Tuesday 11 June 2019

Missed Classic: Borrowed Time - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

It seems like only two days ago that we started our look at Borrowed Time, the first game by Subway Software and a fun diversion as I prepare for Batman Returns. This is the first adventure game created by “The Game Doctor”, William Kunkel, during a brief period where he transitioned from game journalist to game designer. We left off last week after an extended chase sequence as my character, the hardboiled detective Sam Hawlow, survived an attempt on his life.

The plot thickens right away. As soon as I step out of the bar where I had fled, my assistant Iris finds me. Someone has kidnapped my ex-wife Rita; Iris recommends that I search Rita’s apartment for clues. I learned a few minutes earlier that Rita was on good terms with one of the thugs, Fred Mongo, so I do not understand why she was kidnapped. Was she double-crossed? Is this a setup intended to lure me to my death? Was she so upset about the unpaid alimony that she would seek out the mob, only to end up in over her head? I’ll have to play some more to find out. Although my character should know where her apartment is located, I will need to explore the city to find it. Let’s see what we see!

The dogs kids love to bite!
Rather than give you the usual boring play-by-play, let’s cut to the chase and I’ll summarize each area as I found it. The streets are in a grid so explaining the layout isn’t so bad:
  • First Avenue, running west to east, is where my office and the bar are located. Walking down the street to the west, I discover Hawkey’s newsstand, a vendor selling hotdogs, and a shack at the end of the road. Hawkey insults his own newspaper and won’t sell me any of them. In contrast, the hotdog stand is happy to sell me a weiner, but we eat it immediately rather than stashing it in inventory for later use. I’ll return to the shack in a bit. The hotel that I raced through at the beginning of the game has been closed due to “vandals”, but my office is still open. Shame there’s nothing new there.
  • The next street to the south is Sixth Avenue, so thank heavens for narrative compression. From east to west, that street features a police station, a park, Bruce Light’s house, a Medical Office, and a pile of trash at the end of the street. The park consists of two rooms: a statue of George Washington and a shed with a combination lock on it. I’ll be on the lookout for a combo. The trash at the end of the street hides a bone, which I pocket in true adventure style. Bruce’s house can’t be explored without a search warrant, but we catch a glimpse of some pill bottles on his table.
Not completely animated, but these scenes give the impression of a living city.
  • To the north of First is Polk Street, a residential area. I find a house guarded by a “bruiser”, Rita’s apartment, the offices of a company named “G&W”, and a parking lot. There’s a brief scene the first time you arrive at the guarded house: a woman goes, but comes out quickly flanked by a couple of goons before they all get into a cab. I don’t recognize her or the thugs so I have no idea if this scene is significant.
  • The only location not on those three east-west streets is a post office, tucked away between First and Sixth. The post office has a long hallway of locked PO boxes which seems promising. My bet is that I will find a key to one of them later.

I had to work all of that out over several restores. There seems to be an internal timer where if you don’t trigger some action to advance the plot every few turns, the mob catches up to you and eventually kills you. This gives the game a constant forward pressure, but it makes exploring difficult and is unfair to someone just trying to get the lay of the land. Before long, I got into the habit of saving whenever I think I found a clue, then using that to iterate until I find the next one. I use that trick to also ensure that I move from clue to clue as efficiently as possible, just in case there is an overall timer too.

Not the Kidnap Victim We Were Looking For

While I explore, I stumble onto some situations that warrant further investigation. The first of these is at the shack on First Avenue. Fred Mogo steps out just as I arrive, but hails a cab and speeds away before he sees me. The door to the shack is locked, but a little bit of shoulder-pressure knocks it down easily enough. Inside is the tied up figure of Mavis Brown, the barmaid who gave me advice then ran at the beginning of the game.

I admit that I had a complete “blue screen” moment when I arrived. Had I won the game already? Did I find my kidnapped wife without even trying? No! My ex-wife’s name is Rita Sweeny. Mavis Brown was also kidnapped, although we didn’t learn that until we found her here. Checking out the place, I also discover a white tube and a novel, Babes and Bullets by Bob Tucker. I free Mavis and she tells me that she was kidnapped because she was seen talking to Doris Maglam. Who is that? Doris had told Mavis that Fred has to see someone about a car, but why that information is so sensitive as to warrant a kidnapping is unknown. She believes that Fred thinks she knows more than she does. It sounds like I’ll need to see Doris myself. The tube contains medication for Fred from Dr. Lafferty, but it’s not clear what the medication is for. The novel doesn’t seem important, but Fred was using a receipt from Stiles Safe Park-- including a license plate number-- as a bookmark. Is this the car that Fred is interested in? Mavis heads out in a few turns and I follow suit.

