Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Missed Classic: Adventure - Won!

Written by Joe Pranevich

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.

After the “fun” that was Infidel, I needed a palate-cleanser. I’ve started looking at Sorcerer already-- and if all goes well, you’ll have the Intro post to that game next week-- but I needed a break. So I hope you will not mind that I use the occasion of my birthday to talk about an important game in my life: Adventure. Ilmari already did a fantastic review of this game (as Missed Classic #2 back in 2014), but he didn’t win in his playthrough. That provides me the flimsiest of excuse to talk about it again, but I’m going to take that excuse!

This story started for me at a different birthday 31 years ago: my mother had given me a copy of Software Country’s Golden Oldies collection for the Commodore 64. Included in that, plus other public domain masterpieces such as Pong and Eliza, was the original 380-point version of Adventure. It may or may not have been the first adventure game I played, but it was certainly the first adventure that I owned legally. I didn’t beat it then-- I still remember my babysitter telling me that no one ever had-- but it remained on my mind. For years, I would pick up the game and play a bit of it. Three years ago, I made a concerted effort to win… but failed. It was time to change that.

Ilmari and others have already retold the history of this game, so I will just recap it in brief: in 1976, Will Crowther created an incomplete prototype of a game which he called Adventure. Although unfinished, it traveled around the nascent ARPANET and inspired some passionate fans. (This original version was rediscovered in 2007 and is playable but not winnable. We may take a deeper look at it at some point in the future.) One such fan was Don Woods who expanded and “completed” the original game-- in order to locate Mr. Crowther to ask his permission and to get the code, he emailed crowther@ every domain name on the internet at that time. Talk about dedication!) This new collaboration would eclipse the original in every way and is now the defacto Adventure.

I cannot possibly narrate this game since I have played so much of it for so long. I am not starting fresh-- in fact prior to picking up the game this time, I already knew how to get the majority of the treasures. The key remaining mysteries were that I never finished mapping the “All Alike” maze or found the Pirate’s treasure. I also had been unable to defeat the dragon before, but some comment along the way spoiled me to that solution. (I wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, I suspect.) I even had to find my old notes because I forgot much of the game so it was a rediscovery.

Introduction to the “Golden Oldies” edition of Adventure

Even though I cannot narrate the game straight through, and I do not want to step on Ilmari’s review from a few years back, I’d like to take some time to talk about some of the parts and the puzzles. This will help to explain the issues that I had trouble with and how I finally solved the game (with a hint).

The opening of the game is classic, but I think that “classic-ness” hides just how amazing it actually is. Adventure sets the ground rules and introduces players to most of the tricks they will need all within the first several rooms. Let’s run it through:
  • We begin the game outside near a building, a well-house for a large spring. The introduction and hints tell us that we need to locate the cave and return treasure to the building, so we explore there first. Inside we find all the supplies that we need: a lamp, a set of keys, some food, and a bottle of water. 
  • Not far from the building is our first miniature maze, the forest. Only two rooms, but it gives us a flavor of what we might encounter later. 
  • When we reach the grate, we have an easy non-puzzle: just unlock it with the keys. By the time we reach here, we should be familiar with the interface and come to understand that we’ll use our inventory objects as tools. We probably have also worked out that we’re going to need to map carefully as going west doesn’t always mean you can return east. 
  • Inside the cave is a mostly-linear set of introductory rooms ending at the Hall of the Mountain King, our first “real” puzzle. Along the way, we’ve found everything we need to solve it: a bird, a cage, and a rod with a rusty star on the end. If we’re especially clever, we’ve noticed the magic word “xyzzy” on the wall in the Debris Room and found that it takes us back to the building. That’s not very useful-- it saves only seven steps-- but it clues us in to look for similar magic further in the cave. 
  • We might also have found the nugget and realized that we cannot take it up the stairs with us. No way out but forward, right? 
  • We know from the introduction that the bird can scare away the snake and that the snake is afraid of the rod. Even though we found the rod first, we have to drop it to collect the bird. Once we do that, we can unleash the bird’s small and feathery fury on the shame. It’s easy and “all in the manual”, but it unlocks the rest of the game for further exploration. Instead of a linear path, we have exits in “all” directions. Time to play! 

