Thursday, 17 September 2015

Missed Classic: Questprobe #3 - WON! and Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

Time to see what is beyond the wall of fire!

Thing Journal #3 - So Johnny comes and joins me down in the caves and he’s able to get past the wall of fire and slow down the wind. Why there’s a lever to slow down the wind, I have no idea. But then we fly up and he gets the crazy idea to fire me from a cannon at the Blob. Typical hotheaded reaction, but what do you expect? He fires the cannon and the Blob dodges, sending me straight through to the castle. But once there, Xandu gets into my brain right good and doesn’t let me save Alicia. Torch then calls out that he’ll be right back; says he knows how to create an earthquake or something. Few minutes later, the ground shakes and look, Xandu’s knocked unconscious by a statue of Dr Doom. Talk about irony, right? But I free Alicia and high-tail it outta there.

Torch Journal #3 - Hey Ben, I blew up the gas in the tunnel underneath the castle then everything got quiet... Ben? Hello? Anyone?


Escape from the Pit

When we last left our heroes, the Thing and the Torch were reunited in a series of caves deep under Latveria. The Thing had made his way there by holding his breath and sinking to the bottom of a tar pit, while the Torch took a more circuitous route to blow the cap off of a tunnel and fly down. Now, we need to figure out a way to get both of them out of the cave so that we can rescue Alicia from Dr. Doom’s clutches.

But before I get to that, there is one puzzle immediately in front of me: the Natter energy egg and Bio gem. It had been hidden behind a wall of fire in the cave and, as expected, the Human Torch has absolutely no difficulty passing through it. But what to do next is less clear and, as expected, the energy egg explodes and takes the Bio gem with it. In both previous games, the Bio gem/energy egg puzzle was one of the key riddles of the game and required mastery of the hero’s abilities: for the Hulk, the trick was to eat the egg and have it explode harmlessly in his super-stomach; while for Spider-Man, the gem could be grabbed from afar with the help of some web-formula. But how can we use the Thing’s and Torch’s powers? There is a jet of fire in the room, but nothing I can find to do with it. As I experiment with different solutions, I die several times. Am I missing an item? The Thing might be able to contain the explosion if he could just get the tar off, but there’s no way I can find to do that. The manual suggests that I should have control over nearby flame and I try to “extinguish” the wall, but that doesn’t work either. Sprinting past the gem doesn’t work because while I can get past in time, the gem is still destroyed. This might require some thought.


The all-important Bio gem!

Since there’s no exit that way that won’t destroy the gem (which I presume I will need to beat the game), there’s no point to exploring further that way until I come up with a solution. I head back to the bottom of the pit and check whether I can fly out: nope. Even with “nova” flame and being 100% rested, I do not have enough energy to make it to the top without my flame going out. And when my flame goes out, I fall to my death. Fun stuff. I may have to restore, but as you recall I was pretty stuck before too.

After another hour of trying things and getting nowhere, I resolve to read the hint book again. But, very strange, I cannot find a solution to this puzzle in there. There isn’t even a word (or words) in the hint book’s substitution code for “bio gem”. Very carefully, I consult another guide online and discover that there is NO SOLUTION to this puzzle, at least none that the guide-writer found. And even if there is a solution, it’s not required to win the game. This just sits wrong with me. The gem is labeled with an asterisk (“*Bio gem”), a hint in every previous Questprobe game that I was looking at a key item. The puzzle was solvable in both previous games. The idea that this would be here and unsolvable (and that I would waste so much time on it) really frustrates me. If there’s a wrong move that this game has made so far, this would be it. Oh well. If someone has found a solution that I missed, please let me know.

Cursing under my breath, I let the egg explode and continue down the tunnel. The next room has a flickering flame jet and the third room is pitch black, although I can hear a hissing sound. I “flame on” to get some light and the whole tunnel explodes, killing me but apparently also causing an earthquake up in Doctor Doom’s castle. That sounds useful! It would be more useful if I wasn’t dead, but let’s file that away for later. I restore and just “feel around” in the dark rooms and quickly find a hole at the end of the tunnel. And, just like that, I have finally made it into Doctor Doom’s castle!


