Derek Bewster’s Adventure Trail

Our Adventure Trail columnist, DEREK BREWSTER, sums up his feelings about the state of Spectrum adventures as we prepare to enter a new year...


ADVENTURING, as so many have come to know it, began with a mainframe and a copy of Colossal Cavern which even now is available for the home micro. Why should this be so when the technical improvements in the writing and implementation of adventure has increased markedly since that time? The reason gives a clue to the special attributes every popular adventure possesses, namely, a plot in which an adventurer can lose himself. The problems must be pitched somewhere in that narrow band where they are difficult and thought-provoking but, hopefully, entirely logical. But where an adventure really shows its class is when it often has the explorer preoccupied with two or more problems at the same time and can enable progress by more than one solution.

In an editorial some months ago I commented on how it is unwise for a company to release too many games on a modular basis. It would seem this advice to some extent is unnecessary as market forces have forced more selective releases from both adventure and arcade camps alike. CRASH was criticised some time ago for reviewing all games released instead of just those that merit distinction and yet the irony is, of the plethora of publications that line the newsagents’ shelves, CRASH is now the one, with its CRASH SMASH awards, to distinguish and more overtly praise those games of the highest calibre every month. These pick of the bunch, considering how far software has come in the last year, are great games — indeed a trip to the arcades is positively dull when compared to the choice and quality now available in millions of homes. Games playing has come a long way and will go much further.

People’s expectations of game software is much higher than when microcomputing was a fresh and novel pastime. Everyone tried their hand at programming because they thought that’s what micros were for — to learn all about programming, and the standard of software was initially low enough to encourage imitation and even improvement. However, people were soon glad to see their computers do anything following their own fruitless struggles. Now the scene is different; many see their computers for what they are — games machines.

Take the Spectrum’s main rival, the Commodore 64. When first marketed, it was as a business computer to the incredible extent that it was only to be had in business shops. The inference was you couldn’t have it for anything as frivolous as playing games. Hindsight, and in particular two important factors, made things clearer. One, the arrival of a small business computer on the scene with the likes of the Advance lined up with the Spectrum and the C64, which gave the lie to the idea that a business system could cost anything less than £1000. Two, playing games isn’t quite the frivolous nonentity some might have had us to believe. At a time when enforced leisure is the order of the day, playing computer games is a much better recreation than watching feeble-minded quiz shows on TV (Channel 4 made a brave attempt to keep television alive but alas their resolve faded with their fortunes). Computer games are sophisticated enough to be intellectually demanding; adventures are used in education as they are better, certainly more entertaining, than the prescribed medicine while the arcade side has given birth to genuinely instructive simulation programs. Speaking as one who is suspicious of the very word education, I think it unlikely that much good will come of educational software marketed as such; better for games to become more entertaining, thought-provoking and informative. A return to Victorian Values is one thing, being bored to brain-death is quite another.

Colossal Cavern spawned many text-only adventures in the early days of home computing but some luminaries of the computing press fall woefully short of their roles to inform of the differences between a knocked-off job and the program of several months incubation. This puzzled me enough (brought to a head having read a guide-book to adventures which was the most partisan load of drivel) to encourage my own entry onto the scene and the views which follow.

The modern equivalent of the original, good, mostly Basic, text-only adventure is the Ket Trilogy, a series of adventures marked by their sensibly cheap price, super atmosphere, easy and logical problems, and user-friendliness. A company that had machine code games right from the start was Artic Computing, who produced highly competent adventures with problems that lent themselves well to a new magazine phenomenon, the adventure help page, since they were very difficult and had but one solution. The early games were clinical by today’s standards, needing the methodical approach of the crossword devotee with little attention paid to building up a consistent atmosphere. The early Artic software clearly had some appeal beyond that of its competitors but had one distinction which was to prove decisive in the struggle for survival in a very competitive market — the software was in your local computer shop and you could actually hand over your money and buy it.

