Thursday, 17 August 2017

Missed Classic 44: Oo-Topos - Introduction (1981 original; 1986 re-release)

Written by Voltgloss

The Great Zork Marathon has graced this blog with many (and, in the future, many more) adventures crafted by the Implementors - Infocom’s cadre of game designers. With Oo-Topos, we’re taking a semi-detour to explore an Implementor’s work before he became an Implementor. That Implementor is Mike Berlyn, whose work we’ve seen showcased in Joe Pranevich’s playthrough of Suspended and will shortly be coming up again in Infidel. But those were not Mr. Berlyn’s first adventure games. Those honors go to Oo-Topos and Cyborg.

According to his Infocom bio, by 1979 Berlyn had completed two tasks keenly suited to a future career in adventure game writing: (i) he had written two novels; and (ii) he had purchased an Apple II and, like so many other game designers, found and enjoyed the original Adventure. By 1981 Berlyn converged those interests to found his own company, Sentient Software, and publish his first two, pure text adventure games: Oo-Topos (co-written with his wife, Muffy Berlyn) and Cyborg. What about those offerings may have appealed to the folks at Infocom to offer Berlyn a job? Let’s find out!...

That doesn’t look like an all-text adventure.
(Only screenshot I could get from Apple II version. Brace for 4-color CGA here on out.)

...but seeing as how this is a blog primarily for graphical adventure games, let’s do this using the 1986 re-release by Polarware. How’d this come about? According to the company’s archive site, Polarware was launched in 1980 offering programs for drawing, manipulating, and animating graphics. Starting in 1982 they began offering their own graphical adventures, and by 1984 they had developed their own adventure programming language, dubbed “Comprehend.” Their third Comprehend publication, in 1986, was an updated re-release of Berlyn’s Oo-Topos - apparently the result of a friendship between Berlyn and the Polarware folks with its roots in Berlyn’s use of their graphics software while at Sentient.

Enough history, let’s get on with the game! I’m using the IBM PC version as the most stable one I could consistently keep running. After completing the re-release I’ll round out the posts with a quick run through the original 1981 version to check out any differences.

The 1986 re-release story - which, as we’ll see later on, differs from the 1981 original.

The back of the box sets up the story: it’s 1995 A.D., and an alien interstellar transport’s crash with a meteor has launched a cloud of deadly “power transfusion waste” heading straight for Earth. Earth, being a “restricted travel zone,” is wholly unaware of and unprepared to deal with this pending catastrophe. But some kindly alien governing body has sent us on a mission to “deliver the chemical seeds of a protective compound” to a planet just outside Earth’s solar system, to be synthesized and seeded into the planet’s atmosphere with Earthlings none the wiser. Disaster struck en route in the form of space pirates: snared by their tractor beam, we were forced to land on the planetoid Oo-Topos, where the pirates boarded and looted our ship and tossed us in a prison cell. Now we need to escape, recover our ship and its cargo, and complete our mission. No problem!


Checking out our starting cell, our captors have at least been decent enough to leave us with food (described as looking like “old herrings” - an odd descriptive choice for my supposedly alien protagonist) and a bottle of clear liquid. Water? It tastes like it when I take a sip, so maybe it is; there’s writing on the bottle but I can’t read it. Through the window I can see my ship - so close and yet so far! Looking at the door I note that while the door is sturdy, the lock is not - “the kind you find in your local sawbuck store.” I hit the lock a few times and it breaks. Freedom!

Unfortunately, freedom is complicated by a siren wailing as soon as I open by cell door, along with a “swampy odor very close by” similar to my alien captors, along with periodic laser blasts from unseen sources. Emerging into a four-direction hallway to the west from my cell, I find to the south a dark room where I can’t see anything, and to the west a “sentinel scanner” guarding a “language translator.” Will that let me read my bottle? Maybe, but the scanner won’t let me near it and just raises its own alarm. Shortly thereafter I’m nabbed from behind by “several scaly hands,” tased, and dragged back to my cell. This is effectively a forced restart, right down to the food and bottle being replaced in the cell and the cell door lock replaced (but still just as bashable as before).

These being stored right by my cell suggests my captors aren’t too bright.