Let’s pause a second to talk about Bob Tucker. Unless I miss my mark, this is a reference to a famous fanzine and science fiction author from the 1930s through the early 2000s. “Bob” Tucker was a pen name used by Wilson Tucker while writing fandom materials starting in the 1930s. I have tracked down twenty novels and many short stories that Tucker sold starting in 1941, but no “Babes and Bullets”. Given Kunkel’s deep experience with fan magazines and fandom communities, I would not be surprised to learn that this was a “deep cut” and that Tucker really did have a self-published story or novella by that name, even in 1934. Even if not, it’s a nice homage.

I head to the police station to tell them to arrest Fred, but they tell me that they need to catch him red handed. I saw him leave the scene of the crime. There is a witness who would testify that he locked her up, plus we found prescription medication in his name at the scene of the crime. What more could they possibly need? I resolve to ask at the doctor’s office next.

HIPAA Violation

With a map of the area, finding finding the doctor’s office is no sweat. I head inside and am confronted by a nurse. She asks if I am a patient and I honestly answer “no”. She asks me to sit in the waiting area… and I wait and wait and wait. I eventually restore and tell her “yes” instead. She then immediately leads me into a consultation room. I search it to find some bandages in the desk, but what’s more important is what I see through an open doorway into an examination room: Fred Mongo is here, being treated by the doctor for something; I can see the doctor bandaging his hands. This must relate somehow to the prescription that I found in the shack, although I am not sure how yet. If I try to confront Mongo or even stay too long in the consultation room, some goons ambush me and drop me unconscious back into the street. Any further attempts to get into the office results in the receptionist threatening to call the cops on me. I hope I found everything I needed.

Next door to the doctor’s office is Bruce Light’s house-- I know this from the description but I have no idea who he is. He lets me in when I knock and I am shocked to discover dozens of pill bottles out in view on his front table. He blocks any attempt to go further into his house without a search warrant. I’m not sure how or if it connects to Fred’s doctor issues, but he seems like he’s up to something. I’ll come back later.

Visiting the Ex

Getting into Rita’s apartment is easy if you apply a little bit of force: we have to break down the door. Immediately after entering, someone attacks me from behind and I am knocked unconscious. When I wake up, I am dangling from the ceiling pipes with my hands tied above me. There’s not much exploring that I can do in this situation, but luckily a nearly table contains some matches and a candle. Using absolutely superhuman feats of skill, I am able to pick up both with my feet and toss them up to my tied hands. It seems impossible, and the game text plays off the silliness of completing this action. With the matches, it is easy work to light the candle to burn the rope that holds my hands to the bar. I drop to the floor unharmed and continue investigating.

My first observation is that everything is covered with dust. Either Rita doesn’t actually live here or she doesn’t clean much. I search the kitchen and come up with my next clue: a receipt for some burn salve. It costs exactly the same about as the white tube says on the label so they must be one and the same. That answers a few questions but opens a few more: Rita must have been helping Fred Mongo. After he burned his hands, he sought medical treatment and needed Rita to help him buy or apply the salve. Was he at the doctor getting his bandages replaced? Fred and Rita must be in cahoots-- but why? And how did Fred burn his hands?

This is the point in the game where the inventory limit is starting to matter. We are able to hold eight items, two of which must be our wallet and gun. That leaves six slots but my hands are already full. I drop the glass shard so that I can pick up the receipt; I doubt I will need that again.

I wish I had found these earlier...

Case Files

Although my screenshots are of the Amiga version, up to this point I had been playing the DOS version. Realizing how much nicer the Amiga was, I figured out FS-UAE and downloaded the correct disk image. In the process, I end up playing over the whole start again and producing the lovely screenshots that you see above.

But in the second pass, I find a major missing font of knowledge, right at the start of the game: my case files. In your office, you can browse your records to get a list of open and recently closed cases. They shed a ton of light on what is going on in the game, so much so that I am surprised that I worked out as much as I did without them.

They are:
  • Case #1 - We are investigating Fred Mogo for the arson of Acme Paper. We’ve seen Fred twice now, first when we saw him leave the shed where Mavis was being held and then in the doctor’s office. The burn salve that we found (and connected to my ex-wife, Rita) must be to help him heal from wounds that he received during that attack.
  • Case #2 - We investigated F. Nagler for his political activities at the request of his employer. We found him innocent, but I’m not sure what kind of “political activities” he could have been involved in. Unionizing? Gosh, is he a socialist?
  • Case #3 - We investigated missing money at the Dublin Rose bar next door, discovering that Ms. Athlea was nicking from her employer to buy a sports car.
  • Case #4 - I am helping the FBI gather evidence against “Boss” Farnham. They are 90% sure that he is a mob boss, but need help to pin it on him. Doesn’t a nickname like “Boss” give it away?
  • Case #5 - G&W Inc. hired me to track down an embezzling employee. I worked out that it was Jim Schuman, but they demote rather than fire him. Case closed, even if that was a terrible decision on their part.
  • Case #6 - Morris Motors hired me to investigate Doris Maglam who was 60 days late for her car payment. We found her and the car was repossessed, now sitting at Stiles Park. Doris is who Mavis was talking to when Fred nabbed her; he seems to be interested in this car and I should find that parking lot.
  • Case #7 - We are investigating R. M. Donald, a “burger bandit” who is on the run. I’m sure he’d eat like a burger king, if he just went in (and out) of a Wendy’s. Robble, robble!
Of those, we know that we are dealing with #1, #4, and #6. I’m not really sure how pertinent any of the others are, but #7 is clearly just a fast food joke.

