Sunday 18 August 2019

Missed Classic: Asylum – Off To A Rocky Start

by Will Moczarski

Med Systems Marathon Overview:
(a)  1980 Summary
(b)  Reality Ends (1980)
(c)  Rat‘s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d)  Labyrinth (1980)

Where I end and you begin

The first puzzle

My first hour in the Asylum is a tough one. I start the game in a cell with a locked door and I can see a bed as well as a box. The graphics are already more detailed than those of the previous 3-D maze games by Med Systems, it seems, as the bed can clearly be distinguished as an object you can interact with. I open the box and it contains a hand grenade which poses the first puzzle. I don’t find anything in, under, or on the bed, and if I pull the pin from the grenade and throw it at the door, everything blows up and the game is over. It takes more time than I’d like to admit but eventually I find the solution: the pin from the grenade is actually a key! The game and I don’t exactly start out as friends.

Apart from the pin and the grenade, I also wear a coat (“being worn”). Picking up an item displays the inventory which is handy. The interface already seems more polished than the one in Labyrinth. After typing “unlock door with pin”, I can open the door and escape my predicament. Turning left, I enter a long corridor with three doors on the left and one on the right. Looking back at my cell door, I can now see the image of an open door which is pretty nice. My actions appear to visibly change objects in the game world this time.

Now these previous two paragraphs make the first puzzle sound like a breeze when in fact I got stuck there for quite a while. It’s quite a dealbreaker and I wonder how many players just quit when they weren’t able to solve it. On the other hand, it was very educational regarding how the first few puzzles work in this game. They are short, self-contained set pieces that fortunately don’t require the player to examine the bed twice or something like that (I hate “do it twice” puzzles, I really do!) but rather use what’s laid out before her very eyes.

Second puzzle. The game is still out to get me.

Men of violence doomed in death

All of the doors are locked and none of them can be unlocked with the pin. My lock-picking skills seem to be rather bad. Behind the corner, I run into a guard. “A guard! Do something!”, screams the game. But throwing the grenade just ends in mayhem. When I try to move, I get caught. The game then tells me that I should have tiptoed (adding: “you fool”, in the fine tradition of Med Systems games insulting their players) but it doesn’t work when I try it after reloading. However, getting caught does not end the game. I am apparently back in my cell (an assumption that will turn out to be incorrect) wearing a straightjacket which is on fire. That escalated quickly. I cannot move anywhere and my inventory is empty. Nothing seems to help but the ol’ vocabulary which I can access by typing “vocab”. I am told that the straightjacket still burns which reminds me that the game is in real time – but what’s a poor boy to do anyway? After a couple of failed attempts, the verb “roll” seems suspicious enough to try it out, and voilà: “Flames smother, jacket falls away!” Two puzzles down, many more to go, I assume.

With my inventory gone, there is at least another box on the ground containing a newspaper. Reading it just reveals that “it says nothing important!”. The door is, of course, locked, and examining the bed still does not yield any results. This is already the third one-room puzzle locking me up in an environment that contains all the necessary items (if any) for the solution. So far, I like the opening a lot!

Once more, it takes some time until I get the right idea, and then it still takes some parser-wrestling. This actually feels like a classic adventure game solution, and I wonder if there are other games that made use of it. CAPs for anybody who can name other games containing this (kind of) puzzle. The first step is to examine the door as well as the keyhole which reveals that there is a silver key on the other side. I then proceed to “slide” the newspaper under the door and then try to knock the key onto the newspaper to pull it back with the key on it. At this point, I get very unfriendly with the parser. A deep breath and a few minutes later I make it work by typing “poke keyhole”. Pulling the newspaper from under the door gets me the silver key, and I can proceed to unlock the door from the inside. I still assume that I’m in my cell and that I have somehow lucked into picking the lock with the pin the first time. However, the corridor looks different – I must have been in another cell.

Moving along the corridor, I can hear somebody scream “Let me out and I’ll kill you!” That’s tempting but the silver key doesn’t fit, so I get down to something soothing for once: mapping the environment. In the next cell, there appears to be another inmate as I can hear “foolish giggling” – alas, my silver key doesn’t fit here either. The last door on the right finally can be unlocked. Behind it, I find another corridor with more cells. I seem to have entered the labyrinth proper, at last (another wrong assumption).

After a few more steps, however, I get caught by guards and it’s game over again. So far, the asylum is quite a bit harder to map than the deathmaze and the labyrinth. On the other hand, it has more dialog, more plot, more puzzles, all of which are things that keep me motivated. The game is not exactly easy but I was expecting as much after my previous experiences with Med Systems.

Friend of the devil is a friend of mine

Socializing with the inmates

Turning a corner never ends well as there always seems to be a guard ready to catch me. Fortunately, the game gave me a hint when I got caught the first time, so I know what to do right away. Tiptoeing before turning the corner lets me perform exactly one action before the guard notices me, so I’ll better make it count. Hitting the guard works smoothly enough, leaving me with an unconscious guard and his belongings: a brass key, cigarettes and a uniform. Naturally, I take all of them and can apparently roam the premises undisturbed now – at least for a while.

I attempt to map the next corridor and none of my keys work with the first two doors. However, the third one’s the charm. An inmate asks me if I have a cigarette – first the rude way (“Gotta cigarette?”), then, as I unlock his door with the silver key and enter his cell, he’s already much friendlier: “May I have a cigarette?” Saying “yes” makes him follow me around and on each screen with a door I get a message whether my new friend is able to pick the lock or not. Now that’s a good deal! The inmate is like a third key. The downside is that he needs a new cigarette every few minutes or he won’t keep following me, effectively establishing a time limit within the time limit.