Today I Learned: Castle Doom has a basement.

The hole opens into a maintenance room. There’s a locked door that leads further into the castle, as well as a lever marked “low” and “high”. It is currently set to high and with no other leads, I shift it down to “low”. I switch back to the Thing and check, but it doesn’t change the wall of fire at all. While I was playing as the Torch, the candle that the Thing was carrying also burned out so he can’t do any more exploring. I switch back to the Torch, but I may need to restore back to an earlier save if I need the Thing to have a light. When I get to the room with all of the holes, I get some good news: the wind has calmed down from “hurricane-force” to just “strong”. That is an improvement!

I think I know what to do: I rest until I’m at 100% before typing “grab thing” and flying up the shaft. With a high flame, I am somehow able to carry the Thing’s weight up several screens of brick-lined rooms and barely make it to the top before I run out of energy. We are free! More than nine hours of game time and I’ve finally solved the first puzzle.

Having Fun Storming the Castle


Can we defeat these guys finally?

Having escaped from his underground prison, it’s time for the Thing to explore the world. We quickly make stops at the tarpit, in the city, and at the castle but there is nothing obviously new or different at any of those places. I was checking those first, but I think I know what to do: clobber some circus performers. Images swirl in my head of a Thing-led melee taking out all the characters in one tersely described text block. Unfortunately, that idea is quickly dashed because I can’t find anything to do with the Thing there, either.

In the process, I switch back to the Torch and try high flame. (I swear I tried that before, but perhaps not.) I try to fire the cannon and, well… I think I killed everyone, burned down the circus tent, and destroyed the cannon. Not my finest moment and a good reminder why we should be more careful when playing with fire. I restore back to think of a different approach.


With great power comes… something. I forget.

I have to admit something: at this point I was getting pretty frustrated. The Bio gem puzzle was a disappointment and only an hour or two later, I am stuck again. This game is difficult! And that’s when I took another hint and I really shouldn’t have. This was the hint:

Can’t get into the castle?
Clue #56: THING can get it.

The thudding sound you hear is my head hitting the desk. I had simply not considered that the Thing could just pick up the cannon and waltz out. I thought for sure that there was some deeper puzzle here, some way that you had to carefully fend off against the combined might of eight Marvel villains and a trained snake. But, no. You can just get the cannon and go, so I do.

I take the cannon to the road outside the castle. It takes a couple of tries to get the right wording, but I eventually figure out that Torch has to “load the cannon” from outside. I have Thing climb in, then Torch fires the cannon. BOOM. I get a message that something bounces harmlessly off the castle. I switch to the Thing, but he’s still in the cannon. He didn’t fly at all! I try a couple more variations before realizing that the Torch needs to “load” both the gunpowder and Thing in the cannon; the Thing can’t climb in himself. When I do it that way, the Thing bounces harmlessly off the castle wall. It’s progress!

From here, I try a bunch of things. I shoot the Thing at the castle, above the castle, at the gate, at a window, etc. None of them work. Maybe I’m in the wrong spot? I try the castle entrance instead and that looks to be the right spot: the cannon now appears on the screen. Since it did not appear on-screen before, I suspect I’m in the right spot.


This is another great use of the “panel” art style.

I try all those same things as I did before, but this time at point-blank range. Since you only have one gunpowder, I had to make all of these attempts between reloads so I really jacked up the count.

I’m getting desperate, so I consult the manual again looking for clues. Here’s one:

[The Blob’s] primary ability is to become virtually immovable at will so long as he is in contact with the ground. He does this by bonding himself to the earth beneath him by force of will [...].

