Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Adventure of the Week: It's About Time (1983)

This week, we're continuing with another of SoftSide Magazine's monthly adventure games, with It's About Time, published in 1983.  I've been trying to piece together the sequence of these games, which is complicated by the magazine's shift of numbering scheme partway through its life.  But this one gives us a clue -- written by the prolific Peter Kirsch, it's numbered #22 on the first line of the BASIC code, so I will tentatively conclude that The Wizard's Sword probably was #21 as I speculated last time.  We're playing the TRS-80 version here, but it appears SoftSide cross-published for the Apple ][, Atari 400/800 and IBM PC as well during this period.

The SoftSide games used similar engines, with simple two-word parsers and small dictionaries, but they were varied and often tackled unusual themes.  This one doesn't give the player a lot of information up front, just a scenario wherein we will find a time machine.

I usually encourage interested readers to sample these games firsthand before reading my notes, but in this case I'll warn you that the TRS-80 version I found in the online archives has a couple of game-breaking typos which close off critical exits unless they are repaired.  I'm not sure how this happened, as I'm playing from a SoftSide magazine disk image, not a typed-in version, but if you find the same version I did, you'll need to fix these two lines:

  • 18 PRINTJ$:W=10:E=9:NW=7:GOTO320
  • 34 PRINT"IN A CLEARING":NW=22:NE=25:SW=23:SE=28:GOTO320
Whether or not you choose to play on your own, be warned that these posts are meant to capture my experience in detail.  So there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin in an unnamed city, in front of our own house, with a green door mat on the front steps.  It's not at all surprising that we can GET MAT and find a KEY.  We can't EXAMINE KEY, as the parser doesn't recognize the verb, and even LOOK KEY reveals nothing special.

We can't explicitly UNLOCK anything, but we can GO HOUSE -- KEY UNLOCKS YOUR DOOR -- and find ourselves in rather sparse surroundings, with just a BOTTLE OF WINE visible indoors.  We can't GET BOTTLE (THERE'S NO BOTTLE HERE) but we can GET WINE, and we can't LOCK DOOR after we leave to protect our now non-existent belongings.

(Ed.: Note that the bugs I mention above were unknown to me when I started playing, so I'm going to keep my original narrative here as I run into and finally resolve the related issues.  I just posted them up top to save others the headache.)

We can explore east and northwest from the house.  East takes us further into the city, though there's nothing of note here until we go northeast into a clearing.  The parser behaves a little oddly here, displaying a message reading "NE WHAT?" after we enter.  This is either a bug, repeating our previous command after we enter the room, or a puzzle of some kind.  At any rate, there's nothing we can do here except go NE to loop back to this location or travel W back into the city.

So let's head northwest from our house, where we find an area dominated by a tall mountain with exits to the west and northeast, and a small cave.  There's nothing of note in the cave at this point.  NE takes us back into the city, and we can loop back to the clearing from the north side of town (where we get a SE WHAT? message, suggesting this is indeed a minor bug -- except this is also oddly symmetrical, returning us to the north side of town when we blindly wander west again, so it may prove to be a puzzle.)

West of the mountain we find a clearing with a Time Machine.  Before we hop in and embark upon what is likely the heart of this adventure, we'll go southwest into a forest and see if there are any other useful objects we might want to take along.

The forest is structured with diagonal exits, and while it's not really a maze -- the geography is internally consistent -- that same navigation bug turns up here.  We can end up getting a W WHAT? message, followed by YOU CAN'T MOVE THAT WAY messages until we stumble across a valid navigation direction.  I ended up coming back to the time machine with nothing new in hand.

So let's GO MACHINE!  We find ourselves in front of a big glass window and a lever -- we must PULL LEVER to go into the past, and PUSH LEVER for the future.  I'll fight my natural inclination to nostalgia and PUSH LEVER, zooming us forward to...

3031 A.D.!  I must give Mr. Kirsch credit for setting up his future scenario for the long term; many 1980s games send us to the "futuristic" early 2000s, so this is refreshing.  (We do have to pay attention to the initial reading on the time machine's meter as we go -- after we've arrived and are told it reads 2031 A.D., LOOK METER returns TRY: READ, but READ METER only yields YOU SEE NOTHING SPECIAL.)

We can't GET OUT of the time machine, but we can GO OUT to find ourselves in what appears to be the same clearing we were in before.  Apparently a millennium of development in the nearby city has managed to spare this area.  There's still nothing in the small cave, though our hometown has now become a DOMED CITY (though we seem to have no problem passing through the dome to pay it a visit.)

The city remains featureless otherwise, and our old domicile is long gone.  Though I do realize I've missed visiting a path up the tall mountain, so we'll GO PATH and see what we find up there.  We follow the winding path through several locations to reach the edge of a cliff, where we see a tree stump.  Hmmmm.

