Wednesday 1 May 2019

Missed Classic 67: Ballyhoo (1986) - Introduction

Written by Joe Pranevich

Infocom careened into 1986 on the backs of two contradictory pieces of information. Sales had been up in 1985 for an all-time high of $11.5 million, and yet the company was falling apart. The Cornerstone flop was a distant memory, but the winter layoffs that followed were not. Marc Blank, founder and co-developer of the Zork series, Deadline, and Enchanter was out. So was Al Vezza, the CEO. Mike Berlyn had left even before Fooblitzky had been released with the graphics team as one of the layoff casualties. Infocom was in active negotiations with Activision for a buyout, although how much of this was known during the development of Ballyhoo is unclear. What is clear is that the announcement of Activision’s intent to merge came out within days of Ballyhoo’s release. This would be the last game ever released by an independent Infocom.

Into this maelstrom entered Jeff O’Neill, a first time Implementor. Originally from California, he came to Infocom with a background in journalism and a smidge of computer science. He put those skills to use doing QA on Wishbringer, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and likely other games. He also subbed in as a writer for the The New Zork Times, the company newsletter. Unlike many of the other Imps, Jeff has kept his privacy post-Infocom and so we know less about him than other team members. We’ll see his touch here and in Nord and Bert (1987), plus he was one of the contributors to Bureaucracy (also 1987). I look forward to getting to know him through his games.
($11.18 in today’s dollars.) 

Prior to this marathon, I knew very little about Ballyhoo. Like many of the games in the first Lost Treasures set, I dipped a toe in twenty-five or more years ago, but I recall not “getting it” and ending a few turns in. My confusion may have been because Ballyhoo is listed as a “mystery” game, the successor to the Sergeant Duffy series of games (Deadline, The Witness, and Suspect) but without (as far as I know) continuing that series directly. I don’t recall even what the mystery was. The 1995 re-release recategorized the game as a “comedy”. Is it a comedy mystery? Or a mystery comedy? To make things even more confusing, it was initially developed as the third “junior” game (after Seastalker and Wishbringer), but that was abandoned before release. So how does this game play and feel? I’ll find out soon enough.

The manual opens with a souvenir program for “The Traveling Circus that Time Forgot”, an old-fashioned circus that my character has recently attended. We also have a balloon, a copy of our ticket, and an ad for an old cure-all in the box. I attended a Barnum and Bailey circus once as a kid in the 1980s. Even then they were old-fashioned; I remember pushing past protestors handing out anti-animal act fliers before we were in the door. That may have soured my opinion of the circus and I never went to another one. Thirty-odd years later, touring “three ring” circuses like that are gone, replaced in part by the upscale Cirque du Soleil and similar acts.

The program is mostly concerned with the story of Thomas Munrab (“Barnum” spelled backwards) and his players. He was a graduate of Harvard Business School, but invested in the circus even when everyone else thought it was stupid. The program says “backwards vision and superlative genius” but it is not difficult to read between the lines:
Sounds so simple yet it is hard to imagine the tremendous quantum of resistance and awesome challenge that would confront this would-be modern day P. T. Barnum. Immediately you would hear the voice of the naysayers. their prickly criticism intended to burst your balloon deriding such "pipe dreams" as low tech and low brow, logistically impossible, financially unfeasible. And imagine the embarrassment of getting laughed out of the Harvard Club!
As Infocom was a MIT shop, I expect there is more than a hint of cross-town Harvard/MIT rivalry in this description. Beyond their “stable genius”-level founder, the circus consists of:
  • Glorious Gloria, a trapeze artist
  • The Amazing Genatossio Brothers (Carlo, Giuseppe, Antonio, and Stefano), a high-wire act
  • Gottfried Wilhelm van Katzenjammer, an animal tamer
  • Comrade Thumb, a 28-inch tall clown
  • Chuckles, Mystic Malcom, and other clowns
  • Rimshaw the Incomparable, a fortune-teller
  • Tina, the fat lady
  • Andrew Jenny, a “strange union of a man and a woman in one body”
I have no idea how much of this will matter, but I take notes anyway. As I look at this, I am particularly struck-- and worried-- by how Tina and “Andrew Jenny” will be portrayed in the game. Both are included as examples of “circus freaks”, but obesity isn’t quite as funny as it used to be. I am also worried about transgender stereotypes and the possibility that Andrew / Jenny will be depicted in poor taste. Then again, the program says that he/she is split right down the middle with an Andrew-half and a Jenny-half which is not the way any real kind of transgenderism works. I’m going to accept this as a period piece rather than worry too much immediately on the game as a commentary on non-binary genders or gender dysphoria.

