29 October 2009 ~ 2 Comments

Niche Game: The Lost Treasures of Infocom

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing because they’re something different, something special.

LostTreasuresYou are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.If that sounds familiar, then you probably already know about the games in this article. For those of you who don’t know, that first paragraph was the opening to Zork, a text-based adventure game released in 1980. After this opening line you are given a prompt to choose what to do next. You type each command on the prompt and then the description of what happens is shown on the screen. After this opening line you could type “open mailbox”, at which point you will see there is a leaflet inside the mailbox. Or you could say “look at mailbox”, “look at house”, or “go west”. And so on.I remember my brother playing Zork in our basement back when I was in grade school. That was before I had access to too many games, and I remember one time he asked me for ideas as we were walking along the sidewalk in front of the townhouse we lived in. I told him everything idea I could think of. I don’t think any of them worked, but I still thought it was really cool he asked.

I came across this package by accident. My aunt and uncle, who lived near my home at the time were given a computer with the game and they passed the game on to me. I played the games for many long hours, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t complete a single one of them. Games in those days were HARD! And unforgiving. If you miss one detail, then you can’t finish the game, as simple as that. But if you have the patience and the determination it’s well worth it.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom is a package of 20 Infocom games that was released in 1991. The collection was released by Activision, who had closed Infocom, then their child company, back in 1989. The games included are Zork 1, Zork 2, Zork 3, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, Enchanter, Sorcerer, Spellbreaker, Deadline, The Witness, Suspect, The Lurking Horror, Ballyhoo, Infidel, Moonmist, Starcross, Suspended, Planetfall, Stationfall, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Now, these games are challenging like nothing today. Many gamers who grew up on 3-D games will scoff at this idea, but you have no idea. Games now are quite forgiving. If you’re alive at some point in the game, then you certainly can defeat the rest of the game, given enough skill. This is not always the case with these older games. If you didn’t pick up the screwdriver under the couch in the lounge in the opening room of the game, you may not be able to complete it, and by the time you need to use it you can’t go back to the couch room, that sort of thing. Also, some of these puzzles are HARD, unbelievably hard. Most modern games I can complete given a solid block of time to crank away at them, but these ones are so hard I never finished any of them all the way through, though I did make it a little ways. Do not expect to pick them up and beat them right away just because they’re old.

Zork is light on story, but is fun anyway. You’re a treasure hunter, who ventures into the ruins of the underground kingdom of Zork. You collect treasures and put them in the trophy case back in the house. There’s no explanation to who you are or where you came from, whose house that is, or really anything else. But as long as you’re okay with that, you can enjoy the treasure hunt. Remember to always keep a light source, or you’ll be eaten by a grue–game over!

The other Zork games continue in the same treasure hunting line with new settings. Zork Zero is a new tack because it takes place while the underground kingdom of Zork is still thriving. It’s my favorite among the ones in this package because you finally get to see what the place looked like when it was still occupied.

Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker are 3 games in a series. Enchanter was the first game written by Infocom after the Zork trilogy. Krill, a powerful warlock, is spreading wreaking havoc on the world. The Circle of Enchanters is afraid to defy him, but they send a novice Enchanter with only a few spells to confront him, hoping that Krill will ignore such an obvious weakling long enough. It’s a fun challenge. You can learn new spells on the way, and even the ones you know aren’t always at your disposal. You must “memorize” each spell before you can use it again, and when you cast it the memory scrambles in your brain. It’s a good way to impose a “cost” to the spellcasting so it’s not just a magic bullet.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on the Douglas Adams book of the same name. It starts in the same place, with Arthur waking up in his house which is scheduled to be demolished in mere minutes. From there to his escape with Ford Prefect and onto the Heart of Gold ship. Readers of the books will appreciate the humor and the situations, but the puzzles are the game’s alone. Having read the book will not give you the solution to many of the puzzles. For instance, in the book, Ford Prefect sticks a Babelfish in Arthur’s ear to translate for him. In the game, getting the Babelfish is a long and multistep and very non-intuitive process which could easily discourage a player who wasn’t very determined from playing the rest of the game. You can keep going in the game without it, but you’ll have no chance of completing the game if you can’t understand alien speech.

