Thursday, 29 October 2015

Missed Classic 13: Colossal Adventure (1983?)

By Ilmari

Since Joe Pranevich has already written great posts on Sierra’s early Hi-Res Adventures and Scott Adams's Questprobe games, I thought I should also do my duty and acquaint myself with some company making text adventures with graphics. With lot of options to choose from, I finally decided on a British gaming company, Level 9, mainly because I had never played any of their games, but also because after Infocom, they had the largest catalogue of text adventures.

The story of Level 9 begun with three brothers, Pete, Mike and Nick Austin. It was a family-based company, and as the years went by, they hired at least their father and sister. The exact details of the founding of Level 9 seem a bit hazy, with Brass Lantern and Digital Antiquarian giving two conflicting set of dates for their early years. What everyone seems to agree on is that the brothers begun by making an extension of BASIC on a rare computer called NASCOM, but the company manufacturing these computers promptly went bankrupt soon after.

Austin brothers in 1987.
On the background, Ingrid Bottomlow,
a character from Gnome Ranger

The Austins turned then into gaming business, first by programming simple action games for other companies. After becoming enthused with the original Adventure, they turned their programming skills into adventure games. Part of their success depended on A-code, a system, by which their heavily text based games could be compressed so much that they fit into a casette, which was a necessity in the British computer market, where disk drives were almost unheard of.

Level 9 went finally out of business in 1991, when gamers had lost all interest in text-based adventures. Before that, they had the opportunity to make a surprising contribution to the gaming world, which we already have seen on the blog: Level 9 had a hand in making the PC conversion of It Came from the Desert, which TBD played recently.

I am beginning the tale of Level 9 from their very first adventure game, Colossal Adventure - note how obviously the name tells of the influence of the Crowther and Woods Adventure. Most sites say that Colossal Adventure was published in 1983, but Digital Antiquarian is sure that it had been sold already in 1981, which makes a lot more sense than Level 9 publishing essentially six games in the same year. Still, I'll go with 1983, since that appears to be the majority opinion.

Is that a plant or snake? Whichever it is, it sure looks intimidating

Whatever the year of publication, Colossal Adventure, together with two sequels, was for some time marketed as a Middle-Earth trilogy. Later, perhaps due to some complaint from Tolkien estate, the name of the trilogy was turned into Jewels of Darkness in 1986 and all references to Tolkien’s works were erased. This later installment sported also graphics, while the original had been a pure text adventure. I intend to play the two versions side by side and especially use the screenshots from the latter to give some variety to this post. The original will still be the one with the official score, although I plan to note how the graphically improved version would have fared. I've chosen the Spectrum version of both games, since that just seemed so British.

Who could resist the rainbow?

Adventurer's Journal: Finally, after days of marching through wilderness beyond Gondor, I've reached the fabled Colossal Cavern loaded with riches untold. Who could have guessed the Cavern lies in the forsaken country of Mordor, ravaged in the legendary War of the Rings? Now just a final look of the map and... Hey, where did it go?!

The manual starts with a tale of a traveller arriving in a tavern, spending gold coins and telling he had found the fabled Colossal Cavern. While other guests planned on robbing the ragged gentleman, one person decided to save the poor guy and told him about the scheme. As a reward, the mysterious stranger gave to the kind soul a map to the Colossal Cavern. After travelling through many lands, this fellow was finally nearing the famous cavern, when a gust of wind tore the map out of his hands. And this is where the player steps in.

The game begins in a forest, but the immediate surroundings are quite diverse. There is a volcano nearby and in the distance you can see a tall spire. Since this is supposed to be a first game in a Middle-Earth trilogy, I immediately begin to think about Mordor, although that land probably had no forests. Still, the game might be set in a period after Lord of the Rings, so maybe there’s been enough time for trees to grow in full stature. And I mean really full stature, since it is possible to climb one of them and view the whole area from above.

If that red thing is lava, I'd stay as far away of the volcano as possible

The place seems quite desolate, but there’s still a picnic table, which seems a bit incongruous. Even if this isn’t Mordor or if the land of Sauron has become a tourist attraction in the future Middle-Earth, I still suspect they wouldn’t be making picnics so near an active volcano. There are even fresh sandwiches to take, so the place must have been visited quite recently. And the mysterious figure giving me the map had promised no one would know of the cavern...