Can he be defeated if you pull up the ground around him? I have no idea, but I bet the Thing is strong enough to try. I “dig” under the Blob and discover a new item: a purple worm. I have no idea what it is or why it is there, but I suspect I’ll find out soon enough. Fortunately, there are other good ideas in the manual, as well:

Further, it is not known whether his skin's imperviousness to heat could survive the 11,000,000 degree heat at ground zero of a multi megaton atomic blast.
A nuclear blast, you say? I think I can manage that with my “nova” flame. I power up the thing and fire a nova blast of energy at the Blob. Instead of stopping him, he just steps into a nearby alcove then comes back. It does make me feel like I’m on the right track however. What if I fire the cannon and the nova blast at the same time?

That does the trick! I even get a very nice animation out of it:


This is the most interesting animation of the series so far!

The end result of all of this is that the Thing is able to blow right past the Blob while he is dodging my nova blast. The Thing is in the castle!

Endgame


I think I saw this on Loony Tunes once.

We have the Thing in the castle, but now he and the Torch are separated again. I still have the Torch carrying the purple worm and the pebble, so I restore back and redo the cannon sequence to give them to the Thing instead. If it turns out that the Torch needs them, I can always restore again. I have a feeling we won’t be separated long.

In the next room, my heart skips a beat. There she is: Alicia Masters. Strangely, she’s being guarded by Xandu instead of Doctor Doom, but there’s at least a nice statue of Doom here so we know who owns the place. Am I at the end already?


The room just says narcissist, don’t you think?

I had never heard of Xandu before playing this game, so I looked him up. He’s a sorcerer of some kind, first appearing in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 in October 1965. Spider-Man teamed up with Doctor Strange to defeat him. By the time this game came out, he had appeared in only a half-dozen stories, one of which was a two-issue arc where he battled the Thing. His weapon here is the “Ruby of Domination” which the manual helpfully informs me can only control one person at a time. That sounds like a clue!

As soon as I enter, the Thing is forced to leave by the Ruby. Even closing my eyes doesn’t work! I guess Ringmaster has some competition now. I thought perhaps that the purple worm could act as a brain for Xandu to dominate, freeing up the Thing to explore the rest of the castle, but that doesn’t seem to be the trick. Just holding the worm doesn’t help and I can’t seem to put it on my head or otherwise make Xandu try to control it instead of me. I even tried to throw the worm into the room from outside. All good ideas, but not the right ideas.

After the required amount of thrashing, I get another hint:

Can’t rescue ALICIA?
Clue #67: Remember the caves.

Argh! I did forget! Remember when the Torch blew himself up under there, it said that I had caused an earthquake in the castle. Is that what I need to do now? I work the Torch back down to the caves and to the room at the end of the tunnel. I need to ignite the gas somehow, without getting caught in the explosion. But how?

I toss fireballs down the hole in the floor, but that doesn’t seem to do anything. After much trial and error, I find that I can toss a fireball if I stand by the flickering jet rather than in the maintenance room. But how will I get back to the doorway under the castle if the tunnel is collapsed? I’ll solve that problem when I get there. When the explosion happens, I am far enough away. I switch back to the Thing to survey the damage:


Like dominoes!

The earthquake has caused the statue to fall right onto Xandu! That seems anticlimactic somehow, but I quickly have the Thing “get alicia” and the game ends.


Magen Boo? Sorry, still too much Dragonball.

The ending feels a bit rushed, but we can discuss that a bit later. Right now, it’s time for the password: “MAEGEN”, an Old English word that means “strength, power, or might”. It could also be an alternate (but rare) transliteration of the Hebrew word “Magen”, meaning star, but best known as the term for the Star of David. The first was “ARIA” and the second was “MICAH”. I couldn’t find the connection so I went to the source: they are the names of Scott’s children! That’s a nice surprise, at least and a very subtle way for Scott to honor his children.

Time played: 5 hr 10 min
Total time: 12 hr 00 min

Deaths/Reloads: 33 (approximately), total 58
Hints Taken: 3, total 3


Final Rating


With the game behind us, we need to discuss a rating and boy will this be tricky. My feelings on this game are profoundly mixed: it has better puzzles than the first game, but also feels less well-developed. I guess the only way to see will be to run the numbers.

