Colossal Cave in the Hall of Fame

May 13th, 2019 9:58 AM
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For the fifth year, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, inducted new games into its Video Game Hall of Fame, part of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. Among this year's inductees were Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Kart, and Microsoft Windows Solitaire, recognized for their "icon-status, longevity, geographic reach, and influence".

Most years, I experience faux indignation when the museum snubs the Apple II by not including one of its original titles. But this year, even I can't feign umbrage when considering one of the inductees was Colossal Cave.

Colossal Cave, the invention of Will Crowther and Don Woods, was the first text adventure game, one that was eventually ported to the Apple II, which was invented just a year later. Its induction to the Hall of Fave is a timely one, and not only because of the recent release of source code for Infocom games, all of which were inspired by Colossal Cave.

This past December, in my quest to visit all fifty of the United States, I crossed off Kentucky when I visited Mammoth Cave, off which Colossal Cave was based. Although I didn't see any of the landmarks or rooms directly referenced in the game, nor was the game mentioned as part of the guided tour, I enjoyed an additional layer of meaning that was hidden from the other tourists.

I'd say more, except I wrote about my trip to Mammoth Cave in the spring 2019 issue of Juiced.GS, and there's more about the cave's history right here on this blog from nine years ago this month. Jason Scott's 90-minute interview with Don Woods is also available on YouTube:

For once, even my grumpy persona gives a nod of approval to the Strong's selection. Colossal Cave and Mammoth Cave are landmarks of a different sort, and it's wonderful to see both being recognized.

(Hat tip to Dean Takahashi)

An adventure in Rocky's Boots

April 22nd, 2019 1:04 PM
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My reputation as any workplace's resident (and only) Apple II expert began at my first salaried job as a high-school teacher. I'd often annoy the computer-science teacher, Ms. Lang, by extolling the virtues of BASIC as a programming language (she preferred Scheme); and when I had to substitute for her for a day, I taught her students how to use VisiCalc, as detailed in a Juiced.GS article.

One day, that same teacher came to me for help. She'd recently come back from a conference with a copy of an old Apple II program used to teach programming logic using circuits and gates — could I boot it in my emulator so she could assess its usefulness to her class? I'd never heard the game, but as soon as it started, I gasped. "This is the work of Warren Robinett!"

In Rocky's Boots, players control a simple square as it navigates single-screen rooms, picking up items by colliding with them and transporting them through exits. Sword-like arrows guide the player from room to room.

It was the exact same design and interface as a game I'd grown up with: Adventure on the Atari 2600. Using a joystick and a single button, I'd guided that square on expeditions to distant castles, raiding their treasure while dodging and defeating terrifying, duck-like dragons, all while hoping not to be abducted by a random bat. Adventure's place was cemented not just in my memory but also in history for featuring the first-ever Easter egg: a hidden room with the developer's name, Warren Robinett.

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room.

It was thanks to that Easter egg that I knew who must be responsible for Rocky's Boots. It's rare for a developer to have such an identifiable style, but when I saw Rocky's Boots, I knew it had to be, if not the same developer, then at least the same engine. I'd never researched Robinett's portfolio beyond that historical Atari 2600 game; until that moment in my high school office, I didn't realize Robinett had adapted his work to any other platform. But in a video demoing the 1982 eudcational title, Robinett describes it: "It uses some of the same ideas from the Adventure game for Atari: A network of interlinked screens, objects that you could pick up…"

I haven't played Rocky's Boots since that day in 2005, but it recently become easier to explore this educational curiosity, thanks to the work of 4am:

My thanks to 4am for preserving this classic, to Robinett for developing it, and to Karen Lang for introducing me to it. Now go try it yourself and enjoy this adventure on the Apple II!

Real-life King's Quest

July 15th, 2013 12:34 PM
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In researching last week's blog post about the history of Sierra On-Line, I came across some underwhelming reviews of the new Leisure Suit Larry for hewing too closely to the original. Apparently, critics are not enjoying reliving what passed for puzzles in 1987.

Uh-oh! That's not good. Early adventure games could be devilishly obtuse and unforgiving, as Joe Keiser of Gameological recently demonstrated. As an example of a game that isn't fair, he chose King's Quest V:

Early in the game, a custard pie can be purchased. King’s Quest V then spends hours imploring you to eat it. It looks delicious, the game says. It is the best pie you have ever tasted, the game says. There is even a puzzle where you are starving, and eating the pie will solve it. And yet once you’ve eaten the pie, you have already lost. Oh, you can continue playing, but eventually you will reach a mountain, and there will be a yeti there, and it will kill you because you do not have a pie to throw at it. Now you have to start the game over, because you did what the game asked instead of saving a pie to throw at a yeti. No one could blame you if you’ve spent the last 23 years mad about this.

This particular installment in the King's Quest franchise was never released for the Apple II, yet it's the only King's Quest I've ever played, courtesy the Nintendo version. I can therefore empathize with Keiser's frustration — but I can also laugh at it, courtesy this brilliant real-life send-up:

Whatever our memories, adventure games are making a comeback, courtesy the combination of tablet gaming and Kickstarter funding. Let's hope as good as we remember and better than they actually were!

(Hat tip to Emily Kahm)

Do funny games need a kickstart?

April 26th, 2012 10:39 AM
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Earlier this month, Al Lowe launched a Kickstarter to remake the original Leisure Suit Larry game. The project has since met its goal of $500,000 and still has until Wednesday, May 2, to generate further funding.

Double Fine's Kickstarter success opened the floodgates to a reemergence of the adventure genre, but in a guest blog post for Wired.com, Lowe talks about why this is important: games have lost their funny bone, and adventure games can bring it back.

