Friday, 4 September 2015

Missed Classic 12: Questprobe Featuring the Human Torch and the Thing - Introduction (1985)

Written by Joe Pranevich


It’s a good time to be a comic book geek. As I write this, I just got back from watching Ant-Man, a film that absolutely does not deserve to be as good as it is. And yet… wow. It’s the 12th straight film to open at #1 for Marvel. The next film, Fantastic Four, will be out by the time you read this and while it will not be a “real” Marvel film (as the rights are owned by Fox), I hope it does well. I love the Fantastic Four as a team and they deserve to finally get a decent film adaptation. And if you can somehow make an also-ran like Ant-Man into a good film, surely the powers that be could make a great film out of the “first family” of the Marvel universe. If the reviews are good, I’ll be seeing it in a few weeks.

That leads us to our game: Questprobe Featuring the Human Torch and the Thing. Released ten months after Spider-Man, it marks the final Questprobe game and one of the final releases for Adventure International before their bankruptcy. There are a few signs that it might have been a troubled production: the ten month gap between games (twice as long as expected), the game and manual still use an old title in several places (Fantastic Four, Chapter One), and the manual feels less polished than previous efforts. I hope that Scott Adams will share some of these details when he sits down with us in a few weeks.

Just like before, I have a ton of introductory notes. If you just want to get to the gameplay, feel free to scroll down. I won’t mind too much.

Why the Human Torch and the Thing?

As our previous games, I want to start by guessing why Marvel and Scott Adams chose these characters for their third game. The Hulk, the protagonist of the first game, was the most visible Marvel franchise on television during the 70s and 80s, thanks to Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby. Spider-Man was the second most-visible franchise, featured in many live-action and animated shows. It might be a coincidence, but with this third game, my theory still holds:

Hulk smash Marvel TV records. Hulk record still stand for longest show.

In the decade prior to Questprobe, the Thing stands out as the character with the third most television exposure in all of Marvel comics. He appeared in a Fantastic Four cartoon as well as his own shorts:

  • The New Fantastic Four (1978)
Animated re-telling of Fantastic Four adventures. The Human Torch was eliminated from this production, replaced by a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. as the fourth team member. The Thing was played by Ted Cassidy, better known as Lurch from the Addams Family series. You can find episodes on YouTube.
  • Fred and Barney Meet The Thing (1979)
In this incarnation, “Benjy” Grimm can change to and from the Thing using magic rings.
A strange mash-up of new Flintstone shorts with new adventures featuring the Thing. This version of the Thing has a different origin than the classic character and “Benjy Grimm” can transform to and from his Thing form using magical rings. He was voiced by Joe Baker. You can also find these episodes on Youtube. Despite the title, the Thing and Flintstone shorts were not connected; Fred and Barney never “met” the Thing in any of the episodes.
Notice that neither of these two shows included the Human Torch! In fact, the Torch had no television exposure at all during the decade before this game. So why was he selected? Your guess is as good as mine, but the Thing’s powers are quite similar to the Hulk’s and might not have made for a different game. The Human Torch’s powers would be unique thus far in the series and it seems like they would work well in an adventure game setting. That said, Mister Fantastic or the Invisible Woman might also have made reasonable choices. Perhaps Mr. Adams will enlighten us with his selection process!

Who Are These Guys, Anyway?


These characters aren’t as well known as Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, so let me provide a brief introduction. The Human Torch and the Thing are originally half of the Fantastic Four, the super-team created by Stan Lee in 1961 that saved Marvel and sparked the so-called “Silver Age” of comics. Stan Lee took the tropes of team comics up to that point and turned them on their ear: instead of loosely-connected heroes, they were an extended family; instead of crime fighters, they were explorers and scientists. When they weren’t saving the planet from planet-eating Galactus or discovering the Negative Zone, the family bickered and squabbled just like real families. This made for a powerful combination that won over the hearts of many early Marvel fans.

The first issue of the “The Fantastic Four”, November 1961.

