According to issue 017 of “Compute! Magazine” (Oct. 1981), “MED SYSTEMS has been publishing and distributing software worldwide since 1979”. If my research is correct, Med Systems Software started developing and publishing games for the TRS-80 (and subsequently the Commodore PET and the Apple ][) more or less at the same time. In 1980, they not only released Rat’s Revenge, Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth and Reality Ends but also ten more games and applications. Having reviewed the four available adventure games in previous “Missed Classics” playthroughs, I will dedicate this post to a short rundown of the games that don’t really fit the “Adventure Gamer” template, as Med Systems appears to have been a consistently interesting company.
Multiple attempts to contact William F. “Mike” Denman, jr., who apparently was one of the company’s two lead programmers as well as its president, sadly all but failed. I’ve tried several e-mail addresses and social media platforms, but alas, I never even received a reply. The other main protagonist of the company’s early years was Frank Corr, jr., whom I didn’t even find a trace of online. Most of the early games are still available in some form – several of the manuals can also be found in web archives. Many of the games don’t have in-game credits, so there’s basically no telling who wrote the games without surviving manuals. Sadly, three of the adventure games released in 1980 (or even before?) appear to be lost altogether, but more on that below.
Through my research I came up with the following timeline of Med Systems games and applications released in 1980:
I am unable to derive the name of the ‘16K Manager’ from its ad. Also, Samurai, Starlord, Reality Ends and Bureaucracy may have been released much earlier as the September ad talks about them being available for other computers as well now. As I didn’t find an earlier ad, this is pure speculation, though. Otherwise, the timeline seems likely: The initial focus on educational games makes sense. I also know that Ghost’s Gallery is basically a variation of the earlier The Playful Professor. Moreover, it makes sense that the text adventures were released before the event of the 3-D continuum games.
|When breaking the “16K barrier” was cutting-edge|
With Denman pulling the ‘Crowther’ on me, I can only resort to speculation when trying to piece together the company history of Med Systems. I will try to sort the games chronologically best I can but many facts are still confusing me. Some dates are unclear (was The Farvar Legacy released in 1981 or was it 1983? What is the order of the games released in a given year?) and some games are lost. This is the reason why I’d like to put out a rather unusual…
Request for Assistance: Lost Games – Bureaucracy, Samurai, Starlord (presumably 1980)
Okay, let’s get Starlord out of the way first. I’ve found a listing of Med Systems’ early adventures in the September 1980 edition of “Kilobaud”, including the three mentioned titles as well as Reality Ends, but as I’ve found no further information about that game – as opposed to Bureaucracy and Samurai both of which show up in the 1981 Med Systems catalog available online. Before I found the Kilobaud article I thought that the name may well be a mix-up with Peter Hildebrandt’s Star Trap, published by Med Systems in 1981. I’ve found Star Trap but if anyone was able to elaborate on the existence of Starlord, I’d be more than happy to listen!
|I really want to play these!!|
|Sounds very neat, doesn’t it?|
Marathon Recap: Games I’ve Played So Far – Rat’s Revenge, Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth, Reality Ends
More speculation ahead! It’s very difficult to reconstruct the timeframe of the Med Systems catalog but Rat’s Revenge seems to have predated Deathmaze 5000 which appears to have predated Labyrinth. Reality Ends may have been an earlier game than at least Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth. Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth make up the first half of Med Systems’ “Continuum Series”, the other two games being Asylum and Asylum II. Continuum games are 3-D maze adventure games. According to vol. 7 no. 1 of “Creative Computer Magazine” (January 1981) they were all written in machine language, making them exceptionally fast. With every game, the programmers added more adventure game elements, with Labyrinth boasting more puzzles than Deathmaze 5000 and the Asylum games having much more of a plot. William F. Denman jr. was involved in three of the five games (starting with Labyrinth), and he even did the second Asylum game on his own. The engine may well be Frank Corr jr.’s, though, as he (presumably) programmed Rat’s Revenge before the two of them collaborated on Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth and Asylum.
Denman was the lead programmer on some other games, too. I presume – although without a manual, that’s difficult to say – that he was also behind Reality Ends. The terse writing style is certainly similar and the game also calls the player a dolt if she doesn’t handle the interface properly – like Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth do. This may also mean that Reality Ends could have been written by Frank Corr, jr., but Denman appears to have been behind a substantial chunk of the games released in 1980.
There is also a little mystery surrounding a game called Deathmaze 2000. Is this a port or a predecessor? I’ll say a little more about this one below.
Finally, all three games I’ve played through for this blog use literature as a pretext. Deathmaze 5000 relies on the player’s intimate knowledge of Beowulf (and either the bible or the Byrds) whereas Labyrinth lifts its monster from the legend surrounding the labyrinth of Knossos (the minotaur). The minotaur also appears in Reality Ends and the city of Knossos reappears in a Med Systems adventure called The City of Knossos. The hints at ancient literature appear to be another bit of corporate identity along with the aforementioned focus on mental illness. Reality Ends, and I have to thank two anonymous commenters for this as I wasn’t aware of the fact at all, seems to base its whole storyworld on the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. Quite a different role model compared to Beowulf or Plutarch but hey, whatever floats your code (sorry).
