Thursday 19 October 2017

Missed Classic: Sorcerer - Going Underground

Written by Joe Pranevich

Last week, we made our first real trip back into the Great Underground Empire with Sorcerer. After learning that the demon Jeearr had taken control of the guildmaster, it was up to me to teleport to his location and rescue him… because everyone else went on a picnic. Using a handy Infotator that we nicked from the guildmaster’s room (and included in the game packaging), we cracked the code to a trunk in the guild basement which contained an “aimfiz” scroll, a teleporter. Moments later, we were halfway around the world and near the entrance to the sprawling Great Underground Empire. In a few minutes of exploring, I managed to find an underground amusement park and a quick death at the bottom of a chasm. It’s time to explore.

I want to pause before we get started because, as some of you know, Seastalker is the next game in the series. Written by Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence, it is Infocom’s first juvenile adventure game. Mr. Lawrence was an accomplished master of juvenile fiction, having written more than fifty books before the 1980s, not to mention comics and radio plays. He loved to write adventure fiction and contributed books to Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, James Bond, Buck Rogers, and other series… none of which I read as a kid. To help me get into the spirit of his work before starting into Seastalker, I am reading a few of those books, starting with 1957’s The Ghost of Skeleton Rock, a Hardy Boys adventure. I have put up a bonus post including my thoughts on that book and may do one or two more depending on timing and my ability to juggle the interactive and traditional varieties of fiction.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. There’s a Great Underground Empire to explore, after all.

Fun and Games

As I sat down to narrate this post, I fell immediately into the old Zork challenge of trying to describe an “open world” game like this. To keep it simple, I’m going to try to describe the world in sections even though my own explorations were a bit less organized than this implies. My first discoveries on heading underground were a chasm that I could not jump across and an amusement park that I could not enter. As soon as I started this time, I remembered that I was an idiot and had a flying spell so getting across the chasm was no problem. Just on the other side is a “money tree” that sprouts zorkmid coins as fruit. I pluck one and the tree disappeared, but at least I have some currency. With that, I can enter the amusement park.

I pay my entrance see and discover that the park is a basic midway with five different areas scattered around the perimeter:
  • A flume ride. In the southeast corner of the midway, we enter a log boat and ride it (using “wait”) around a track including a hill with a splash at the end. At one point, the boat passes through a coal mine being tended by troglodytes. I can’t seem to find a way to get out of the boat without being killed but there may be a hidden passage into the mine this way. 
  • An arcade. The southwest corner has an entrance to a small arcade. Inside is a game where you throw a ball at some bunnies moving around a track. There’s a prize to be won if we manage to hit a bunny, but I am nowhere near good enough.
  • A casino. The western edge of the midway houses a casino with a single working (but free) slot machine. It’s not quite a “fruit machine” as most of the symbols are references from Zork I: a pot of gold, a hot pepper sandwich, and garlic. (A fourth symbol is a bowl of stew and I have no idea what that could be a reference to.) I pull the handle around fifteen times but never manage to get a win. Is it rigged?
  • A haunted house. The northeast of the midway has the most “puzzle-like” of the various rides, but I can’t seem to figure it out. We enter an unnaturally dark room, even beyond what my “frotz” spell can deal with. Anything we drop disappears, even if it’s glowing. There doesn’t seem to be any exits, but it feels like it could be a maze. Every now and then we see shapes passing through us or the quick flash of a rollercoaster car (more on that in a moment). I can’t help but feel this area is important, but I’ll have to come back later with a more powerful light. 
  • A roller coaster. The final ride in the park is in the northeast corner: a roller coaster. It’s essentially the flume again with a vehicle that we have to enter and then just type “wait” to enjoy the scenery. Unlike before, this one passes through the haunted house but if there’s a way off without dying, I cannot find it. 

The flume ride, “Log Jammer”, at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania (image by Breemik08 / Wikimedia Commons)

This area reminds me of the amusement parks of my youth. If I can pause for another unnecessary digression, I want to mourn the loss of my favorite flume ride from childhood: Kennywood’s “The Log Jammer”. It closed recently after four decades of fun. Built by Arrow Development in 1975, it has many of the features of the flume in this game including the big splash at the end. Dozens were built like it all over the world, so it wasn’t a “special” flume ride. It occupied no special place in history, but it does have a special place in my childhood. It will be missed.