In the next corridor, there are two locks the inmate can pick. Both lead to cells with more inmates who have burning questions: “May I take your coat?” and “Wanna buy a tuba?” Answering “yes” makes me realize that I don’t have my coat (anymore) so I probably have to get it back to solve this one. Trying to buy the tuba ends in a non sequitur, as the vendor laughs and tells me (s)he doesn’t have a tuba. Oh well.

Around the next corner there is another lock the inmate can pick for me. If I open the door without closing the others first, the game tells me that there are too many open doors in the asylum which is why I get caught again: game over. The next time I am more cautious and close all the doors behind me before heading onward. As soon as I open the door, though, I get pushed into a maze that looks familiar. This is proper Deathmaze 5000 or Labyrinth territory and I can finally map to my heart’s content. But who pushed me? Is this just a Zork reference hinting at the famous trap door? Or did my friend, the inmate, finally decide to betray me even if I didn’t run out of cigarettes yet? All I can say is that for all its “madhouse” cliches, Asylum is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors in terms of atmosphere.

But first I restore back to the beginning and unlock the door to the right of the straightjacket room to see what’s in that other corridor. I find that my silver key unlocks two more doors. Also, the corridor loops back to my own cell – at least that’s what I assume because I find my “belongings” (the hand grenade, the coat) there. It makes sense that the silver key also works for my cell as I wouldn’t have been able to get back the pin with the hand grenade in the room. Another case of good game design!

One more step and I get caught, however – I probably should have knocked out the guard before I went exploring this time. My next objective is to get my coat to that other inmate to see if I will get something in return, and it’s (drumroll) a round wooden peg. Not only the puzzles feel like classic adventure game challenges, the absurd objects definitely follow suit.

I enter the maze again to map it but this time something strange happens: not only do I get pushed from behind but I am also rubbed with vanishing cream. What does this mean? Did this also happen the last time? I don’t think so. If not, how did I trigger this event?

Product placement

Session time: 2.5 hrs
Total time: 2.5 hrs


  1. One of the "Zork"s for sure used the paper under door puzzle, and if I'm not mistaken something similar was also (much later) in "Simon the Sorcerer".

    1. "Zork II" apparently, according to this post by Joe:

    2. It was a placemat, but yes, Zork II.

    3. Ah yes, Zork II, of course! That's why it seemed familiar. I've also played "Simon the Sorcerer" but that was a long time ago.

    4. Strictly speaking, the first incarnation of the puzzle in Zork was in the mainframe version, where you did in fact have to use a newspaper (brought from the white house at the very beginning). When mainframe Zork was split up into Zork I/II/III, the puzzle was put in Zork II and the placemat added (because in Zork II you can't access the house).

    5. Can you really use the newspaper for that in mainframe Zork? My understanding of MDL is severely limited, but it looks to me like putting the newspaper under the door would print "The paper is very small and vanishes under the door." I haven't tried it, though.

      There is a welcome mat at the start of the game that I think you can use.

  2. "This actually feels like a classic adventure game solution, and I wonder if there are other games that made use of it."

    As noted above, this is a hoary old cliche. Among other places, I remember its use in Alone in the Dark 2.

    1. Interesting, I wouldn't have connected it with the AitD games. I've only ever played the first one for more than a few minutes, though.

  3. I would also remark (since I can't edit my earlier comment) that the Zork II Invisiclues refer to it as "the old trick of slipping something under the door to catch the key".

    1. It is apparently such a staple of the genre that it has its own TvTropes page:

    2. Nice catch, Vetinari! They should add "Asylum" to the list - it's at least one of the earlier examples in video games, possibly second only to the mainframe "Zork (Dungeon)". I assume that "Zork II" just recycled it from the MIT original?

  4. It takes more time than I’d like to admit but eventually I find the solution: the pin from the grenade is actually a key!

    As you pointed out, it's probably picking the lock, despite the verb UNLOCK. But while picking a lock with a pin at least seems reasonable in adventure-game-logic, I'm not sure about doing it with a grenade pin (!). And wow, you must have done it really fast...?

    Now that I've said that, I wonder, does the un-pinned grenade explode behind you after you escape the room?

    I then proceed to “slide” the newspaper under the door and then try to knock the key onto the newspaper to pull it back with the key on it.

    Requiring special verbs like SLIDE and POKE seems pretty mean, even for a two-word parser that can't take prepositions and objects (PUT PAPER UNDER DOOR).

    Pulling the newspaper from under the door gets me the silver key

    This makes me wonder if PUSH PAPER would have worked.

    The downside is that he needs a new cigarette every few minutes

    Now that's what I call chain-smoking!

    1. True, now that you mention it, I can see the wordplay involved which makes me appreciate the puzzle a lot more. The un-pinned grenade remains un-exploded in my inventory. Apparently, the only way to make it explode is to pull the pin and throw it somewhere.

      I tried to PUSH the paper just now and the parser just asks "What is: PUSH".

      SLIDE and POKE are not as mean as it might seem as there's a VOCAB list containing both.

      I had to laugh at your chain-smoking remark, assuming it was meant to be more wordplay? Maybe I'll even encounter some chain-gang smoking later.


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