Richard Price takes on an icy foe ...
THE SOFTWARE business seems to suffer as much from the silly season as your average daily newspaper. Everyone goes off to Ibiza, Crete or Terrormolinos for the whole of August, while the companies all tuck their software aces up their sleeves ready for the Christmas onslaught on your teetering bank balance.
Then, in late summer, when everyone has returned invigorated from their steamy holiday haunts, comes the time of the Great Gathering. Tribes of PR persons, hardware salesmen, ashen-faced advertising reps and regiments of over-tired journalists throng excitedly into the bars at Olympia for the mighty PCW Show. Such scenes may well convince you that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
This is the place, you might think, where new adventures will surface in all their glory to compete with the skimpily clad go-go dancers in their effect on your pulse-rate. Not so. This year's show produced a dearth of adventure material and the vagaries of magazine print means that this famine works its way through to the reader round about now.
As I wandered the lanes of the vast exhibition hall, I ran into the Games Mistresses, alias the girls of St Brides, whose first production, The Secret of St Brides, I reviewed last month. They favoured me with a pre-production preview copy of their latest opus The Snow Queen.
This is a computer reworking of the much-loved fairy-tale classic by Hans Andersen and has a plot ideally suited to the adventure format - the young heroine Gerda journeys into magic and danger in search of her friend Kay, who has been spirited away by the agents of the maleficent and beautiful Snow Queen.
The game is a Quilled text adventure. There are to be graphics included in the final version but the Girls are not yet sure what their final form will be. Priscilla, one of the prefects, says that they may dispense with the usual location graphics in favour of a system which displays pictures in response to the Examine command.
The copy I was given was the first of two full-length parts to be sold together. The storyline follows the original tale closely and players will need to read the story carefully before playing - rather like with The Hobbit.
If you have boned up on the story you won't find the early part of the game too difficult to get into - but beware, as extra problems have been built into it all the way through. This is no slavish copy and there are plenty of original and humorous touches to add spice and variety.
One such piece of originality is in the 'personality' of Gerda. You don't simply take control of her - she allows you to help her. There are times when she won't approve at all of what you suggest and, if things go wrong, she will simply head off on her own and end up in a right pickle.
When I sent her down on a bucket into a well poor Gerda got soaked. She immediately went into a real sulk and ran off into the trees of the witch's cherry orchard. There she got stuck and had to be helped to safety from the slavering jaws of a rabid guard dog.
You will also need to remember that Gerda is quite a little girl and not necessarily as accomplished in her education as you are. In her search for escape from the bewitchment of the orchard she comes across some books which teach the language of flowers and birds. She tries hard to understand them but you will have to push her more than once to concentrate properly.
All this gives a nice feeling of interplay between Gerda and yourself. The gradual increase in the difficulty of the problems also helps to get your enthusiasm going because, by the time you get well and truly stuck - instead of temporarily stumped - you will have progressed far enough to want desperately to continue.
The Snow Queen is well-written and it really is a pleasure to see literate computer games passing on the pleasures of traditional stories. I'm sure that it will have considerable appeal to everyone in the family, girls and boys, big and little. The final version should make an ideal Christmas gift - we'll give the game a rating as soon as the retail version is available.
Gilsoft, publishers of The Quill and Illustrator, also produces its own-brand games. Madcap Manor is one of the new adventures which offer a graphic game on one side and an expanded text version on the other.
It's 1933 and you are cast as the famous Belgian detective. Inspector Le-Gles - oww! As befits such a personage you've been invited as a house-party guest to Madcap Manor, the stately residence of Lord Algernon Stingy - and boy, is he mean. It even costs money to play billiards at his posh gaff.
The action begins, naturally enough, with Monsieur Le-Gles strolling down to breakfast after a good night's kip on a feather bed. He meets his distraught host who tells him that the Dowager Lady Ditchley's giant ruby ring has been stolen during the night. Gallantly Monsieur I'Inspecteur accepts the challenge.
Thus you begin your exploration of the Stingy mansion in true Agatha Christie style. The place is vast and contains servants' quarters, cellars and secret passages as well as the main apartments and spacious grounds.
One secret route will only be found if you can assemble all the necessary equipment - and aforementioned finance - to play a very poor game of billiards. As the interpreter says 'a proper little Hurricane Higgins, aren't we?' Make sure you go for the big score and pot black!
It soon becomes apparent that there is more going on at the Manor than meets the eye. The long-lost Amazonian explorer, Horatio Stingy, has a finger in this pie, as you'll discover if you ring for a servant from the summer house. A Jivaro Indian will appear to give you advice. Other servants and guests can be summoned or encountered and there's a living Cluedo feel to the play.
