Thursday 10 September 2015

Missed Classic: Questprobe #3 - A Sticky Situation

Written by Joe Pranevich

Eight villains to defeat! (Nine if you count the snake.)

Torch & Thing Journal #2 - We are back together again and exploring a set of windy caves deep underground. The Thing made it there by holding his breath and destroying the machinery that was sucking him down, while the Torch had to take a longer route to sneak past Dr. Doom’s castle, open a shaft hidden in a cave, and fly down. But now that we’re here and together, what happens next? It’s clobberin’ time!

Exploring the World

When we last left our heroes, the Thing had just drowned in a sticky lake of tar while the Human Torch was exploring a nearby circus. Not exactly an auspicious start to my playthrough of the game, but what can you do? Let’s start with some minor bookkeeping: the title to this game is too long. So from here on out we’re just going to call it “Questprobe #3” instead of the full name, “Questprobe Featuring the Human Torch and the Thing”. Got that? Let’s play!

With the Thing’s untimely death, I did not finish exploring the world as the Human Torch. Rather than try to find a solution to the tar immediately, I spent several more games just traversing the world and seeing what I might have missed the first time around. Each time, I reloaded when the Thing died. Since narrating all of that would be both boring and heart-wrenching, please allow me to summarize:

Now, I just need to find the orange portal and I’ll be set.

At the Circus of Crime:
  • Just like in Spider-Man, the Ringmaster’s power is to tell me to leave. Also just like in that game, you can get around his suggestion by merely typing “close eyes”. 
  • I try to interact with each member of the circus one by one, but do not find anything I can do with them. You can’t talk to any of them and most of them do not seem to use their powers in any meaningful way yet. 
  • Any use of flame at the circus appears to be absorbed by Fire Eater. My guess is that the Thing will have an easier time “clobbering” these guys once he gets out of the muck.
  • I can climb inside the cannon! But once there, I cannot find anything interesting to do. You can’t “fire” the cannon yet because Fire Eater puts out the flame.
I will admit that while I was playing through this section, I keep typing “Princess Snake” instead of “Princess Python”. I guess I have Dragonball still stuck in my brain. Although there have been a few RPGs, as far as I am aware there are no adventure games set in the Dragonball universe. This is a major disappointment in my life.

You will believe a Human Torch can fly!

At the tar pit:
  • You can enter the shack, after all! I had been typing “go shack” last post which only causes your character to stand by it while remaining in the same room. “enter shack” actually gets you there. I found a candle inside.
  • If you type “fly up” from the pit (or some other locations) you can get a wider view of the area. The tar pit, the castle, and the circus all seem pretty close to each other. 
  • Once in the air, the castle shoots at me! I don’t die (and I’m not sure if I was just lucky or if the death rays really can’t hit you), but it limits further exploration that way. 
Urban decay was a big problem in the 1980s.

City of Latveria:
  • Standing outside the circus, you can type “go latveria” and find yourself at a deserted town. I only stumbled into the location while trying to manipulate everything mentioned in the text descriptions. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get there using cardinal directions, though you get back to the circus by heading west. (I need to make a small fan-rant about this: in the comics, Latveria is the name of the country, not a city or town there. The capital city, where Dr. Doom’s castle is located, is called “Doomstadt”.)
  • You can enter a store in the town to retrieve some gun powder. Something tells me that I’m going to need this to fire the cannon. 
This is an interesting game world so far, but in all my exploration I haven’t found anything that will help me rescue the Thing. I need to approach the problem in another way.

Escaping From the Tarpit

Just as I am about to give up and seek out a hint, I get a bolt of inspiration: check the manual. In each of the previous Questprobe games, there were clues as to how you should proceed hidden in the character biographies of the manuals. This one, it seems, is no different! Right there in black and white is the clue that I needed:
The Thing's lungs are of greater volume and efficiency than human, enabling him to hold his breath underwater for up to 9 minutes. 
That is something to try! I restart the game and switch over to the Thing. This time, instead of struggling to get out, I just type “hold breath”. A few turns later, when the Thing is fully sucked in, he survives!

Glub, glub, glub.

I can’t claim that being stuck inside a tar pit is much of an improvement, but at least it’s forward momentum. As the turns tick by (I type “wait”), the Thing sinks deeper and deeper into the muck, until finally… the Thing breathes and dies. I restart the game again, but this time I do not hold my breath until the Thing’s head is just barely above the surface. That gets me a few more turns under the tar, enough to actually sink to the bottom. I type “feel down” and I find machinery. My options are a bit limited while being blind and buried in tar, but I try to “clobber” the machinery and it works!

A turn or two later and the Thing breathes and doesn’t die. I made it! It’s still dark, but we’re no longer drowning in tar. I start to move around and quickly discover that I am in some sort of maze. I don’t have any items to drop or any ability to mark the rooms, but I gradually map the place in the dark via trial and error. I find seven rooms, the last one of which has a light visible off to the east. I walk towards the light and find myself face to face with a wall of fire.

