Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Missed Classic: Microworld – WON! and Final Rating

by Will Moczarski

Med Systems Marathon Overview:
(a) 1980 Summary
(b) Reality Ends (1980)
(c) Rat’s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d) Labyrinth (1980)
(e) Asylum (1981)

Second Time’s the Charm

My actual playthrough of Microworld takes me about 7 hours and a fair amount of head-scratching. I’ll start from the beginning in this post as I haven’t covered much ground in the first hour of gameplay. Apologies for any repetitions there might be in the first two or three paragraphs.

After the usual title screen I am asked whether I want to restore a previously saved game but I‘ve decided to start anew this time. Once again, I begin in the “real world” portion of the game which consists only of a “white, featureless room” and the corner where I can find my TRS-80. As I don’t have the manual and the title screen doesn’t actually tell me about my objective, I simply assume that I need to find the OLDDOS disk for the computer as well as figure out the password. It makes a fair amount of sense that I might find the latter somewhere inside the machine but why the disk should be there is anyone’s guess. However, it may not be a major spoiler at this point that the actual goal of the game is to successfully boot the computer after having spent several hours inside it.

Picking up the calculator and entering “1845” – as I’ve previously figured out through some source-code diving – transforms me into an electroid, “a human the size of an electron.” “Don’t forget to behave”, the game warns me, “you are now in a TRS-80.” I didn’t figure the cheap Radio Shack model to be such a law & order machine but fair enough. In almost every room, I am among lots of electrons (or other particles like protons – but also “charactoids” or “staticons”). This is only flavour and serves to leave the impression of being in a crowded place. I can’t interact with any of these fellow travellers, however, the effect works quite nicely.

Back to the game, however. The admissions officer won’t let me pass while I’m carrying the calculator. His button says “LEAVE IT!” and there’s absolutely no wiggle room. As soon as I drop it – and thus cut my ties to the “real world” – I arrive at the secondary side of the transformer room which is where the actual map begins. I find a dielectric coin here telling me to “Go PLUS on display error.” Also, I am already faced with what will prove to be an unusually convoluted geography. There are very few stable connections between places and I often have to go west to return north or something like that. On top of that, this starting area is all but cut off from the second part of the TRS-80, at least until I find a way back. At some point I assume that I have to solve the puzzles in a particular order but that turns out not to be the case. Many routes are one-way, though, so it’s easy to get trapped or lost, especially in the beginning. It’s essential to draw a very precise map and to try out every single direction. Most of the exits are unmarked and some that are marked are inaccessible. This game certainly learned a lot from Crowther & Woods’s Adventure.

North of the transformer room there is a misty room at the cathode of a power diode. I find a spinnifax there, and upon examination I only get the response that “[i]t sure is a nice specimen.” That doesn’t help me much. Is it supposed to be a spinifex? Having beaten the game, I still don’t know. I found no use for this item. (CAPs for anyone who might be able to elaborate.) In this room there is also one of very few deadly traps. This game is altogether very fair for a change: no dead-ends, few traps, no timer, (almost) no guess-the-verb puzzles. One reviewer described it as easy but I’d call it solvable – in hindsight, it makes the game feel almost modern. But I digress, so back to the trap it is. If I go towards the anode, I am stuck between two diodes forever. A nasty fate, no doubt. I smell a puzzle here but it actually is nothing but a deathtrap.

Heading south from the misty room I end up in the rectifier room. There is nothing of interest here but the room description might well exemplify how Haroutunian accomplishes to give the place a crowded feel: “You are in the rectifier room where all electrons are lining up neatly in a single row. They are all very patient. The front of the line is slowly moving into an opening in the ground.” Nice, right? I’m part of a crowd but still have my own agenda – immersion done right, I’d say.

Down from the rectifier room there is the switch room with another atmospheric description. I continue to try out every exit at this point, and find the NP side of the power transistor and the bottom of a well where I am suddenly alone and there seems to be no way out. Another trap, but this time I have to restart. I try to escape from the well some more times over the course of my playthrough but it is not necessary to solve the game, so I still don’t know if it’s even possible.

Avoiding the well the next time around, I find another useless room: the transformer core. Here there are some electrons “wandering around aimlessly” and “mumbling something” but sadly I can’t understand them. Feels like another puzzle, right? It’s not. Northeast of the switch room I enter the regulator which is described as sort of a “military drill field.” One of the recurring motifs is that units of authority (officers, drill sergeants etc.) don’t quite manage to establish order among the electrons. Another nice touch adding to the general air of chaos inside the TRS-80.