"The council of Mordor Orcs strongly forbids littering in the area near Mount Doom"

An interesting landmark is a well house near the forest. Getting in, I find a set of keys, a lamp and a bottle - all reminiscent of Adventure. There’s also a dried well I can enter and find some coins. It’s getting a bit crowded in my inventory, since there’s a four object limit on it, so I have to leave the coins behind and come for them later.

It could do with a bit of decoration

From a well house begins a stream, leading to a locked grate. The original version appears to have a similar two-word parser as the Adventure, so I can just open the grate while holding the keys and enter the Colossal Cavern.

There are clear influences of Adventure in the makeup of Colossal Cavern - and I guess the name of the cavern isn’t very original either. I come across a room marked with “XYZZY”, which is an even more direct homage to the game. I soon find a rod, a cage and a bird - wait a minute, this is getting very familiar.

Getting back to the manual, I notice that the Colossal Adventure is a conversion of the original mainframe Adventure. Notably, there is no mention of Will Crowther or Dan Woods, which is a bit cheap. This isn’t the first time Adventure had been developed further by other people. You could say that even the Woods version was a reimagining of Crowther’s original, and after that, there had been lot of different versions and ports to other computers. Bill Gates had even made a commercial version of Adventure back in 1979 (needless to say, he didn’t credit the original developers either).

Colossal Adventure is still not a complete clone of the original Adventure, as you might have gathered from the description of the overworld, which has far more details than the original Adventure. The cave system itself seems for the most parts quite similar, although some items appear to be located in different places. There is some additional flavour in the text, often making the game sillier than the original. And of course, the later version has graphics, which sadly have a tendency to make the cave system seem far less magical than it should be.

I like how the last paragraph manages to give a hint, make fun of both Village People and Sun,
and on top of that, add some flavour to the dwarf society living in the cavern

It would be nice to actually see the dragon

...or the bear

This is one of the more original pictures

This isn't bad either. Note how the Austins turned a simple cave room into a real hall

That's an oil pit?

I have no idea how these decorations make the room oriental

It's all a bit straight-angled for a cavern system

Still, the game wouldn’t really deserve a new post, except for one detail. It turns out that Austin brothers had promised that Colossal Adventure would have over 200 locations. The problem was that the original Adventure had not enough rooms to make that happen. Level 9 decided then to simply add some rooms to the end game, expanding the original with 70 new locations.

So, I’ll just skip the parts familiar from Adventure (if you are really interested of the details, you can check my earlier post). This time, saving is fairly easy (although I might have lost some points for it), so I can collect all the treasures without any complications (the inventory limit does make it all a bit frustrating, necessitating much more trips through caverns). There is no indication that the cave would be closing, but instead, I am met by the mysterious stranger who gave me the map in first place. Turns out he is an elf and dwarfs, who own the Colossal Cavern, have captured hundreds of them to their lair. My final task is to set them free.

I am instantly transported to a familiar place with sleeping dwarfs and a stick of dynamite. There are also other items familiar from the main game: keys, rod, pillow, sandwiches and an axe. Before trying to find out what to do with these items, I do what I must and blast the dwarfs out of existence. A way out of the chamber opens up and water starts trickling from somewhere.

The best picture in the game. Those dwarfs just look so endearing that it is a pity to bomb them
It seems at first that the Austin brothers used the most boring possible way to expand the game. There’s a straight and mostly featureless tunnel leading to a long ladder and above that - a maze. Great. At least now I know what to do with those items. And all the while water appears to be trickling to my direction and rising.

After some mapping, I find my way out of the maze and into the dungeons filled with elves. Setting them free is just a simple matter of having the keys with you. So far I haven’t been really impressed with the end game.

Especially as I can't even see the elves I am rescuing

After the dungeons, I find a crystal bridge I can make disappear by waving the rod for no apparent reason. In the version with graphics, the bridge doesn’t actually exist in the first place and you have to wave the rod to make it appear, which makes far more sense as a puzzle.

After the bridge, I come to a sort of tower, with a huge door that is open, and a spiral staircase going both up and down. At the bottom of the tower I find a pentacle and a bottle of elixir. The use of elixir evades me and I finally have to take a look at clues to find out if it’s worth anything. Turns out you’ll have to take that elixir into a certain cell in the dungeon, with skeletons in it. If I then drop the elixir, the skeletons turn into more elves, who vanish singing happily to distance, just like other elves I’ve rescued. I don’t really see how I could I have figured that out myself.