The “Cobbles Crawl” (Lynn Brucker, © Cave Research Foundation 2005)

And that, I honestly feel, is a perfect start to the very first adventure ever. In only a handful of rooms and barely more than one puzzle, we know the mechanics of the game and have found our first treasures. It seems easy because there were so many games that came after this, but I can’t think of many that spelled out their own ground rules so well or so quickly, bringing you into the game world and setting you loose. It’s no wonder that mainframe Zork copied the opening recipe almost entirely, including the little forest maze.

I am going to pause here and tell you to please check out ‘Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original "Adventure" in Code and in Kentucky’ by Dennis G. Jerz. Not only is it a fantastic look at the game Adventure, it also features some amazing photographs of locations from the game. I’m not going to link more than this one here because it is much more important for you to go and check out the photos on their site. They really are fantastic.

After the initial section is over, the real heart of the game begins: a massive open-world exploration of more than a hundred confusing rooms and passages. Just mapping what you can access immediately takes forever and there seems to be little rhyme or reason. Like we saw with mainframe Zork, there are a few discrete areas that constitute puzzles on their own, but most of the game is spread quite far around. That means that objects you need for solutions are often far removed from the puzzles that need them. The “trident” that you use to open the clam, for example, is a minimum of ten rooms from the destination. Proximity provides no clues so the game is even more difficult to solve than it might first seem.

Hall of Mists and Long Hall

From here, I’m going to describe more of the puzzles and areas as we come to the end. This isn’t exactly how I solved it since I am decades removed from coming into this game fresh. Instead, consider this something of a simplified description of a line of attack that I followed. Even if you know the answers, the game isn’t necessarily winnable. Many times, I ended up stuck and had to restore because I got myself into a battle with the annoying little dwarves that I just couldn’t win. (The first time to meet them, they throw an axe and run. Every other time, you have to throw the axe back at them with a probability of success. Sometimes you kill them first and sometimes they kill you, but nothing stops an exploration run in its tracks faster than having an army of little dwarves throwing knives at you.

Just to the west and above the Hall of the Mountain King is the first area that some adventurous travelers are likely to explore, where I ended up when I picked up the game again this year. Really clever travelers could have figured out how to get here even before beating the snake, by “waving” the rusty rod at a fissure to create a crystal bridge, but I suspect most new gamers came here by heading west from the snake, pocketing the lovely gold coins on the ground, and exploring.

The main feature of this area is two mazes: the maze of passages All Alike and the maze of passages All Different. Mapping the “all different” maze isn’t terribly difficult if you take good notes with the only secret being a hidden vending machine containing replacement batteries for your brass lantern. The “All Alike” maze is much more difficult to map-- and I only successfully mapped it myself for the first time recently. The maze is huge: 14 “alike” rooms, 11 “dead ends”, and a special “Brink of Pit” room that offers an exit. It’s impossible to get enough items to drop one everywhere but thankfully the “dead ends” are all simple and only connect to a single other room. Once you work that out, you can get away with mapping the rest easily enough.

In addition to diamonds lying near the fissure, the big reward in this section is one you are unlikely to be able to access first. In fact, this is one of the treasures that I missed until just this play through: the pirate’s chest. At random during the game, a pirate will come and steal all your treasure; he tells you that he is taking you to his lair in the maze. Only after that can you find his room in the “All Alike” maze and not only recover any items that you lost, but also pick up his treasure chest. I had a nasty habit of reloading the game every time he stole a treasure from me and so I never found this until well after I had mapped the mazes.

What is a pirate doing underground anyway?

Two Pit Room

Southwest of the Hall of the Mountain King is the next key area, the Two Pit Room and its environs. You can’t really say that this is “next” because you could go just about anywhere else, but I’ll bring it up second because this is where we can explore most profitably without hitting any dead ends that we have to come back to later.

