Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Missed Classic: Planetfall - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

Oh boy! Are we going to try something dangerous now?

Last week, we continued our Planetfall adventure and solved many of the game’s early mysteries: how to get food from the kitchen, how to cross a ravine using a ladder, and even how to fix malfunctioning communications equipment using color-coded chemicals. (Better than colored rods!) Despite not helping in any way, Floyd is growing on me and I increasingly see him as a fun sidekick. At the end of the last post, we had just worked out how to use an underground train to cross over to another base on a second island. What will we find inside?

I warned you last week, but it bears repeating: Planetfall is one of those adventure classics that you can only play once. Sure, go ahead and peek at the score graphic if you want, but if you ever plan to play this game, the spoilers that I’m going to spoil here may be best left unspoiled. If you have played already or don’t mind learning the truth, read on!

Completed map of Planetfall

I carefully slide the train into the station and step outside. There’s a second train car on the other side of the platform but it just seems to go back the way we came. The station has exits both to the northeast and southeast and I pick the latter. Rather than a typical fast-forward and summary, I’m going to narrate my exploration of the base. I hope this gives a better impression of how tense (and fun) the exploration is as the situation unfolds.

The southern fork is called the “Project Hallway” and the first room I come across is the main project office. There’s nothing in the desk to take, but Floyd and I are drawn to a mural on the southern wall depicting a flame burning over a sleeping chamber. Floyd had been in this room while the project was still active and does not remember the mural at all. The art and style doesn’t match the rest of the room; it’s clearly out of place. I touch it, poke it, shoot it, and just about everything else but it doesn’t budge. Whatever it is, it is real. What is the mural trying to say? Is it cryogenics?

Just adjacent is the main computer center. Like most other futuristic computers from the 80s, it has a glowing red light and a stack of printed output-- the paperless office isn’t a thing in the future. The output claims that the project was nearly completed and the subjects revived before some sort of computer fault in “section 384”. A repair robot was dispatched but presumably didn’t succeed in the repair. Floyd is taking the news hard: he doesn’t seem to know much about the project, but he does know that this computer is the most important part. On the south end of the room is a “miniaturization booth” and Floyd explains that we can use it (if we have the right access card) to teleport into the computer to affect a repair. Of course, we’ll have to find the card first.

At the far end of the corridor is the “main lab”, a research area with two sealed sections: a radiation door in the northeast and a bio-contamination door in the southeast. I can open both doors fine so I suspect they are more about keeping what is inside out as the reverse. The lab also has a storage room and I pocket a replacement battery, the teleporter access card, and a paper with the conference room access code (213). Score! The battery should give me more shots with the laser but I’ll hold out exploring the teleporter or conference room for now.

I open the bio-lock and enter a large square area that Floyd compares to a squash court. On the far side is a sealed door but also a window we can look through. Inside are “ominous shapes” in the near-darkness but also a magnetic access card on the floor. Floyd somehow recognizes it as the one that we will need to fix the computer and he offers to brave the monsters to retrieve it. His robot nature, he claims, will let him survive the trip.I open the door to let him inside but it goes very badly very quickly as he is set upon by the monsters. He screams and we hear the sound of tearing metal through the door. Moments later, there is a quiet knock, the signal to open the door. We open it and a near-death Floyd stumbles out with the card. I shut the door quickly to keep the mutants out but his injuries are too gear. Just before he passes away, we sing “The Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner” to him, his favorite song. Floyd died a hero. We have the miniaturization booth access card, but was it worth it?

I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

Floyd’s death scene is well-written and I am certain I did not give it justice in my summary. It pays off (and plays on) the slowly growing attachment that we have to the character since the beginning of the game. That the song, which the game provides full lyrics for, relates the events of Starcross is funny in a way but a bit off-color for Floyd’s final moments. Are they trying to advertise a different game in the middle of a death scene? I’m not quite ready yet to admit that I won’t need Floyd again in my explorations so I restore back and he’s his bouncy self again. Is this like a time-travel plot where I need to find a way to prevent his death? Or is this going to happen to complete the game. I’m worried! At least I know where the miniaturization access card is and can come back for it later.

To the north, the radiation-locked area is similar the bio-lock one except that a radiation-filled lab is in place of the monster-filled one. Floyd doesn’t volunteer his services this time, but I can see through the little window a portable lamp and a spool of some kind. I know I need the lamp for the dark sections of the first base (the reactor stairs and one of the administrative rooms were both dark and grue-filled) but getting it seems impossible at this point. I run in and grab the goods but almost immediately die of radiation poisoning. Floyd helpfully comments when all of my hair starts to fall out. I’ll keep my eye out for a radiation suit; I mark the location on my map and keep exploring.

North of the project corridor is a library with one of those old-fashioned computer terminals. I locate a helicopter manual (useful!) and dig into the computer’s files for as much as I can. It’s all menus and submenus and written in the brain-hurting dialect, but I dig through them all to see what I can find. There are references to Zork and Suspended hidden in there (Floyd claims that he beat Zork except for one puzzle: he couldn’t work out how to get into the white house), but the big confirmation is that the planet was suffering from a plague and went into suspended animation until a cure could be developed. That explains my own illness. I’m confused on the Zork references, especially after we already got a song about Starcross, but I’ll hold my thoughts to the end. There’s also a teleportation booth in the library, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

This library is very high-tech.