Graphics were the next obvious improvement but alas many early efforts resulted in poor graphics or slow response times. However, one game stood out like no other. Based upon one of the most famous works of fantasy fiction, it marked a new era in book/computer program tie-ins, but more tellingly, in big finance and high pressure salesmanship. A cottage industry now seemed on the brink of renting out office space throughout the land but no one was complaining over the new commercialism because it had produced a computer program every bit as good as the advertisement suggested. It was, of course, The Hobbit from Melbourne House. Years ahead of its time with super graphics and the first game to attempt true character interaction. Later a similar game to The Hobbit provided an option for those who had mastered its complexity. Fantasia Diamond from Hewson Consultants had an interesting storyline and endearing characters.

Character interaction was visibly demonstrated in another megagame of 1983, Valhalla, which introduced animation to adventuring, but Basic was too slow for the project and it is doubtful whether the interactions were ever truly intelligent. Unlike The Hobbit, the game didn’t quite live up to the adverts. Animation may well prove a redundant offshoot for the unmodified Spectrum since it adds little to the intelligence of an adventure but consumes a vast amount of memory — memory better used increasing interaction with the computer. Character interaction has recently reached a new level of intelligence with a further breakthrough from Melbourne House. The worthy successor to The Hobbit, Sherlock in the end proved too ambitious but nonetheless is a significant milestone on the road to intelligent characters. Perhaps with the removal of the inadequate graphics (a concession to market forces) the game could have struck out more decisively along the path of meaningful character interaction with this becoming the sole selling point. Whatever, Sherlock will become a memorable milestone.

The Quill has given the chance to many who haven’t got the time or inclination to program a machine code game from scratch, and who can blame them, it is debatable whether any 40K adventure needs to be 100% machine code. Gilsoft’s creation has lead to a great surge of adventure releases but most, sadly, do not acknowledge the need to give the customer a much greater depth in theme and plot in return for the limitations imposed by The Quill. However, notable exceptions are classics in their own right: Denis Through the Drinking Glass, Hampstead and Tower of Despair. The Quill is just the most public face of a good number of utilities employed by many adventure software houses. Level 9 make no secret of their own ‘a code’ used to devise Snowball and boast an ever-increasing library of compression techniques used to instigate the likes of Return to Eden. These games are twice the length you might expect of a well-written game and are, in addition, user-friendly, highly intelligent and imaginative, with good descriptions producing a rich atmosphere.

Just as some people look with suspicion toward a Quilled game (has it just been knocked-off?) so they might well be wary of the five or six part megagame. Domark’s Eureka! is composed of many parts, like Mastervision’s Wrath of Magra, but it is my view that such games are overly involved and convoluted, and this apparent complexity is to smokescreen what is a shortfall in programming skills; size is simply not an important factor, anyone can write 200K of gobbledegook.

Some journalists are forever going on about the great American Software invasion from across the Atlantic but perhaps it has dissipated against our shores and I am sure even a flight out to the States would only confirm that which I have long suspected — there’s precious little to shout about above the razzmatazz.

One game released this summer was so original and outstandingly brilliant it caught many on the hop just as they were about to forget of software innovation until the autumn. Lords of Midnight represented a significant leap in programming skills used to develop an entirely new theme. The Land of Midnight is an extraordinary invention and anyone who has not yet seen it has not seen half of what the Spectrum has to offer. The game is the crowning jewel in microcomputer games respectability.

So what can we expect from the future? Well, graphics of a consistently high standard are on the menu, but more than this, they will become an integral part of the adventure and not just a decorative appendage tacked on to brighten up proceedings. Graphics will broaden out from just pictures to diagrams, charts and even to the map that at the moment is painstakingly committed to paper. The pictures will carry clues and figures showing which characters are present. These characters will be larger than life as they realistically go about their everyday lives cementing a greater belief in the whole adventure. The microdrive will finally be exploited for what it is, a refined fast storage device with immense possibilities, and the days of solitary computing may seem a thing of the past as the Spectrum’s networking capabilities string along the thoughts of many minds.