The two pits that the name refers to are an eastern pit containing oil and a western one containing a talking plant right out of Little Shop of Horrors. (The 1986 film that you are thinking of hadn’t come out yet but Crowther and Woods may have been familiar with the original 1960 film.) If you feed the plant water, it grows. The key here is that we have to do it in two trips, coming back when we have located a second source of water. There are more than a few in the labyrinth of tunnels, but a reservoir just to the west and north was my supply of choice. Once you have fed the plant twice, he is large enough that we can climb up to access a new area containing a giant’s golden eggs (from Jack and the Beanstalk) and a rusty iron door. The eggs and their associated magic words (“fee fie foe foo”) will be useful in a later puzzle, but for now we can go back and fetch some oil from the other pit to open the door. Just beyond that is a waterfall and a trident which will also become useful later.

The final curiosity of this section of the maze is trivial: we find a velvet pillow in one room east of the pits and a precious and fragile vase just to the north. We have to return the treasure, of course, but we are clumsy adventurers and would smash the vase if we put it down in the hard ground. Once we find the pillow, we can put it down first and save the vase from an unexpectedly hard landing.

A troll under a bridge.

Troll Bridge

Just beyond and a bit southwest of where we retrieved the trident is the Troll Bridge, another area that is very tricky. I solved this last time I played but I completely forgot and didn’t remember what the solution was until I consulted my old notes. It’s a good one!

When you enter this area, you have to cross a bridge guarded by a troll. He’ll be more than happy to let you through… for a fee. We have to give up one of our treasures! The first time, I used the coins here thinking that it was a choice between the batteries and the troll, but I later learned that the coins are a treasure too. The solution is in a very subtle magic word: “fee fie foe foo”. This incantation doesn’t transport us anywhere, rather it transports the golden eggs back to the giant’s room. How the heck could you discover this by accident? I have no idea. In fact, I have no idea how I figured it out at all since all I had was a note in my map that I did. You’d think I’d remember… In any event, if you give the troll the eggs, we can then fetch them back after we’re done with the section and therefore not lose a treasure. Fantastic!

On the other side of the bridge is an area near a volcano, notable for containing a set of spices (another treasure) and a chained up bear. If we were smart enough to bring the food and some keys along, we can feed the bear to make it friendly and then unchain him with the keys. The golden chain is another treasure. We have to pay another toll on our way back but rather than lose the spices, you can “throw” the bear at the troll to defeat him. I’ve read a number of people complain about this puzzle and while it’s not great, the use of the “throw” verb is in the troll’s dialog and we had to use it earlier to toss him the eggs. Not ideal and it could have been clearer, but I figured it out easily enough. With that, we can defeat the troll to claim two more prizes before using the giant’s magic words to return the lost eggs. We’re making progress!

Don’t trust secondary entrances...

Y2 and Below

Just a bit north of the Hall of the Mountain King is the “Y2” room where we find a rock labeled “Y2” and we hear a voice saying “plugh”. Of course, this is another one of the famous magic words of Adventure and saying that here causes us to warp back and forth to the building. This not only will provide a more convenient exit (I almost always use this one rather than the “xyzzy” one), it also provides us a way out that will allow us to transport the gold nugget that we found in the beginning of the game.

Just below there is a segment in the southeast corner of the maze that contains one of the simpler-but-still-fun puzzles of the game: the clam. We find a series of four sloping rooms where we can vaguely smell seawater. In the third room, we also discover a giant clam but it is closed and we can’t seem to open it. I solved this one by accident: if you try to open it normally, you cannot succeed, but if you have the trident that we discovered, the clam opens easily and a pearl rolls out. It will roll down the ramp and end up two rooms away, but it is easy to head down and pick it up without further difficulty. Other than the connection between the trident (representing Poseidon?) and the clam (representing Venus?), I’m not sure how you’d know to use the items together, but I eventually came across it.

This corner also is home to the “Witt’s End” maze and its Anteroom outside, as well as one of the very unfair puzzles of the game. In the anteroom is a copy of Spelunker Today magazine. It’s not a treasure and we gain nothing by bringing it back to the building; instead, we have to drop the magazine off in Witt’s End. I’m not sure if there is any way to know to do this and the original players supposedly solved this by using a debugger to search through the code. It’s become so well-known now that I knew to do it, but I doubt I could have figured it out on my own-- or even known there was something to find out.

