Sunday, 26 May 2019

Missed Classic: Ballyhoo - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

From 1980 to 1986, Infocom charmed the gaming world with their text adventures. I’ve just defeated Ballyhoo, their 19th and final independently-released game. It’s a moment that I want to savor, even as we have a whole bunch more games to go before we get to Return to Zork. It seems crazy to me that I’ve been writing about Infocom games for nearly three years and I’ve just now reached this point. Ballyhoo has been a nice surprise to end this first leg of the Infocom saga on: a game that is far from perfect, but more than I might have expected given its reputation.

We ended last week with the realization that half the circus crew was involved in the kidnapping. We have connected the ransom note to one or more of the clowns (although which ones are less certain), we know that Rimshaw hypnotized someone with the headphones, and we know that Andrew and the new lion tamer are also involved. That’s a decent chunk of the circus crew, but I have no idea what they hope to get out of the deal. It doesn’t all add up yet, but it might make more sense if I get my hands on the ransom note.

I had to look up more hints than I would have liked to close out this game. If I had more time, I would have done a “Request for Assistance” but I’m writing this now as we’re just about to post final ratings for Rome and Enchantia. The clock is ticking for me to play Batman Returns so I hope you will excuse the desire to get to the end. You’ll see the reasons why I needed hints in a moment, but overall I found that the game doesn’t quite hold together as well in its final puzzles. I’m eager for your opinions, even if you think I just dropped the ball.
I love a good animal act, don’t you?

Déjà Vu All Over Again

When I closed out last week, I was stuck. With nothing else to do, I resolved to play the game over again from scratch to see what I missed. Rather than repeat the whole thing, let me hit you with the highlights of what I found on my second trip through “The Circus that Time Forgot”:
  • In the opening, we see the roustabout remove the safety net from the Big Top. What I missed last time is that he is wearing the headphones while he is doing it! I thought they belonged to Chelsea because of how small they are, but he may just have a little head. Does that mean that he was hypnotized to do the kidnapping? I try to follow him around like we could do in previous mysteries, but he disappears quickly with no way to know where he went.
  • I missed an acrobatic act by Comrade Thumb at Harry’s gate, if I catch him and Chuckles walking through after I help him drink water. He does some tricks then says “Hello, Harry” in a squeaky voice. This is the hint for me to use the helium to mimic his voice, but I missed the hint last time even though I solved the puzzle.
  • I catch the detective talking to Monday, the pitchman on the midway. I realize that the pitchman is selling him the “medicine” that will very shortly get him dead drunk. I try to buy some myself, but the detective bought the last of it. I cannot buy any of his other trinkets either. 
  • The gorilla suit is missing its head. How did I miss that before? No wonder it doesn’t fool anyone.
  • After feeding the lions, I am left with an empty bucket. Instead of dropping it and assuming we’ll never need it again, I discover that I can fill it with water from the fountain. I can give that to the elephant to cool himself off with, but it doesn’t get me into his tent.

Our friend, the elephant.

The Elephant Walk

Even having done all that, I’m still stuck. Last week, I mentioned that I thought a mouse would help with the elephant-- and Lisa said that I was on the right track-- but I couldn’t solve it myself so took a hint. The solution isn’t what I expected.

When I first entered the prop tent from the staff area, I caught myself on a mousetrap. I had to swear. It was funny. Remember that? Well, it turns out that if you take the mousetrap out and then pretty much immediately put it back in the tent with the cheese on it (but not armed to kill), a little mouse will scurry over and nibble at the cheese. We can then catch the mouse using our bucket. Having replayed this, I see that there is a hint because we can start to hear a mouse somewhere in the tent… but I just never thought that the solution would be to put the trap back where you found it. If the mouse was smart enough not to get caught before (unlike an amateur detective I know), why would it get caught now? Answer: the plot demands it.

With a mouse in hand, we take it to the elephant. While I initially just “showed” the mouse to the elephant (after removing it from the bucket), experimentation shows that you can throw it and similar. When you do, the elephant gets visibly nervous. If you do it again, you’ll probably be a nitwit like me and restore immediately because Hannibal knocks the mouse out of our hand and it’s lost in the sawdust. But no, if you let the elephant knock the mouse out of your hand and then wait a bit, the mouse in the sawdust further spooks him and he breaks his chain and then stampedes through the fence to the southeast. I follow, but the elephant is long gone. Good job letting an angry elephant run loose in town, idiot. Maybe the bigger surprise is that after all of that, the elephant tent is completely empty. It’s apparently a waste of time.

The ever-helpful Comrade Thumb with his friend Chuckles.