Music to soothe the savage beast, eh?

The rest of the program includes a brief history of traveling circuses, connecting them to events going all the way back to Roman arenas. It also introduces circus slang which may come up in the game. Filling out the rest of the manual is a standard Infocom text including sample commands and recommendations for new players. The only new material there is that we will be solving a kidnapping plot. Sounds like fun!

Before I begin, I was already clued in to a major problem in my version of the game: the Lost Treasures set is missing a page (above) from the program which is required for copy protection. I found the page online, but it means I already have a good clue to one of the puzzles if the answer is there.

There doesn’t seem to be too much more to say about the game. Let’s play!

The circus came to town!

As the game begins, we are a disgruntled circus-goer that just finished watching a lackluster performance. And yet… we also have an “irrational desire to steal the spotlight, defy death, and bask in the thunder of applause”. Do we take over the circus when we win? Or is this just to suggest why we might help a circus to solve a mystery?

There’s not much to do except look around. I double-back into the Big Top as other spectators are just about all gone. It wasn’t a “three ring” circus, but rather a two-ringed one. A ring to the west that I cannot access is for animal acts, while this one is for the acrobats. The high-wire is still set up with a safety net below. I can even climb up to try to cross it! This appears to be a puzzle as I have to cross slowly and “lean” to the north and south to keep my balance, but I quickly fall into the net below. I may have a reason to do this later. For now, I’m just impressed that none of the guards or ushers or clowns or anyone else didn’t stop some idiot (me!) from climbing up there and nearly getting himself killed.

I file out with the crowd and make it outside. In the main “connection” between the circus events and the Midway to the east, I find a small person wearing a general's outfit. That must be Comrade Thumb, the world’s smallest man. Quick searching suggests that he is based on Francis Joseph Flynn, aka “General Mite”, a diminutive 19th century circus performer. He’s struggling to drink from a water fountain, but it’s too high for him. I help him up and he thanks with a salute before walking away. I cannot head east as I need to have a special ticket to access the Midway through a set of turnstiles, so I follow Thumb to the south instead.

Just to the south, Thumb is joined by Chuckles, another clown. They arrive at a second set of turnstiles. They say something to a guard and they are allowed to pass through. The guard does not let me through so I cannot follow them. I wander west instead and find myself in the prop tent where I hear voices approaching from outside. I do what any sensible person would do: hide. Munrab and a Detective arrive and speak to each other in whispers. The detective actually asks why they are whispering and Munrab breaks the fourth wall by reminding him that they are in a mystery. Munrab explains that his daughter Chelsea has been kidnapped, but he neither suspects anyone in the circus nor trusts the local police. He hands over a photo to the detective. After a brief exchange, they both leave the tent and I can come out of hiding. The game has begun for real! I don’t think the detective is supposed to be Duffy, both because he doesn’t seem to be competent and because he is a PI rather than police. I’ll see if we can get a better look later.

Our 27th President. He was the last President to appoint a non-lawyer to the Supreme Court. 

My first step is to map out the circus grounds as best as I can to look for clues. Rather than a blow-by-blow, this is what I found:
  • The prop tent contains a stand-up figure of President Taft and a gorilla suit. I grab them. 
  • West of the Big Top entrance is a discarded clown mask and a caged-in passage for animals. My gut says that we’ll have to traverse that at some point.
  • Off to the east is a white wagon, the circus’s main office. The door is locked, but there is a discarded fiberglass pole out front. I grab that too. 
  • There are signs throughout leading to the “egress”, a famous Barnum gag. An egress is, of course, an exit and not a female egret.
  • Returning to the main tent, I find that the grandstands have been moved and there is now a gap I can walk through to get under the seats. I discover a ticket in the refuse below. I’m not sure why I don’t have one already since I did just watch the performance. 
While in the Big Top, I try the tightrope walk again. Why? I have no idea. But this time, I drop everything except the fiberglass pole and start to climb. That’s when I notice: the safety net has been removed by the workers. I neglected to pay attention before, but quickly restoring shows that it was just removed by a “roustabout”, a laborer. Crossing it with the pole is easier than I expect and I do not have to use the “lean” command at all. At the top of the far-side platform, I find a child’s helium balloon. I grab that for another ten points.

