Thursday, 23 June 2016

Missed Classic 24: The Islands of Beta (1984)

Written by Joe Pranevich


Time for an educational adventure?

As this blog and countless other can attest to, we live in an age where digital archeology allows us to replay and relive many our childhood software adventures. Thanks to commercial offerings from companies like GOG.com, as well as organizations like the Internet Archive, many classic games, once forgotten, have returned to us. Until I started writing here, I didn’t realize how many adventure games I was influenced by, most of which had completely disappeared from thought until I stumbled on them again while researching this or that. It’s a great time to be a so-called digital historian and I love the work that we (and others) are doing to keep those memories alive.


And that’s what brings me to The Islands of Beta. I won’t be offended if you have never heard of this game, but back in my middle-school years (early 1990s) it was one of a selection of vaguely educational games that we were permitted to play in our Apple II computer lab during breaks. (Incidentally, I have to give props to my school district for having the foresight to offer computer programming as a 6th grade elective.) I do not remember all of our choices, but The Oregon Trail (1985) was on the list, as well as Lemonade Stand (1978). But three games have stuck in my memory, perhaps as much because of their Greek alphabet titles as anything else: Adventure Alpha (1984), The Islands of Beta (1984), and The Lantern of D’Gamma (1985). The first of these featured an adventure on another planet, the second a puzzle-trip across several islands, and the third a medieval fantasy adventure. None of these games struck me at the time as “educational”, but beyond that I do not remember them very well. I am almost positive that I never beat any of them, limited as I was to playing in 40-minute chunks.


I think I see the smoke monster!

It’s not at all surprising-- but still disconcerting-- that these games have all but disappeared. Adventure Alpha is mentioned in some library catalogs, but there are precious few references on the net and no copies I have been able to locate. Islands of Beta and Lantern of D’Gamma have fared better, but even these seem to be missing their manuals. A review claims they both came with “worksheets” that included hints, but these seem to be lost now as well. All of these games were developed by Milliken Publishing, a company specializing in supplementary education products such as study guides, but which wandered into software publishing in the 1980s. After two years of doing basic study guides on disk, they released their first educational game (Gulp!) in 1982, continuing to release games and educational software through 1997. In 2008, they were acquired by Lorenz Educational Press. A good number of their games, including all three adventures, were designed by Dr. William H. Kraus. He appears to have left Milliken in 1988, publishing his final game with Mindscape, Inc., but from there the trail goes cold. As best I can tell, those three were his only adventure games.

So why are these games so scarce relative to their contemporaries? I think it boils down to three things: price, market, and genre. The games were expensive by 1984 standards, especially given their short lengths. This one ran $34.95 (or roughly $80 today) for a personal copy or more for group instruction. Schools were the primary target for the games and that probably made the secondary market quite small. And finally, would a teen cracker in 1984 really want to bother with an “educational” game? Thankfully we still have two of the three and that isn’t too bad.

With Adventure Alpha lost to time, I hope you won’t mind a short trip to the Islands of Beta to keep the memory of these old games alive. Let’s play!


What? No “Beta” island?

The introductory text drops you directly into the story: you are a balloonist who is rapidly running out of fuel. Fortunately, you’ve managed to make it to the Islands of Beta. The goal of the game will be to get off the islands and continue on your way. Seems simple enough!

Our first choice will be, I suspect, the most important: we get to pick which island we want to land on. Our options are Key, Pharaoh, Euler, Maze, Alpha, and Omega islands. Now because I’m an adult, I can easily guess the right solution: it’s going to be Alpha Island. 12-year olds may not be aware of the Greek alphabet, but I certainly am. I try to set down our balloon, but we are forced to jump and the balloon floats away. Whatever happens next, I’m not going to be flying there.


Seriously, does this kid not know about tethering?

From this point, it at least feels like a real (if primitive) adventure game. The parser is weak and requires you to type “go north”, for example, instead of just “n” or “north”. You can pick up objects and check your inventory. You can press the ESC key at any time to toggle a view of the world map. Sound, if enabled, is pretty basic beeps and effects.

Landing on Alpha Island, we spy a treasure chest but there does not appear to be anything we can do with it yet. I head north and find myself going to Pharaoh Island. The game must be pretty small-- there was only one “screen” on Alpha Island, unless there were more in a different direction. That also reveals the first trick to this game: as we head north, the bridge collapses behind us. (Who builds bridges like that?) Crossing the bridge also rewards us with one gold coin, so it’s not all bad!