It’s Electric! (Boogie woogie, woogie)

I follow the elephant’s trail of destruction to the southwest where I arrive back at the White Trailer, the main office for the circus. Comrade Thumb appears and is desperately trying to tell me something, but he’s speaking in “his native tongue” (Russian?) and I cannot understand him. I also notice that the trailer now has a stepladder in the back. How did that get there? As I look around, Thumb stamps on my foot and urgently points in the direction of the “Blue Room”. It takes me a few moments (and a search through my notes) to remember that was the name of the gambling den. Exactly how he is pointing at a trailer tucked away behind the elephant’s tent from here is an exercise for the reader, but I suppose it’s not that far away. On the top of the trailer is an aluminum panel and a crank. If I turn the crank, the panel opens revealing a skylight. It’s large enough that I can fit through, but when I drop down into the trailer below, the startled Mr. Munrab stabs his would-be assailant with a letter opener and it’s game over.

I ignore the trailer for now and head to the Blue Room directly, putting the ticket under the facade just as before. I head in and there is a new dealer. He’s looking closely at my ticket and, more importantly, doesn’t give it back. A moment later, he disappears and returns with Billy Monday, the pitchman. Together, they kick me out of the room. Doing it dressed as Andrew Jenny gets me an incredulous look from the dealer but otherwise the same effect. I get around three turns in the room before I am kicked out, so I try to make the most of them. Exploring quickly, I find that there is now a suitcase under the table. It’s locked, but when I try to pick it up I hear a muffled scream from inside. It’s Chelsea! Monday grabs the suitcase and barrels out the door while the dealer punches me in the stomach. I chase him out and I catch him climbing up the cage, throwing something bulky onto the top of the elephant’s tent.

I climb up myself, although I have to drop everything to do it. I make it to the top and Monday is nowhere to be seen. Instead, I hear something happening in the tent below me, like a ladder is being moved around. I don’t know how I know it is a ladder, but whatever. Suddenly, a metal pole pokes through the fabric of the tent, leaving behind a scorched hole. I try to look down through the hole, but I can’t make out what is happening. I move around and the pole pops through the tent again, this time staying up as if caught on something. I grab it-- surprised that I don’t get electrocuted while doing it-- and pull on it. The guy on the ladder below loses his footing and goes sprawling with the prod falling through the tent and landing on him. I climb back down and search the elephant tent, but there is no one there. I’ve lost my lead to finding Chelsea and I have no idea how he managed to climb up, get down, and still have enough time to poke me with an elephant prod while still carrying around a girl in a suitcase. He must be very fast. This at least confirms two things: I don’t think Thumb is involved in the plot, but Monday and the new dealer is. The further we go the more people seem to be in on this.

This is how they rocked it old school. (Image borrowed lovingly from Sheetgo.)

Fun with Spreadsheets

The dealer still has my ticket. This means that I cannot go back into the gambling hall or pass through the turnstiles onto the midway. Fortunately, I can take the long way around through the elephant-sized hole in the fence but that’s just going to be inconvenient. As I resume my explorations, I return to the midway to find the detective still there and passed out drunk. I get an “eureka!” moment and toss the bucket of water at him. He wakes up with a start and tosses his bottle of “medicine” at the turnstile-- there’s a little explosion so it must have been strong stuff. I try to talk to him, but he seems too pained to speak. If I ask him about Chelsea, he still cannot talk but he gives me the ransom note and the ad for the medicine that comes with the package. It’s a picture of a girl with a red ribbon and I have to assume now that is Chelsea, although that is not spelled out explicitly. (And I still haven’t gotten the ribbon yet this playthrough because I still have the headphones.) If I “compare” the note to the newsprint, I find that it is the same style of block letters. That confirms that one or more of the clowns are involved, although probably not Comrade Thumb. Chuckles? Malcolm? Speaking of which, other than the fact that I was carrying around Malcolm’s mask, what happened to him?

That doesn’t add too much. The next step may involve the white wagon and its newly-arrived ladder, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I expect that I need to get Munrab out of the trailer somehow, but how to do that is less clear. I eventually take another hint and realize that I was on the right track but unable to visualize the problem. (Or alternatively, the author couldn’t visualize it. Take your pick.) The trick is that-- from the roof-- you can reach down and knock on the door. Now, when you do this, Mr. Munrab doesn’t do what you expect. He doesn’t yell, “Who’s there?” and peek outside. No. Mr. Munrab goes outside and closes the door behind him. I can then climb into his trailer and lock his door, trapping him outside. If we don’t act fast enough, he manages to get back in and kill us, but that gives me a few turns to explore his office. Why am I doing this again? Oh right, because I’m trying to save his daughter.