Lowe attributes the decline of the genre to improved accessibility to personal computers:

Adventure games were perfect for 1980s’ computer users. Back then, if you weren’t a puzzle solver, you didn’t own a computer. Remember config.sys files, autoexec.bat files, setting interrupts, managing extended memory? No? Consider yourself lucky! It’s a wonder anyone got anything done at all.

I remember discussing with Ken Williams (founder of Sierra, the leading publisher of such games) about how great it would be when 10 percent of homes had a computer powerful enough to play our games. But when the majority finally had computers, they ran Windows. They didn’t have to solve operating system puzzles, or couldn’t. And they didn’t want to solve game puzzles either.

Sadly, this was widely interpreted that new gamers preferred action and 3-D environments instead of contemplation and humor. Within a year, most major adventure-game development was shut down. And with it went humor.

I remember the games Lowe references fondly, though perhaps because the years have removed me from the frustration they inspired. Although King's Quest and its kin were often infuriatingly inscrutable in their puzzles and riddles, they often had a quirky and consistent internal logic that tickled your imagination, giving you a knowing wink and a sense of accomplishment when you stumbled across the solution. It's a kind of challenge that's often missing in today's games — or am I just playing the wrong ones? The Xbox 360's DeathSpank, created by Ron Gilbert of Double Fine, had some clever dialogue, though I didn't play it far enough to find if that sense extended to the gameplay.

And I spent about two hours this week in the practice arena of Scribblenauts Remix for iOS, interested less in completing levels than in testing the limits of the player's capabilities and seeing what unusual creations and interactions the game's designers anticipated.

What do you think — is Lowe right? Have the humor and discovery of early computer games disappeared and are now ready for a comeback? Or have they been here all along, just in an unrecognizably evolved form?

UPDATE (11-May-12): I belatedly found Phil Elliott's interview with Al Lowe in my "to read" pile. In this article from April 2011, Lowe talks about how the humor in games has been replaced by replayability, and that he has no desire or intention to exit retirement. Ah, hindsight!

(Hat tip to Robert Boyd)

Leisure Suit Larry returns

April 5th, 2012 1:28 PM
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Hot on the heels of Juiced.GS's March cover story on Kickstarter, Apple II franchises are crawling out of the woodwork to seek crowdfunded revivals. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert will be delivering a Maniac Mansion-style adventure game in October 2012, while exactly a year later, Brian Fargo will publish a sequel to the role-playing game Wasteland. What's next?

It's a return to the land of the lounge lizards with Leisure Suit Larry, the sexy, seedy adventure games featuring pickup artist Larry Laffer and his quest to become better acquainted with the opposite gender. The series was a contemporary of adventure games Space Quest, King's Quest, and Police Quest and featured the point-and-click interface endemic of Sierra Online titles.

Franchise creator Al Lowe is asking for a cool half-mil to apply a graphical overhaul to the original 1987 game, add voice acting, and port it to "XBLA, PSN, Android, iPads, iPhones, Windows Phones, Kindle, Linux and of course, Mac!"

The best part of Lowe's pitch is the video that prominently features an Apple II, both in the opening shot and around three minutes in:

In addition to the aforementioned features, I'm hopeful that, like the recent special edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, we'll be able to switch between the original and updated graphics on the fly. We'll find out upon the remake's release this October.

(Retrogamers may also be interested in backing an original Shadowrun game)

(Hat tip to Kevin Savetz; consultation by Steve Weyhrich)

Spelunking the history of Adventure

May 26th, 2011 10:25 AM
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Get Lamp, Jason Scott's documentary on the history of text adventures is interactive fiction, is comprehensive, spanning two DVDs and multiple episodes.

But it doesn't cover everything, nor should it: any published work has to retain its focus or else spiral out of control, losing everyone's interest along the way. Fortunately, as with everything else in life, for that which we want to know more about, there's the Internet.

Most impressive is Julian Dibbell's 5,000+ words dissertation on the life and times of Stephen Bishop, a slave in pre-Civil War Kentucky. That doesn't sound like a text adventure tale, but it is in fact the origin of Colossal Cave. Bishop was assigned the role of tour guide of Mammoth Cave, the cavern that served as the basis for the original text adventure. Bishop wasn't merely a spelunker, though, but an imaginative and empathetic storyteller who brought the cave to life with the creative names and yarns he spun for his tourists. Consider this example:

Bishop made the most of this ability to size people up, making sure all comers got the spectacle they felt they'd paid for. Most were easily satisfied; others came hungry to explore uncharted cave. Bishop catered to them all, at times bringing the more adventurous along with him on his discoveries — at others, apparently, letting them think they were discovering territory he had in fact already surveyed. As expert as he was in exploring, in other words, he was expert, too, in delivering what was then a novel sort of product but is now known familiarly (to students of latemodern marketing culture, anyway) as the commodified experience.

A map of the entire Colossal Cave, courtesy Mari Michaelis.Those qualities could be just as easily ascribed to Will Crowther, who, almost 150 years later, also brought people to Colossal Cave, except in digital form. Having previously been married to the woman with whom he'd explored Mammoth Cave, the place naturally held memories that made it difficult to revisit after the divorce. With his introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, Crowther thought he might meld his two pastimes into a new game he could play with his children. Thus was born Colossal Cave.

Dibbell's work is a brilliant and sweeping narrative, reminding us of the recurring themes of exploration and imagination throughout humanity's history, how unrelated threads can weave together, and how much older are stories are than we often realize. It's well worth the time of any gamer or historian — or just anyone who can appreciate an engrossing story.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)