|The Chief Examiner shows off his gem collection. (From the ending to Questprobe #1.)|
Before we begin, let me make clear what I have: I will be playing a pre-release version of Questprobe #4 written for DOS. The title in the in-game text is Questprobe Number 4: X-Men, but my suspicion is that this would have been changed to “Questprobe Featuring the X-Men” or similar before release. No tie-in comic was released for this game (although there is some evidence that one was started; we’ll discuss that in two weeks), nor do we have a manual. I played the game straight without hints for most of the review, but not all of the puzzles are hooked up yet and I will augment my review with information from unpublished design notes that Mr. Adams has graciously provided. The graphics for this game were not yet completed and I will be illustrating it as best I can using scenes from the other Questprobe games and anything else readily available.
The most important thing that I need to underscore is that this is an incomplete game. My opinions are based on what I have in front of me, but it is certain that Scott Adams would have refined the game and its puzzles many times before release. Quite a lot is playable, but that is not the same as having quite a lot in its final form. Got all that? Let’s begin!
Why the X-Men?
|The X-Men are missing from this chart.|
By my guess, the next character should have been Spider-Woman. She had a short-lived TV series around that time which I discussed back during the Spider-Man introduction. But perhaps her powers would have been too similar her male counterpart? In that case, perhaps the rest of the Fantastic Four or Captain America should have been next. Any of those three would have made for a great game! But as it turns out, the real choice for the fourth game was the X-Men, a group that had almost no television exposure at all in this era. Were they were known enough among non-comic book fans to sell the game? I have no idea. Of course today we have a very different view: the X-Men are some of the most well-known and commercially successful comic book characters in the world.
Questprobe Featuring… Magneto? An X-Men Primer.
|Title screen under construction. The copyright is 1985 here, but the game would have been released no earlier than April 1986.|
The X-Men, like the Fantastic Four, are one of Marvel’s premier superhero teams but with a twist: the X-Men are not generally liked by the public. They are “mutants”, characters born with the potential for superpowers (generally manifesting around puberty) because of genetics. There are no gamma bombs, radioactive spiders, or mysterious cosmic rays: just teenagers getting their first pimples and unexpected super abilities. But for various reasons, “mutants” in the Marvel universe are looked down upon with fear and with disdain. They are discriminated against. The publication of the X-Men was, in some fashion, a way for Marvel to discuss social problems like racism while still having people in tights punch each other.
|The X-Men #1, September 1963. Magneto was the villain; this is also his first appearance.|
The shock for me is that this game is headlined by Magneto, generally the X-Men’s arch-nemesis. He is/was the leader of the “Brotherhood of Mutants”, a group that sees mutants as the future of humanity. But in December 1985, just before this game would have come out, Magneto had a change of heart and was given the leadership of the X-Men after Professor X was injured. He remained a “good guy” for a number of years and has alternated between being a friend and an antagonist to the group ever since. Magneto’s power is the control of magnetism. He can use this to control any metal that might be nearby, including the metal in his own body. The most practical application of this is that he can fly. Don’t think too hard about it; it’s just a comic book.
And with that introduction, let’s play!
Questprobe #4: X-Men
|The Chief Examiner hard at work, from Questprobe #1.|
Just like the previous game, this one starts off in a familiar location: the Chief Examiner’s office. The Chief informs you that you must use the powers of ultimate magnetism to traverse the maze in front of you. Unlike those previous games, you are not teleported anywhere but instead can walk through the door that is behind the Chief’s desk, into a room that is faintly glowing. There are no obvious exits. Welcome to the maze!
Since there are no obvious exits, I start to feel the walls in each direction. When I touch the east wall, my hand goes through! I walk that way and emerge into the darkness. I have to feel around again, but can find no exits except the way that I came. I head back and discover that the west wall is also an illusion, so I head that way instead. This continues on for some time as I slowly make my way through six dark rooms before I find one that doesn’t have any other exits. What am I missing?
|The ductwork maze from Questprobe #2.|
|Darkness from Questprobe #1.|
A short time later, I succeed in mapping all of the rooms that I can get to. What next? The water walls. I find that I can pass through the water easily enough, but drown immediately. What am I forgetting? That old Scott Adams staple command: “hold breath”. I do so and I can last in the water for a few turns. But just as before, it’s pitch black and I have to feel the exits to see what ones are there. Obviously the “ionized” water is a clue that it is magnetic, but I can’t find any commands that let me do anything with it. I am either missing something or it has not been implemented yet. I pass through the water room and continue mapping the maze, finding and mapping more water along. Eventually, Mr. Adams must have thought that this was too easy because then I find cases with two water rooms in a row. That’s just evil because there isn’t enough time to get to the second room, feel an exit, and get back without drowning. I can still map it, but with a lot of restoring the game when I die.
This may have been adjusted before the final release, but this whole section feels very tedious. Room after room of darkness does not make an attractive “graphical” adventure game and I am not sure new gamer would appreciate the lack of scenery. It’s a bold move to have the game open in a maze, but I suspect that before release they would have found a way to spruce it up.