This is a real book.

Now that I am inside, I search his desk. On it are some memos where he is threatening the circus employees, There’s also a spreadsheet showing the pay of someone named Eddie Smaldone; Mr. Smaldone’s salary has been gradually going down over the past several months. There’s also a phone. On his bookshelves are books about Disney, Mussolini, Machiavelli, and “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School”. Unfortunately, having searched the place, I realize that I can no longer reach the skylight. Munrab is moments away from breaking down the door, but I move his desk and am able to climb up and on it to escape. This is just in time because Munrab breaks down the door and closes the panel. I’m a bit surprised that he doesn’t come looking for me, but maybe he just thinks he was an idiot and locked himself out. I have now robbed the man whose daughter I am trying to save, so I’ll have that on my conscience for a while.

I take the spreadsheet to Harry and ask him about “Eddie” since he’s been my main source of information so far. He reveals that Eddie is Chuckles’s real name. Finally, we have a motive! Chuckles and the others have been suffering under the abuse of Mr. Munrab, both emotionally (via the memos) and financially (by withholding their pay). Exactly how they think kidnapping will help this is unclear. Are they trying to extort a raise? How do they think this would end? At best they’d be fired and at far more likely to be imprisoned. What is the play?

Castle? Trailer? What’s the difference?

Rescuing the Princess

I explore around and there is nothing new to do, but then I remember that I haven’t gotten the ribbon from Mahler’s cage in this playthrough. Since the headphones get destroyed, I have avoided doing that until the last minute. With that done, another round of exploring the circus ground reveals that Chuckles is now hanging out near Katz’s trailer. Is this the promised meeting that Andrew told me about? I ask Chuckles a question and he just tells me to scram. I try dressing up as Andrew Jenny, but he sees right through it.

It takes some trial and error, but I work out that I need to show Chuckles that I am on to him. That seems like a bad idea:
  • To show that I know Chelsea was in the gorilla’s cage, I need to show him the ribbon and the trade card. The first has no effect, but doing both shows him that I know that the ribbon is Chelsea’s. He tells me that holding onto that makes me look like the kidnapper.
  • To show that I think he’s responsible, I can show him the ransom note and the newsprint. Once he’s seen both, he claims that I can’t finger him for the crime because he has no motive.

Unfortunately, he gets angry and goes into the trailer at this point. I have to restore.
  • On the next pass, I show him the spreadsheet but he says he doesn’t know anyone by that name. I call him Eddie, but he just snorts at me. I restore and do it the other way, saying “Eddie, hello” first and then showing him the spreadsheet. He says it doesn’t prove anything because it’s difficult everywhere.

I then repeat the bit with the ribbon and ransom note from before and now he’s spooked. He runs off to the west instead of going into the trailer. I also got points for it, so I assume I’m doing the right thing. Still, confronting the kidnapper with my evidence when I am alone and unarmed seems pretty stupid, doesn’t it? If only I could have called my friend Sergeant Duffy…

I chase after Chuckles, but he’s long gone already. I try opening the door, but it’s locked. Knocking on it shows that someone is inside since they peeked out of the curtain, but whoever it is doesn’t let me in. Since I know that Andrew Jenny was expected at this little shindig, I put on their clothes and try again. This time, Katzenjammer opens the door. He wants to know where Eddie and Willie are. He’s upset and needs to discuss what to do with the gang, including the roustabout. (Was he deliberately involved? I thought he was hypnotized.) He asks me to guard the trailer while he runs out and brings everyone back. If I don’t go in immediately, he notices that I’m not really Andrew and panics, but I restore and head inside right away.

An artist’s rendition of Chelsea.

The trailer is decorated with a “foreigner’s vision” of Americana with a moose on the wall and a crowbar behind the door. I grab it and explore the rest of the room. Hidden behind the moose head is a tiny crawl space, roughly one foot square. It’s too small for me, but I bet a little girl could fit in there. Unfortunately, I need some help. It wasn’t immediately apparent what to do, but taking the crowbar with me I returned to Clown Alley. You might remember that the door there was warped and I was thinking that I could pry it open somehow; well, now I can! I pry open the door and race in. Comrade Thumb is in there, but he has no idea what I want and doesn’t comprehend anything I am saying. I eventually give up trying to communicate and just grab him. He’s portable! More importantly, he doesn’t seem to mind being carried. I deliver him to Katzenjammer’s trailer and put him into the crawlspace! He fits! I can hear him talking to someone in side and, a few moments later, Chelsea appears! And then she disappears back into the crawlspace and I hear swearing in Russian. I have to grab her while she’s at the entrance. Once I do, the day is saved! Game over, right?