Duking It Out in the Parking Lot

When you arrive at the parking lot for the first time, there is a scene where Jake, the parking attendant, and Fred Mongo are arguing. Jake refuses to release a DeSoto to Fred because it’s been repossessed. My guess is that he left something in the car that he doesn’t want anyone to find, possibly pointing to his arson case. If I come back later, the argument is over and Fred is gone. At that point, I try to show Jake the receipt to find the car, or just to search around and see if I can find it myself, but neither does anything.

But here is where I get stuck. I can find nothing new to do. I cannot get past the thug into the townhouse, find a key to the safe deposit box, or anything else. I resolve to take a hint: I need to break up the argument.

I have to restore to catch the argument in progress, but that is not too big of a deal. If I flash my gun at Fred and Jake, they stop fighting. Jake tells me that Fred was trying to take burned gloves and three cans of lighter fluid from the impounded car including. Aha! That is proof that Fred was involved in the arson. A turn or two later, Jake calls the police and they tell me that I have to show them evidence. When I show them the burn cream, the receipt, the lighter fluid, and the gloves-- one at a time-- they tell me that they are interested but there isn’t enough evidence. When I show the last item, they are satisfied and arrest Mr. Mongo for arson.On his way to the big house, Fred rats out his former boss Farnham. He says that he hid a key in Rita’s apartment that opens box 999 at the post office. He says that there is enough evidence there to send Farnham away for good.

Seeing Fred taken away in handcuffs is oddly satisfying.

The Chase II: More Chasing

Searching Rita’s again, I find a key hidden behind the stove. Fetching it is more difficult than it looks since I burn my hands and drop everything. I need to apply the bandages before I can gather up my things and continue.

Using the key at the post office, I am surprised to only discover a poem: “In the country, in the city, under the father’s eye, dig six feet and you’ll have all that money can buy.” It’s not a particularly good poem, but it does have the number 6316 written on the back. What could that be used for? The shed! I head to the shed in the park next and try that combination on the lock. It works! Unfortunately, that only contains a shovel. But “under the father’s eye” is pretty clearly a reference to the George Washington statue so I go there to dig. I discover a suitcase!

Founding father!

Unfortunately, thugs emerge from all directions. I don’t have time to do anything except run; any other action kills me. I head north and find thugs coming from up the street. The only safe direction I can go is west but when I arrive at the end of the street (where I found the bone earlier), I am killed when I turn north. It takes more than a minute to realize that I can “hide” in the trash. Inside is a very angry dog, but he calms down when I return his bone. Leaving the pile too quickly gets me killed, but I can head east once the thugs pass.

The way east leads to the police station and that is where I head next. I tell them to arrest Farnham based on the evidence in the case and they take me to his headquarters. I hand over the suitcase as well as the folder describing embezzlement that is contained inside, but they are not enough. The police accuse me of sending them on a wild goose chase. Farnham stays a free man and I’m stuck.

Alas, I was unable to arrest him this time.

Taking a Hint

After thrashing about a bit and remembering that I’m supposed to be playing Batman Returns, I give up and consult a walkthrough. It’s not as satisfying, but it does get me to the end. I am satisfied that I came close to solving the game, but I needed two more bits of evidence to send Farnham up the creek.

The first thing I didn’t do properly was handle the thugs in the bar. They scared Mavis out and into the street where she was picked up by Fred, but I would not have thought to threaten them with my gun… twice… to learn where Lebock’s hideout is and how to get in. I wasn’t even thinking about Lebock. My only note on him is that he is “Farnham’s man” and that he was last seen with Rita and Fred. After the second threat, they tell me that the password is “tinplayer”. I head up to the building guarded by the bruiser to try it out.