So far the puzzles have been quite lackluster, being either too obvious or then quite unfair. But there’s at least one pretty decent conundrum. Remember the water level that keeps rising all the time after the dynamite blast? When the water touches lava, there’s a huge blast and you are a goner. The solution is to get yourself in the tower and close the door - a refreshing novelty, when usually it’s all about opening doors.

So, now I am locked in the tower, with no turning back. I mentioned already the pentacle at the bottom of the well, which is a pretty interesting thing. I take it and move forward only to find that I’ve fallen down a pit and died, while stumbling in darkness. After a bit of experimentation, I notice that holding the pentacle reverses the light situation - you can see while lamp is off, but not if it is on.

The tower has almost nothing else, but the stairwell. At one point near the top of the tower I find an entrance to a web, holding some jewelry, but also a nasty-looking big spider (a tower with a spider, I wonder where they got that from?). The creature seems to be entranced by the pentacle and I can lead it pretty much anywhere I want, but I can’t get rid of it.

No, you can't see the spider, and all the web screens look pretty much same

Going to the very top of the tower I arrive at a stone pinnacle with a great view to a forest and a volcano. I am pretty sure I am now on top of the spire I could see in distance at the beginning area, and the huge spider just adds to the Mordor vibes. The graphical version is a bit lame at this point - clouds obscure your view and even the tower is given a name, just to distinguish it from any Tolkien-related towers.

No money for awesome graphics nor for the Tolkien-licence, so here's obscured Obdurat

The solution to the problem of spider is pretty simple. I just throw the pentacle at the top of the tower and the hypnotized animal follows the thing down to its doom.

Now that I can investigate the spider’s web more carefully, I quickly find a way to the spider’s lair, which is again just a straight corridor with nothing to do. I come to a stream and entering it I am carried away by currents to a reservoir in the original cavern. Then it’s just a matter of walking out of the cavern and finding the elves waiting me. Was that really it? I guess it's time to score the game.


Puzzles and Solvability

Considering that the game's puzzles are, for the most part, faithful copies of those in Adventure, it is no wonder that most of them feel quite familiar and even cliched. The end game doesn't have that many puzzles to add to the original, and even then the results are a bit ambiguous - there's the clever water and lava -puzzle and the enigma of spider and pentacle, but there's also yet another maze and an unfair elixir. All in all, the score cannot really differ much from Adventure.

Rating: 3

Interface and Inventory

The original version seems again quite close to the original Adventure, with its standard two-word parser and an inventory list, and no obvious problems in guessing the verb. The graphical version had even some advances, like the ability to take multiple objects and refer to just mentioned items with "it", which deserves a bit higher score. One thing I didn't like was the inventory limit, which slowed down the progress unnecessarily.

Rating: 2 (3 for the graphical version)

Story and Setting

Although the main part of the game is just a standard treasure hunting, the backstory does add some context. The final quest for the elves was a nice addition and actually improves the original Adventure into a well rounded experience by replacing the ridiculous and fourth-wall breaking ending with a satisfying bit of lore.

Rating: 4

Sound and Graphics

The original had of course no sounds and no graphics. The graphics in the improved version were plain bland and added really nothing to the experience. The pictures did nothing to make you feel yourself like in a real cave system and sometimes bordered on ridiculous.

Rating: 0 (1)

Cheesiest representation of the cheese room
Environment and Atmosphere

The game suffers a bit from its ambiguous nature. On the one hand, the Tolkien-inspired sections with the elves and the dwarfs and the spider give the game a distinct tone. I definitely like the well-crafted cave system, which turns out to be like a huge circle, where you can finally see your starting location from a top of the spire in the end game. Then again, many of the elements from Adventure don't really fit in. What's a pirate doing in a cavern controlled by dwarfs - and if he happens to be a corsair from Umbar, does he have to say "har har"? And I really don't understand the picnic table. The graphical version suffers even more, because the cramped pictures with all wrong colours make you lose all belief in the fantasy world.