Not quite yet. I pick up the little girl and head back to the white trailer to deliver her to Munrab. As I pass, Harry somehow SEES me with Chelsea and congratulates me on a job well done. He even reveals that he knew it was me with the helium the whole time. Wow.

Then something went wrong...

Faye Wray and King Kong

The next bit is confusing. I deliver Chelsea to Munrab at his office, but for some reason he immediately runs off through the hole in the fence. I follow him and then a bunch of things happen at once. Munrab grabs the detective and tells him to shoot me! First off, I’m the hero not the kidnapper. Second off, I’m carrying his kid. Shooting in my direction is a very bad idea. Fortunately, he doesn’t test that idea because Chelsea starts to scream and this cause Mahler the gorilla to become agitated. He grabs the girl and heads north with both Munrab and I in hot pursuit. The detective decides that chasing gorillas isn’t in his remit and slinks away.

I eventually find them again in the Big Top. Mahler has the girl and he’s standing on the high-wire platform. Munrab is apoplectic. The roustabout is also hanging around for some reason. Munrab still seems to think that I am the kidnapper so I’m going to have to solve this one myself. Unlike earlier in the game, the rope ladder is tangled and no longer reaches the floor. No problem, I just go into the lion’s den and take their stand. If I climb on that, I can reach the ladder and rescue Chelsea from the gorilla. Unfortunately, we’re all too heavy and Mahler panics, dropping Chelsea. That sounds good until you remember that’s she’s at the top of a high-wire act without a net.

I ask the roustabout to get the net, but he refuses. I end up taking a hint again and it turns out that he is still in his highly-suggestive state. If I clap first, he’ll do whatever I say. I clap and ask him to get the net. A couple of turns later, he returns with a net and Thumb. The three of them together try to hold the net below Chelsea. This time, when I climb up, Mahler still gets spooked, but he doesn’t drop the girl. Instead, he climbs even higher. I try to follow him, but he retreats to the platform on the other side of the tightrope. Given Mahler’s penchant for classical music, I also grab the radio and am relieved to notice that I have enough altitude that it is working. That should keep Mahler calm so that I can reclaim the kid. I start to cross the rope and the music is doing its trick, but halfway across the music is interrupted by a pledge break… that never ends. They need just one more caller to turn the music back on.

After several turns of that, I realize that I need to be the final caller. I climb back down, but as I do I notice that everyone in the circus seems to have sheepishly showed up. Everyone is working together to ensure that Chelsea stays safe; that is nice! Fortunately, I remember that there is a phone in the office and I go there. One “call wpdl” later (you need the name from the manual) and their pledge drive is over. I head back up to face off against the gorilla. As soon as I make it across, he drops the girl… straight into the net! Unfortunately, he also knocks me off and I am “Left Hanging”. The circus team below isn’t paying attention and I soon fall off the rope… and survive! The circus employees catch me in the net and treat me like a hero. Everyone seems like a family again and the circus is saved! I win!

But what about the elephant?

Time played: 3 hr 10 min
Total time: 10 hr 45 min
Score: 200 of 200 (100%)

The circus was saved until the creditors realized that you didn’t actually fix anything important...

Final Rating

Whew! That was fun, but a bit of a whirlwind. The first half of the game was better than the second and I’m not really sure in retrospect that the game holds together as a mystery. How exactly did kidnapping the owner’s daughter help with the conspiracy? And why stick her in the gorilla’s cage, in a suitcase, and then in a hidden compartment of the lion tamer’s trailer? Who tried to kill me and why? Where is Malcolm? Why did anything happen?

Let’s see how it does in our rating system.

Puzzles and Solvability - The puzzles weren’t bad, although they weren’t always connected in a sensible way to the plot. Why would I walk across the high-wire without knowing there was a balloon? Why would I tame lions to find a cigarette case? Why would I tame a gorilla to search its cage? Even when the individual puzzles were fun, it felt contrived. That said, the puzzles with the radio were well done and creative, especially when we had to copy the tape. We also had our first minigame even if in the end it seems to have been completely optional. We never used any of the money that we won. My score: 4.

Interface and Inventory - As usual, the Infocom interface is best of breed although there were a few more challenges with verbs than usual. That said, the addition of the blackjack mini-game was a nice touch, plus I loved the way that the game played with the interface with the “did so” puzzle, the swearing, and more. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - The plot makes no sense. There is insufficient motive for the kidnappers and no motive for you to be exploring a circus after dark. Even so, there are some fun story beats along the way and the “King Kong” ending is clever if not a perfect puzzle. But the ending and the shifting tones really bother me after a while. Everyone is a happy family at the end? No. I don’t buy it. My score: 4.