Deadline, The Witness, and Suspect are detective games. In deadline you’re a detective investigating the supposed suicide of a wealthy industrialist. You have 12 hours to find evidence of foul play and make an arrest. The suspects are wandering around the estate, the widow, the son, the gardener, eand others, all following their own agendas. On top of the usual text adventure commands, there are detective specific commands like “accuse” and “arrest” and “fingerprint.” The Witness and Suspect have similar setups with a possible crime to be investigated, a list of suspects, and the opportunity to search and question.

Deadline was also the first game to include “feelies.” When making the game, the 80k limit was just too small to include all the material they wanted to include. So they included extra physical documents, official memos, lab reports, and more with the game’s packaging. They were a huge hit with fans, making the game feel more real. In addition they acted as a form of copy protection because they contained important information and were harder to copy than mere computer files. Many subsequent games include “feelies”.

Ballyhoo and Moonmist are also detective games. Ballyhoo revolves around a kidnapping investigation at a circus, and Moonmist is based on investigating mysteries at an English castle.

This collection contains a game which has one of the most unique game premises I’ve ever seen, one that could never translate well into a visual format. It’s called Suspended. The player character has been wired into the mainframe of a facility that controls public systems such as transportation and weather control for an Earth-settled planet. Normally the player would be kept in cryo-stasis for their entire stay. As the game opens, hoewever, he is awakened by error messages. An earthquake has damaged systems, and parts of the system are shutting down. For the duration of the game your physical body never leaves its stasis pod, and your only interaction with the outside world is with a handful of robot avatars. You can switch to each one on will and each has its own specialty. Iris is the only one who can see, but has suffered a burnt out chip and can’t see at the beginning of the game. Whiz interfaces the central library. Waldo perceives the world with sonar and is the most adept at manipulating objects. Auda senses sounds and vibrations. Poet can sense the flow of electricity and is very difficult to understand because of his cryptic manner of speaking. Sensa is specialized for the detection of magnetic and photon emissions. In addition to this disjointed sensory system that is geographically separated, there is a very harsh time limit. I didn’t get very far in this game, because every time I’d really gotten to the point of exploring, these strange men would storm into the control center, disconnect me from the system and replacing me with a clone at which point that is a game over. It’s been a long time since I gave this one a try. I’m curious to see if I could make it further now. I’m guessing to complete this one you will have to do many many saves and restores. It might be aggravating, but the satisfaction for completing this one will be very high, and the unique premise is just such a cool idea I can’t recommend it highly enough just to try the weird gameplay experience.

The Lurking Horror is a Lovecraftian horror story, Infocom’s only horror game. The point of view character is a student trying to finish a term paper, who has gone back to campus despite a blizzard to work on the report in the computer lab. But to his dismay he finds his file is overwritten by a hacker. He has to make his way around the snowbound campus to try to recover the paper, and finds out that something much more sinister is going on.

Infidel begins as an archaeologist searching for Egyptian treasure is drugged by the men he brought with him, who have stolen most of his equipment, taken the food and water, and left him to di. He has no idea how to find his way back to civilzation. Soon the navigation box arrives that he has been awaiting, sort of like a primitive GPS, and perhaps he can at least find his way to the treasurer.

Starcross involves the exploration of an empty spacecraft of unknown origin and composition, always a good premise. Planetfall is another space exploration game: the character escapes an explosion in an escape pod and crash lands on a planet which he then explores.
If you want to find this whole package, boxed up and everything, it will be a challenge. It came out back in 1991. My guess is that most people who have them now are lovers of text games and would be loathe to give them up. A quick search on eBay comes up with only one hit, $128 “Buy It Now” price, and that one’s for Mac. However, if you want to play these games, you can find them for free download with a quick Google search. I found a few of them on Abandonia.com, my favorite site for abandonware computer games. I’ve had good luck with them. Keep the source in mind, of course, and give it a quick virus scan.

While searching for more information about this games, I came across The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, released a year after this one. I haven’t played it, but I’m confident that it’s full of text-based gaming goodness just like this one is. Either way, if you’re up for a challenge, and don’t mind lack of graphics if the game is good enough to justify it, you should track down some of these Infocom games. Enjoy!

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