East of the amusement park is a room with carvings, especially a large one of a sleeping dragon on the south wall. It seems important but there’s nothing obvious I can do here yet.

The Ruins

To the northeast of the park and across a large crater is a highway. This is where I stopped last week, although it was a bit premature. Following the highway leads to a toll gate being guarded by a sleeping gnome. His toll is one zorkmid, but I already spent by only coin to get into the amusement park. I decide against restoring yet, but I’ll try to remember to come back here if I get stuck.

Just above the highway is the entrance to a dungeon. I didn’t realize it immediately, but it is the dungeon beneath the ruins from my dream sequence. (I also dreamed about a fort and initially thought they were two parts of the same area, but they are not.) There’s a torture chamber in the dungeon, complete with a “flaxo” potion that claims to cause “exquisite torture”. I’ll pass on that for now, but it sounds like it could come in handy. Just to the north is a pit of bones, presumably what happened to all of the torture room’s occupants. There's an exit high above but I cannot get there even with the flying spell. I’ll need to find another way.

It bites!

Great Aboveground Empire

After exhausting my exploration of the underground area, I return to the surface to map out what I can find above. Much of the area is exactly the same as my dream, down to the locusts and snake and minefield portions. I have more spells now, of course, but none of them seem particularly suited to surviving any of the obstacles. Even the “obvious” step of flying above the minefield doesn’t work because these are magic mines and they detect that I am there anyway. Boom.

In the fort to the northeast (separate from the ruin a bit to the south), I can lower the flag of Quendor but otherwise don’t find anything special. Is lowering the flag a sign of surrender? Elsewhere in the fort, there is a barracks and an armoury, both empty, plus a gun emplacement that still has an original cannon. It appears to be loaded with scroll, but I am bitten by something when I reach in to take one. Why were they firing scrolls around the countryside? I assume this is another puzzle, but I do not know what is biting me. A trapped grue? Something else?

I also should mention that I keep dying as I explore. Several locations such as walking near the river, crossing the drawbridge, etc. all seem to have a low chance of killing me each time that I pass. I have “gaspar” active so I am resurrected each time, but I still restore just in case there are side-effects. (In the previous Zork titles, death let you return to the game but usually in a “dead man walking” situation with no way to beat the game.)

Not quite as mighty now...

A River Runs Past It

At this point, I am stuck. I have explored all of the sections above and below ground and I resort to experimenting with my spells and trying new things. (Yes, I forgot about the toll booth on the highway and that I could restore to get a zorkmid.) It did not take too long before I was trying to fly over everything, wilting all of the plants, and such. While I was trying to explore the moat, I realized that getting in was death. If I cast the “pulver” spell, it would empty momentarily and then re-full. That gave me an idea! I went to the river and cast the spell there instead. This time, the river dried up for several turns and allowed me to walk on and explore it.

In the mostly dry riverbed, I can explore northwest or southeast. To the northwest is a pool of un-evaporated water containing some tentacled monster. It kills me. Downriver, we reach a waterfall that I do not have any obvious way to get down. I don’t get too far, but just across the river is a “bat cave” with a bunch of bat-themed objects: a “fweep” spell which turns me into a bat, a “blort” potion which lets me see in the dark, and even piles of guano (shades of Zork I!). The spell and potion both seem useful, but I was hoping for a Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City. While I explored, the river filled back up and there’s no way out the way I came in. Fortunately, there is a one-way path down to the Pit of Bones and I can escape that way. That must have been the high-up opening that I couldn’t access before.

Since I can already see in the dark, what could the potion be used for? I try using it in the haunted house, but it makes no difference. Whatever magical darkness is in there is pretty powerful magical darkness. Only the amulet seems to really glow in there; is that another clue that the endgame will have a connection to the amusement park? Is the demon Jeearr hiding out in a haunted house? How tacky! Either way, I am stuck again and resume randomly poking things.

Random Explorations

What comes next is difficult to describe in any narrative sense, but I was able to solve a few scattered puzzles in rapid succession. It all started when I read through all of the animals in the Infotator; I had previously thought that it was only useful for copy protection, but when reading through I realized that there was a hint to what might be biting me in the cannon: a yipple. A “yipple” is this universe’s version of a mimic and they are allergic to animal waste. By sprinkling in a little guano, I could get them to leave and reveal the one real scroll of the lot: a “yonk” spell. That one lets you temporarily increase the power of another spell, but it’s too complex to copy so I will need to choose carefully.