Finding Some Help
|Spider-Man explores the ceiling. (From Questprobe #2.)|
The introduction of Beast reveals the big new game mechanic for this adventure: leadership. According to the design document, Magneto will be able to give commands to lead his team members as he finds them. They can follow him, perform actions for him, or just go off and do things on their own. This is different from the previous game where you could switch between two playable characters at will: here only one character is playable, but he can indirectly control the others. It’s a great mechanic and I regret does not appear to be fully-implemented in the version that I am playing. Each of the characters would have their own powers and come together to help solve the game’s puzzles. Beast, for example, is strong enough to throw other characters up through the holes in the ceiling to allow them to proceed if they cannot fly. (Presumably, Beast can climb up himself.)
While fiddling around in the Chief’s room, I also notice that he really doesn’t want me to get behind his desk. I do not manage to solve this mini-puzzle, but according to the design docs there is a way to get to the stash of *gems that the Chief has hidden under there. This is a nice callback to Questprobe #1! With those, mapping the maze becomes much easier, although I managed to do fairly well without them.
The End of the Maze
So, let me fast-forward: the maze is a pain in the neck and I spend considerable time just mapping it one exit at a time, in the dark. In total, I find 37 rooms before I reach a dead-end and have no more rooms to explore. In the final room, I keep hearing a “BAMF” sound. Well, any fan of the X-Men knows what that means: Nightcrawler! He was one of the second batch of X-Men, a mutant that looks like a demon (but is a conservative Catholic) and has the power to teleport himself. He teleports away whenever I try to do anything with him. The best that I can find is that when I “call” him, he taps me on the shoulder. I have no idea why.
- Most of the rooms are just labeled “small room” and require you to feel around to find the exits, so that much wasn’t a waste. Perhaps these would be described or themed before the game was completed.
- A handful of rooms are “fading in and out”. That is the clue that these are the ones with non-linear exits. Good to know, but I mapped them successfully without the clue.
- I find Professor X just after the water section and he tells me to “keep shields up”, whatever that means. This was two years before Star Trek: The Next Generation and 15 years before Patrick Stewart would play Professor X in the first X-Men film, so this is not an obscure Star Trek/X-Men joke. But the fact that it could have been is pretty funny. Professor X is a powerful psychic and is usually depicted in a wheelchair.
- I find Psycho-Man in another room. He was originally a Fantastic Four villain, first appearing in Fantastic Four Annual #5 in November, 1967. He’s an evil scientist that tries to control other people’s emotions. He also happens to be microscopic and uses a human-sized mechanical suit to interact with the world, not unlike a certain Doctor Who race.
Using Professor X’s advice, I can “create shields” and then the room goes dark. Checking my inventory, I find that I am both electromagnetically shielded and physically shielded, although it is not clear how to do one or the other. I discover that I can explore the water sections with the shields up, but they also block light so doing do makes me blind again.
Looking at the design notes, it appears that Psycho-Man was intended as a minor puzzle. Once you get past him, Nightcrawler is supposed to give you a headband that will block his attacks further, but at this point I am in the incomplete sections of the game so it’s not clear what his attacks would have been. In the version of the game I have, he doesn’t present as an obstacle. Given that, I think it’s time to stop playing and review the rest using the design notes.
The Rest of the Game
According to the design notes, the maze has a “secret” which you can only see by mapping it: each floor spells one letter and when you put all the letters together it spells “QUESTPROBE”. This is pretty neat, but I carefully mapped everything but was unable to see the connection. The trick is to ignore the “fading in and out” rooms, but I wouldn’t have known to do that:
Some of the features that were not implemented yet:
- Subsequent areas would allow you to find and recruit Cyclops, Toad, and Aquarian to join your little team. Cyclops can blast things with his laser eyes, Toad has an object that allows you to better understand the maze, and Aquarian is a key to the Bio gem puzzle.
- The Bio gem puzzle would have been solvable again. It would be in a room with a fake floor and Magneto could somehow (with the help of Aquarian) prevent the Natter energy egg from exploding.
- Toad will randomly pick up gems that you drop, so he will be an inconvenience to mapping. But he will stop if you ask him to.
- At some point, there will be a room with a brick wall that only Cyclops can blast through. The master of magnetism can create light, but not move masonry?
- Mesmero will appear as a villain. His power will make your mapping go haywire as exits will be randomized for a number of turns.
And that is it. The design documents do not provide any detail as to the end game puzzles, what would have happened when you finally make it to the end of the letter maze. Perhaps the Bio gem would trigger the end, but I’m not sure.
This game is, simply put, the most abstract of the various Questprobe games so far. If the final version would have implemented the maze as it is here, it would have been a remarkably graphics-less game with only a handful of differently illustrated rooms. The maze is very well-designed with each level increasing in difficulty, starting with a simple “feel the walls” premise, then adding water, then adding villains, and perhaps then more complex puzzles. I made it as far as I did with brute force, but it is clear that a skilled player could have found better solutions to the puzzles than I did. To offset the simpler graphics of the maze, the design document describes a bit how the characters would be rendered on the screen with villains on the left and heroes on the right. That would have been a great improvement from the similar challenge in Questprobe #3, but I am not positive that it would have offset the very abstract and linear nature of the game as it was designed up to this point.
|Teamwork! (From a “What If” comic, February 2005.)|
Unfortunately, we will likely never see a finished product, but I feel very fortunate to have been able to explore as much of this game as I have. What I played was a very fun start. Who knows? Perhaps some overzealous fans will someday decide to complete the game? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Until then, Questprobe #4 will and must remain just a fragment of what could have been a really fun game. And flaws aside, I had a lot of fun with this and I hope you enjoyed reading about it.
Next week will be our interviews with Scott Adams and Kem McNair!