Leaving the tent, I use my ticket to enter the Midway but it doesn’t work. I check out the ticket from the packaging and discover that I had to poke out one of the holes to specify whether I am male or female. Will that come up later? Does this game have a gendered sequence? I punch out the blue dot and put the ticket in the turnstile and this time it lets me through. Once on the Midway, I spot the detective getting drunk on the job. He’s been binging on that “cure-all” that the feelies advertise, an 18% alcohol concoction. I don’t think Duffy would do that!

My map at the end of this post. Not a ton of rooms.

That gives me access to a few more places:
  • A menagerie where an elephant blocks my way east, plus a locked cage to the west. I can also scoot around the elephant’s tent to find another locked cage. I can hear that the elephant is chained up and unhappy. 
  • “Jennifer’s Boudoir” which is Andrew Jenny’s trailer. Andrew and Jenny are there, two halves of one person. They must have an interesting tailor! There is a spiral staircase leading upstairs but they will not let me through. 
  • Rimshaw’s tent is north. He looms and looks mysterious at us. 
  • The Fat Lady is at the eastern end. I grab a stool from her room. I should say “rooms” since she spans two of them. It’s funny, right? She’s also listening to the radio.
With that, I have explored everywhere I can explore. I need to start solving puzzles to proceed. My ticket says that it comes with three free sessions with Rimshaw. I will try there next.

All in all, this is a fun little game but I’m not sure that I “get” it yet. It’s not a time-boxed mystery like the three previous games, but I am not sure exactly what it is. There is the passage of time, but I expect that it is tied to my score. I hope that is the only similarity this game has with Cruise to a Corpse! (My god, I hated that game.) I can’t help but think that a game about the end of magic (Spellbreaker) followed by a game about the sad decline of an art form (Ballyhoo), all while Infocom was preparing for their own end… isn’t a coincidence. Let’s see how this plays out.

Time played: 1 hr 10 min
Inventory: stool, clown mask, pole, ticket, gorilla suit, balloon, President Taft, $12.81
Score: 20 of 200 (10%)

Since this is an Introduction post, it’s time to guess the score! The current average score for an Infocom game is 39 points. Since we have never seen O’Neill work before, there’s not much guidance that I can give. Good luck!

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. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.


  1. I'm going to guess a simple 30. I'm thinking the late change from junior game to adult game may make it less than it could have been.

    And I have vague memories of going to a circus once as a kid. It would have been late 70s or early 80s but apart from knowing that I went I have no specific memory of it.

  2. I'll guess 37. And, like TBD, I remember going to a circus or two as a kid, but it never really was a noteworthy experience for me. I vaguely remember tents.

    However, circuses make great gaming environments. Two of my favorite games that we have years to get to, for example, Sanitarium and Faust: Seven Games of the Soul both feature the circus world, as does briefly our friend Guybrush Threepwood in his first game. Thimbleweed Park visits there, and on the less-impressive side, Les Manley shovels manure at one.

    From literature, the magical book The Night Circus is a great read. ( )

    And that's my digression into the world of the circus. :)

  3. (delurks)

    I'll guess 32. No reason. It's just a nice number.

  4. Let's guess 47. It's not the most famous Infocom game, but nice enough, as it is.

    I've really visited circuses only as an adult, when taking my own children to them. Luckily, they don't have elephants anymore and freakshows are also a thing of the past.

  5. The 1995 re-release recategorized the game as a “comedy”. Is it a comedy mystery? Or a mystery comedy?

    Given that the main plot of the game is the kidnapping (and the presence of the incompetent detective), I think it's squarely in the mystery category, with some comical or whimsical elements.

    The Amazing Genatossio Brothers (Carlo, Giuseppe, Antonio, and Stefano), a hire-wire act

    I assume you meant "high wire", both here and the second time you used it.

    Rimshaw the Incomparable, a fortune-teller

    This useless item in the Invisiclues tickled me:

    Whom can I compare Rimshaw to?
    1. No one. He's Rimshaw the Incomparable.

    1. Thank you! I fixed the typo. I'm just amazed that I did it twice.

  6. I will go for 43, maybe a fresh face at infocom will help the score along but the switch of genres could hurt performance.

  7. 34, just to fit in between some other scores. I have the Lost Treasures, but never played Ballyhoo.

  8. I'll guess 35. I doubt it will be on the better side for a first-time Implementor.

  9. Seems interesting so far!

    And while we're enumerating other circus adventures, there's also Rebecca Clements' quite good AGS game, Cirque du Zale (2004).