The four original heroes of the Fantastic Four were:
  • Mister Fantastic / Reed Richards - A super-genius even before receiving his powers; he has the ability to stretch his limbs in impossible ways. 
  • The Invisible Girl / Susan Storm - Reed’s girlfriend and eventual wife, she gained the power to turn herself invisible and would later to be able to create invisible force-fields with her mind. This game takes place just before she renamed herself the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four #284.
  • The Human Torch / Jonny Storm - Susan’s younger brother. He can control flame, even covering his whole body with it to fly.
  • The Thing / Benjamin Grimm - A family friend and pilot. He was encased in rock and given super strength, but can never turn back again. Unlike the Hulk, the Thing’s original personality and intelligence remain while he is stuck in his monstrous form. 
The four gained their powers when Richard was testing out an experimental spaceship that he intended to fly into the moon. On the way, they passed through some unknown cosmic radiation which gave them all super powers.

The Thing, spouting a timeless truth. (From the tie-in comic.)

By the time our game takes place, the Thing had split from the Fantastic Four and was living on a planet that granted him the ability to change back to his original form at will. (He was replaced by Jennifer Walters, better known as the green crime-fighting lawyer, She-Hulk.) In addition to the main Fantastic Four team books, the Thing had two solo series: Marvel Two-in-One from 1974 to 1983, followed by The Thing from 1983 to 1986. The former was one of the showcase series of the Marvel Universe, teaming the Thing up each week with a different member of the cast for a one-off adventure.

The Thing wasn’t just a muscle-bound fighter like so many other comic book characters: he was deeply scarred by his changed appearance and struggled to come to terms with his monstrous new form. Despite all the good his strength did, he still longed to return normal.

The Human Torch springs into action. (From the tie-in comic.)

The Human Torch, on the other hand, was still a member of the Fantastic Four when this game took place. Like the Thing, he primarily appeared in the various team books, but also had frequent solo-adventures in Strange Tales between 1962 and 1967, and then again in an eponymous book from 1974 to 1975. Unlike all of the other Fantastic Four characters, the Torch was the only one based on an original “golden age” character of the same name created in 1939. That Torch wasn’t actually human (he was an android), but he was one of Marvel’s most popular characters throughout the war years and it is no surprise that Stan Lee would want to bring him back.

Our Human Torch is young and brash, but with a good heart. He is about the same age as Spider-Man and the two had been known to hang out together in both their civilian and professional identities.

Game Credits


Original title screen by Kem McNair.

All of that introductory material aside, what can we say about our third Questprobe game? Like the previous ones, it was written and programmed by Scott Adams. Like Spider-Man, it is based on the S.A.G.A.+ engine which supports a more advanced parser than earlier Scott Adams games (and I had a number of nice things to say about it in my review of that game). This time around, the game is dedicated to Keith Campbell, a columnist for the UK-based “Computer and Videogames” magazine. His columns helped to popularize the adventure genre which we love, as well as provided a forum for players to find hints and tips about their favorite games. Regretfully, he passed away from cancer in 2006.

The art in this game is credited to Kem McNair, returning after being absent (or at least uncredited) in the previous game. Since the last set of reviews, I have heard from Scott Adams that the canonical “best art” for the series was designed for the Atari ST and then ported to each of the platforms individually. I will be playing the Commodore 64 version again as I have been unable to find an Atari ST version of the game in any of the dark corners of the internet. For lower-resolution systems (particularly those in Europe, I believe), an alternate set of art designs were created by “ALV”. I have been unable to track down a real name for that individual and this is the only game he or she worked on under those initials.

Alternate title screen by “ALV”.

Now that I know that the Atari ST had better graphics, I will be a bit more considerate when rating the art as I am not playing the best version. If anyone has screenshots (or disk images) from the Atari ST version, I would be glad to include those in an upcoming post.


Manual & Tie-in Comic

Unlike the previous game, I have been unable to locate a copy of the manual that included the tie-in comic. Does that mean that Spider-Man was a one-off by including it? Does that mean that there was a version that included it, but I simply did not hunt well enough? I have no idea, but for consistency with the previous two games, I will be including the material as part of the game’s rating.