There are three routes branching out from the regulator. If I go north I get to the 12V room. From there, I can climb up a ledge and then SLIDE down to the flip-flop room. The passage to the south is blocked, and it seems that I have to reset the flip-flop to get through there. If I go north I get back to the very beginning where I have to pick up and drop the calculator once again to enter. Heading east from the regulator gets me to the 5V room where I find a suspiciously marked “*CRYSTAL*” radio. I am wondering whether this is supposed to be a treasure, Scott Adams style, but it’s actually a hint as I will find out soon enough. East of the 5V room, there is the main memory room. From there, I can get to the (useless) electrolytic capacitator, west to the ground plane or east into a “geometrical maze of bit cells, all equivalent.” Oh goody, a maze! With only three items (coin, spinnifax, radio) it’s kind of a pain to map, and it takes me between one and two hours to do so, but at least it only consists of nine rooms. One of its exits leads me to the “column address decoder” where I find a “hybernating” [sic!] staticon. Another one drops me off at the center ground plane. But first I go back to the regulator where there is one more exit to the south. This leads me to the “negative 5V room” which is another trap but also one of the first puzzles. In the room description it says that the “only way out is to the %&$#”, and it doesn’t take me more than a second to figure out that this is related to the hint on the dielectric coin. Typing “GO PLUS” gets me out of there and into the resistor room which is where I find a lonely clock pulse. I look at it and find out that it’s “a perfect one period square *WAVE*”. Another treasure? No, another hint, actually, and another example of Microworld playing it fair. “Wave” will turn out to be the verb of choice to put the pulse into action. If I “wave pulse” right here, it even tells me: “Not here.” I will just have to find the right place. Can you guess which one it will be?

From the resistor room I can go to the ground plane but at this point I think that there’s no going back up from there, so I head east to the main memory room. The electrolytic capacitator may be useless as a room but it leads me back to the 5V room so I can actually pick up the radio and the pulse in one go which, again, is an example of good game design. After that it’s time to head to the ground planes, though. There is one in every cardinal direction, and not much I can do in any of them. On the south ground plane there is a sign on the ceiling telling me that “My gain is your loss.” I write it down and continue looking for exits. I find the optoisolator to the southeast with a pit full of electromagnetic waves to the south which is currently inaccessible. On the east ground plane there is a glass cube and upon examination it contains a disk. I can’t do anything with the cube except to smash it. “SMASH CUBE” yields me another Adventure reference: “Not so hollow voice says: ‘Don’t be a pain in the glass!’” If I counterintuitively smash the disk, however, I end up with a handful of shattered glass and the bad feeling that this is not how I am supposed to solve this, so I restore.

Staticon to Staticon


Moving on I get to the audio conditioning room with another drill sergeant unsuccessful in the face of his undisciplined subjects. To the east there’s a 741 op-amp with a female electron receptionist wearing spectacles. “I think she’s isotopian”, says the parser. Hint or flavour? When I look at the receptionist, she asks me: “What is your gain to me?” Sounds familiar. SAY LOSS gets me past her and into the Zener Diode where there are broken down electrons everywhere. In the adjoining cassette recorder I find some square waves that don’t look like square waves at all (presumably another IT inside joke) as well as an orange IC chip. Picking up the chip and going back north often results in me being robbed by a staticon who hates tourists – enter Microworld’s version of Adventure’s pirate. Retrieving my item(s) works the same way, too: The thief helps me figure out what the treasures are (the IC chips) and he stores them in his column address decoder room deep in the maze where I can easily retrieve them.

It’s time to head west. The west ground plane is populated with “bumtrons” hiding their paper bags as soon as I enter. I spend a lot of time trying to get them by stealing, trading, attacking, you name it. In the end, it’s for nought – the bumtrons are just another bit of flavour and I can’t interact with them at all. Further to the west there is the multiplexer which serves as a gateway to another complex of rooms. At the west end of the corridor there’s a lost & found room with a clerk reading the MW Times. Going north, I pass through the BASIC II ROM which is “like a pyramid” in that it has been “explored by many explorers […] unable to steal any treasures.” Also, I find a surfboard here. Heading north through the jumper room and then east, I get to the keyboard matrix and the keybounce room. The matrix loops onto itself but I can exit to the east and to the south. There’s a large refrigerator here which, to my surprise, I can pick up and carry around with me. South of the keybounce room, there’s a large IBM 360 computer with an exposed logic board. I assume that’s where my IC chip goes? Correct. Looking at the computer reveals that there are eight colourful IC sockets altogether, outlining the extents of my merry treasure hunt for the first time.