I love coins! Especially gold ones.

I’m pretty sure I know how this is going to play out: I have to do some basic map traversal to cross all the bridges to collect all the coins. That means that I’ll have to start and end on islands with odd numbers of connections (Alpha and Omega, naturally) and pass through all the others on the way. Seems simple enough.

I do a quick run through the whole game just to see what is on each island:
  • Pharaoh - Chest with a triangle slot
  • Maze - A separate mini game you navigate with the NSEW keys. The maze has invisible walls, so you have to bump around to get anywhere. In the center of the maze is a chest with a square slot; there’s also exits in each of the cardinal directions.
  • Omega - My balloon is here! Also, a vending machine that needs 11 coins. Since there is only ten bridges, there must be a trick coming. Where will I find the final coin?
  • Euler - Chest with a circular slot
  • Key - The only multi-room island, essentially two little islands with a bridge in the middle. There’s a gold pyramid, gold key, and gold cube on one side of the island but no way to cross the bridge while holding them all. That blows my simple graph traversal out of the water unless I find a way to cross. 

The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!

There must be a trick to Key Island, but I don’t find it quickly. Some brief experimentation reveals that I can take one item across the bridge at a time, but when I return to the other side, I find that objects that I left there are now gone. Is the idea that I can only collect one key? The only way to get all three keys is if we start on Key Island, but that blows my route planning away. I’ll work on this puzzle more in a bit, but for now I restart the game and land on Key Island first. At least we’ll be able to see what all three keys do.

The first difference I find is that my balloon has now crash landed on Euler Island instead of Omega Island. Why did it do that? I doubt that it is random, so it must pick a different island depending on where we land. I unlock the chest there with the gold sphere-- this might be a kiddie puzzle where you have to know that a 3d sphere is a 2d circle-- and I can pick what object to take, a pendant or a flask of oil. I grab the oil since it seems more useful, but before I can leave the island, it blows up. I get an ending screen and learn that my score was 29%.


So, I win?

I reload and try again, this time snagging the pendant. I die again, but this time I figure it out: the room is on a real timer. Pausing to write about it means that when I get back, I explode. I turn down the emulator speed to normal and resolve not to take any writing breaks while I am about to explode. On the next reload, I am able to snag the oil and escape off the island.

On Pharaoh Island, the chest gives me a choice between pearls or a platinum key. (I take the key.) When that island also explodes, it’s pretty clear that exploding landmasses will have to be part of my route plan: we need to wait to open the chest on each island until we have only one bridge remaining. On Alpha Island, the chest there has a rusty lock and I also need to use the oil to open it. Unlike before, I’m allowed to pick up both objects, a subway token and a crown.


The maze is invisible. That hardly seems fair.

Maze Island is my next challenge. The walls in the maze are invisible so the only way to navigate is to bump into walls and take it slowly. In the center of the maze is another chest (with a choice between a diamond or a lighter) and there are also exits in each of the cardinal directions. Unlike on the other islands, the exploding chest provides a real challenge here as it is effectively impossible to make it out fast enough. The solution is obvious to a veteran adventure game player, but perhaps less so to a preteen in 1984: make a map!


Still better than graph paper.
I reload and take the time to map out the whole maze. It’s only 53 squares including the exit squares, so it doesn’t take very long. Using my trusty map, I can open the chest and get off the island before it explodes! With the maze solved, I can finish my route plan starting from Key Island: Key -> Euler -> Omega -> Maze -> Euler (boom!) -> Pharaoh (boom!) -> Maze (boom!) -> Alpha -> Omega. That gets me pretty close, but only eight gold coins. I discover that I can use the subway token as a ninth, but that’s still not enough. I’m stuck and I quit with a score of 76%. Since the only way to get enough coins is to cross every bridge, I’m going to have to figure out Key Island after all.


Is this where I buy replacement batteries?

I head back there and start to experiment. Sometimes when I take the items across they stay and sometimes they disappear. It takes me a few minutes, but I figure out what the room description was trying to tell me: the cube and the sphere cannot stay in the same room as the pyramid. That’s why the eagle drops them when you arrive the first time! It’s a good realization, even if it makes no sense. But with that information, I realize that what we really have is a “fox and chickens” problem, a classic kids’ logic puzzle. In the original version you have a fox and two chickens and have to ferry them across a river one by one; if you ever leave the fox alone with a chicken, it will eat it. In this case, the pyramid is the “fox” and it’s an easy solve from there:
  • Move the pyramid to the other side, then return to the start.
  • Move the cube to the other side then swap it for the pyramid, taking the latter back to the start.
  • Swap the pyramid for the sphere, moving the latter across. 
  • Finally, we can move the pyramid. We have all the keys on the other side!
Now that Key Island is just another island, I can return to my original plan of starting on Alpha and ending on Omega. My new route will be: Alpha -> Pharaoh -> Key -> Euler -> Pharaoh (boom!) -> Maze -> Euler (boom!) -> Omega -> Alpha (boom!) -> Maze (boom!) -> Omega.

I finish that circuit and now I have a full compliment of ten coins and a subway token. I must be on the right path because the crashed balloon is here, too. I put all of my coins in the vending machine and out comes… rubbing alcohol! How can that be useful? I try to fix the balloon, but get a message that it needs fuel. According to Wikipedia, rubbing alcohol is flammable so... in it goes! I can then ignite it with the lighter and I win!


Treasure laden? All I got was this lousy crown.

It’s difficult to feel proud for beating a game intended for 12-year olds, but I will anyway. This has been a fun little game.

Time played: 1 hr 35 min
Deaths / Reloads: 6





With the game in the bag, let’s quickly put together a final score:

Puzzles and Solvability: From beginning to end, this game is a nicely nested set of puzzles. You have the overall graph traversal problem that defines the island hopping, the logic puzzle, the mapping puzzle, and not to mention basic “kid stuff” like knowing the names of 2d vs 3d versions of the same shapes. There is a tremendous amount good here and all the elements work together very nicely. It reminds me a bit of Dr. Brain, although a bit short by modern standards. Let’s go with 4.

Interface and Inventory: The text parser is immature even by 1984 standards, doesn’t know common abbreviations, and yet… I like that you can toggle between the game screen and the map at any time. It’s the little details that count: 2.

Story and Setting: The game exists to be a puzzle, the setting adds very little to it. We don’t see much theming of the islands (Pharaoh island doesn’t seem Egyptian, for example) and the story starts and stops with us being adventurers that crashed our balloon. Not much here: 1.


Opening a chest with the collapsed balloon nearby.

Sound and Graphics: Surprisingly decent for the era, the various settings are about as good as can be expected on the Apple II with some nice touches. Sound design is limited, but you get a nice little “boom!” when each of the islands blow up. Let’s go with a 2 here. That feels a bit low, but there weren’t all that many screens.

Environment and Atmosphere: This category suffers in the same way that the story and setting does: there just isn’t much here. There’s a nice sense of tension in the few timed sections (especially the maze), but I wouldn’t say too much else. Let’s go with 2 again.

Dialog and Acting: The text in the game is serviceable with a nice introduction and help. Within the game, there isn’t that much to say. Another 2.

That gives our final score of (4+2+1+2+2+2/.6) = 22 points. I’m going to add one bonus point because the game really is a bit better than the sum of its parts. It’s not a lost classic by any means, but it made me want to go back and play the other two. That is a huge victory for a game of this era! I’m glad I found this one.



This places the game right below The Oregon Trail (1985) and that seems about right. Ilmari played the 1990 version as his very first review for the blog!

I hope you enjoyed this little detour. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging. I’m getting ready to start Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective very soon!

8 comments:

  1. Edutainment?

    But what about John Muir?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YInfr0hm4A

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  2. It's probably pretty obvious, but Euler Island is named after Euler, the mathematician who is associated with the bridge problem.

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    1. Bonus points for the flask of oil being found there, as well (the name is pronounced "oiler").

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  3. I want to know why "Pharoah" island exists, though. It strikes me as the odd one out, even though I get that it's referring to the hieroglyphics on the chest.

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    1. Could it be some sort of geographical pun? There are Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, and the Pharaoh Island in the game is in in the North. Similarly, real world Omega Island is in the Antarctic, and there's an island called Key West near Florida. Other islands I cannot really place (for instance, there is Alpha Island, but it's also in Antarctic and not somewhere East).

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    2. After checking some islands in the Pacific, nearest to an Alpha Island I could come up with was Alofi Island - and according to Wikipedia, it has a population of two, so I kind of doubt anyone would consider teaching children about it.

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    3. As an update to the population of two, that was in the 2003 census. In 2008 the population was one!

      I don't know if it's because I've recently read about Cruise for a Corpse and Suspect, but I suspect MURDER!

      Now that would be an interesting investigation. "Do you have anyone who can confirm your alibi?"

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    4. "Yes, but he was recently murdered."

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