Puzzles and Solvability - 4

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first: this game has considerably better puzzles than the previous installment. No longer are we playing a simple scavenger hunt, rather we have a defined goal from the beginning. The extended sequence where you have to get the Thing out of the tar is a nice one, especially in the way that it made you use both characters together. I love that the solution inverted expectations by sending the Torch down into the caves rather than bringing the Thing up. In the end, the two-character puzzles that this game offers are better designed and requires more creativity on my part than most of the games that I have played so far. Obviously, I dropped the ball more than once here, but those problems were largely due to parser issues rather than puzzle design. I rarely felt cheated by any of the puzzles.


The game starts with a sinking feeling.

Just as in the previous games, there were some great clues hidden in the manual, but it also led me astray briefly. The manual clearly states that while flying, the Torch can carry around 180 pounds. The manual also gives the Thing’s weight as 500 pounds. Why does it provide this information if one of the puzzles requires the Torch to carry his friend up and out of the shaft in the cave? This wasn’t a huge deal because I figured it out quickly enough, but either the manual needed to be less specific or it should have clued you into this solution differently. I had a similar issue with the idea that the Torch could “extinguish” nearby fire: it’s hinted at in the manual, but was not a solution for any puzzle even though it seemed to be the right answer more than once.

My biggest disappointment is the Bio gem puzzle. In previous games, the bio gem represented an “ultimate” puzzle of the game, generally one that required you to use what came before and master your super powers. Here, it appears to be unsolvable. But worse than that, the gem is still flagged as a key item (with an asterisk) and the way that you have to push through would have led to a dead-man-walking scenario in the previous two games. I suspect that this was a design decision to make this game more difficult than the others, but I do not think this subversion of puzzle expectations was a good one. If someone finds a solution to this puzzle, let me know and I’ll bump the score by one point.

On average, I think this works out just a bit better than Spider-Man. There are much better puzzles here, but also enough that just rubbed me the wrong way. Even so, it’s not a full point better so both games get a “4”.

Interface and Inventory - 3
As the second Questprobe game to feature the S.A.G.A.+ engine, I was expecting it to feel more polished, but instead it felt just a bit less so. For example, here at the commands to get Thing into the cannon and fire it:

aim cannon at entrance
load gunpowder into cannon
load thing into cannon
flame on high
fire cannon
ignite blob

This doesn’t seem so bad, except that if you let the Thing load himself into the cannon, it doesn’t work. Even just guessing the word “load” was the right one to use was tricky for me. I had a similar difficulty finding the right words when I had to put the pebble down the hole. I was doing things that probably should either have worked or given me a clue as to what would work, but instead I did not even know I was on the right track without taking a hint.


Curse you, synonyms!

In terms of inventory, the game has a smaller collection of items than Spider-Man, but only the purple worm remains unused at the end of the game. It would have been nice if more of the items had been described, but that does not seem to be a feature of this series. At the very least, it would have been nice to get back the graphical inventory from Questprobe #1. On some further digging, it appears that the worm is an in-joke from previous Scott Adams adventures that I have not yet played.

Overall, I give the game a three. Still pretty good for a text parser and most of the issues are just a lack of polish rather than a poorly designed interface.

Story and Setting - 4

Hands down, this game has the best story of the series so far. The scavenger hunt has been replaced with an old-fashioned rescue-the-damsel plotline, but at least it’s a plotline. Latveria is a much more interesting area to explore and the word feels more real than an eerie empty office building or a planet where you randomly teleport every time you leave a screen. Outside the game, the comic book tie-in plot is just starting to get good with multiple sets of protagonists, interesting motivations for the Bio gem, and a deepening mystery. I hope that Marvel followed up on some of this because it is really quite good.


Only YOU can prevent tarpit fires.