South of the keyboard matrix, I find the ASCII room where several charactoids are discussing the word ‘EBCDIC’. I remember this to be the IBM alternative to ASCII and think that this knowledge may become useful at some point. Also, my first assumption is that “EBCDIC” works as a magic word, like PLUGH or XYZZY in Adventure. This will turn out to be incorrect.

I keep on exploring the area north of the jumper room. In the microprocessor room I find a piece of paper which is apparently part of a Microworld hint sheet. However, “all useful info has been ripped off by some selfish soul.” This is a very Zorkian joke, I think. North of the microprocessor room, I find the crystal which is doubling as the famous Microworld disco. “The megahertzoids are oscillating back and forth constantly”, the game tells me. You have to admire the witty writing. Dropping the radio with the convenient *CRYSTAL* hint gets the party started but I’m not invited: A megahertzoid leads me out of the room into the otherwise inaccessible ceramic capacitator which is where I find my next IC chip, a grey one.

West of the microprocessor room, there is a recreational area with a pinball machine and protons munching on neutroburgers – is this clever or cheesy? I’m not sure. To the north I find a vending machine selling CONTACT-COLA. When I kick the machine, I receive a bottle of said drink. I empty it right away and the game tells me that although it didn’t hit the spot, my contacts have been clean(s)ed. Once again, I have a bad feeling about this and restore to keep the bottle in my inventory for now. Further to the west there’s the static discharge room with a revolutionary note on the wall: “EQUAL RIGHTS FOR LOWERCASE!”, written in all caps, strangely. This must be a joke about the TRS-80 not being able to display lowercase letters without the proper extension. There is also a door on the north wall leading to the janitor’s closet. I can’t open or access it in any way and, again, it’s not a puzzle although it may seem so. Later I will figure out that I can get into the janitor’s closet from the ceramic capacitator but from the inside I can’t open the door either.

After a while of bumbling about I find two new exits from the microprocessor room. Heading east, I get back to the PN side of the power transistor, finally linking the two larger parts of the gameworld with one another. Heading southwest, I get to the data bus where I find lots of new IC chips. Firstly, there is the initialization room. There are jumbled letters everywhere and an initializer looking puzzled. It doesn’t take me long to figure out that I have to arrange the letters to help him out: “You arrange the letters into the words ‘MEMORY SIZE’.” The initializer then shows me a secret passage and I find the green IC chip in the interrupt room. Further to the south of the data bus I find the main expansion interface room with the printer port, the floppy controller rooms, the telephone, and the RS-232 board all adjoined to it. I find the white IC chip just lying around in the baud rate generator, and the yellow IC chip in the south floppy controller room. I can seemingly activate the floppy drive by pushing a button but can’t figure out to what effect. In the disk select latch, I happen upon another IC chip: the blue one. However, when I leave the latch with the chip in hand, the game tells me: “When leaving the room you *LOST* something.” Again with the asterisks! I immediately know that I will find the IC chip in the lost & found room. But first I bring back all of my new treasures to the IBM 360.

At the lost & found department, it’s not all that easy. Only after showing the piece of paper (part of the hintsheet!) to the clerk, he mistakes it for a claim slip and drops something on the counter. Six down, two to go! I insert the blue IC chip and then head to the flip-flop room using my new connection. I want to try to wave my pulse at the flip-flop and see what happens (not a sentence you write everyday, mind). It works: I reset the flip-flop and am swept southward to the cassette relay. There I find the black IC chip. Smooth!

The Endgame

With only one IC chip left, I get stuck. I try to find a lead on the static discharge room and its revolutionary message. I also attempt to do something with the well. After a while I get the idea to surf the mean waves in the optoisolator, and it works! “You ride the waves like a pro. Too bad nobody is paying any attention.” This leads me to the deflection coil and onward to the contrast room. If I “GO COIL” from there, I get to the display room, where “[t]he entire east wall looks like a giant phosphor coated screen.” On the screen, there’s six combinations of binary code. In case you want to solve this on your own, stop reading now and try your luck with the screenshot.

E-B-C… 1-2-3…

If you remember the ASCII room, you may remember the ominous hint at the EBCDIC system which, together with the IBM computer nearby, should not be ignored. However, transforming the binary segments into hex code and then translating them via an EBCDIC table only comes up with gibberish. It takes me a bit of time to figure out that you have to read each segment backwards. Then you come up with: SYNTAX. Is this the magic word? No, it’s the password! Going way back to the beginning of the game, the TRS-80 wanted a disk and a password. The disk appears to be sealed away out of reach inside the glass cube; this may well be the other half of the solution, though.