Just north of the library is a section called “course control”. Aren’t we on a planet? What course are we controlling? An alert on a nearby computer tells us that we have a “bedistor failure” and I remember that we found a replacement in one of the supply cabinets in the first building. I’ll head back there once I’m done exploring. Next to the course control is “planetary defense”, also with a broken computer. That one claims that its “discrimination circuits” are failing. I haven’t found any of those in my travels but a nearby access panel reveals four “fromitz boards” and I think I found some of those earlier too. I keep exploring.

In the northwest corner of the base-- unconsciously, I have been exploring it counterclockwise starting from the subway entrance at the western end-- I find a “repair room” and the source of all our distress: Achilles, the base repair robot, broken at the bottom of a flight of stairs. We can’t fix him so we have to keep going. There’s a “robot-sized doorway” at the end of the room which Floyd can enter so I send him through it. Up to this point, I have been imagining Floyd as human-sized but is he supposed to be smaller? Floyd spends some time in the robot supply room (he found a ball in there and played with it until it broke) but eventually comes out and tells me about a shiny fromitz board. I send him back in to fetch it. We take that back to planetary defense and at first see no way to tell which of the four boards is bad. As I resort to trial and error, I realize there is only trial: you can’t remove the working boards at all so no danger of pulling out the wrong one. The computer is fixed and the planet is saved from whatever it was trying to defend against. This was an easy one.

The final room in the complex in the far northwestern corner is the Infirmary. We find more data about the disease affecting the complex plus an experimental medication. Should I try it? It seems that if they had a drug that worked, they could just have given it to everyone. Or was it developed after the population was asleep? In the corner of the room, Floyd discovers another broken robot-friend: Lazarus, the medical robot. He’s brought up Lazarus a few times in conversation over the course of the game and he’s clearly affected by his loss. Floyd runs off to be by himself for a while. I take the medicine: the worst thing that happens is I need to restore, right?

No radiation suit, unfortunately.

With the entire second base explored, I finally try out the teleportation booth. Just as I suspect, you can use it to get to the teleporter near the elevators in the first building. I don’t have to use the train any more! But if they had a teleporter, why have a train at all? I run all the way to the other end of the base and use the combination I discovered on the rec room door but it didn’t reveal much, just an empty conference room and another teleporter. I suppose if I ever need to get to one side of the base from the other quickly, I could use that. Maybe shave a few turns off running to the dorm to sleep? Either way, it seems anticlimactic. I was hoping for a radiation suit.

I head to the supply room and grab the replacement bedistor and teleport with it to fix the computer. The broken one ends up being stuck so I have to run back and get a pair of pliers as well. The solution is pretty trivial but I have yet another computer system operational again.

Let’s take stock of the remaining puzzles:
  • The mystery mural in the project office. 
  • The radiation lab that contains the lamp and the two dark regions in the base. 
  • The helicopter that needs a key. (But at least I have a manual!) 
  • The Floyd death scene with the miniaturization card. 

Unfortunately, I decide that the only one I might be able to solve right now is Floyd’s death. I steel myself for the shock and run through the whole scenario again to collect the access card.

Yeah, not as affecting the second time.

I use the card in the miniaturization booth and specify that the fault was in section 384 (from the computer output) and am teleported Fantastic Voyage-style into the computer. I explore across a circuit board, a narrow catwalk with deep pits on both sides, to find a “blue boulder” preventing one of the relays from closing. I shoot it with the laser but destroy the red plastic covering that I didn’t even notice, permanently destroying the computer. I restore and try again, this time flipping the laser to its red setting. I have to try a few times but the boulder is destroyed and I can leave. The computer tells me that I have only a few seconds to get to the exit before the whole area is reactivated. Simple enough, right?

Simple, until a giant microbe shows up. See what happens when you shrink? I try shooting it but the red laser has no effect and it kills me. I restore back to try again but shooting it with other colors doesn’t do much more than buy time. Each shot pushes the microbe back but not enough that I can run past it or defeat it. After a short while, a second one appears, then more, but I start to notice a change. Instead of attacking me, the microbes are now reaching for the gun. The more I shoot at the microbes, the warmer the laser is getting; I assumed that it was going to fry out after a few shots but maybe that’s not it. I throw the laser off the side of the platform and the microbes follow it! My timing is terrible because I immediately die when the computer turns on. I try again, this time throwing the gun as soon as I see the first sign they are attracted to it. That gives me just enough time to get to the extraction point and I did it!

Except, there’s a system failure and I find myself back to normal size but in a different emergency teleportation booth. I explore my new surroundings but it will be a problem: I’m in an office on the other side of the mutant-infested lab where Floyd met his end. I search and find a gas mask and a few buttons: I can turn on and off the lights in the lab or turn on an emergency system. One piece of good news: a computer voice tells me that the computer is repaired and the revival process is starting. How can I get out of this mess?