After that, I discovered that somehow there was an aqua potion hidden in the flag. I have no idea how it got there since the flag was fluttering nicely and it wasn’t immediately apparent when I took it down. That potion temporarily increases muscle coordination. I took that to the amusement park and used it to really nail one of those bunnies with a ball, winning a “malyon” spell as a prize. That one lets you give life to an inanimate object. While I am there, I pull the slot machine a few more times and I finally win a coin! I guess I just needed to be patient.

The dragon carving seems like the right place to use the “malyon” spell, but it doesn’t work completely. The dragon seems to shiver for a moment before turning back into rock. This seems like the right place to use “yonk” to give me an extra-powerful “malyon” spell, but I’m going to hold that thought for a bit. The original Enchanter offered plenty of dead ends if you misused the one-time spells, so I’ll try combinations like that once I run out of other things to try.

With my shiny new coin, I finally remember that I have a toll booth to explore and hand the gnome my zorkmid. That leads to a new area including a small hut with a fireplace and the entrance to a maze of glass. There’s a statue there which I can “malyon”, but the king just runs off. I restore back just in case that was stupid. I finally enter the glass maze (hinted at in the manual), but die immediately when I walk into a room with no floor. I think that’s a sign I should end my explorations for the day.

Don’t forget that you can also read my bonus post on The Ghost of Skeleton Rock and get a jump on the fun that might be Seastalker.

Time played: 2 hr 45 min
Total time: 5 hr 5 min

Inventory: spell book, scribbled note, small key, calendar, amulet, infotator, journal, flaxo potion, blort potion, yonk scroll
Spell book: gnusto, vezza, pulver, izyuk, yomin, rezrov, frotz, gaspar, meef, fweep, malyon


  1. Excellent progress. Some fun facts on today's encounters:

    - According to the game's hintbook, the slot machine has a 3/64 chance of coughing up a zorkmid coin every time you use it. It also has a 1/64 chance of you hitting the jackpot. This buries you in a tremendous pile of zorkmid coins, which is fatal.

    - It's possible to pay both tolls no matter which one you pay first. If you pay the amusement park gnome first, you need to use the slot machine. If you pay the toll gate gnome first... ur snyyf nfyrrc ntnva nsgre lbh cnl uvz; lbh whfg arrq gb frnepu uvz gb lbh trg lbhe pbva onpx.

    - If you look into the cannon before dealing with the yipple problem, you'll see a pile of identical scrolls - further clue that yipples are present, as they'll cluster around a single item and all mimic it as a group (per the Infotater).

    - The chasm apparently CAN be jumped... but it only works 20% of the time. Flying is of course much safer.

    - On spell names: "Fweep" is the sound made by the bat in Zork I. "Malyon" is a corruption of the mythical Pygmalion, whose statue came to life after he fell in love with it. "Yonk" refers to a certain someone's birthplace.

    1. I did see the pile of identical scrolls, but that didn't tip me off nearly as fast as it should have. It did not occur to me that there would be other useful things in the Infotator other than the copy protection.

      Strange that this game goes back to probabilities in actions. That was something I hated about Zork I. Maybe it's another homage?

    2. In Sorcerer there's always a "sure thing" option and the probability options are always *alternate* solutions -- an interesting approach, and clearly deliberate.

    3. What does this mean? ur snyyf nfyrrc ntnva nsgre lbh cnl uvz; lbh whfg arrq gb frnepu uvz gb lbh trg lbhe pbva onpx

    4. That's an encoded message of a spoiler. You can decode it here:

  2. Also, I forgot to mention previously that I tested your "can't open the trunk too quickly" issue in the Guildhall. In my version of Sorcerer, even if you beeline as fast as possible to getting the journal (for the day's code) and using the code to open the trunk, the trunk still opens. I have no idea what's happening in your version... maybe they added some kind of subtle blocking to prevent the player from leaving the Guildhall too soon (such as before the mailman arrives) or without essential inventory/spells? I'm just spitballing here.

    1. I believe so. I remember reading from someone who'd disassembled the game files that in later versions the Implementors had introduced something to prevent the game from getting into dead-man-walking states quite as easily.

  3. As far as the books are concerned, I planned to do the same right before "Suspended"-- I even purchased three of Mike Berlyn's books with the plan to read them. Unfortunately, timing didn't work out. Maybe I'll read one of them before "Cutthroats".