“Witt’s End”, incidentally, is a maze in name only. It’s a single room (which we can easily see when we drop the magazine) and we can’t leave in any direction. If we stay stuck long enough, we will be offered a hint not to go west. I always solved this by going east until I randomly get out but I believe you can do so using other directions as well. This is one of a handful of rooms where random chance plays too much of a role in exploration. (The “Bedquilt” room is another example.) Still, knowing what to do, it’s pretty easy.

This is a plover.

Plover Room

Just to the north of the Two Pit area is a set of puzzles that I had not defeated before but which I conquered now for the first time: the “plover” room. I had learned at some point that “plover” was one of the famous magic words of Adventure, so I cannot claim to have had no help.

Our first interaction with the “plover” area will be when we discover a narrow fissure that is just barely wide enough for us to squeeze through if we drop all of our items. (A second narrow fissure further south cannot be traveled through and I suspect I conflated the two locations mentally.) It sounds like the Coal Mine puzzle from Zork, right? Except here, there is a dim light on the other side and we pick up an emerald. We can even bring the emerald back through the fissure with us! Puzzle solved? Not exactly. There’s also a room to the northeast that is dark and we have no light source. To explore it, we’re going to have to solve the puzzle.

The trick here is that “plover” is a magic word. When used here, it takes us to Y2. Of course, it is very dark so we only hear the voice saying “plugh” to know where we are. I didn’t notice immediately, but it seems that the “plover” magic word has two functions: not only does it take us between the plover room and Y2, it also moves the emerald back to the plover room. (Since I had found the giant’s magic words earlier, I knew that some magic words could affect items but even so this side-effect is obscure and unexpected.) The trick is that we have to do it in two parts: first, using “plover” to access the room while we still have a light source. That lets us into the room just to the northeast to snag a bronze pyramid, another treasure. We can then return that to the building and then head to the plover room the long way to grab the emerald. Since it’s small, we CAN take it back through the fissure with us. This was a fun set of interconnected puzzles, especially as I didn’t realize at first what was making the emerald spring back to its starting position.

Strangely easy to defeat.

The Final Puzzles

If you have been following along, that’s fourteen treasures so far with only one left to go: a rug being guarded by a dragon just southeast of the Hall of the Mountain King. Solving this at first appears to be difficult as none of the weapons we’ve found so far will work. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a cheap joke: we just type “kill dragon” and the narrator asks if we mean with our bear hands. We say “yes” and the dragon is dead. It’s dumb.

But with that, we have defeated the game. Of course, this rapid talking through of the puzzles misses one huge point: this all takes a long time. The map is confusing and while I’ve described areas as being discrete, that’s far from the truth. Getting this far without running out of light is hard even when using the batteries for extra time, it is nigh impossible to do it without using them. The final puzzle in the main game then is the most difficult and requires the most luck: solving the game before the lantern dies the first time.

In my final playthrough, this is the path that I used. I was careful to turn off the lamp each time I returned to the surface because even wasting those turns was too many. Every time I made a mistake or spent too much time getting killed by a dwarf, I restored.
  • I started out by doing the basics up to defeating the snake. 
  • I grabbed the silver just north of the Hall of the Mountain King and then used “plover” to grab the platinum pyramid. I also nabbed the coins. (3 treasures done) 
  • Next, I headed back in empty-handed to grab the emerald before swinging by the vase and pillow on my way out. I also quickly threw the magazine into Witt’s End. The dwarf appeared for the first time during this segment and so I retrieved his axe. (5 treasures done) 
  • After that, I made a big plunge in grabbing the food, keys, and bottle. I killed the dragon for the rug then headed to the Two Pit room to get the eggs. I ran back to get some oil so that I could open the door leading to the trident. Before heading back up, I also crossed the troll bridge (using the eggs as the toll) to get the spices and chain. For good measure, I grabbed the pearl on the way out. (10 treasures done) 
  • I dived back in to get the jewelry, nugget, and retrieve the eggs again when the pirate finally arrived. I immediately headed to the “All Alike” maze to retrieve what I had lost plus pick up his chest. I didn’t have enough inventory space to get the diamonds on my way out so I had to take a very small trip back in to retrieve them. (15 treasures done) 