I'll check out the forest area again, and now there's a park here.  I wander around and find a newspaper, with a headline reading: "HENRY BOWMAN THREATENS WORLD WITH B BOMB."  Save us, Mario!  Oh, whoops, different universe.  This must be the logical successor to the A-Bomb.  Is this something we're supposed to interfere with, somehow?

Well, let's go back to our original present, if the time machine works that way -- yes, PULL LEVER brings us back to 1983.  The mountain path still features a lone tree stump at the end, so there's nothing notably different here.

Let's check out the limitations of the time machine -- an initial PULL LEVER takes us to the 1700S, then another one to EARLY AMERICA, and again to 200 B.C., then THE STONE AGE, and a PREHISTORIC ERA, and finally THE CREATION OF THE EARTH, which of course proves fatal as we observe molten materials coalescing.  The future takes us a very small increment past 3031 A.D. to 3032 A.D., where we see the city in ruins and a newspaper's final edition lying on the ground; how this was published and distributed remains a conundrum, as the headline reads, "HENRY BOWMAN CREATES B BOMB AND DESTROYS WORLD."  Dang that rascally Henry Bowman!

A further PUSH LEVER takes us to the end of the Earth, again fatal if not physically coherent as HUGE SUNS SWOOP IN UPON THE EARTH AND BLOW IT TO BITS.  So we have 8 non-fatal time periods to explore, and it seems like we ought to stop this Bowman character to ensure the Earth a few more years of trouble-free service.

We can go about our time travels a little more systematically now, so let's go back to the prehistoric era -- I'm guessing it doesn't make a lot of sense to work our way backwards, as future events seem unlikely to influence the past.  The forest was once a jungle, it seems, but just as featureless; the cave is empty way back when, and my trip up the mountain path is cut short by a sabre tooth tiger attack!  Let's try that again... a large jungle area occupies the space where a city will later rise, and I find nothing useful here either.

So let's go to the stone age and see if we can find a club or something.  The cave features a small, bird-sized hole in the wall at this point in its history -- and LOOK HOLE reveals an arrowhead.  YOU CAN'T REACH IT WITH YOUR HAND, though, so we'll need a tool or assistance of some kind.  The mountain path is still occupied by sabre tooth tigers, and I'm dead again.

What about 200 B.C.?  No tigers lurk now, but the mountain path leads to a tree stump again.  That stump somehow remained rot-proof for thousands of years!  I find nothing else here; these early times are remarkably barren.

Early America is dominated by forest, rather than jungle, and we encounter a MAD TURKEY in the woods, which bites our fingers if we try to GET TURKEY.  Nothing else suggests itself in the area.

We're off to the 1700s, then... where we spot a MAD PIG on the mountain path.  We can't carry it, and it won't let us pass.  Hey!  In the rural area where the city will someday be, we encounter BEN FRANKLIN, looking dejected with a small kite in hand.  Can we GIVE KEY to aid him in his quest to study electricity?  He now has a kite and a key, but he still looks discouraged and doesn't seem to get the idea of a combination here.  We can't ATTACH KEY, or TIE KEY, or GET KEY back.  We can't FLY KITE or SHOW BEN, or anything along those lines, but maybe if we leave him to his own devices over time we'll have helped out a bit.

Can we explore the post-acopalyptic world of 3032 A.D.?  Nope, radiation poisoning sets in immediately if we set foot outside the machine.

So we have some puzzles, but their outcomes don't seem to interlock in any obvious way.  The pig doesn't want the wine, nor does Ben Franklin, nor the turkey.  Can we use the turkey to retrieve the arrowhead from the bird-sized hole?  We would need to acquire the turkey to try that.  Nothing quite seems to fit, and I think we've explored everything.

So I'll cheat and peek at the BASIC code -- and on line 37, I see a reference to some pilgrims sitting at a large table.  I have not seen any such pilgrims, though I can guess which era I should look in.  This text appears to correspond to location 27, which references T$(T), a list of era-specific paths or roads that I haven't seen either.  It appears this is all connected to the clearing on the map, via a northeast exit that I have so far not discovered.  And I notice that code line 34 has what appears to be a typo or bit of BASIC interpreter corruption -- the fragment "SW=PRINT3" certainly does not look right to me!  So there have been some exits made inaccessible by those "WHAT?" messages -- let's try to fix that by replacing line 34 with:


I'll have to start from scratch after the code change, but let's see if this "cheat" is actually a fix.  It looks good so far -- we no longer see the "NE WHAT?" error, and there are now visible exits out of the clearing in all four diagonal directions!  This is much, much better -- the 1983 city now contains a JEWELRY STORE, with a sign reading "WE BUY."  An endless street leads east, so the map will probably remain rather sparse, but we should be able to find some locations and items we simply couldn't reach earlier.