This leads me into another “escape” puzzle. When I arrive at Lebock’s place, he is sitting in a chair by the fire. He kicks me out immediately unless I run east into his dining room. There, I can grab a candlestick and use it to knock out the thugs that are following me. I can then proceed further east and out the back door to emerge at the street. Any deviation gets me shot. All good so far? No. I missed some evidence! What I needed to do was immediately lock the door. Somehow, I don’t get shot or kicked out and Lebock acts defensive. That gives me time to search the fireplace for a piece of partly-burned paper documenting his wrong-doings and then I flee east as before.

The second bit that I missed was due to a mapping error. There were rooms west of the parking lot and that lead to the mob headquarters and another house. If you visit Farnham without the police, you can watch him say “hiyo” to his dogs to calm then. He won’t help me because he’s a mob boss and I’m a detective, but the “hiyo” is what I needed to get past a group of vicious dogs guarding the other house. Inside, I find Rita and Mr. Wainwright which is doubly impressive because I didn’t realize he was kidnapped or know who he is at all. If I talk to him after the rescue, he hands over an audit report that proves money laundering. I take all that evidence to the police (with the rest that I had found earlier) and I win! Farnham is going to jail for a long time.

Time played: 4 hrs 00 min

Nothing but the best minimum-security prison for you!

Final Rating

That was fun, if not particularly long. I’m used to the deep writing and twists and turns of an Infocom adventure and this wasn’t quite that. It reminds me of Scott Adams-style adventures like the Questprobe ones that I played, but more sophisticated in its approach to storytelling. There is a very rough sophistication here that I can’t put my finger on but which demonstrates a promise for future games. Let’s see how the score comes out.

Puzzles and Solvability - Overall not bad, if a bit unfair at times. The highlight (of a sort) is the three chase puzzles where you have to escape from thugs. While it was a rough way to begin, it was more fun than challenging. I only struggled with the second chase at Lebock’s place because I would not have thought that locking the door would have stopped him from killing me. Beyond that, identifying what evidence you needed for the police was nice and the little riddle with the poem was cute, if not particularly difficult. Having to flash around your gun to get people to listen to you fooled me twice-- I just don’t think of that sort of thing. My score: 4.

Interface and Inventory - You know, I want to give a nice score here because the game looks polished… but it’s really not. The mouse is available but pretty much useless. The noun and verb lists do not update throughout the adventure and seem to be broken. The game is worse off for having those useless panes taking up so much space. Add to that a strict inventory limit which played off poorly with the timing-based puzzles and I just consider this a well-intentioned failure. Better than Curse of Enchantia though, right? My score: 2.

My completed map of the game.

Story and Setting - The game drops you into a world with a lot of names quickly, but once you work out how to read your case files it gets easier to understand how everyone connects. Solving one unrelated kidnapping while you are researching a second really threw me off in terms of what was going on. On the bright side, all of the cases led together back to the mob and the ending scene specifically calls out that you stripped Farnham’s allies one by one before taking him on. I was going to go lower, but I like the effort that went into creating the interlocking cases. My score: 6.

Sound and Graphics - The animation touches are nice and the images are fantastic… on the Amiga. Some of the scenes seemed a bit repetitive, but nowhere near the image reuse that we’ve seen with similar games in the past. This is nice as far as illustrated text adventures go. My score: 4.

Environment and Atmosphere - The chase sequence gave us a tense beginning to a game that never ceases pushing you forward. While I do not always like that from a puzzle standpoint, I do from an atmosphere one. The city itself was well-designed, if not that large, but the naming of the streets gave you the impression of someplace bigger. Nicely done. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - The text used in the game was limited, but what was there was fine. I wish that there had been more attempt to clarify who all of the names were that got thrown around at the beginning. My score: 3.

Add it all up: (4+2+6+4+4+3)/.6 = 38 points!

Looking over my scores, that puts it right around Spiderman and Hook and that feels about right. It was a bit of a transition game from text adventure to illustrated ones, plus the first game by a fledgling design house. It was an enjoyable few hours and I have no complaints.

Up next will be our regularly scheduled program: Batman Returns (1992). My copy of the game (and instruction manual) have finally arrived. Tune in next week: Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.


  1. With that, Biscuit also wins the CAPs on this one. Congratulations!

  2. I can't get over the bubblegum-pink skin color in some of these screenshots.

    1. It's better than the color on the MS-DOS version. :)

      It does seem like the didn't have any decent flesh tones to work with.

    2. Shots #1, 3, 4, and 5 look okay.

    3. Do you (or anyone else here?) know how the Amiga palettes worked? My guess was that the awful-colored ones were using a different fixed set than the other ones, but I have no idea since I'm not an Amiga guy. Like, if they really wanted THAT shade of green, they had to settle for crazy red-faced people.

  3. Huzzah! From your screenshots and description in the last post, I figured the interface/inventory would be the major score drop in this game. Still, it does look pretty neat for an early transitory game!


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