The game is Quilled, of course. The graphics, done with The Illustrator, are pretty good and the cellar pictures quite moody and atmospheric, as are some of the splendid bedrooms and drawing rooms. Once you've had a look at those you may want to try out the plain text game. That has more detailed description and is slightly fuller, with added locations.
The house and its grounds are fairly open to exploration - obviously excepting the secret parts which you'll have to discover by trial and error. Be careful not to miss opportunities - I dithered when a wall slid open and it shut before I got a chance to get through. Saving regularly helps in those situations.
There's a vein of silly humour running through the action and the interpreter's responses are lively and occasionally cheeky. That encourages you to persist and make progress in a friendly and cheerful way.
Madcap Manor, then, is an entertaining and well-constructed variation on the detective theme. I like the idea of having two versions of the game as you end up having your cake and eating it too, if you feel like it. Nice one, Hercule.
Gilsoft continues to add to the versatility of The Quill adventure writing system. The Illustrator brought graphics within everyone's reach but not everyone wants the full-screen separate location graphics it produces, Split-screen pictures are more the norm these days and The Patch will allow you to put graphics and text together. It will also do a few other things besides.
As usual, there are thorough instructions provided with the cassette, though it is assumed that by now you will be familiar with the workings of The Quill and The Illustrator. Gilsoft recommends that The Patch should be used with a C series Quill, though this is not essential. Do remember that you can get an upgrade of your earlier versions by sending off your cassette insert along with £2.99.
The main function of The Patch is to change the operation of the database and graphics programs to allow split-screen graphics and text. It does that by amending the code and allowing you to specify, using Flag 27, where your text lines should begin beneath the location graphic. With that system your picture will slowly scroll up the screen as you input text.
The other routines can be accessed by using Flag 28. There are a number of sound effects such as siren, telephone, electric shock and white noise. You will also be able to use different typefaces in the same game - instructions are provided on how to Poke them in and out of use. Different types of key-click noise are available as well as routines to turn pictures on or off.
To use The Patch you will first have to create your text and graphic databases in the normal way on Quill and Illustrator but incorporating the new instructions detailed in The Patch documentation. Those instructions won't have any effect on the usual operation of those utilities but, once you've loaded all the data, you'll find that you have your split-screens, sound effects or whatever in action in a complete adventure.
Gilsoft certainly isn't resting on its laurels and seems to be set on continually improving the adventure writing system - it's probably fair to wonder just where adventure would be without that stimulus. Hang on in there for the long-awaited text compressor!
From the pleasures of rural life we return to the pressures of the big city with the London Adventure from Fridaysoft. Once again we have a Quilled game in text only. I could only find one very obscure reference to a 'quill pen' in the game and assume that to be the credit - perhaps it could have been a bit more prominent?
This game is very much like a computerised A to Z guide to London. There are over 100 locations, many of them well-known London features like Big Ben, Cleopatra's Needle, Madame Tussaud's and so on. The aim is to explore London, which is mapped more or less correctly, to discover the numbers which make up the combination of a safe deposit box. Opening the box will deliver your rightful inheritance. The correct sequence for the numbers will only be given when you've found all eight.
Regrettably, the authors have imposed a limitation which can end the game if you run over a certain level. That is very counter-productive as it stops the kind of leisurely exploration which is a normal pleasure of the genre. Let's keep all that scurrying around for the arcade, eh folks?
In general the description and detail is quite full with a good grasp of London's geography. You can visit most of the major tourist attractions in your quest and there's enough event to keep up your interest. Some of the problems are more at the level of verbal gymnastics, however, and I do feel it's pretty unnecessary to make life difficult for players by not providing adequate synonyms for actions. Using 'through' as a verb instead of 'enter' when you've already allowed it at other points isn't really a puzzle it simply becomes aggravating and that tends to mean most people will stop playing.
That, along with the turn limitation, reduces the general playability of a game which would not be that bad provided you were really into the idea of exploring London. Not enough for me, and the price is a bit steep for what you get.
Lastly there's The Pay-Off from Bignose Software, another company encountered at the PCW show. This is a very plain text adventure, apparently licensed from the Atari Corporation I suspect at some time in the more remote past.
There's this hood Luigi, see, and you're into him for 40 grand in gambling debts. There's also a large and fancy gemstone deposited in a vault somewhere in the Big Apple - or New jersey if that's any different. The rock is worth 40 grand too, so all you gotta do to stay cool is to find it and fence it. OK?
The location descriptions are slim, if not emaciated, and are more like names with a list of objects present. That might not necessarily be a big disadvantage if the screen display and response times weren't so slow. As it is, the presentation and speed are reminiscent of ZX-81 and very early Spectrum games. At the asking price of £5.95 that is simply not good enough - especially when you recall that you can pick up fast and complex bargain games for less than that.