Saturday, 2 May 2015

Missed Classic 8: Mission: Asteroid (1980)

Written by: Joe Pranevich



The Space Quest series was not Sierra’s first foray into science-fiction, nor was Space Quest IV the company’s first real look at time travel. No, both of those firsts have to be credited to Roberta Williams in the Hi-Res Adventure series. While I am still too far away from being able to explore Time Zone (1982), the sixth game in the series, I am right on time to look at Mission: Asteroid, the third… sort-of. This may require some explanation.


As 1980 drew to a close, Ken and Roberta Williams knew that they were onto something big with their graphical adventure games. Their first two games, Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess were successful enough that they could continue to grow the series and their fledgeling company, but I suspect something was up. Those first two games were crackingly difficult and frequently frustrating, even for someone that had the backing of an adventure game community playing behind him. I can only conjecture, but when it came time to make another, Ken and Roberta stepped back to make a simpler (and shorter) game: Mission: Asteroid which they retroactively branded as “Hi-Res Adventure #0”. It would be the new “first” game in their adventure gaming series.

It is to their credit that at this point in the series Ken and Roberta were not playing it safe. The first two Hi-Res Adventure games were in different genres (a mystery and a fantasy quest, respectively) and there must have been at least a little pressure to keep going with what was working. This third (first?) game would be given a sci-fi theme, a race against the clock to save the earth from total destruction. While we’ve had several big-budget films based around the premise, especially the dueling 1998 films Deep Impact and Armageddon, that was not the case in 1980. The pair may have been inspired by the 1978 television film Fire in the Sky which entailed blowing up a comet with nuclear missiles. Other possible inspirations include 1968’s The Green Slime which featured astronauts blowing up an asteroid but bringing home an alien life form or potentially even Jules Verne’s 1877 novel, Off on a Comet which featured a comet glancing off the earth and taking a chunk with it, complete with Victorian adventurers and a surprising amount of not killing everyone.


I was unable to locate a real title screen for this game, only this “cracked” variant.

But while the premise may be unique, I have to take Ken and Roberta Williams to task for this: there are too many coincidences between this game and the 1979 Scott Adams adventure Mission Impossible (later to be renamed Secret Mission, once the lawyers for the television series got involved). That game was also the third game in the series, took place in the modern era (a first for Scott Adams, but not for the Hi-Res series), and required the player to complete the game in a certain amount of time or disaster would strike. Those coincidences are not damning, but frankly it feels like they cut corners in the idea department in order to rush out a third game in 1980. I hope the game does not play like that.



While researching this game, I found two different manuals. The first appears to have been from the original release and is very sparse, but serviceable, providing only the backstory that an asteroid is coming to earth and you are an astronaut who has to blow it up to save everyone. A subsequent release included a change in backstory (you are now a cadet), provides the solution to an early puzzle (the password), and you are given a few more clues as to what you need to do. I did not find the second manual before I started to play and while the differences seem slight, I feel it subtracts more than it adds. The idea that a cadet would be sent on this mission, rather than a trained astronaut, breaks my suspension of disbelief. For the purpose of this review, I will be ignoring the second manual.

Enough introduction, let’s play the game!


A well house for a large spring?

I start the game in front of an ugly green building. Almost immediately, I hear a beeping noise. I know from the manual that I am wearing a watch, so I take a look at that and find a switch. Pressing the switch gives me a message from Mission Control that I am to report to the briefing room and that the password is “starstruck”. I head into the building but I find my way blocked by a secretary. She wants the password before she lets me in and I give it to her. First puzzle solved! Maybe this is a game for new players?

I know that I need to find the briefing room, but I have no idea where it is so I explore. The base is shaped like a “T” with a east-west hallway at the southern end and the leg of the “T” facing north. I explore east first and find a computer room, a supply room, a gym, and a shower room. (I’ll get back to what I found in those momentarily.) The north hallway seems to lead to a launch pad, but there is a doctor there that blocks my passage. Since I don’t find the briefing room back that way, I explore west from where I started and find it right away. There is a general there and I think he has something he needs to tell me.


General Ross? Oops. Wrong game.

I salute the general and he begins my briefing:

“An asteroid is about to hit the earth. You must fly to the asteroid and blow it up. Of course, this information is top secret. The asteroid is projected to strike the earth at 7:15 tonight.”