The tie-in comic, Questprobe #3 for November 1985, was written by Scott Adams, with art by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott. David Micheline did the script. Just as we saw in the previous games, Marvel was pulling out all the stops. All of these writers and artists were regulars working on Fantastic Four-related material. David and Ron were both regulars on the Thing’s books, with David doing much of Marvel Two-in-One during the Thing’s tenure as lead. Joe Sinnott was the inker on the Fantastic Four. Even with the series (in hindsight) on its last legs, Marvel was still giving the books solid talent.

Like the previous comic, this is a story in multiple parts: it offers introductions to both the Human Torch’s and the Thing’s powers and personalities as they battled individually against the Chief Examiner, as well as moves the Durgan and Bio-gem plot forward. I was most disappointed to find that at this point in the story, the Human Torch was dating Alicia, the blind sculptress that could see the Thing’s inner beauty and a key part of his backstory. On the bright side, it would later be discovered that he was dating (and then married and did married-person things with) a Skrull duplicate of Alicia while the real one was in suspended animation so I guess he got his comeuppance. (Skrulls in the comics are essentially the green aliens from the first Avengers movie, but more intelligent.) The Thing was off-world after the “Secret Wars” and considering his place in the universe.

The comic gives us some interesting new hints about the Chief Examiner. During the sequence where he is trying to capture Johnny, She-Hulk shows up and helps fend him off. (As mentioned above, she was the new fourth member of the team, replacing the Thing during his time off-world.) Rather than try to gain her power, the Chief unexpectedly forgets himself and tries to kill her instead.


But before he can go through with it, the Examiner snaps out of it and remembers that he is not a killer, just in time to save Alicia from She-Hulk’s badly thrown Fantasticar. But why this sudden change in personality? The story shifts perspective to Durgan’s world and reveals that the Bio-gem was the one that was able to gain control of the Chief, but only for a second. It has to act carefully and subtly to prevent the Natter energy egg (essentially, its prison warden) from detecting what it is doing, but slowly it is taking control of the situation. In the process, we also learn conclusively that Durgan created the Chief Examiner as something of a (robotic?) avatar for him to travel to Earth to gather up all of the super-powers that he needs to save his world.


A later scene shows Durgan convincing a student of his, Tuskar, to help in his cause, but I am suspicious. He only speaks over a screen: how can we be sure that is really him and not further machinations of the Bio-gem? I guess we’ll have to keep reading to find out. At this stage in the story, we have Durgan/Chief Examiner, the Bio Gem, and the Black Fleet all on the board, with Tuskar and the remainder of the philosopher’s council on the edges of the story. We still do not have a clear view of where the black fleet comes from, nor exactly how the Bio gem’s own plotting will come to the forefront. We think we know why the super powers are being gathered up, but do we? I guess we’ll have to keep reading and see… if it is wrapped up at all. Regardless of the off-world plot, both the Human Torch and the Thing are eventually tricked into passing through the Chief Examiner’s portal, paving the way the start of the game.

The manual for the game is fairly similar to the others in the series: it has a brief set of game instructions, followed by detailed descriptions of all of the Marvel heroes and villains we’re likely to meet on our travels. The only new feature this time around is a vocabulary list, revealing the roughly 420 vocabulary words that the game understands. Nothing to see here, let’s play the game already!

Questprobe Featuring the Human Torch and the Thing


But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.

Human Torch Journal #1 - I have no idea how I got here, but I’m in Latveria with Ben. We landed together, but he had the misfortune of ending up in a tar pit while I ended up just on shore. Try as I might, I can’t quite get him out of the pit. To make matters worse, Doctor Doom has Alicia and I haven’t even been able to get started on rescuing her.

Thing Journal #1 - It’s clobberin’ time! I’m minding my own business and suddenly, I’m knee deep in tar. Then waist deep. Then chest deep. Johnny’s here, but boy do I wish it was Sue or Stretch. I just hope we figure a way out of this sticky situation before this “ever-lovin’ blue-eyed thing” is an ex-Thing.