Goodness gracious!

Under normal circumstances, the Thing is pretty fireproof so I walk through the wall of fire and it kills me immediately. Why did I die? It seems that the Thing is still covered in tar from his trip through the pit (and I can even see it in my inventory). I try to scrape, rub, or clean it off in some way but it is stuck on there. There must be another solution. Fortunately, I can look through the wall of fire to see the room on the other side: there’s a Bio gem and a Natter energy egg! After solving egg-related puzzles in the last two games, it’s like meeting an old (occasionally annoying) friend. I re-explore the dark section of the cave but find nothing new. Time to flip back to the Torch and see if I can make any forward progress that way.
Operation: Air Pollution

My first thought is that the Torch could pass through the wall of fire easily, but there’s no obvious route down that doesn’t involve a lot of tar. Just on a lark, I try to see if I can get the Torch to do the hold-breath-and-sink thing that worked for the Thing, but with the machinery broken, that no longer seems to be possible. I doubt he could hold his breath long enough anyway. But how about if we got rid of the tar? That might work. I set my flame on high and set the tar pit on fire. It burns quite nicely!

Smoking is bad for your health.

I wait and wait and wait, but while the tar is burning it does not appear to be burning away. If there’s a use for this flagrant violation of air pollution standards, that is not it. I re-explore the whole landscape looking for things that changed before I stumble on the obvious one: when I “fly up”, the castle is obscured in a thick layer of smoke and no longer shoots at me! Now, I just need to figure out what use that is.

It’ll be a little hazy on your commute in this morning.

Using this new-found freedom, I try to fly to varying places (the circus, the castle, etc.) but none of those work. At first I think the solution is to get onto the castle’s roof, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either. Eventually, I find that I can “land in hills” to be taken to a brand new environment: the entrance to a cave. Could I have found this without lighting the tar on fire? I’m not sure. Either way, here I am.

This is the third area that you could get to, but only if you paid attention to room descriptions and not the list of exits. The first was the tarpit where you have to “fly over tar” to get to the middle, the second was the city of Latveria, and now a cave in the hills. It’s making me very careful to try everything, but I keep worrying that I’m missing places that I should be seeing.

That one looks like a tugboat!

There does not appear to be anything I can do outside the cave, but inside is two interesting features: a large boulder covering a hole in the floor and a constant whistling noise. Is that an echo? I’m not sure, but my guess is that getting down the hole (or perhaps coming up?) will be the key to reuniting our heroes. I explore more carefully and it seems that the noise that I hear is the whistling of wind under the rock, but that the rock itself is too heavy to lift or move. This seems like an interesting puzzle, but how do I solve it?

A large hole in the back of a cave? Has anyone seen my explosives?

I consider the situation carefully, but nothing much comes to mind. The boulder could be a block that the Thing will deal with easily, once I rescue him, but I don’t really have any leads on that front yet. Looking over my inventory, the gunpowder seems promising but I do not find any way that I can use it to blow up the boulder. I’m still guessing the gunpowder is for the cannon, but it was worth an attempt.

Finding a Light in the Darkness

While I’m looking over my inventory, I realize that I’m probably approaching this the wrong way: Thing is in the dark and Torch has a candle. How can I get it to him? I fly over the tarpit and drop the candle in; it quickly disappears beneath the muck. But when I switch back to Thing and check the bottom, it never reappears. Time to restart.

The next time around, I do what should have been obvious from the beginning: I get the candle as Torch, fly over to the Thing, and “give” it to him. While I am at it, I also pass back the Reed Richards watch back to the Torch since it seems much more useful for him. I try to do the same with the gunpowder but there does not seem to be enough turns to get the gunpowder, get back, and hand it to the Thing before he drowns. Several attempt later, I optimize the command list (another callback to Mission: Asteroid?) and find that I have exactly enough turns to make the exchange. That gets me back to where I was before except now the Thing has the candle and gunpowder, while the Torch has the watch.

The watch appears to be much more useful for the Torch! It tells me how rested I am and with some experimentation I can see how this mechanic works. When I have no flame, my rest gradually replenishes. With low flame it decreases slowly, while high flame causes it to go down much faster. With the watch, I can also “rest” and know when I’m fully recovered. Since I never know what puzzle might require a lot of flame-power, I try at this point to stay as well-rested as I can.

I switch back to the Thing and find that I can light the candle using the wall of fire. And from there, I re-explore the maze to find two unique rooms:
  • The room where I “landed” when I destroyed the machinery now shows a hole in the wall containing tar. I can’t seem to get back up that way, nor can I get any of the tar. (Not that I need to since I’m still covered in the stuff.)
  • A windy room with holes in the wall and ceiling.
This room defies quippy description.