You can read the first three playthroughs here:
Rat’s Revenge [part of the Deathmaze 5000 posts: [P1]
Deathmaze 5000: [P1] [P2] [P3] [P4]
Labyrinth: [P1] [P2] [P3]
Reality Ends: [P1] [P2]
Skipped Game 1 – The Playful Professor (1980)
Unfortunately, although there have been countless magazine ads for The Playful Professor, the game does not seem to have survived online. At least, I couldn’t come up with a working version, so if you should come across one, I’d be more than happy to play it. When Screenplay took over Med Systems around 1983 or 1984 (a story for another time), they re-released the game in a revamped version for the Atari 8-bit family and the Commodore 64 as Playful Professor: Math Tutor in 1984. Steven Baumrucker ported William Denman’s game, and it seems like Mr. Denman commented on it personally when “Highretrogamelord” posted a sample on YouTube.
Skipped Game 2 – The Human Adventure (1980)
|And So It Begins|
|My Excel Map, Upper Part|
|Good job, Bones! Scotty – I think we’re done here.|
In the beginning, you can choose between travelling through either a male or a female body. Both bodies look exactly the same except for their size and their nether regions, and you start out in a different location each time. You are addressed as if you were in a text adventure: “YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT CORONARY ARTERY. ACCESSIBLE OPENINGS: FEET. COMMAND?” Below is a picture of the human body with a small dot in the middle. The small dot is you.
The process of mapping The Human Adventure took longer than expected because the gameworld consists of a whopping 158 locations most of which are twisty little arteries/veins that look (almost) exactly alike. Most of these bloodstreams take you to all of the important organs and sites of the body – due to its educational realism, you travel through the lungs and the atrium over and over again, and short-cuts or even simple branches are few and far between. I have to say, though, that although mapping is a bit of a chore I did learn a lot of things about the human anatomy. It’s also a nice way to get acquainted with the gameworld before trying out a challenge.
|Give me a break here, I’m one of the good guys!|
|He’s dead, Jim.|
|It’s all in a day’s work at St. Eligius|
Skipped Game 3 – Money Master (1980)
Money Master is apparently another maze game “designed to tutor the young child in the use of money.” This one appears to be lost, too, so I can’t really tell whether it’s more of an application or more of a game. The game apparently has the player move through a maze where she encounters different objects and creatures. Whenever this happens, she has to perform a transaction – collect tolls, give the right amount of change etc. The mazes are randomly generated and there are two dozen creatures and objects to be found within.
Skipped Game 4 – Ghost’s Gallery (1980)
Ghost’s Gallery is a variation of The Playful Professor without the math. According to the Med Systems catalog, it boasts enhanced graphics and features compared to its predecessor of the same year. The goal is to capture the ghost with the key and get to the front door quickly in order to escape the haunted mansion. It offers a single-player mode as well as a two-player mode. At first I thought it was heavily influenced by that other famous maze game with ghosts, but Pac-Man was released in North America in October 1980 while The Playful Professor was probably released around February and Ghost’s Gallery came out in May 1980 at the latest.
|I ain’t afraid of no ghost.|
|1980s Kids <3 Ghost’s Gallery|
|It’s pretty neat that you can name your character!|
Skipped Application 1 – Athletic Index (1980)
The first Med Systems product I was able to find a magazine ad for is an application called Athletic Index. Although the program can not be found online, it appears to be an encyclopedia containing facts about the Olympic Games. Apparently, the Athletic Index was already discontinued in 1981 as it’s not featured in the spring 1981 catalog anymore.
Skipped Application 2 – The Basic Bartender (1980)
The Basic Bartender was written by William Denman and appears to be another kind of encyclopedia. Med Systems advertised it as a “very specialized data mini-system” containing information on 102 mixed beverages. It’s possible to edit this database “as memory conditions allow”. The user can either search for a recipe, browse by categories or take a look at the complete list of available drinks. The mixing instructions are detailed and sometimes contain information about the recommended glass and garnish recommendations. I assume that it’s called The Basic Bartender because it was written in BASIC but of course I cannot prove that as this one’s also lost.
Skipped Gimmick – Adam’s Apple (1980)
In their spring 1981 catalog, Med Systems also had a 48 piece 3-D jigsaw puzzle resembling an apple on offer. If anything, it’s a good example how much they loved their wordplay: According to their description, “Adam’s Apple” was “seemingly designed just for Apple owners” and “a challenge to the core.”
Final Conundrum – Deathmaze 2000 (1980)
Deathmaze 2000 had me going in circles for some time as it appeared on the “Giant List of Classic Game Programmers” (Link: https://dadgum.com/giantlist/) which is sort of comprehensive if not really all-encompassing but nevertheless regularly updated and appears to be correct most of the time. In the 2019 version, the “game” is no longer listed but looking at the 2001 list turns up the title “Deathmaze 2000” written by William Denman for the Apple ][ which is probably just a harmless typo and nothing else.
Well, this is it for now. Med Systems sure is an obscure company these days but back in the day they were sort of a major player (by 1980 to 1983 standards) littering all the major TRS-80 magazines with a plethora of ads. Many dealers advertised that they had Med Systems games in stock, so there certainly must have been some demand, and especially the Continuum games have grown to be true cult classics in some retrogaming (or just nostalgic) circles.
I’d like to conclude my write-up with the company’s own words, namely a mission statement from the December 1980 issue of Kilobaud: