Sunday, 26 March 2017

Missed Classic: Starcross - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

The entire game summed up in one image.

Last week, I had a ton of fun exploring the alien vessel in Starcross. One part dungeon-crawl, one part “hard” science fiction, it wasn’t like any of the games that I have played so far in this series. Unfortunately, I found a few of the puzzles too challenging and I had to give up. I could not turn on the lights to explore the rest of the ship and I could not fix the leaks which caused me to run out of air. I also knew of several colored rods that I was unable to collect. With the help of a few hints, I was able to get the game moving again and complete my explorations. This week, I’ll conclude my tour of the accidental generation-ship and close out the fifth game in our marathon.

The first challenge I faced this week was turning on the lights, a problem so solvable that I had done it a half-dozen times without even realizing it.

Yellow!

There is a special hell for game designers that build puzzles that don’t give you any indication when you’ve completed them. There’s another special hell for game designers that teach you what success looks like and then doesn’t follow through. I can’t even imagine the hell for a designer that does both at once but I hope for his sake that Dave Liebling lives for a very long time. The “puzzle”, if you can even call it that is painfully obvious: just stick the yellow rod in the yellow slot. When you do, emergency lights are activated in the yellow hallway and we can finish exploring. But unlike every other time I’ve successfully used a rod, this one provided no feedback that showed that it worked while doing the thing that usually happens when I do the wrong thing: it sucked in the rod. I’m embarrassed that I got this one wrong but I hope you can forgive me for wanting to throw the game out the window.

Once the rod was in place, the lights turned on and the grues scattered. I resumed my explorations. My first stop happens to be the middle of the ship, the location of the yellow airlock. I make my way down to find a strange metal basket and a damaged airlock door. After two tries, I force it open but I die because I forgot to wear a spacesuit. I had given it to the weasels, but I’ve had to restore so often because of the lack of air that I hadn’t done that yet. When I emerge outside the ship, I discover debris everywhere and a body floating just out of reach. The former occupants of the airlock were in a hurry to leave and didn’t quite make it. They paid with their ship and their lives. I cannot reach the dead body without drifting away to die in space so I head back inside.

Blue!

Just to the south of the airlock-- and the only other location of note in the yellow section-- I discover a science lab with a strange contraption: a silver globe the size of a basketball is suspended in midair, seemingly held up by the beam from some sort of projector. Under the projector is a dial with four positions currently set to “two”. There are also two colored disks (red and blue) hanging on the wall. When I fiddle with the dial, the metal globe changes in size ranging from the size of an orange (the lowest setting) to four-feet in diameter and embedded into the floor (the highest setting). When it’s at its smallest, we see a bit of a blue rod sticking out, but no amount of pulling dislodges it.

The disks are a separate mystery. When I put them on the ground, they make a soft clicking sound. If I put them both together, they explode. Are they a weapon? My first thought is that I need to use them somehow with the sphere. If I put a disk on top of the sphere and then expand it, the metal envelopes the object and I can hear it fall inside. If I do that while also putting the other disk underneath and expanding the sphere to its largest size (encompassing both disks), I am rewarded with an explosion inside the sphere. Shrinking the sphere back down, I discover that the blue rod has been destroyed. Not the outcome that I was aiming for! I experiment with other combinations of objects on top of and under the sphere but nothing seems to do anything. I thought for sure I could get the rod into the basket if I expanded the sphere around it, but no dice.

I try the disks out in different locations around the ship when I discover their true function: they are transporters! If both are placed on the floor, I can step on one to travel to the other, even across different rooms! I try to use that to teleport into the sphere to collect the rod manually, but that just kills me instantly because I am too large. The real solution is beautiful and one of my favorites from this series so far:

First, I reset the sphere back to the second setting: basketball-sized with no sign of the blue rod inside. I place one disk under the metal sphere as I did before, but this time I put the basket on top. With the companion disk on the floor, I expand the sphere to encompass both objects and trigger a sequence of events. As the sphere expands, the basket falls and lands on the teleporter. The blue rod inside is close enough to the action that it gets sucked into the science-magic as well and both rod and basket appear on the second disk. I can even recover the second teleporter by shrinking the sphere again! This is a puzzle well-solved and I can’t even tell you how much experimentation it took to find this solution.

As an aside, the basket is also a strange piece of alien tech. If you place a rod in one of the pockets, the basket morphs and creates another pocket. I add rod after rod and it is able to expand and contain them all. I assume it’s work equipment for whomever built the ship, but it’s a cool detail.

Pink!

I don’t know if the teleporters have unlimited charges, but I verify that they are still working as I leave the metal sphere room for the second time. I immediately see a half-dozen puzzles that I might be able to solve with the disks such as how to get back and forth to the control bubble once I get up there, an escape from the weasels, or even a way to transport someone (or something) to take care of the rat-ants. I am not able to use them to transport the cleaning mice anywhere because they pick up the disks instead of being transported but there are plenty of other uses. I will work on the weasels next but since doing that will destroy my spacesuit, I need to revisit the yellow airlock and the debris field.

The second time around, I figure out the trick very quickly. We cannot walk out to the body because our magnetic boots (did you know we had magnetic boots?) don’t have anything to latch on to away from the airlock. If I attach the safety line to the docking hook and suit, I can cross that boundary and float out to examine the body. The poor fellow is a lizard man, long dead but carrying a pink rod. It’s obvious that he was on the ship when it tried to leave the yellow dock and was thrown clear by the explosion that caused the debris field.

Back to the weasels, I replay their whole section easily while leaving one of the transporters outside the village. I lose one of them (and a space suit!) in my escape, but in return I score the brown and violets rods, a tattered space suit, and a broken piece of visor. Good trade? I hope so.

Violet!

The visor doesn’t seem to be too high-tech, but I can look through it at various objects. I search the ship looking for invisible clues or writing. I was on the wrong track, but I worked out the solution anyway: if you look through it into the light of the projector, you can see that the reason the planets are wrongly colored is because there is a clear rod in front of the lense. I snag it out of the projector and that colors on the projected planets are now correct. I know I’ll need the clear rod to open the control bubble so I’ll head there next.

Before I go, I have neglected that I have died more than a dozen times in the last few paragraphs: I keep running out of air. I hoped that unjamming the yellow airlock door would fix that, but there is more to it. I’ve restored back to the beginning and optimized most of the puzzles but even then I get very little exploration time before I succumb. The clear rod takes me over the limit: there is no way to get all of the rods and make it up to the control bubble without running out of air.

When I get up there, I discover that my notes were wrong: it’s not a clear slot on the outside of the control bubble, that slot is gold. The clear slot is inside the control bubble. Contrary to what I reported last week, I must have been in there and made a note that I needed a clear rod and then completely forgot about it. When I read my notes for the post, I assumed that the clear slot was outside rather than inside. Not a huge deal, but I like to correct my mistakes. (Voltgloss, I’m disappointed you didn’t notice!) When I place the clear rod in the slot inside the bubble, five more slots emerge from the console: brown, green, blue, violet, and pink. I already know that I’m stuck because I didn’t find a green rod, but it hardly matters, I only manage to get the brown and blue rods in their places before I run out of air and no about of optimization seems to get me any further. I’m going to have to fix the atmosphere and hope that a green rod will magically appear when I do.

Red!

My guess is that I need to use the red rod in the second machine in the repair room to fix the air. The rat-ants are unwavering in their commitment to not giving me the red rod and no amount of messing around with teleporters or cleaning mice seems to do the trick. I eventually turn to the hints to be disappointed: you have to break the rat-ants’ nest to free the rod, then grab it when they are busy rebuilding. That seems unnecessarily violent. I was sure that the solution would have something to do with the cleaning robot since their nest was such a mess, but it was not to be! I take the rod and consider my options in the repair room. As I mentioned last week, the second machine has three slots and three sets of cryptic symbols: four single dots around a six-dot cluster, two eight-dot clusters, or three single dots around a seven-dot cluster. I do not know what they mean so I try them each in turn. The first makes the air smell like charcoal while the third makes it smell like glass cleaner. Since the second is neutral, I go with that one and leave with the rod in the middle slot. The smell of charcoal makes me realize that the three symbols represent the atoms in the three gasses that the machine can produce:
  • The first one is Carbon: the six-dot cluster represent atomic number 6. I’m not sure what the four dots are doing around them because carbon should have 6 electrons. 
  • The second one is Oxygen: the two eight-dot clusters represent Oxygen with atomic number 8. Oxygen gas contains two atoms so it’s O2. 
  • The third is Nitrogen with atomic number 7 plus three unknown blue dots. 

[ As I finish final edits, I realize that this is wrong but I’ll leave what I originally wrote in there so you can see just how wrong I was. The first one probably means Methane, CH4, but I am confused by the charcoal smell. The third one is Ammonia, NH3. I had initially thought that the smaller dots represented electrons but they actually symbolize hydrogen atoms. High school chemistry is a requirement for playing this game! ]

Fortunately, the puzzle was easy to brute force even if I only worked it out after I knew the right answer. Unfortunately, the green rod is still nowhere to be found.

Green!

I am stuck but rather than do another call out, I take a hint myself from the internet. The green rod is in a room that I had not even seen before: the maintenance bay for the cleaning mice. I had spied them exiting through holes in the wall but had not thought much of it. The solution is to put one of the transporter disks in the hopper of a mouse, wait a while, and then teleport to where it is to get into the hidden room. I’m upset about this because I didn’t figure it out on my own but also because it violates the logic of the disks up to this point: they ONLY work when they are installed flat on the ground so that you hear a click. A disk in the middle of a trash bin wouldn’t be positioned properly. I do as I am told-- restoring back to a point where I had both teleport disks again-- and enter the maintenance room. The green rod isn’t obviously in there, but it shows up if you explore the trash bin multiple times.

I replay all the way back into the control bubble, but this time I have time and oxygen on my side. All of the rods slide nicely into their color-coded slots, each one revealing a colored dot on the wall as it goes in except for the pink rod which unlocks a display screen. On the screen is a depiction of nearby space (including a picture of the alien ship) plus two squares, small and large. I quickly realize that the small and large squares act as a zoom: press the large one once shows the inner solar system, pressing again shows then the whole system, local space, and then even nearby stars. The small one zooms back in.

With that solved, I try the other dots. The brown one, the first on the list, causes different places on the screen to be highlighted. When the view is of the inner solar system, pressing once causes the Sun to be selected. Pressing again cycles through the planets. I try the green button next but that just flashes. Violet causes a line to show up through the center of the planet. After doing that, then green starts to work and show dots traveling from my location to Mars (the planet I selected). Now the blue spot works and… boom. I ram into the planet and die.

I restore and work back through it and realize that violet is used to select an orbit: collision, parabola, ellipse, or circle. With that knowledge, I select circle and trigger the drive and we win! We park the alien slip in a perfect orbit around Earth and we are visited by a hologram of the Dungeon Master… er… whatever… who congratulates us on a job well done and tells us that humanity will benefit from all of the advanced technology found on the ship. My character’s power must go to his head at some point because he becomes a Galactic Overlord. Good on him!

Overlord? That escalated quickly.

Time played: 4hr 05 min
Total time: 11hr 35 min
Hints taken: 3
Total Marathon time: 68 hr 00 min

Is This a Zork Game?

Before we get to the rating, I want to ask the question, “Is this a Zork game?” The answer is complicated, but I lean toward “yes”. Zork is known for its humor, but as we saw Zork III (and eventually, Zork Nemesis) both skew dark. Starcross is no laugh-a-minute, but there are moments of levity scattered around. Despite being sci-fi, the puzzles feel like Zork puzzles and were even manufactured by a “Dungeon Master” like Zork puzzles.

The main selling point for me are the grues: they are well-used in this game, beyond a simple cameo. Best of all, the zoo is clear that the Zork planet is somewhere out there in space. It’s not on Earth, but Zork is out there. Who knows, maybe a sequel could have gone where no spaceman had ever gone before: underground.

Rainbow!

Final Rating

Now that the game is done, it’s time to judge. How will Starcross do in our scoring system?

Puzzles and Solvability - This is “Zork in Space” but that is not entirely a bad thing. I like the Zork games, but some of this feels recycled. It was released on the same day as Zork III; did they really need to have a string-pulling “Dungeon Master” behind both games? Too many of the puzzles either require outside knowledge (chemistry!), feature toddler-level color coding (the rods and slots), or broken logic (the maintenance room). There are some fantastic puzzle-moments in this game, especially the growing metal sphere and the flight to the control bubble, but the overall game left me unsated. My score: 4.

Interface and Inventory - Infocom’s game engine is still best of breed, but the copy protection puzzle was not well done (made easier in later revisions) and the use of nautical terms for directions only served to limit the complexity of the area we could explore. (You have all four cardinal direction but no “northwest” or “southeast”.) The metal basket looked like it would make collecting rods easier, but other than storage the basket didn’t seem to do much. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - The setting provoked a real sense of wonder plus it was internally consistent, resting on solid “hard sci-fi” principles. On the other hand, story is nonexistent. We’re a “space miner”, but that doesn’t matter even once. We never even get to use all the mining equipment they mention in the manual! Although the ending and death scenes make it clear this is a test, even that doesn’t make much sense because some of the trapped races had the rods. How would the test have worked before the later ones arrived? What becomes of other sentient species when this is all over with? I have high praise for the setting and at least the story wasn’t actively bad: My score: 5.

Sound and Graphics - As usual for Infocom games, zilch for this category. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - There’s a real tension to this game, brought on by the time limit, the grues, and the seemingly aggressive aliens which are just down the corridor. In practice, they were all paper tigers but I liked that feeling. Each of the alien races was well-realized although we probably should have seen them interact together more. My score: 5.

Dialog and Acting - As usual, Infocom does prose very well and I have no complaints. My score: 4.

Add them all up: (4+4+5+0+5+4)/.6 = 37! Not bad. How about bonus points? I planned to give one for the incredible packaging but then decided to deduct one for the stupidity of color-coded rods doing everything in the future. It’s a wash so the score is still 37.


The wisdom of the crowds won this one; the average guess was also 37! The closest individual score was Andy_Panthro who guessed 35! Congratulations! CAPs will be awarded with the next mainline game. This game scored considerably higher than Zork II, largely because of the improved setting and atmosphere, but under the best Infocom games we’ve seen so far. I’m curious where Dave’s next game will land on the charts.

Up next in the Zork Marathon will be Planetfall, a game that made the list almost solely because it appeared in the 1992 Zork Anthology boxed set. I am not sure yet whether that will be before or after we get to Hook. I am also considering a one-and-done post on Suspended. See you soon!

15 comments:

  1. I win again! (even though I was 2 points off)

    Planetfall is supposed to be good, isn't it? I don't know much about it, but hopefully it will be enjoyable.

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    1. Planetfall is supposed to be good but I have no recollection of it except for there being a robot named Floyd and reminding me vaguely (much later) of Space Quest. It's also Steve Meretzky's first game so that is pretty exciting.

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  2. The idea seems to be that the ship was once filled with far more puzzles that you never got the chance to solve, as other aliens had done them before you and retrieved those rods. Chances are there's some sort of failsafe preventing anyone from leaving the ship with the rods as well, which is why the lizardman vessel blew up and the rod they were carrying just so happened to be floating near the giant ship.

    (on an entirely unrelated note - would it be all right for me to ask for a quick hint for another game (Uninvited)? I've been playing it for the first time, and I've been terribly stuck at this one point for days and would really prefer a slight nudge in the right direction rather than checking a guide and getting heavy spoilers for other stuff)

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    1. Sure, it's quite fine to ask for hints for other games. Nice to know our site can be useful!

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    2. Thanks.

      I'll just ROT13 my issue here. As mentioned, it's for Uninvited, the Apple IIGS version if that makes a difference:
      V unir sbhaq gur yvggyr fgne, gur qvnel, gur cragntenz, gur zrephel, gur tlcfl qbyy naq gur cynag jvgu cbvfba sehvg. V unir znqr vg vagb gur tneqra znmr naq xabj ubj gb cnff gur fvatyr mbzovr (gur nzhyrg), ohg abg gur ovt tebhc. V unir ab vqrn ubj gb ragre gur Zntvfgrevhz be gur qbbe va gur ebbz jvgu gur vax oybggre. V oryvrir gur pehpvny pyhr vf gur abgr gung fnlf "Tbyq, fvyire naq zrephel: Gbtrgure gurl sbez n xrl", ohg unir ab vqrn ubj gb vagrecerg vg - abar bs gur vgrzf V'ir sbhaq bs gurfr zngrevnyf pbzovar va nal zrnavatshy jnl, abe qbrf gur vasb ba gurz va gur vax oybggre ebbz frrz gb uryc nal.
      This is all driving me nuts, and I'd really appreciate a slight nod in the right direction, preferably as vague as you can make it.

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    3. I like your theory that some of the other puzzles were solved beforehand and it's just lucky that none of the rods were destroyed. (And they are pretty easy to destroy!)

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    4. Hi, Adamant.

      I haven't played the game recently but I looked up your problems online and think I may be able to help

      How do I get past the big group?
      1. Lbh pna'g.
      2. Eha njnl naq gel n qvssrerag cngu.

      How do I enter the Magisterium?
      1. Lbh arrq n xrl
      2. Lbh znl abg unir vg lrg. Xrrc rkcybevat
      3. Qvq lbh shyyl rkcyber gur tneqra znmr?
      4. Qvq lbh fbyir gur chmmyr bs gur obhapvat perngher?
      5. Vs fb, lbh fubhyq unir n trz

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    5. Hasbeghangryl gung qbrfa'g uryc. V unir znccrq gur ragver tneqra znmr nyernql, naq gur bayl cbvagf bs vagrerfg jrer fbzr tenirf naq n pbssva, bar tenir naq gur pbssva orvat orlbaq gur ybar mbzovr V qvq znantr gb cnff. Gur abgr V sbhaq ertneqvat gur trz jnf n ovg inthr ba jurgure V arrqrq vg gb ragre gur Zntvfgrevhz va beqre gb svaq vg be jurgure V arrqrq vg gb ragre gur Zntvfgrevhz, ohg V xarj vg jnf bar bs gur gjb. V unir abg znantrq gb fbyir gur zlfgrel bs gur obhapvat perngher (V nffhzr lbh zrna gur yvggyr erq qrzba gung fbzrgvzrf nccrnef va ebbzf), ohg vs gung'f jung V arrq gb qb, V'q cersre n yvggyr uvag sbe gung gbb, V srry yvxr V'ir gevrq rirelguvat.

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    6. Okay. I think I know where you're stuck. Bearing in mind I'm getting my info from a hint website as I'm not that familiar with the game myself. Also, I've gotten this info based on the Amiga and PC version, so hopefully the Apple version doesn't have different solutions.

      Firstly, Lbh pna'g bcra gur Zntvfgrevhz hagvy lbh'ir pbzcyrgrq gur chmmyr V'ir bhgyvarq va gur uvagf orybj.

      1. Gur obhapvat perngher vf va gur tneqra/urqtr znmr
      2. Qvq lbh svaq n frperg qbbe va gur znmr?
      3. Qvq lbh qb nalguvat ba gur pebff/tenir fperra va gur znmr?
      4. Creuncf lbh fubhyq fubj lbhe erfcrpgf gb gur qrnq
      5. Qb lbh unir nal sybjref?
      6. Gurer ner sybjref va gur xvgpura
      7. Hfr gur obhdhrg bs sybjref jvgu gur pebff
      8. Abj lbh unir gb fbyir gur obhapvat perngher chmmyr. Tbbq yhpx.

      Nf sbe gur bgure guvat, abg fher vs jr'er gnyxvat nobhg gur fnzr guvat, ohg

      ... Vs gur erq qrzba vf ubyqvat n xrl, qba'g jbeel nobhg vg hagvy lbh fbyir gur nobir chmmyr svefg

      Trickster had major problems with the puzzles in this game too. After you finish the game, you might want to read his experiences on this blog (or forget about the game entirely - your choice)

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    7. Oh my god, how in the world did that not occur to me? There's even a hint in the description for the item you need.

      I needed to go all the way to hint 5 there and now I feel really stupid. Thanks, though.

      And yeah, I've planned to read through his posts after finishing this. I genuinely like the game a lot, and I'm definitely going to take the blame for not thinking of this possible solution.

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    8. For the record, gur qrfpevcgvba lbh trg jura lbh ybbx ng gur obhdhrg vf "Vg ybbxf yvxr n cerggl obhdhrg bs sybjref. Gurl'er whfg evtug sbe n shareny -- be lbhe fravbe cebz.", fb guvf vf qrsvavgryl fbzrguvat gur tnzr uvagrq rabhtu gbjneqf gung lbh fubhyq ng yrnfg nggrzcg gelvat vg.

      Thanks again.

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  3. Well played, Sir. I never managed to finish the game myself, so I applaud you. Although I find it harsh, that you deduct a point for "the stupidity of color-coded rods";)

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  4. It's been awhile since I played Planetfall, but I was wracking my brain trying to remember how it related to Zork. I think it may have been included in the Zork Anthology because it contains a reference to Starcross, not the Zork series, and they figured that since they were including Starcross they might as well throw in Planetfall as well. Unless there is something in the game I'm forgetting, I think it may lie outside the purview of the Zork Marathon.

    On the other hand, Planetfall is an excellent game in its own right, and I believe it was the first ever game to feature a persistent NPC who follows you around and helps you solve puzzles. So it is a major milestone in the history of the adventure game and definitely ought to be featured in this blog. You might just have to squint a bit to connect it to the Zork series.

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    1. I am playing Planetfall only because it was in the Zork Anthology that I purchased as a kid and so is permanently embedded into my brain as a "Zork" game. It very well may not be, but I'll play it for the marathon and we'll see what happens.

      I do not believe Starcross was in the Anthology that I purchased but it has been so long.

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