Trying again and heading north instead, I find a panel with three buttons: red, blue, and green. With no clue what they do, I experiment; and am relieved to see the red button turn off the alarms (but I’m still getting messages about a nearby alien presence and periodic laser blasts). Blue starts the alarm up again, and green opens the panel to reveal… a laser and a pair of goggles that will let me “see under unusual conditions.” I try them on and…

...I’m suddenly playing Wizardry I.

The goggles make everything go wire-frame. That’s a neat touch! Not immediately helpful, but a neat touch! I take them off and go looking for whatever alien is still lurking in the area. I don’t have to look far (they’re one room to the east). One laser blast (from me) later and immediate threats are defused!

Violence IS the answer to this one.

I can now explore in relative safety, although the sentinel scanner laughs off my laser and will get me re-captured if I hang around near it too long. Poking around further, I find about 17 locations accessible without solving any puzzles - locations that suggest I’m not in any sort of dedicated prison complex, but rather an eclectic facility of unknown purpose. Key discoveries include:
  • Four pitch dark rooms where I can’t see to do anything (and where the goggles are no help), putting “find a light source” at the top of my short-term goal list.
  • A “lounge” where some complicated board game (or the Oo-Topan equivalent) was apparently abandoned in mid-progress, with various levers to move the pieces. I steel myself for a mini-game, but all I need to do is “pull lever” and I win the prize: a silver block of “Vegan silver,” with 200 times the strength of titanium steel at less than one-fiftieth the weight. The game tells me “Vegans use it to make paper clips that never rust or tarnish.” Seems legit.

The block in the image doesn’t appear until the lever is pulled, and disappears when taken. Items that “start” in each room are shown in the graphics, but if you drop other items in the room you don’t see them - only the text scroll mentions them.
  • A tunnel that leads to a precipitous vertical drop - too steep to proceed down.
  • An alien mosaic pattern with writing beneath it - which, again, I can’t read; further driving my interest in getting that translator.
  • A “gravtube” that I can enter, which sounds like an elevator and has two buttons inside - one red and one blue. But pushing them does nothing. Perhaps I need to activate this somehow?

Outside the gravtube. Have I missed something here?
  • A room “filled with strange radiation,” taking the form of a blazing beam. My ship’s “Navchip” is here, which is presumably important, but it’s too irradiated for me to take. And hanging out in the room for a few turns leaves me dead from radiation sickness.
  • A room that is too bright to see, rather than too dark. The goggles are the answer, shielding my eyes enough to see a “plasma sphere” shining bright light that is amplified off of the reflecting walls. I take it and, examining it, learn that it’s a “gift for the researchers at Labport 5V,” my ultimate destination planet from which the seeds to save Earth will be cultivated. So apparently I was carrying more cargo than just those seeds.
  • A room with mirrored walls, with another mirror in the middle of the room, which “disorient” me. This is far worse than it sounds as I’m so disoriented I can’t find or use any exits! I tinker around in here for a bit but am unable to figure out how to escape. Fortunately it’s quick work to get back to here after restarting, and I make sure to save before re-entering. (The game supports 3 save slots.) Presumably this is more than just a trap; I’ll return here with more tools.

The mirror crack’d from side to side
“Restart has come upon me,” cried
The Protagonist of
  • A couple of exits lead to a bizarre room with multiple unidentified floating shapes, a “strange floor,” and exits in each direction including up and down. This screams “maze,” confirmed when wandering around just produces a series of similarly-described rooms. I’ll be back here with a full inventory of stuff to drop.
  • Finally, a “vast chamber” that appears to be an auditorium, complete with lecturer’s podium. Climbing up to the podium reveals - a light rod! Task #1, “find a light source,” is now complete.

My map so far, using cutting-edge 1986 mapping “hardware” (right down to the paper).

So now I’ve a light source. The light rod’s label claims it will last for 200 “standard time units” and is easily turned on and off with its switch. Saving its charge by only turning it on to check out dark rooms, I soon have quite a few more inventory items to play with and conundrums to consider:
  • Two dark rooms are a “bio lab” and a “chem lab.” The bio lab contains a flask and a wire box (apparently designed for holding small animals), both of which I take. The chem lab doesn’t have any interesting items, but does have a sink and dispenser that produces acid when I pull a lever. Some Planetfall vibes later and I’ve filled up my flask with acid.
  • Another is a library with a holographic projector, a crystal, and (in an adjoining room) a bookshelf with exactly one book - conveniently, a manual that “describes my ship” that I’ll presumably need once I’m finally back at the ship. The crystal, a “gift from the Galactic council,” supposedly “holds all human knowledge, including that of the hokey-pokey.” I pop it into the projector and am… not exactly illuminated. 