Rating: 4 (3)

Dialogue and Acting

There's some text added to Adventure, like with the Gazette, but not that much. The end game didn't have any spectacular piece of text nor any dialogues, especially as all the elves vanish, when you've freed them. Furthermore, the game suffers from occasional grammatical errors, which make the game look a bit unprofessional. 

Rating: 3

What kind of door is a corri-door?

(3 + 2 + 4 + 0 + 4 + 3)/0,6 = 27 (28 for the graphical version). I gave the original Adventure some boost for being the grandfather of all adventure games, but this time I feel I must take away few points for copying a game and not crediting the original authors - so 25 (26) it is then!

Am I a too harsh for the game? Considering that adventure games had progressed far from the original Adventure by the early 1980s, it just seems fair that using the almost same tricks again won't really make it any better. We'll see in the future whether things will be different with other Level 9 games.


  1. The link to 'page 3' girls (vis a vis dwarves with oversized beards) is frightening in just about every way Also, Chiclet keyboards. Eeeeeuughh...

    Didn't they think they might actually be advised to draw in the 'huge green snake' in the cave room? I get not placing other items so you don't have to draw/redraw them consistently, but it seems like 'monsters' make sense to show. I know you pick on this when it doesn't show the 'elves', but at least 'a hundred' can be understood as hard to put together. One big snake, though? Then a corresponding 'dead snake' picture? Can't imagine that would have been too hard. Still, I suppose this was only early days in computing, and it's hard to be too harsh on someone for trying.. to rip off someone else shamelessly and add graphics that don't even compare favorably to the Atari's work of years prior, even if the Atari likely had dozens more developers/graphic designers working for them. Good work either way, Ilmari!

    1. Drawing monsters / NPCs / etc. in rooms in games like this was actually pretty rare. Sierra did it in their Hi-Res Adventures, and some Scott Adams games (in their "SAGA" re-releases) could also do it (I remember that in one C64 version of Pirate Adventure (there was also a text-only version, I think) you could clutter any room's picture with objects by dropping them on that location).

      Another example where you can actually see NPCs on screen is Red Hawk and its sequel, also on the Spectrum, which plays like a comic book.

      I think Level 9 (and likely others) associated pictures with rooms, so to change a picture (e.g. by killing a monster) you'd have to be moved to a similar room with the same description but a different picture. Sometimes they'd use "rooms" not for actual locations, but for events -- for instance, in Lancelot, at the beginning of the game, you fight a knight, and he appears in the picture (and there are no exits in that "location", you can't proceed until you fight); when you defeat him, you're moved to the actual location you were supposed to be at (and now there are exits).

    2. I suspect Dehumanizer is right - pictures in this game were static and associated with bare rooms and did not reflect what happened to objects or entities in that room. Considering that we've seen dynamical pictures already in Hi-Res Adventures (beginning even from Mystery House) and in Questprobe games and the graphical version of Colossal Adventure was released after them, it might seem like a step backward. But this might be just a symptom of a difference in US and UK gaming world - perhaps British adventure games were designed to be playable even with the very low-end 8-bit machines and there just wasn't any room for fancy graphical innovations.

  2. If I were the inheritor of the uppity "take-ourselves-way-too-seriously" Tolkien estate, I'd be pissed too. There's too much tongue-in-cheek humor that which is too un-Tolkienish.

    1. Trying to wed Tolkien lore with original Adventure was bound to be a tremendous failure, since the two just have so different attitudes. A case in point is dragons. In Middle-Earth, dragons are fearsome fire-breathing monsters sitting on a bed of gold with only one weak spot that only the best archers might hope to penetrate. In Colossal Cave, dragons are rather placid creatures sitting on an oriental rug and you can kill one with a karate chop.

  3. The graphics are very basic mostly because, due to lack of space (as you said, these games could be loaded from tape on a 48k computer, although later games took advantage of better hardware (128k of RAM! Disk drives!) or systems if you had them), they weren't really bitmapped pictures, they were just a set of instructions (draw these lines, fill up these spaces with this color, etc.). This allowed for more than a hundred different pictures without access to any kind of virtual memory... unfortunately, the pictures had to be pretty basic. Also, I'm pretty sure that no one at Level 9 (at this time, at least) was an artist.

    Level 9 games will have decent graphics by the time of Knight Orc / Gnome Ranger / Lancelot / etc., and the Time & Magik trilogy will also have them added to it. Unfortunately, the Jewels of Darkness and Silicon Dreams trilogies will never really go beyond the kind of graphics we see here (although I'd say they'll be able to make them look a bit better -- maybe the "artist" gets better at it?).

