Some of you would know that I created another blog prior to RetroSmack called The Adventure Gamer (it’s still going strong in my absence for those that haven’t checked it out). One of the things that irked me throughout the three years I spent playing and blogging through classic graphic adventure games was that I skipped the interactive fiction games that kicked off the genre. The lack of visually appealing screenshots that would have resulted from their inclusion, along with the massive environments that would need to be described in detail, simply wouldn’t have been conducive to the walkthrough approach I used on that blog. When coming up with the RetroSmack concept, I was delighted to realise that I would finally be able to explore these games, including the major Infocom games that are held in such high regard. My joy turned to disappointment when I discovered that the true granddaddy of adventure games, Adventure (aka ADVENT or Colossal Cave Adventure), was created in 1976, therefore missing my launching date by a single year. Thankfully, I was able to find a legitimate (hey, it’s my blog) reason to add it to 1977. You’ll find out what that reason was soon enough…
Will Crowther: A caving enthusiast and a significant man in the history of gaming.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Adventure was designed by Will Crowther, a programmer at a company called Bolt, Beranek & Newman (the company that developed the ARPANET, which was a forerunner to the Internet and the first network to implement the protocol suite TCP/IP). Crowther was a caving enthusiast, and created a vector map based on surveys of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky in the early seventies. Around 1975, he decided to create a game that he could play with his two young children following a divorce. Basing it loosely on the same cave system he’d already mapped out seemed natural. Aside from caving, Crowther’s other major interest at the time had been the Dungeons & Dragons RPG, so he included a handful of fantasy elements in what might otherwise have been considered a caving simulator. It took only a few weekends for Crowther to make the entirely text based game, developing a primitive parser that would recognise simple two word commands in the process. It was programmed in the Fortran language for the PDP-10 mainframe computer, and while it was always intended that it would be called Adventure, the programming language only allowed for a six character filename. The game was therefore known by many as ADVENT once it was uploaded to ARPANET in early 1977. It quickly caught the attention of a Stanford University student named Don Woods.
Don Woods: Thought he could make Crowther’s game better.
Image Credit: Datab.us
Woods was extremely impressed with the game Crowther had whipped together, but could see potential for something even better. He got in touch with Crowther, and with his blessing, expanded and improved Adventure in numerous ways. Not only did he increase the amount of rooms in the underground cave system, the fantasy elements were also ramped up (he added numerous Tolkien-inspired creatures, and magic words could be used to travel around the map) and more items were spread around the place. Perhaps most importantly though, Woods added a scoring system so the player had a sense of how much of the game they’d solved (the game had 350 maximum points). This would obviously influence Infocom and Sierra, the latter of which would use the same system for their classic graphic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. In fact, Roberta and Ken Williams started Sierra as a direct response to Adventure, believing they could do a similar thing but with graphics. Woods’ version of Adventure spread like wildfire when it was released in 1977, and for many years was considered the original version of the game. Since it was the Woods350 version of Adventure that became hugely popular, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t play it as part of my 1977 RetroSmack schedule.
One has to wonder whether any of Sierra’s classics would have been made if it weren’t for Crowther and Woods.
Image Credit: Kenneth via Vintage Sierra
Before I comment on my experience with Adventure, I should point out that I’m not completely inexperienced with interactive fiction. Before I started The Adventure Gamer, I played through the original Zork. I’ll get a chance to play that again soon enough, so won’t go into detail here, but I will say that I learnt two lessons that were invaluable for Adventure. Firstly, mapping out the entire environment is the key to success, and secondly, that if the game dumps you “in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”, dropping items is the only technique that will get you through it (apart from blind luck of course). With this knowledge, I searched the net for a copy of Woods’ Adventure. Well, I tried to! It turned out there are more versions of the game than a grue could eat in a week, all with various differences. I soon learnt that a guy called Bob Supnik played a critical role in the rapid expansion of text adventures. All his mates at Digital Equipment Corporation were obsessed with Adventure, but he didn’t want to have to play it on a mainframe. It was Supnik that put the effort in to port the game so that it would work on home computers. The version of Adventure that I chose to play (in DOSBox) was the result of Bob Supnik’s work, but which had been further ported to DOS by Kevin Black.