The prehistoric era contains a swamp; the stone age is also swampy, but we encounter a CAVEMAN PEDDLER who, we are informed, might have something to trade and has a mole on his left ear?  In 200 B.C., we encounter an INDIAN TRADER who says, in the grand old adventure tradition, something in his supposedly native tongue, which is just backwards text that translates to "GIVE ME ARROW HEAD, OR I'LL KILL YOU."  I don't have the arrowhead yet, so I'll just avoid offering him anything that might give offense.  Early America continues the commercial tradition with a PILGRIM BARTERER standing in this same spot.  He doesn't want the doormat, though, and I seem to have misplaced the wine.  And here are those PILGRIMS we saw in the code, waiting to have a feast but looking bewildered.  I'm guessing a little turkey would help.

The 1700s bring us a SQUINTING PEASANT MERCHANT -- maybe he can't see too well so we can take advantage of him -- and 3031 A.D. features an AUTOTRON SHOPPING MART.  Ah!  Here we could buy a knife, a rope, an axe and a mirror -- if we had any cash, that is.  We'd better find something valuable to sell to the jeweler in 1983.

Since I apparently lost the wine at some point, I'll just restart and see if any of these merchants want it.  The caveman peddler won't even indicate he doesn't want it, it just gets left on the ground; TRADE, GIVE and DROP are apparently synonyms in the parser's dictionary. and while some merchants explicitly reject unwanted trades, this guy just ignores the offering.

I'm still seeing "WHAT?" errors in the western jungle/forest area, and I discover another typo in line 18 -- NW=' should probably be NW=7.  I'll fix that too.  One more restart and I hope we're in a bug-free zone now.

We can now reach a desert circa 1983, though it's just a single location that loops back on itself until we exit E back to the forest.  The desert is SCORCHING in the prehistoric era and the stone age, reduced to VERY HOT later on.

I'll take some time to re-explore a little more thoroughly now that we've fixed the navigation bugs.  I discover a taxi stand in the domed city of 3031, and the fare costs 35 cents, tip-free.  There's also a liquor store, where the robot clerk says, "I'LL TRADE YOU SOMETHING FOR A GOOD BOTTLE OF WINE."  Aha!  I think I have this one nailed, but he says our 1983 bottle is not aged enough!

Okay, this is a puzzle we might be able to solve.  I'll try leaving the bottle in the desert for a while.  Nope -- when I go to pick it up in 3031, our bottle has been scavenged.  Drat.  But this feels right, so I'll look at the code again -- WN=2... DROP verb involved... conditional on J=19,T=1, A=12 to set the WN=1 flag when it's currently 0... okay.  It looks like the desert is not the right place to store it. A=12 points us to the Cave, which makes more sense as a wine cellar, now that I think about it.  Now we can leave the bottle of wine in the cave in the prehistoric era, pick it up again in 3031 A.D., and trade it to the clerk for an OLD HANDGUN.  We can SHOOT GUN wherever we like, though we can't really aim at anything and the default response seems to be MISSED...

Wandering further afield, I run into a MAD PTERODACTYL in the jungle that I haven't seen before, and find two rocks in the mountain cave.  We can't THROW ROCKS at all, as the parser doesn't understand the concept, so they don't seem useful against the pig or the pterodactyl.

What can we do with the gun?  I turns out that we can SHOOT CAVEMAN -- he drops dead, though he still supposedly HAS SOMETHING TO TRADE which we can't discover after his death.  And there's that mole on his left ear that the game seems quite insistent on pointing out.  We can't seem to shoot anybody else.  So is this action supposed to alter something in the future?  The newspaper in 3031 no longer contains anything of interest.  And now, if we continue forward, we see an ultramodern, thriving city in 3032 instead of post-B Bomb destruction... and when we GO OUT... we've suddenly won!?!?

Well, that was sudden!  Apparently the caveman peddler was somehow related to Henry Bowman (he'd be an ancestor, not a descendant as the game declares here).  And now we've changed the future and prevented the destruction of the world!  Well, at least for a while -- our planet still ends in a fiery cataclysm of galactic destruction at some undefined time after 3032, but maybe we've all moved away by then.

It's About Time isn't a great time travel game, though it does make use of that idea, and it isn't even one of the better SoftSide adventures, at least as I experienced it.  The bugs I had to fix made the early going frustrating, and victory occurred almost at random.  Looking at the code, it appears we're supposed to have solved a series of puzzles in order to find a post office with a wanted poster, depicting Henry Bowman with a mole over his left ear as possessed by all of his ancestors (again called DESCENDANTS in the code.)  But the game's actual design allows us to shortcut all of that, winning by just randomly shooting at people and hoping the ripple effects somehow prevent Henry Bowman from ever existing, which is the solution I stumbled upon.

Ah, well.  It's fun to be playing these again, and if there's one thing I love about BASIC adventures, it's that they're almost always solvable one way or another.

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