Unlike the previous two games, this third game starts with a brief introductory sequence in the Chief Examiner’s office. This is the same office (and the same art) from its appearance back in Questprobe #1, but this time around the Chief reveals the plot himself: you have to free Alicia Masters from the clutches of the evil Dr. Doom using two separate heroes that you can “switch” between at any time. When he is done speaking, I find myself standing next to a shack and tar pit as the Human Torch. Well, that is different! In each of the previous games, you had to collect gems and to deliver them to a secret location. This time around, it seems that I have a more straight-forward rescue to perform. That seems like an improvement! This is also the first game that makes it explicit that “you” are not the heroes that you are playing as, but rather are someone (perhaps a native of Durgan’s planet?) who is training in a simulation. It’s a brilliant little shattering of the fourth wall and I like it. This was already more-or-less explicit in the tie-in comics, but I like it actually in the narrative of the game.

A few years ago, I visited the La Brea tar pits. It looked nothing like this.

I can already tell that this game will be somewhat more difficult to narrate. Having two heroes that you can switch between not only makes the game a lot more difficult to play, but also more challenging to write about. I will do my best to keep it from being confusing. The Human Torch starts the game in a valley surrounded by hills, next to both a shack and a large tarpit. There does not appear to be much that I can do with either of those immediately, but remembering the Chief Examiner’s instructions, I try the “switch” command:

Well, that’s not good.

The Thing starts this game in a dire situation: he is in the tar pit (probably the one the Torch is standing next to) and he’s sinking. I struggle to find a way to get out of the tar, but none of the approaches I can think of immediately work. I check his inventory and he is carrying a “Reed Richards” walk that tells how many turns we’ve played and how rested the Thing is. I can only assume that will come in handy for some puzzle later.

Since the game is supposed to be about teamwork, I switch back to the Human Torch and type “flame on” to get some fire going. That just about works, but the game asks whether I want the fire to be “low”, “high”, or “nova”. I pick “flame on high” just for kicks. (The manual says that “nova” is the equivalent of a nuclear blast and I suspect I’ll need to keep that for an emergency.) But what can I do with a tarpit when I’m a man that is pretty much covered in fire? Well, I can burn it. But will that set the Thing free, or kill him? I check the manual and it says that the Thing can survive both high and low temperatures, but sitting in the middle of a burning tar pit seems like a bit much. (The Hulk could survive it without a problem, but this is another way in which the Thing is not quite as strong as his green counterpart.) Well, I guess there is only one way to find out: I set the tar on fire and... the Thing dies. Clearly, that was not the right choice! Game over.

Yes, I said “game over”: unlike the previous installments, there is no heaven screen when you die. As much as I thought the idea was pretty neat, dying often left you in a dead-ended situation anyway as whatever puzzle killed you would not reset when you returned to earth. By not having a heaven at all, you are forced to reload, but perhaps there will also be fewer dead ends. We’ll see as we go.

Being able to look at your counterpart is a nice touch!

After starting over, I decide that burning the tar (at least right now) is not the right approach. Perhaps you need to burn it after the Thing escapes? I’ll make a note of that for later. My next thought is that the Torch may be able to just fly the Thing out of the pit. The manual says that he can carry things when flying, but only 150 pounds worth. Since the Thing weighs a lot more than that, plus is mired in tar, I suspect this is a dead end. Even so, it’s worth a shot. I try typing “east” to get to the tar, but that actually takes me to Doctor Doom’s castle rather than the Thing’s location. I’m sure I’ll get there soon enough, but for now I want to get to Ben. I go back to the start and try “fly over tar” instead. And that works! And even better: the Torch and Thing can see each other as you switch between them. That is a very nice touch.

Do comic book readers in the UK assume that the Human Torch has the powers and abilities of a battery-powered flashlight? Just wondering.

Unfortunately, while I have worked out how to get the two of them in the same room, that does not seem to help me in any obvious way. I can’t “lift” the thing out of the tar or so any similar verbs. There must be a way out of this situation, but I just can’t find it. I guess I’ll have to head out to explore further after all.