I check my watch: it’s already 4:15. All that exploring of the base took time! Can I make it in three hours? I know from the manual that I will need a flight plan, and the doctor at the end of the hallway told me that I needed to be in “better shape” and to “get rid of that awful smell.” Time to see what I can do about that.

This is what I have found so far:
  • A computer room with an Apple computer and a disk that I can pick up. I suspect I need to read my orders off of the disk, but I cannot convince the computer to give it to me. I suspect it’s a parser issue and I will come back later.
  • A supply room containing explosives. The manual warns me against handling them until I have to, so I will mark down where they are and grab them before I leave.
  • A room with the press corps. I was warned by the general not to talk to them, so I don’t. (I follow orders!)
  • A gym with an attached shower room.


Dead and potentially naked.

I exercise on the gym equipment as the doctor asked and then head into the showers. Try as I might, I cannot seem to get the showers to work. I try “go shower”, “turn on”, “turn faucet”, and many other combinations but as I am working out what the parser wants me to type, the world explodes and I die. Think on that for a moment: The world ended because a crazy doctor decided that I smelled bad. Only in adventure games!

I restart the game and everything goes more quickly. Since I know where I’m going, I make the briefing by 12:50 and decide to keep exploring. Plenty of time, right? This time around, I ignore the shower and hope that I’ll come up with the right words soon. Instead, I work on the computer. And then it hits me: the computer in the game is an Apple ][! Why the military doesn’t have something better, I’ll never know, but the important thing is that I know that the Apple ][ did not by default have a DOS by itself. I shouldn’t be trying to “read” from the disk, I should be booting from it instead! I try “boot disk” (with the disk in the drive) and that does the trick. This is the flight plan that I am given:
  • Right for 10 minutes
  • Up for 5 minutes
  • Left for 15 minutes
  • Down for 5 minutes
  • Left for 5 minutes
  • Up for 10 minutes



State of the art!

Never mind that those directions make absolutely no sense in space, that gives me what I need. But I still have to figure out the shower.

And here is where I stumbled first: I needed to take a hint. And when you hear the command that worked, you will want to have my head examined because it is so obvious. I am embarrassed to tell you, but it is my journalistic duty to inform you any time I did not succeed in an adventure game on my own. Are you ready?

The command was “take shower”.

[ sound of head hitting desk over and over again ]



With that out of the way, I pick up the explosives and visit the good doctor again. He gives me a clean bill of health, does not complain about my body odor, and lets me onto the tarmac where I can see my beautiful rocket in the distance. I check my watch. I have an hour left. Is that enough time?

I board the rocket and work my way through a pressure room before arriving in the cockpit. There is a throttle as well as four buttons, but thankfully there is a helpful sign that explains their use:
  • You push the throttle for lift-off and pull it to land.
  • The four buttons each correspond to a direction (white is left, black is right, orange is up, and blue is down)
It’s time to lift-off! I push the throttle and moments later I am orbiting over our pale blue dot:


поехали!

My elation is short lived as the asteroid hits the Earth. Dead again.

I replay and look for ways to cut corners. In a few tries, I can get into the cockpit by 3:30. That gives me a bit less than four hours to find the asteroid and blow it up. Is that enough time? With a little bit of experimentation and looking at the watch in my inventory, I work out that each push of the buttons lasts five minutes. It is simple after that to work out the sequence from the flight plan (black, black, orange, white, white, white, blue, white, orange, and orange) and minutes later I am in orbit around the asteroid!

I pull on the throttle to land… and I crash into a crater and die. What the heck?


Curse you asteroid!

I run through the opening again and manage to shave 15 minutes off my time, arriving in the cockpit at 2:55. I repeat my steps and die again. I must be missing something, so I go to explore the spaceship. In addition to the cockpit and the airlock, there is a supply room containing a space suit. So do I need to spacewalk to the asteroid instead? I put on the spacesuit and launch myself out the airlock, but I am sucked into space and die. Something tells me that I am not on the right track.

While I am experimenting with commands, I notice something: the view of the asteroid changes every five minutes. Sometimes there is one, two, three, or four craters visible. So saving and restoring my game, I try them one at a time:
  • One crater? DEAD.
  • Four craters? DEAD.
  • Two craters? DEAD.
  • Three craters? I make it!
I land, put on my space suit, find a dial to turn to activate the air (good thing I found that!) and exit the airlock. The asteroid is itself a small maze: moving west does not mean that you can get back the way you came by going east. Before I can even get started on a proper map, I find a cave to explore:


That looks familiar somehow...