    I'd have suggested the inclusion of a screen from the original Spectrum version. I know it's text only, so not particularly exciting, but it would be fun as "this is what this game would look like to you in 1983." :)

    Great to see Level 9 here, by the way. I hope you continue playing / posting about them here, in the future. They were big in Europe in the 80s, and yet these days it seems people don't remember any IF authors from that time other than Infocom or Scott Adams (and maybe a bit of Magnetic Scrolls).

    1. I'd say especially the pictures in the cave system were really unconvincing, while the pictures outside the caves were far better (forest and volcano). I've checked the first few screens of the next title in Middle-Earth/Jewels of Darkness -trilogy, and while they are not that flashy, at least they aren't as ridiculous as in the first game.

      I'll try to do a Level 9 game once in a while, and as I already implied, I have started the sequel. Judging from the beginning, it does seem like a very old-school adventure, since I've managed to encounter two mazes with Randomly Roving Monsters, just a few rooms away from the starting location. Since I am not that much of a fan of maze mapping, it'll probably take a while, before I'll get to the end of it.

  4. Did you find something that played the Level 9 data files rather than try to run a Spectrum emulator? The fonts are way too nice for 1982. :)

    To get that real old-timey smell, I've been doing all of my old games in emulators. All the Scott Adams games are playable in modern interpreters, for example, but I could never be sure that represented the original feel of the games. It's amazing that we live in a world where almost every ancient system has a halfway decent emulator, though I have had mixed success with Spectrum games.

    I have no objection to your approach, btw, if that is what you ended up doing. But it's like the complaining about aspect ratios and pixel smoothing from when we started the post-Trickster era: not all that pertinent for the content of the game, but some people here crave the original experience.

    1. I think this is David Kinder's Level 9 interpreter (just google "level 9 interpreter"). It's multi-platform; I use it on Linux as well as Windows.

      Note that, whether you're using the interpreter or an emulator, many Level 9 games have different features depending on which version you're playing. Old 48k games (like the original version of this one, or Emerald Isle, or many other pre-1986 games) usually only have a basic version... unless they were also later re-released as part of a trilogy (again, like this game), in which case the trilogy version ran with the newest version of their interpreter, and there typically was a 48k version and a 128k version (often one on each side of the cassette), in addition to disk versions on various systems.

      In some cases (e.g. The Price of Magik), there were, even in the first pre-trilogy release, two 48k versions: short text + graphics, or better text but no graphics. In addition, the 128k version would have the full text *and* the graphics.

      Later games (e.g. the Time & Magik trilogy, Knight Orc, and anything after that) wouldn't have graphics even on 128k, just more text, and features such as OOPS (meaning "take back one move", not "correct this misspelling" like in Infocom games) and RAM SAVE/RESTORE (pretty handing when saving and loading meant using a blank tape, rewinding, etc.). By then, graphics were restricted to disk-based versions (including the Spectrum +3, the Amstrad CPC and the C64).

      In other words, for instance, if you're going to play The Price of Magik, even when using the interpreter, you'll get a slightly different experience depending on whether you're using the Spectrum 48k graphics/less text version, the 48k text only/more text version, the 128k graphics/more text version, the 48k trilogy version (text only), the 128k trilogy version (also text only), the +3 disk version, the MS-DOS version, the Amiga version...

      (yes, I deliberately chose the game with the greatest number of versions. :) Other games didn't have as many.)

    2. Yes, I probably should have explained it, but I did use Kinder's Level 9 interpreter, since that seemed easiest way to get the games working at the time. I know the fonts don't look the same as they did with the original Spectrum, but since we don't have a separate score for fonts, I didn't think it mattered that much, if the text didn't look like as it should have.

      As for the graphical version, I assumed that the interpreter gets the data from the original files and presents the pictures in a reasonably similar way as in the Spectrum version. But yes, since there are readers who are eager for historical accuracy, I think that in the future I might try some real Spectrum emulator (or Amstrad or BBC or whatever machines Level 9 games were imported to). Since I've already started the second game in the Middle-Earth trilogy with Kinder's interpreter, I think I'll stick to it until the end of that game.