This is an interesting new room! There is a hole in the ceiling, but I can’t see anything up there, as well as holes in the wall. The ones in the wall are sucking in air. I try to break the grate, but it is made of adamantium and unbreakable. I can’t climb up the hole. Messing around with the gunpowder doesn’t produce any good results, either. What am I missing?

For the fifth (or so) time this game, I replay everything from the beginning. This time around, I notice that you can’t set the tar on fire using “flame on low”, but you need to have high flame. Are there other things that you can damage with high flame? This is a random thing to try, but I go around trying to “ignite” everything on high flame (resting frequently) and eventually find something odd: When you ignite the boulder in the cave, a pebble falls off. I have no idea why.

Taking Some Hints

But even with my strange pebble, I am stuck. I can find no use for the pebble anywhere, nor can I find anything for the Thing to do down below. I suspect that these two rooms are connected with the Torch at the top of the pit and the Thing at the bottom, but as long as the boulder is there I’m stuck. Rather than go to the blog or to the admins, I went to the source: Scott Adams. He provided me with a copy of his original hint book. (These scans are from a copy that I found elsewhere; the version he provided was text-only.)

I do not know if the original was in color.

The Scott Adams hint books are among the earliest that I know of. Unlike the later Sierra hint guides, his booklet contains hints for every one of his games all in one convenient package. If you buy a new game, you still need a new hint book, but the new one will have all of the previous hints in it as well. As best I have been able to determine, the Scott Adams are the very first hint books ever made: the first one was distributed in 1978 after the release of Adventureland. The next earliest one that I know of is the guide for The Hobbit (1982), published in 1984. There may be others that are pretty early, but we can safely say that this style of hint book is as old as they come.

Just like the later Sierra hint guide that I reviewed for Space Quest IV, this one is arranged such that you cannot easily get a clue by accident. Unlike the colored plastic filter that those guides used, the Scott Adams hints are written in a substitution code. This is what the first one looks like for this game:

All of the hints for this game are arranged this way with vague questions followed by several “more help” clues which proceed from just pointing the way to all out spoilers. The numbers under the quest correspond to the code which is written at the end of each game section. Here’s a bit of the code for this game:

Using the dictionary, the answer to the first clue above is “be a friend”. Indeed, that puzzle (if you can even call it that) just involves talking to the Chief Examiner to start the game.

For my own situation, I searched through a number of clues to find the first one that was applicable to my situation. The simple clues did nothing for me, but the explicit clue for my problem was this one:
Still can’t get the THING out of caves?
Clue #36: push or drop pebble under the boulder and wait
Ugh! I had tried to move the boulder already and it did not budge, but it seems that you can “drop pebble under the boulder”? I guess the whistling sound was supposed to imply that there was enough of a gap between the boulder and the hole to fit the pebble, but that is not a very clear clue.I think a better text description could have helped without being too obvious, but in any event I missed this one.

A few turns later, a pebble drops into the room at the bottom of the hole. But, now what? The pebble must help me out somehow, but how? I try to eat it (nope), I try to throw it at the Natter energy egg (it explodes, taking the Bio gem with it), and I try putting it in the tar. A half hour later, I am still trying to figure out what use a pebble will be and I decide that I have to take another hint.
Still can’t get the THING out of caves?
Clue #38: throw pebble but don’t be weak
Oh, I really wish that clue helped. What am I throwing the pebble at? The game seems to recognize that I can “throw the pebble hard”, so perhaps there was something from before that I could have done but I needed to have more oomph? I try throwing it hard at everything I can see, but I’m not finding any answers. Thirty minutes later (the minimum time I decided I would give myself to flail without an answer), I take yet another clue:
Still can’t get the THING out of caves?
Clue #39:
throw pebble up shaft as hard as you can when you are THING
Grr. I really was close, but I was throwing the pebble “at” the shaft instead of “up” the shaft or something similar. I swear that I tried this, but I must not have done so in exactly the right way. Following the instructions, I throw the rock “hard” up the shaft and some debris rains down! I switch to Torch and can see the result clearly: the boulder is destroyed. But with no cap on the hole, the wind is now much stronger: a “virtual hurricane”. I feel I should complain about the crazy physics here (no matter how hard a rock is thrown, it won’t be able to destroy a larger piece of the same rock like that), but it’s an adventure game. It might have been clearer if a piece of diamond or similar was what fell off the boulder. The pebble survived the trip and I pocket it again. You never know when a super-pebble will come in handy!

Well, well… well?