Rather than narrate my explorations, for the sake of time I’ll just summarize:
  • I can burn down the shack. Why? I have no idea. Some wreckage is left behind, but that doesn’t provide any obvious benefits.
Several screens in this game are divided up into comic-book “panels” like this one.
  • Off to the east is Doctor Doom’s castle, guarded by the Blob. I’ll talk about Dr. Doom when I find him, but I’m surprised to see the Blob here as he is usually a X-Men villain. His power is that he can root himself to the ground and become pretty much invulnerable. He first appeared in X-Men #3 in 1964. 
  • Past the castle is a road. When you follow the road to the south, you find a circus tent. As a side bonus, the description of the circus reveals that you are in Latveria, the Eastern European homeland of Doctor Doom. That makes sense. 
  • Inside the circus tent is the entire Circus of Crime and a circus cannon. There are eight total villains and I am unsure how to approach defeating them. 
I feel like I should provide some backstory on these villains, but there are so many of them. This is the silver-age Circus of Crime that first appeared in The Incredible Hulk #3 in 1962, but a few of the antagonists are from newer iterations of the team.

Spider-Man had two villains you had to face off against at once. This time, we have eight.
  • The Ringmaster is the leader and is the same figure we saw in Spider-Man. Since he was defeated last time by closing our eyes and pressing a button, I do not know how much of a challenge he will pose now. 
  • The Clown and Cannonball have both been around since that initial fight against the Hulk, but their powers are silly: the Clown has trick props and Cannonball is an acrobat that can fire himself out of a cannon. 
  • The Great Gambonnos, brothers Ernesto and Luigi, are also acrobats and first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #16 (1964). 
  • Spider-Man first fought Princess Python in Amazing #22 (1965); her power is having a large snake. 
  • Live Wire initially fought the Fantastic Four in their Annual #5 (1967). His fights with an electrified lasso.
  • Fire Eater is the baby on the block, having first appeared as a Ghost Rider villain in 1982. His ability is to eat fire which actually seems quite useful facing off against the Torch, at least compared to his comrades. 
Just on a lark, I try to attack with my flame powers here and they are blocked by Fire Eater. How many of the others will contribute to this puzzle in a meaningful way? While I am playing around, the Ringmaster uses his hypnotism and commands me to leave. Just as I am about to “close eyes” and try to explore further, I get a message that the Thing has drowned and it is now “game over” once again.

One thing is clear: I am going to need to figure out how to deal with the Thing’s dilemma very soon if I am to make any progress in this game. But with that, I need to leave this play session. With luck, next week I’ll be able to get Ben out of the muck.

Time played: 40 min
Total time: 40 min

Deaths/Reloads: 2
Torch Inventory: <none>
Thing Inventory: Reed Richards Watch


Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance or otherwise getting a hint: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return.

It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw. Don’t forget!

33 comments:

  1. Hey guys! As you can probably guess, this one was originally intended to come out before "It Came From The Desert", but for various reasons I could not complete all of the posts on time so it was pushed off. In retrospect, the "Fantastic Four" movie wasn't as good as I think we all hoped it would be...

    Don't forget rating predictions!

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    1. Actually, I never had much expectation for the new F4 to be any better than the one with Jessica Alba with the strange casting decisions they made. I'm all for being inclusive but totally crapping over canon material? I'm sure the producers would enjoy the plotline of Timequest.

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    2. The casting was fine. But I think the world is done with Nolan-esque "dark" comic book films. That is why the DC films are going to under-perform and why the witty and fun DC television universe is kicking Marvel's ass.

      Daredevil of course is the elephant in the room that suggests that everything I just said is complete tripe.

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  2. I don't remember that Thing cartoon at all, but when he said "Thing Ring, do your thing!" and put the rings together, something seemed familiar.