At this point, even with as much optimization as I could manage, my lamp is getting dim. What am I supposed to do now? I know from reputation that there is an endgame, but not sure how to get there. After a bit, I get a message that the cave is closing and that I need to exit through the “Main Office”, but I do not have enough battery power to make it out. Eventually, I realize-- and this took me far too long-- that even if I run out of battery power I can still stand in a room and “look” without dying. I can’t see anything but I can use up turns. And, after a few of those, the cave “closes” and I am teleported to the endgame.

Shhh! The dwarves are resting.

The Endgame

First, an admission: I didn’t realize that we needed to just wait a certain about of turns before the endgame started. I assumed that I needed to exit via the grate but I never had enough turns to make it back. I took a hint to discover that I needed to wait. It turned out not to be my final hint.

We find ourselves in a new set of two rooms, essentially “backstage” of the game. It’s a great surprise and a breakdown of the fourth wall. We find dozens of sleeping dwarves, piles of rods with rusty stars on them, cheerful birds and snakes, etc. It’s surprisingly cool, more so because I managed to stay unspoiled about this ending for the last thirty years. We can pick up some of the items in the room but there doesn’t appear to be anything we can do with them. The trick, which I worked out on my own, was in the one object in the room not in the game: there are rods with rusty marks on one end, not rusty stars. I guessed correctly that the solution would involve those, but unfortunately I had to take one more hint:

The new rods are dynamite. If we drop them in the northeast end of the room, head to the other side, then type “blast” then we blow a hole in the wall and the game ends. We won! I never would have figured that out on my own. Not only was it unclear (and unexpected) that the new rods were sticks of dynamite, there’s no way to guess that we would have to use that word to even where to put the charges. It’s an unfair puzzle, undoubtedly the least fair of the game. Whereas Zork’s endgame was a master class in fantastic puzzle design, this one took the most obscure puzzle of the game and made it worse. It’s a disappointing ending, but I am glad I won!

There is no higher rating. Woohoo!

Final Rating

Ilmari already rated this game and his rating will remain our official score for the game, but I wanted to see how it would have scored if I had done it. Let’s see:

Puzzles and Solvability - This game deserves so much credit for being the “first”, but I feel I need to grade it based on how it sits next to its descendants rather than its contemporaries. To that end, I’m very torn. The opening sequence is one of the best openings of an adventure game, especially one that had to define and explain itself to first-time players. That said, too many of the puzzles are too obscure and the final endgame is disappointing. I want to make it a two, but I have to round up a bit just because the emerald puzzle was nice. My score: 3.

Interface and Inventory - Again, it’s difficult to understate how much this game set the standard for adventures to come, but I have to be fair from a historical perspective. While the two-word parser is limiting (so limiting that the author cheats a bit, for example with the dragon), it actually never gets too far in the way as the interface does a good job of guessing the objects for our verbs. The descriptions are well done and we never particularly are at a loss for what we are viewing. That said, the descriptions are not quite verbose enough and we can’t get any deeper descriptions of objects. I am torn between a two and a three, but... My score: 2.

Story and Setting - Is there a story here? I’m not sure. The ending sort-of makes you a part of the story in a neat way, but you spend most of the game just knowing you need to wander around and collect treasure. That said, the setting is fantastic especially as it is based on a real place. The twisty and confusing passages work here much better than they did in Zork where they only existed to be complicated. My score: 3.

You can really visit the cave! (Or, at least, a bit of it.)

Sound and Graphics - Naturally, the first text adventure game has no graphics. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - Exploring the cave is great fun, even if you don’t try to recover all the treasures. The atmosphere is well-done and the surprising endgame would have been fantastic ten years later. I especially loved the mirror canyon, two rooms where you can see someone gesturing at you across a cavern. Only when you explored further can you find yourself at the bottom of the canyon, looking up at a gigantic mirror hanging from the ceiling. It’s great stuff. Perhaps the best aspect of this game. My score: 6.