As the Torch, I fly down the shaft but the wind quickly blows out my flame and I fall to my death. That’s less than ideal, but I think I’m on the right track. On the next pass, I try grabbing onto the sides or climb and that doesn’t work. If only Spider-Man were here! Even on high flame, the wind knocks it out immediately. Well, what about “nova”? I haven’t tried that yet because the manual says that it’s like a nuclear blast, but it is worth a shot. I quickly discover that you need to be 100% rested to try that level of flame and it only lasts one turn, but after a few tries I am able to jump down the shaft, go “nova” before I hit the bottom, and fly to safety! At long last, the Thing and Torch are together again!

I just want to stop now and say that I love the twist in this puzzle. I spent much of my time playing this session trying to figure out how to get the Thing out of the hole, when the real solution was getting the Torch into it. We’ll see how that works out next session, but I love a game that can warp my expectations like this while still having it make sense. Bravo for that! And this also seems like a pretty good place to end this post. With luck, the next one will be a “WON!”

Some predictions:
  • The gunpowder is for the cannon, I’m pretty sure. I think I’ll be shooting the Thing at or over the walls of the castle. (The Torch can just fly in himself. No need for a cannon.) 
  • The Torch will be able to get past the wall of fire to collect the bio gem, but I’m not sure what’s next from there.
Time played: 6 hr 10 min
Total time: 6 hr 50 min

Deaths/Reloads: 23 (approximately), total 25
Hints Taken: 3
Torch Inventory: Reed Richards Watch, Pebble
Thing Inventory: Tar (covered in), Gunpowder, Candle (lit)

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one.


  1. This may make me sound unbearably young, but I'm glad video game companies don't expect players to read the manual anymore.

    1. I agree with you for a lot of types of games, but it seems that for adventure games it makes sense to hide little hints in the manual. I might have worked that out if I was a smarter comic book geek, but I'm glad that it was in there. Even into the 90s, reading the manual was very helpful for adventures.

      I wonder when that changed?

    2. When I'm reviewing old games, I *always* read and take notes on the manual first. Of the "newer" games that I've played for the blog:

      It was *essential* for Operation: Stealth. The game was unwinnable without it.

      It was helpful for Space Quest IV, but I can't recall anything in there that I needed the manual for. (But I had played and beaten the game many times when it came out and may have breezed through something.)

    3. With the early adventure games, manual was often a convenient way to avoid use of too much disc space, because you could put large chunks of the story in it. I guess that by 90s that wasn't necessary anymore, but manuals and other feelies were still used. Part of the reason was that they were an easy copy protection. Partly, I think, it was done for nostalgia - I know I loved reading a good manual, and I guess I wasn't the only one.

      My bet is that trend for flashy manuals with a lot of fun content was already fading away at the turn of the century. I seem to remember that manuals were more and more containing just the instructions for playing the game and little else - and even those were becoming redundant with in-game tutorials and such.

    4. I think there is something nice about a good manual, but I agree that the modern tendency is to design games that don't need them. When done well, they add to the immersion of the experience rather than take away from it.

    5. I miss both good manuals, and being a teenager with enough free time to devour them. :) My favorites were the Microprose manuals, which didn't just tell you how to play the game, oh no; you also learned -- and I loved it -- about fighter planes, submarines, helicopters, piracy in the Caribbean, battle tactics, history, politics...

    6. I loved it when manuals were written as if they existed in-universe. I used to re-read my Ultima manuals occasionally, even when not playing the games. I miss them.

      Having said that, I like that manuals are generally no longer needed to play a game. In-game tutorials, tooltips and in-game help have all gotten a lot better, which is the main reason manuals aren't required anymore.

    7. Having the games store being an hour's bus ride from home, it was one of my favorite recollections of my early teens whenever I have saved up enough pocket money to get a game, take a bus, open up the box and read the manual till I get home with full knowledge on how to install and play the game.

  2. I like it in games when you attempt to solve a problem (lighting the tar) but actually solve a different problem (the castle is shooting me) while making perfect sense (the smoke from the tar fire obscures the castle's view.)

  3. the Scott Adams hints are written in a substitution code

    I wonder if this technique was actually used in-game to make the most of memory limitations. I remember hearing about Level 9 numerically encoding all in-game text in non-intuitive ways (eg. assigning a marker for the string " t" including the space.)

    1. There are a lot of games, particularly Japanese ones and English ports of those, that do this. But I think Scott was working against an English-language character set and the need (or processing power) to play these substitution games would have probably not been necessary.

  4. I don't get this part: the caves obviously suck so much air that combustion could not be possible - meaning that it is basically a vacuum space. Yet, Thing can only hold his breath for 9 minutes and STILL use a candle in there? What the fu- Y'know what? Why not.

    This stuff happens all the time in the Bible and various other religious texts like the Torah, the Quran and the Marvel comics.

    1. Yeah, I had the same question. You get a message that the candle flickers in that room, but that's the extent of it. If the wind is powerful enough to knock out the Torch, you'd think it could handle a candle.