I’m sure the version I played is a little different to the one released in 1977, but it was close enough.
“Somewhere nearby is colossal cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold, though it is rumoured that some who enter are never seen again. Magic is said to work in the cave. I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with commands of 1 or 2 words.” So begins Adventure, and seriously, the importance of this game can’t be understated. It’s absolutely shocking to me that it didn’t appear in the 1001 Video Games You Should Play Before You Die book (which is for the most part a pretty damn awesome read). It was miles ahead of anything made prior when it came to making the player use their brain, and was absorbing to the point where otherwise responsible adults would fight for use of company mainframes during work hours, hoping to learn its secrets. I was sucked in immediately, and even ignoring the obstacles and items that are strewn around the cave system, got immense enjoyment out of simply mapping the environment. Every new room that I discovered opened up opportunities to map out more, uncovering more and more puzzles that needed solving and items with which to solve them. I reckon I spent six or seven solid sessions trying every possible direction in every room to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and only once the entire thing was mapped out did I take stock of everything I knew and started trying to make real progress. The experience was captivating and oddly therapeutic, particularly after long, stressful days at work.
Ah, the magic word XYZZY. Now where have I heard that before?
A portion of my map, made in Trizbort.
After the initial mapping was complete, I set about solving the remaining puzzles. The harsh time and inventory limits meant I had to restart numerous times, but each time I was able to get through everything I’d already covered a bit quicker than before. I was determined to finish Adventure without referring to a walkthrough; something I was very strict about when playing games for The Adventure Gamer. Yet getting through The Secret of Monkey Island without cheating is one thing. This was something else altogether! Some of the puzzles were pretty straight forward. The bird scares the snake away. Pouring water on the plant makes it grow. The oil loosens up the rusty door hinges. Others were more difficult, but still solvable. Use the pillow to drop the vase without breaking it. Give the golden eggs to the troll to cross the bridge then say the magic phrase to return them to the nest. But eventually I got to a point where there were still a handful of puzzles left to solve, with no obvious way to go about it. I knew how to free the grizzly bear, but had no idea what I was supposed to do with it once it was following me around. I had a couple of unused objects in my inventory (rare spices and the spelunking magazine), but neither of them seemed likely to defeat a green dragon. I spent ages trying to find something that I might have missed earlier on, even discovering the lamp battery vending machine in the “maze of twisty passages, all different” in the process. Eventually, I had to admit defeat.
Even when I knew how to finish the game, getting all the treasures back to the building without running out of time was immensely challenging.
The vending machine maze was the only part of Adventure that was too complex to map.
I turned to a walkthrough after over a week of playing Adventure, feeling pretty disappointed. I soon felt much better about myself. Has anyone ever actually finished this game without cheating?! I wouldn’t normally spoil a game for others that might want to play it, but I honestly can’t see how anyone could get through without assistance. Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens. OK, still with me? I’d tried everything with the bear, but I certainly never tried throwing him at the troll! Why would I throw a bear? As for the dragon, well I’d tried using the axe, the trident, and the spices. In fact, I probably tried every single item you can pick up in the game. Even if I’d put another month into it, I still wouldn’t have tried simply typing “kill dragon” (apparently my character would have used his bare hands to do it if I had). That goes against the logic of the rest of the game. Finding the way to finish the game is even more obtuse, but I don’t want to finish this post in a negative way. The fact is that Adventure was for the most part a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfyingly challenging text adventure game. It deserves a heck of a lot of respect for not only inspiring a genre, but also taking gaming away from pure reflexes and into the realm of imagination and brain busting challenges. I’m already looking forward to Zork and beyond.
Figuring out how to use the magic words to teleport between the building (where you need to store the treasures you find) and the cave was critical to success.
Come on…tell me you solved it without assistance!
The Adventure (1977) RetroCard has now been added to the RetroCard Shop. It’s an uncommon card, so therefore costs 30 smacks and has a limited release of 60.