzzles (bar the last couple) are all about unexpected word choices.

Still though, third favorite of those so far (the second and the first being my numbers one and two, respectively).

07 Feasability Experiment

Your guess is as good as mine as to what that title means. Brian Howarth's 7th adventure was sort of the end of my IF playing last year. I played around, got killed in about as many ways as you can be in IF and still be lost in the initial rush of room exploration, and the just laid it to rest. Now, something like six months later, I am back at it. Kind of.

My one overarching rule was to play this using the SCOTTFREE interpreter (close to the original way it would have been played) while using NO CHEATS. The former is kind of easy. The interface is a tad clunkier, but not too hard to adapt to over time. The second half of that rule though turned out to be damned near impossible, and I will tell you why.

It comes down to this rough sequence. After tying a rope to a tree by a clunk "TIE ROPE" "TO TREE" I was still sort of jazzed. It was a bit icky, but old school parsers must have their limitations. Shortly after, though, I went after the whole digging. "DIG" would give me "HOW?". For whatever reason, this did not lead me right awy to "USE SHOVEL" (I think "WITH SHOVEL" also works). When it did, what does the game say? "SHOVELIS [sic] USELESS HERE". Ok, so the shovel works some place. I am just glad it didn't say "NOTHING HAPPENS" or I would have probably quit.

But, digging around, I find a stone slab and a black key and a box of emeralds. But the key doesn't open a door I need it to open and I am stuck. Had I stuck to my guns, I would have played for days on end and tried hundreds of combination. Eventually going back and theoretically REdigging everywhere. In which case I would have found it. The spot with the BOX OF EMERALDS also has an IRON KEY once you dig a second time.

Frankly, outside of that, this game is a gem for the series. Minus a PRAY and FIX, there is very little "guess the verb" going on. EXAM and SEARCH do the same thing all the time. Where to drop the treasures makes sense. The storyline is absolutely, positively vacant. There is a Roman Emperor, a Stone-Age Hut, a Mechanical Dragon, and a Mineshaft all tossed together into the same game world. I suppose it is supposed to be a game that is about you being inside of a game? I have no clue. But the playability is generally very high. Up until that one crashing moment.

Which has decided one central, important fact for me: I plan to regularly use cheats to finish the series. I will give it the old "TRY" first, mind you. I won't start out cheating, but I will not blink when I do cheat. Years ago, very close to three decades, I know people hashed out what to do. But when you read the stories you get "spent many a weekend trying to open said door" and I realize that I do not quite have that patience for a game that ends with "THE GAME IS OVER".

This as the last one were good enough to keep me going, but I'll be damned if I take them too serious from this point on.

Review written April 2, 2008

Written by W Doug Bolden

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