And… sorry. I have to stop and say how much I love this one screen. I know it isn’t very much and that most of the asteroid segment is just exploring empty gray on gray, but here we have a nice picture of the asteroid with the blue earth on the horizon. It’s a great picture, but even better because it must have been inspired by a real one:


Just… beautiful.

This photo, and others like it, were taken by Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. For all that the science in this game is laughable, I feel better knowing that Ken and Roberta turned to images like this one in their research for this game. Details are important and kudos to the couple for this one.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, before I can explore the cave I run out of air and die.

I restore back and am able to find the cave again more quickly. In the back of the cave, I find a deep hole that seems to lead to the heart of the asteroid. (Good thing I find that, otherwise would my explosives have been strong enough?) I set the timer on the explosives to 90 minutes and drop them down into the hole.


There’s a hole in my asteroid, dear Liza, dear Liza...

I quickly make it back to my ship… except I can’t find it. I am trapped in the asteroid maze when the asteroid strikes the earth. Naturally, I die.

On the next try, I manage to shave off some time, drop the bomb down the hole, make it back to my spaceship and take off. Unfortunately, before the bomb can detonate we strike the Earth and everyone is killed.

Without any more good options, I re-review the entire game and play from the beginning again. By cutting back on commands to the very minimum, I am able to make it to the asteroid by 3:35. Just to give you an idea how carefully I have to plan this, I even nip off 1-2 turns by putting on my spacesuit while I am waiting for the asteroid to be in the proper “three crater” position for landing. This takes some precision!


You would think I would have an easier time finding a massive rocket.

On my next attempt, I am able to get to the cockpit in enough time and take off from the asteroid. But now what? Do I run through the buttons backwards? As I try that, the asteroid explodes which is pretty good for the inhabitants of earth, but my ship is destroyed by some flying debris and I die. I guess being a martyr is not enough for this game? I suppose I’ll just have to make it back to safety.

On the next attempt, I set the timer for 120 minutes and am able to follow the instructions backwards to find the earth. Except, the earth isn’t there. I have no idea how to find earth, I have very few turns in which to do it in, and yes… I die again. Are you detecting a pattern here?

I go back to the hint-well and get one more hint: you do not need to exactly follow the flight plan.


The final frontier...

Thinking about what this hint might mean, I start to experiment with the directions in space. Most of the screens are empty but it seems that almost all of the time if you go “up” you can come back to where you were with “down”. Obviously, not all of the time because otherwise following the plan backwards should have led me to earth, but often enough. So what if I optimize my path? Instead of going right twice then left four times; what if I just go left twice?

And that works! I am able to reduce the flight plan from 10 steps (50 minutes) to 4 (20 minutes) by just going “up, up, left, left”. What a stupid flight plan! Obviously, we understand now why we no longer do space flight using Apple ][ computers.

With that out of the way, after several attempts I still cannot find my way back to earth. Over and over again I die in deep space, never to touch the dirt of my homeworld again. It is depressing and I take yet another hint, my third this game. The correct solution is: blue, blue, black, black… white.

Yes, I was right that you reverse the directions, but then you add a step at the end. Why? I have no idea. Did the earth move? Probably, but this game doesn’t have quite that level of science behind it. If anyone knows the answer, please tell me in the comments because I really want to imagine that this puzzle makes some sense. I do that and there it is: the earth. As I sit in orbit, the asteroid explodes behind me. The earth is saved and I win.


So, guys... Help me down?

Time played: 4 hours
Total time: 4 hours.


PISSED Rating

Now that the game is over, let’s see how it did on our PISSED rating scale.


Puzzles and Solvability - 3

We’ve all played games with timed sequences, but I do not know that I have played a fully timed game before now. I had a lot of fun trying to shave off time by cutting back on unnecessary commands, looking for shortcuts, and finding alternate paths. But while I enjoyed that quite a bit, I dislike games where you have to save and restore to solve puzzles by trial and error (such as the timing to land the spaceship), and I am particularly frustrated with the final “puzzle” where you have to correctly deduce that you can follow the flight plan backwards and then add an extra step for no clearly explained reason.