    I could just be getting confused with other "2-half rings give magical powers when joined cartoons" I definitely remember "Shazzan" (which I was incorrectly remembering as "Shazam")

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fex1b7axXl0

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    1. They love doing shit like that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktUx57i63e0

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  3. "Tall, dark and buoyant," LOL. Makes me cringe that She-Hulk refers to the team as "the FF" in a speech balloon though. I mean, I understand that they probably did that to save room for the artwork, but I don't feel like that's a thing a person would actually say.

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    1. I think that they have used that in-universe before, but I've never paid that much attention.

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  4. I imagine that this will get maybe an extra rating point over QP2 for having a more interesting goal than "gather up a bunch of random gems", so I'll guess 38.

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  5. Hmm, I'm pretty sure that no Atari ST version of any Scott Adams game exists... and the best looking versions of the SAGA games are, IMO, the (8-bit) Atari 800 disk versions (though the C64 disk versions aren't much worse). Maybe Adams mixed up the two systems? It's been a long time, after all...

    For lower-resolution systems (particularly those in Europe, I believe), an alternate set of art designs were created by “ALV”

    I think that has more to do with tape (common in Europe) vs. disk (common in the U.S.), instead of lower- or higher-resolution systems. Remember how the Hulk game had two distinct C64 versions, with the disk one (loading pictures from disk) looking a lot better than the tape one (which looked exactly like the ZX Spectrum version); it's probably the same here. That alternative title screen looks like it comes from an Amstrad CPC, by the way.

    I remember playing this one a lot on the Spectrum, though I didn't really get anywhere before I looked at a walkthrough. Then again, I was pretty young back then. :)

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    1. You're likely right.

      According to Mobygames there was an ST version of Spider-man in 1986, but seeing as the game was released in 1984 and the ST was first released in 1985, it's likely he's getting the Atari machines mixed up

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    2. That is possible. I honestly have no idea; I was just going off of what he emailed me. My knowledge of the release dates for this hardware is very incomplete.

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    3. I had an Atari ST and did do the conversion to it. The graphics area of the screen was like a window shade. You could raise and lower it over the text area.

      I also used the active pallet capabilities of the ST to do madam web's web to appear to be pulsating.

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    4. Good to get confirmation from the man himself. Thanks, Scott!

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. "Her power is having a large snake."

    Unfortunately, I think the snake's power is more relevant here...the power of actually being a large snake, I mean...

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    1. When your only qualification to being a villain is owning a snake, I just suspect you should enter into a different line of work.

      Seriously, the whole "Circus of Crime" are the D-list villains of D-list villains.

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    2. Well, the snake *is* very big and strong (it's a constrictor snake, as big as they come), and obeys her orders completely (and just because of training; she doesn't have any "snake control" powers, nor is the snake super-intelligent). That's got to count for something. :)

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    3. I have one in my trousers too. I call him "Skippy".

      Anyway, my guess is 35.

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    4. Kenny, you're getting predictable.

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  8. Oh, right, I can guess stuff now. 39.

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  9. And I'm going to guess a little higher with a 41 - using the theory that more superheroes and more villains makes for more PISSED points

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    1. I am going to guess that less would actually be more and great numbers of villains and heroes just make everything worse - 33.

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  10. The tar pit strikes me as being Blob's mortal enemy. Obvious answer to puzzle #2 (with #1 being 'getting The Thing out of the pit).

    I guessed 33 on #1. I guessed 33 on #2. Not only because someone else tried it - but also because this game will likely have something noted for multiple protagonists - let's go 35, even though I've always felt that the Fantastic Four are some of the least interesting Marvel heroes overall.

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    1. I think that in this case, the question is not how interesting they are as Marvel characters, but rather as Scott Adams characters.

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  11. It would be terrible design if the answer to Thing's conundrum was to "walk out of tar pit".

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    1. Would "swim" be better or worse design?

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    2. You guys are going to be surprised by the solution, I suspect. And yes, I did try swimming out...

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    3. Let's see, what could be the most ridiculous way to get yourself rid of tar? Would it be finding a disc, throwing the sea out and assembling your own time machine from the remains?

      Oh wait, this wasn't Spellcasting, so we won't have puns.

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