I try making a break for it. I turn on the lights in the lab and activate the emergency systems to slow down the creatures. The “emergency system” is a gas in the room so I make sure to put on my gas mask before I run in. The creatures grab at me as I pass but I am able to make it out the other side. Unfortunately, they are too close behind and I cannot shut the bio door. I run with them just on my heels from room to room. Sometimes vines grab my legs, but I pull away. Sometimes I’m nearly eaten by a creature with slathering fangs (a grue in daylight!?) but as long as I keep moving, they do not catch me. Where should I go? I think quickly: the mural. I run to the project office and just as I suspected, the mural is gone, replaced by an elevator. I enter the elevator and the door closes, finally saving me from the mutant horde.

Just as I start to wonder if this means I won’t be able to access the second half of the base, the game ends. Yes, just like that. We never had to use the helicopter or find a radiation suit. The lamp was just a tease. Deep beneath the base, I meet the leader of the settlement and he congratulates me for saving the day! Even better, Floyd arrives, freshly repaired and holding the reactor elevator access card and everything I never found in the game itself.

Floyd isn’t dead! I’m so happy!

“Maybe we can use them in the sequel?”

Time played: 2 hr 30 min
Total time: 9 hr 55 min
Total Zork Marathon Time: 77 hr 30 min
(Not including Deadline, Suspended, or The Witness).

Is This a Zork Game?

Just like with Starcross, I want to pause for a moment at the end and ask, “Is this a Zork game?” The evidence is contradictory but I am going to say “yes” with reservations. The humor feels like Zork. We have grues like Zork. Where it gets tricky is that this game suggests both that Zork exists in the universe as history (through its illusions to Starcross) but also as famous games (which Floyd didn’t understand the point of). There was also a reference in the library to Suspended but I’m not quite ready to incorporate that by reference… I suppose if Starcross can be both history and a ballad then Zork can be both history and famous text-adventure games. There may be a reason to reconsider this later.

All this because of a blue triangle on the corner of a box.

Final Rating

I can’t put it off any longer. How did this game do in our rating system?

Puzzles and Solvability - The puzzles in this game aren’t particularly difficult or creative, mostly just locating access cards or repairing alien machines. We don’t see any of the truly brilliant puzzles that Infocom is capable of here like the time machine in Zork III or the gravity-defying leap in Starcross. That said, this game features one of the greatest ending sequences of any game played so far starting with Floyd’s death then continuing through the miniaturization booth and colored laser combat and the final death-defying chase. It’s a great capstone to a great game and a real departure from the way all of the other Infocom games have ended so far. My score: 6.

Interface and Inventory - I wish I could say that Mr. Meretzky did something interesting with inventory, but he really didn’t. The Infocom parser is still fantastic but collecting access cards is hardly better than collecting colored rods. We need more variety! I also found the foreign-sounding gibberish to be headache-inducing. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - We have our first fully fleshed out protagonist and a mystery to solve but the story itself is weak. Why did our ship blow up? Is the whole plot of the game because a single repair robot tripped on a stair? It’s fun, but I wouldn’t call it a story. Floyd’s progression from annoyance to hero is a slow one but could have been foreshadowed better. I want to call it “character development”, the first real development in a NPC, but it is a bit of a stretch. Still, it is no surprise that Floyd is one of the best remembered elements of this series. My score: 5.

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

Environment and Atmosphere - Exploring the empty base, surviving on multi-colored goo and brown slop, slowly becoming sicker as we explore a plague-planet without even knowing it… this game has solid environment-building. Everything clicked together here to make a memorable setting that worked perfectly with the puzzles and story. My score: 7.

Dialog and Acting - How could they do so much with so little? Floyd emerges as a fully fleshed out character despite only having a handful of lines. I feel like I shouldn’t go above a five here without real “acting”, but this was an amazing use of sparse prose to get across an image. Screw it, I just appreciate the prose so much. My score: 6.

Add them all up: (6+4+5+0+7+6)/.6 = 47! And one bonus point for having the first true character in interactive fiction, a distinction that makes this game better remembered than most of its contemporaries.

This places it above every Infocom game save The Witness, although I think this is a more complete game than that one. That one featured a well-developed environment (a rare nine!) while this one has better scores across more categories. In either case, this is my personal favorite game played so far and while it didn’t score in our top ten, it’s a great game for any adventure lover to pick up and play. Our average score guess was 43 but Lupus Yonderboy gets the closest to the pin with his guess of 50. Congratulations! CAP distribution will be included in an upcoming main-line game.

Up next in our marathon will be Zork IV Enchanter. We will finally return, unambiguously, to the Great Underground Empire. I can’t wait! Before then, it looks like I’m going to have to play a game with graphics. Hook is next.


  1. As for why the ship exploded at the beginning, I'd point to the failed planetary defense discrimination circuits. Presumably not being able to discriminate between friend and foe and attacking any friendly and/or rescue ships.

    1. That makes a ton of sense! I'm not sure if the game actually makes that point. Did you catch some dialog that I missed?

    2. It's a theory based more on the desire for that puzzle to have a "purpose". I never noticed any mention of a space based threat, and it happens to fit nicely with the ship at the start exploding, so I thought it just felt more satisfying than a random puzzle for no reason.