Interface and Inventory - 2

I probably should give this game a “3” in this category because it’s the same interface as Wizard and the Princess and Mystery House, but I found the parser here to be more sticky than in those games, perhaps because of the reduced development time. There was also significantly fewer inventory items to find and use: just the watch, the disk, the explosives, and the spacesuit.




Story and Setting - 3

I do not particularly think the game makes sense: it is not explained why you are the only one that can do this and it is unrealistic that you need to exercise and shower before you can save the earth. That said, I have to give Ken and Roberta credit for having a relatively new take on this genre and correctly predicting not one but two 1998 blockbusters. Way to go! The manuals do not add any points here because they are either too sparse to have a story (the first one), or what story they add only detracts from the game (the second one).


Sound and Graphics - 2

The graphics were uninspired and several of the screens seemed less detailed than the previous entries in the series. I really liked the shot of the earth on the horizon, but that does not make up for some of the lazy art throughout the rest of the game. And if you look carefully, you can even see that several of the base screens include reused assets from Wizard and the Princess.


Environment and Atmosphere - 3

The time limit brings a nice dose of tension into an otherwise pretty simple game, and that was a good choice. The overall environments are well designed and there are some good ideas here.


I never figured out what to do here. Another way to lose the game?


Dialog and Acting - 2

With only two NPCs that you can interact with and text that is somewhat less verbose than the previous entries, there is not all that much here to like. It has pretty much the minimum it needs to get by and nothing more.


Drumroll please…

(3+2+3+2+3+2)/.6 = 25! I admit that feels a bit low, and it is the lowest of the Hi-Res Adventure games to date. But, I think that score is reasonable for a rushed prequel that was designed to be easier for novice players to get into. If it were me, I would have made the very first game in the series as polished as possible so as not to bite the newbies, but no one asked me. (I was two. I probably wouldn’t have answered anyway.)



Mission: Asteroid also marks a turning point in the “Hi-Res Adventure” series. The next game in the series, Cranston Manor (1981), will be the first that is not designed by Roberta Williams. I look forward to seeing what a different designer brings to the Hi-Res formula at some point in the future. For now, back to Space Quest IV!

10 comments:

  1. I think that picture was taken from orbit, not from the surface.

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    1. You are correct! Good eye! This was a picture from orbiting the moon. There are plenty of pictures from the moon's surface, but that wasn't one of them.

      You can find a bunch more at http://www.apolloarchive.com/apollo_gallery.html.

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  2. [ sound of head hitting desk over and over again ]

    Think of the size of the backpack this adventurer must have? This is the very epitome of "everything but the kitchen sink."

    As I sit in orbit, the asteroid explodes behind me. The earth is saved and I win.

    Can you confirm or deny vague memories that gameplay continues and, notably, that the "earth destruction" countdown continues after the game victory message is displayed?

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    1. Yes. I did not realize it on my first playthrough when I did this post, but I replayed later and yes... after the victory message you can keep playing, except that the death timer isn't disabled. You will still get the asteroid hit message shortly after.

      I consider that a bug, but it didn't impact my play or score-- especially as I did not notice it until it was pointed out to me.

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  3. "You're not quite strong enough for this mission, go bust out a few reps."

    If the Earth is really going to be destroyed in a matter of hours, I don't think they would care whether you smell bad. And why do you smell bad BEFORE you've done your workout?

    I wonder whether you can deploy the explosives with the reporters. :P

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    Replies
    1. If you had trouble with "take shower" there's probably no hope for you when we get to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984?)

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    2. Speaking of: apparently you can play the 30th anniversary version right in your browser! There goes my day...
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1g84m0sXpnNCv84GpN2PLZG/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-game-30th-anniversary-edition

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    3. I think part of my problem was that my brain falls into certain ruts and normally I could just step out and come back in a day or two and get it, but since I was working to a deadline I wasn't able to solve it. And once you crack the seal and get hints, the next hint is easier to ask for...

      I do not plan on playing HHGttG any time soon, though another reviewer might do so. My personal quest is to play the graphical adventure games of this era as "Missed Classics", so I anticipate hitting mostly Sierra and Scott Adams SAGA games for a while. If I run out of those and the sun hasn't gone nova, then I would *LOVE* to play through the Infocom games. (I have done most of them as a kid. I played the hell out of the "Lost Treasures of Infocom" sets.)

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    4. At least it was "take shower" and not "take dream."

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    5. Oh! But that scene in "Dallas" didn't happen yet! That was 1986, this game is much older than that. ;)

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