If I have a complaint here, it’s that this game has a “Chekhov's gun” problem. Especially in the latter half, it sets up puzzles where there is no payoff and the ending feels rushed. This may have been Scott’s intention all along and I do not want to imply that the game is unfinished, but just chew on this:
  • The manual suggests that you need to use two characters to defeat the “Ruby of Domination”. It’s explicit and pretty much the only thing it says at all about Xandu.
  • There is a door in the basement that only the Torch can get to, but can’t open from his side. It also looks like you should be able to cause the explosion and earthquake using the hole in the floor, rather than doing it from the other end of the tunnel. 
  • You never meet Doctor Doom, even though he is listed as a character in the credits. 
  • The Thing is the only character present at the end.
My guess, and it is just a guess, is that there may have been an intention to have the final battle be with the real Doctor Doom. The Thing would be able to open the door to the basement to let the Torch in, thus allowing them to get past the Ruby of Domination. That way, when Alicia is rescued, both characters would be present and the final puzzle would be one of teamwork.

I’m complaining a bit, but it’s still a great game and an easy four. Very close to a five, except for the rushed feeling at the end.

Sound and Graphics - 2

Overall, I enjoyed the comic book style art. Dividing the screen into panels was an inspired choice, one that makes sense for the genre and could even clue you in when you were on the right track. The fact that you can see your counterpart at the beginning of the game was also a nice touch, although it is a shame they did not figure out a way to make that work after you left the tarpit. There were also fewer of the nice “extra” screens in this one compared to the previous Questprobe efforts; there was nothing like Spider-man on the couch, or the screen rotation when you climbed on the ceiling, or even the Hulk complaining that it was too dark with his eyes closed. Those didn’t contribute to the gameplay at all, but made the world feel more fun and they were missed this time.

But that said, my big issue with the graphics in this game is with a glitch: the screens are drawn in a spoilerific way. It’s difficult to describe, but as you move from screen to screen, sometimes the way the new location is drawn reveals plot points that haven’t happened yet. Here’s a video to give you the idea:


The amazing reconstructing tarpit shack.

I did a quick search of other people that played this game on Youtube and it seems this bug also affects the Apple II version, but not an Atari version. For me, this brought me out of the immersion of the game and made it feel less fun. A screen draw algorithm really shouldn’t spoil future plot points.

The final score of “two” here feels a bit low perhaps, but the redraw bug really irked me, especially as it spoiled the boulder-in-cave puzzle. The graphics really are pretty serviceable, but there was something missing here compared to the previous Questprobe efforts.

Environment and Atmosphere - 4


Open a few coffee shops and the hipsters will be here in no time.

This game has perhaps the greatest atmosphere of any of the previous games in the series. The abandoned town of Latveria, the open tar pit, and the well-guarded castle all set the mood in a much more organic way than we saw in previous Questprobe games. This is a somber game in a somber part of the world. Even the color scheme contributes to this, although that is in part a good-use of the limitations of the period than an artistic choice.

So let’s go with a “four” here.

Dialog and Acting - 2

In-game text has not been a strong suit of the Adventure International games that I have played so far: it is more than serviceable, but less than I would like. I know that many systems of this era coped with memory restrictions and pictures are worth a thousand words, and yet it would have been nice to get more object descriptions, or responses when you tried to do things that didn’t work. Even more than the previous games, the text here feels terse with a few spots where it’s not even grammatical. Not a huge deal, but that’s what this category is for.

This game also has very limited characterization of its NPCs across the board. At least in the previous games, each of the villains had something to say or do and figures like Madame Web actually were quite impactful. But here you have the Circus of Crime: nine villains and a snake, seven of which never say or do anything, do not have descriptions, and cannot be interacted with in any way. There was such a tremendous opportunity here: what if the Ringmaster didn’t always kick you out, that it was another character using his or her power? What if the villains talked among themselves a bit while you were hidden in the cannon? What if the Human Cannonball tried to stop you from stealing his one gimmick? Tons of possibilities, but in the end none of them really did much and defeating them was just a matter of walking in with your eyes closed, the same solution from Spider-Man.
Final Rating

With that out of the way, let’s see what we have: 4+3+4+2+4+2=19/.6=32!