Dialog and Acting - The prose is serviceable but very terse with only a handful of room descriptions that even border on literary. It’s fine, but just fine. My score: 3.

Tally that up to get (3+2+3+0+6+3)/.6 = 28. I’ll give it +3 for inventing our genre for a total score of 31. That is a bit lower than Ilmari’s score of 33-- he liked the text and the interface more than I did-- but all in all pretty close. We know there’s a certain amount of variability in these scores and I’m pretty satisfied overall.

From here, I will be heading back into regular Infocom territory for a bit. Thank you for humoring me with this special birthday post. In terms of future Adventure coverage, there are a few versions that might bear further investigation, especially Crowther’s 1976 original (and incomplete) game and Wood’s 1978 (440-point) expansion. There is also no shortage of expansions by other authors over the years. Still, this is the version that I suspect inspired our genre the most and I am glad to finally be able to say that I won. I am especially glad that I won using the version of the game that I played as child. It took me back; thank you!

Up next: Sorcerer.


  1. Just to be clear, the score remain's Ilmari's score. That's why the number has a red X over it.

  2. I have read many articles (including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossal_Cave_Adventure) that give the timeline for ADVENT of having been written in 1975-76 and expanded in 1976-77. However, that doesn't match my memory.

    I first encountered ADVENT at an open house at UCLA. I'm 90%+ certain this was before (or just after) I graduated high school in 1973. The game was played on teletypes connected to the ARPANet at BBN (which I didn't know at the time was the corporate offices of Bolt Beranek and Newman - I just assumed it was another University). The person who showed me the game spoiled the Dragon puzzle, so I'll never know if I could have solved it myself.

    I took a year off from UCSB in 1975-1976 to work for Geac Computers in Canada. In the Spring of 1976, I was working in the Toronto (actually Markham) office when I discovered a ZOPL version of ADVENT on the Geac minicomputer.

    I played it to distraction and "won", but was consistently 1 or 2 points short of the maximum score. However, the programmer who translated the game left his name in the comments, and I was able to contact him - I think he was in New York at the time. He mailed me a 9-track magnetic tape with the source code, and I found a comment about "doing the right thing" to get 1-2 points (I don't recall the number); it was the magazine puzzle, not required to finish the game. I "debugged" the program by displaying a message on reaching that location. From there, I was able to work out what to do and get a perfect score.

    So yes, the game was "won" in the early days, although I had to cheat to get the last point or two. It taught me a useful debugging technique that I still use today.

    But the timeline! How could the game have not been completed and winnable until 1977 if I played it, and won, in 1976? And in a version translated from FORTRAN to ZOPL, so it must have existed long enough for a Geac programmer to get the source code and rewrite the program in a very different programming language? How could Crowther have written the first version in 1976 if I played it in 1973? I have to assume he created an early version in 1972 or 1973, and later expanded it. Something is wrong with the commonly published dates.

    1. Heh, I just read the Witt's End paragraph in the post. Either my solution has become folklore (I've posted the part about debugging the game to solve the puzzle elsewhere), or other people used the same technique.

      To clarify on the time frame, I returned to UCSB for 1976-1977, which is how I am able to exactly place my "solving" the game in 1976. It's possible I misremember the UCLA visit, and that it actually took place after I started school at UCSB in Sept. 1973, but it absolutely took place before I encountered the game at Geac, which means before June 1975. My memory places that visit in Spring or Summer of 1973, before I graduated high school, because I remember the UCLA students as much older than me. I don't think I would have the memory in that form if I was also a University student when I attended that Open House.

    2. The mystery deepens...

      From what I have been able to find, the original version was probably completed during the 1975-1976 academic year. I have the Fortran source for it (dated March 1977, although that is when Woods took his copy rather than when the original file was last modified) and hope to play it one of these days. Grepping through it quickly, I do not see the magazine puzzle in there so that must have been added later. I agree that doesn't quite line up with your recollection.

      As for solving it with a debugger, maybe it was you! Doing that has become "folklore" as you put it and I'm not sure I found a source that said who did that originally... but it's not impossible that multiple players resorted to the same to try to get the last points.