These aren’t the movie references you’re looking for.
  • A “pillar room,” boasting a strange pillar with an orb on top of it, bearing more writing that I can’t read. There’s also another entrance to the gravtube here, which I still can’t seem to operate. 
I appreciate the logical progression of short-term goals so far. First: “escape your cell.” Second: “eliminate the immediate threats of the alarm and the alien guard.” Third: “find a light source to explore all those dark rooms.” And now fourth, with the pillar discovery, I’m putting a third underline under my fourth goal: “get that translator that’s guarded by the sentinel.” My laser wouldn’t do the trick earlier, bouncing off of its reflective casing. But perhaps now I’m equipped to get through that.

As Mary Poppins never sang: “A thrown flask of acid makes the sentinel go down”

Success! Throwing the flask of acid eats through the sentinel’s armor, and one more laser shot disables it completely. The translator now in hand, I can read what I couldn’t before… but the results are underwhelming. The bottle simply says “Save for emergencies.” The mosaic says “Battle of Androli Kalaptus,” which means nothing to me. And the pillar reads “taka ele leva,” which the game tells me “must be something in the Oo-Topan dialect.” Is this similar to Planetfall’s phonetic galacti-speek, and just telling me to “take the elevator” - i.e., the gravtube? That’s all well and good but I still can’t get the damn thing to operate!

Well, that was kind of a bust. Lacking other clear options, I grit my teeth and tackle that ubiquitous adventure game challenge: the maze.

A maze of twisty floating polyhedra, some alike, some different.

Fortunately, I can map the maze the old-fashioned way, with dropping items in each room to mark them. I also note that several of the rooms have different graphical images - could it be mapped that way? But I discover ultimately that is a fool’s errand: while some of the maze rooms have different graphical images, some also repeat those images… so going solely by the images would leave you with an incomplete and inaccurate map. All in all, the maze isn’t too large - only 6 locations - and each maze room’s “down” exit leads to a non-maze location. So this could have been far worse.

My “map” of the maze, along with the couple of new areas accessed therefrom.
I find this “matrix” approach to be simpler than a messy network of boxes and twisty lines.

Four maze exits lead to areas I’ve already visited. Annoyingly, one proves to be the mirror room that I still can’t escape, necessitating yet another restore of my saved game. Two exits lead to new areas. One is a “solarium” that appears to be on the complex’s roof, with yet another gravtube exit and a small animal called a “snarl” that looks like a puffball with big googly eyes. It seems wholly non-threatening, and since I have a box for holding small animals, I try to catch it - but it shies away. Fortunately, giving it the food from my cell endears it to me, and I soon have a snarl-in-the-box!


There’s also an airlock in the solarium. This must be the way to get out of the complex and access my ship! Unfortunately, opening the airlock and going outside subjects me to a swift death - apparently the planet’s atmosphere is pure ammonia, which I cannot breathe. I’ll need some protection before getting out that way.

The other new area accessible from the maze is a “medical amphitheatre” with steps down to a “dome-covered stage” and no other exits (other than back into the maze). Heading down I see an “energy converter” on a table, guarded by “the Grix.”

Not so cute.

The Grix is huge and threatening but seems content to watch me blunder around for a few turns - though it won’t let me take the converter. And I want that converter, not only because it’s from my ship (apparently the Oo-Topans stripped it for parts), but its descriptions says that it converts radioactivity to “usable light-drive energy.” So perhaps this is the solution to getting my Navchip out of the uncontrolled radiation beam. But the Grix is a problem, and after several turns uses its impressive lung capacity to blow me out of the room, all the way back to the other side of the maze. (Pretty mild “attack” all told. I was prepared for a messy flattening.)