Sound and Graphics - Unfortunately, none as usual for an Infocom game. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - This is the game’s best feature, a beautiful melancholy that works most of the time. It occasionally gets too silly and the overall plotting pulls it down, but the writing and atmosphere are great. My score: 7.

Dialog and Acting - Once again, the game is well-written with some really great NPC work. I came to love the helpful Harry and the mischievous Comrade Thumb. Chuckles had some good bits as well, not to mention the clever narration and fourth wall breaks. Overall the game was just well written. My score: 6.

Let’s add up the scores: (4+4+4+0+7+6)/.6 = 42, but I will subtract one for the kumbaya ending: 41!

To my surprise, this is just below Zork III and Spellbreaker. For better or worse, this game is a good example of how our scoring system works. It’s a good game but not a great game, and yet it was really brought up by a great sense of tone and the way in which it played with expectations (and broke the fourth wall) with the narration. A different rating system might not rate “environment” with as much weight as “puzzles”, but ours does. Add to that some good characterization for at least two characters and it adds up to a game in the top third for the company. Not bad for a first time developer!

Your average score guess for this game was 37, so most of you are a bit surprised that this scored higher. Even so, ShaddamIVth got the win with a guess of 43 so congratulations! CAPs will be delivered with the next mainline game.

Before we close, some housekeeping. The next Infocom Marathon game will be 1986’s Trinity, Brian Moriarty’s second game and the first one that landed after the acquisition. This is one that I have been waiting to play a long time. I have never once touched it, but it has a good reputation. I am eager to see. Before we get there, I also have two special posts planned: one wrap-up of Infocom and outlining the marathon for the rest of the games and one that will be a surprise. That will be done as I can in between posts on Batman Returns and (depending on how the schedule lands) Consulting Detective Vol. 2. Next up: I get to play a game with graphics!


  1. Adventure Gamer trivia: The word 'mouse' appears more in a post about a text-based interface game than in any game with a mouse-based interface. I take this as a sign of Infocom predicting where the genre's future lies.

  2. Why use the mouse trap at all if you catch the mouse with the bucket? Just put the cheese around the location and it should come to nibble. Sounds like a bad puzzle.

    1. I did not try that and I do not know what would happen. Maybe the mouse can just take the cheese if it's not loaded into the trap?

  3. Amiga question: I'm using FS-UAE as an Amiga emulator-- my first ever game on an Amiga-- and even when I turn off scaling it still "looks" widescreen. Is that a feature of the Amiga where it would do that or do I still have some issues?

    As it is, I might end up having some stretched images for an upcoming post. Please don't shoot me.

    1. Not sure if this answers your question or is any help at all, bu t I think the native resolution of the Amiga was 320x256, ie. 5:4 format, as opposed to PC games that often ran in 320x200 or maybe 320x240, so perhaps you have 5:4 image that's shown as 4:3 or something..?

    2. Hey Joe.

      I've used WinUAE when doing Amiga games or Amiga versions - I expect FS-UAE works similarly.

      When playing it should look square-screened with black bars on the sides - if yours isn't like that it's likely it's defaulted to stretching the image to fit your monitor - there should be a setting somewhere. (Yes - my advice is to find a setting... somewhere).

      Like PC games, the screenshots (like the one on this post!) still look widescreen but from memory that has something to do with CRT monitor pixels not being square or something.

  4. "Why would I walk across the high-wire without knowing there was a balloon?" Because you're playing an adventure game and should take everything not nailed down. "Why would I tame lions to find a cigarette case?" Because you're playing an adventure game and should take everything not nailed down. "Why would I tame a gorilla to search its cage?" Well...

    It is a valid point though.

    1. This is true of course and it's all part of the genre... but I think I feel the lack of motivation more vividly in this case because our protagonist doesn't have any reason to even be playing this game. He's just hanging around and solves a kidnapping at great risk to himself on a whim.

  5. Maybe the bigger surprise is that after all of that, the elephant tent is completely empty. It’s apparently a waste of time.

    The inside of the Elephant Tent may be, but doing this opens up a path through the fence, which is not only convenient right then (to go to the white wagon) but I think is needed because you can't go east through the turnstile at the Connection without the ticket.

    1. You are right! Although I wasn't thinking that in the moment. I was so focused on what was in the tent that I didn't think of the rest.