32 points! That is better than the Hulk, but not quite as good as Spider-Man. That feels about right to me. As I think the rating demonstrates, it really could have been a better game but there were just a few things that pulled it down. Within our community, the majority of you guessed that it would be better than its predecessor with an average guess of 36. Ilmari came the closest by guessing 33. Congratulations!

But wait, we’re not finished with the Questprobe series quite yet! Up next is a special surprise: thanks to the generosity of Scott Adams, I will be playing and reviewing the unfinished Questprobe #4: X-Men. I am so excited! After that will be our interviews with Scott Adams and Kem McNair, followed by a look at how Marvel closed out the Questprobe series by themselves after the shutdown of Adventure International. See you soon!

12 comments:

  1. The unsolveable, unnecessary *Bio gem, the lack of Dr. Doom and the rushed feeling near the end really suggest "cut content" to me. I suspect Adventure International was in trouble by then; this was, I think, their final release (though AI UK would still release more games using Adams' engine), so Adams probably had to release the game earlier than he intended.

    Having only played the Spectrum version, it's nice to compare the two. The C64 version looks better, though not as good as a C64 could do; these are clearly converted Atari 800 graphics, you can see it by the resolution and colors (or, more easily, by loading up the Atari disk version in an emulator), and they don't really take advantage of the C64 hardware. The animations are nice, though I think they were better in the Spider-Man game. The Speccy version had no animations and the graphics looked a lot more primitive, but on the other hand there were no slowdowns due to loading from disk, and new pictures appeared instantly (so no reconstructing shacks).

    Now, the existance of a playable Questprobe #4 game is news to me... can't wait. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also suspect this was their final release, or at least the final one written by Scott Adams. As you point out, the UK side did things a bit differently. The last non-Questprobe game was Buckaroo Banzai, I believe. It looks like toward the end both the US and UK versions of Adventure International were getting heavily into tie-ins. (There's also adaptations of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, the Gremlins film, etc.)

      Delete
  2. The gem is labeled with an asterisk (“*Bio gem”), a hint in every previous Questprobe game that I was looking at a key item.

    This was actually the convention to indicate a *TREASURE in all the Scott Adams games, things that needed to be gathered up from all over God's green earth and deposited in the trophy room.

    I couldn’t find the connection so I went to the source: they are the names of Scott’s children!

    Thanks for the enriching context! Now, did the series end because he ran out of children to provide codewords, or does he have further descendants who missed out on getting immortalized in a video game?

    Up next is a special surprise: thanks to the generosity of Scott Adams, I will be playing and reviewing the unfinished Questprobe #4: X-Men. I am so excited!

    Now that is a coup!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am also thrilled that he agreed to let me look at it for the blog. I feel honored.

      Delete
    2. But, if it's unfinished, can it be WON?

      Delete
    3. Well, you'll just have to see next week!

      Delete
    4. I was also going to ask how many children Scott had. :P

      Delete
  3. Starship Titanic has been released on GOG.

    http://www.gog.com/game/starship_titanic

    As a big Douglas Adams fan, I bought the game when it came out but didn't get very far.

    I finished it once with help of a walkthrough and remember not being impressed, but I never was a big fan of the "half the puzzle is working out what the bloody puzzle is" style of game.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like the concept of this game, and needing both characters to solve puzzles is cool but the constant need to reload would drive me batty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If the gunpowder wasn't all used up in one go, I would have sworn at the screen less.

      Delete
  5. Joe, I'm not sure if this has been brought up elsewhere, but the Chief Examiner/Black Fleet subplot was eventually wrapped up in QUASAR, near the end of that series.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes! In fact, I have those comics on my desk right now...

    Questprobe will be wrapped up with a few special posts after this one. Sometime this week will be the review of the incomplete Questprobe #4, then next week an interview, and then I'll finish it all up with a post about the rest of the comics (Marvel Fanfare and Quasar) and some other fun stuff. By then you will be utterly tired of talking about Questprobe! :)

    ReplyDelete