I return to the Grix to try out my various items. The laser does nothing and it’s not interested in trade. The answer turns out to be my just-acquired Snarl. Apparently operating on the “small creature distracts large creature” theory, opening the box to free the Snarl in the Grix’s room leaves the two focused on each other - the Grix keeps blowing the Snarl out of the room, and the Snarl thinks it’s a game and keeps running back in. That leaves me free to nab the converter (after first dropping the cage - I’ve now hit the game’s inventory limit).

Heading back to the radiation room, I put the converter in the radiation and it converts into “simple light energy,” rendering it no longer lethal. I can now get my Navchip! But… that doesn’t really help me now, and I’m still carrying too much stuff to take my converter back with me. I leave the converter here for now, but pretty soon I’m going to have to start storing items in a central location (the Gravtube seems a good choice if I can ever get it working).

Radiation room with the goggles on. They allow me to see the Navchip in the radiation beam; without the goggles it’s hidden, but the room description still mentions the Navchip’s presence.

So now I don’t have any obvious leads. I can’t get down the steep drop of the one tunnel I discovered early on; I can’t go out the airlock safely; I don’t know what to do with the “taka ele lava” pillar; I don’t know what’s up with the mirror room; and I can’t get the gravtube working. I’ve seen several gravtube exits so far (not just where I first saw it, but also in the pillar room and the solarium), so I’m really thinking I should be able to use it by this time. I return to the first gravtube room, type “look gravtube,” and have a real facepalm moment: “The main tube is round and squat and has a little button on one side.” I push the button and the “system comes to life!” Argh, I really should have thought to try that earlier (and the in-room graphics clearly show a button on the outside of the gravtube). That’s all on me. Well, let’s see where the gravtube takes me.

Once inside, the blue and red buttons take me up and down floors, respectively. Up from the “main” gravtube room is the solarium; down from it is the pillar room. Down again from the pillar room takes me to a new place, from which “an incredible odor assaults [my] nose.” Exiting I find myself in the garbage disposal. Lovely!

Garbage chute. Really wonderful idea. What an incredible smell I’ve discovered.

Finding the garbage disposal is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that searching through the garbage here reveals a key prize: my spacesuit! Along with helmet and gloves, which are implemented as separate items. This must be what I need to survive outside the airlock. Unfortunately, survival outside the airlock will have to wait; the terrible stench, coupled with that “faint hiss” of “escaping gas,” rapidly gives me a throbbing headache that overtakes my faculties and leaves me dead in a few turns. Putting on the spacesuit doesn’t help; and the gravtube seems to be stuck on this floor, so I can’t even get back. Digging through this trash is clearly vital, but how to do so and survive remains a puzzler.

And with that, I’ll leave things off until the next post. We’ve covered a lot of ground but still have numerous challenges to solve. Next time we’ll figure out how to dumpster dive safely, uncork the mysteries of “taka ele leva,” reach and explore the planet’s surface outside this facility, and perhaps even locate our downed ship!

Inventory: Light-rod, energy converter (left in radiation room), Navchip, language translator, repair manual, laser, pair of blue goggles, plastic bottle, hologram crystal, plasma sphere, block of Vegan silver, wire box (left in Grix room)

Time played:
1 hr 15 min

And of course, please don't forget to get your score guesses in! Note that I’ve already played the game through to completion, so bets that I won’t solve a particular puzzle would just be a waste of CAPs at this point.

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: remember to use ROT13 or some other appropriate cipher 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.


  1. Welcome, Voltgloss! I look forward to seeing how Mike Berlyn's early efforts influenced his Infocom ones.

    Which version are you scoring? Both? My guess is 31 for the text game and 35 for the graphical one.

    1. Yes, I'll be scoring both the original all-text game and its graphical re-release.

    2. Two scores to guess? Meh, I'll just guess one, let's say the average of Joe's guesses, which is... 33

  2. I'm guessing 41 and 44, but my guessing has been rubbish lately so expect to be very, very wrong.

    Also, how many boxes of paper did you steal from work in the 80s?

    1. None, as I was in grade school. :) What you see here is leftover supplies to be used with my good old C64's home printer, recently unearthed from the basement (and in surprisingly good condition). I can't think of a more fitting way to now put it to use.

  3. Nice to have you on board! I'll guess 30 and 32.

  4. I was going to guess 32 for the graphical one but Ilmari's taken it.

    Let's say 29 for the text and 36 for the graphics.