After this breakthrough I get stuck again. None of the loose ends get me anywhere until I stumble upon a new exit by coincidence! Going south from the west ground plane (something I think I must have tried at some point but apparently not) gets me to the graphic shift register. Further to the south I find the character generator. And a charactoid with his tongue hanging out – he must be thirsty! Dropping the bottle of contact-cola prompts him to steal it but he accidentally drops his ID in the process. Looking at it reveals it to be for printer maintenance, so I head to the printer port to check it out again. I also discover the video RAM where it’s very hot but dropping the refrigerator there does not change that. Inside the printer port, there’s a line of tired and aggressive charactoids. “I don’t think you want to cut into the line”, the game tells me. However, if I show them my ID, I can circumvent the line and get to the printer fast. More interestingly, east of the printer there’s the dot matrix where I find the final IC chip: a red one. South of the dot matrix, there’s another deathtrap, however, and I am turned into a stamp and mailed across the country. Oh well.

Strike it rich or die trying

Inserting the final IC chip does nothing at all. No message, no feedback, no nothing. But wait, I am now able to push the button! The computer drops a tuning fork and a mechanical voice says: “Strike it rich!” Another nice hint that is there to help me avoid the frustration of playing guess-the-verb. I need to STRIKE the tuning fork next to the glass cube, obviously: “You hit the exact resonant frequency of the glass. It shatters into microscopic pieces leaving something behind.” I have finally got the disk. Back to the surface it is! I return to the entrance room via the new shortcut and the flip-flop room. There I use the calculator once more to get back to reality. I insert the OLDDOS disk (another stale-ish joke) into the TRS-80 and say “SYNTAX”...voilà, another game solved! And I’ve got maximum points, too.

Session time: 7 hours
Total time: 8 hours

Atari 400 Port Comparison

As I stated above, Microworld is the first Med Systems game which was later ported to an Atari computer. I played through this port to note any differences. Already the description has been altered: In this new version the player will enter an Atari instead of a TRS-80. The first room is, accordingly, blue and featureless, mirroring the background colour of the different platform.

The first notable in-game change is that the game kind of lures the player into the maze now. In the TRS-80 version the sentence stopped after “the [exit] leading east…..”, now it “looks very promising…..”. This is in keeping with the (few) deathtraps of the game which similarly urge you to try out their respective exits. However, the “EQUAL RIGHTS FOR LOWERCASE” gag is left unchanged although it doesn’t make much sense anymore. Arranging the letters in the initialization room turns up “ATARI MEMO PAD” now, replacing “MEMORY SIZE”. Some technical aspects have also been revised – the main expansion interface room, for example, is now the CIO chip, and floppies are now just disks everywhere. Also, the BASIC II ROM is now a BASIC cartridge and the keybounce room has been turned into the keyboard controller. The mainframe computer is now an IBM 360\3033 but still contains eight empty slots. At the lost & found department, the MW Times is now spelled out as Microworld Times. The biggest change seems to be that the yellow IC chip can no longer be found in the (floppy) disk controller room but in the display room. Apart from that, it’s exactly the same game.

Final Rating

Puzzles & Solvability: By 1981 standards, this is an incredibly fair game. The harder puzzles all contain little hints. I’m not sure how the version number figures into this – only v4.00 is still available so there may have been some changes (the Atari version is 5.26, I think). However, the only surviving version for the TRS-80 is the one I’m bound to judge as I’m unable to compare. Even the EBCDIC puzzle is not unfair although external knowledge is necessary. Why? Because it suits the environment well – employing a nerd puzzle like this in a game set inside a microcomputer seems fair game. I was stuck twice or thrice but never frustratingly so. All over it’s pretty good game design: 7.

Interface & Inventory: The inventory limit is rather strict and the parser is as simple as it gets. It’s an Adventure style two-word parser and everything after the fourth letter is cut off anyway. However, the verbs you need to use are never exotic and if they’re ever unusual, the game gives you a hint (“wave pulse”)! In all fairness, though, this is as simple as it gets, even for a text adventure in 1981 – Zork had already hit the market the previous year. 2.

Story & Setting: No real story but the setting is evoked beautifully with lots of little detail and a strong emphasis on atmosphere. This is really surprising as the hardware limitations of the time generally didn’t allow for splendid room descriptions and mostly ended up being terse and functional. Microworld does a very good job in that department, though, and the journey to the center of the TRS-80 feels quite consistent: 3.

Sound & Graphics: No sound, no graphics, no points. 0.

Environment & Atmosphere: I have applauded Arti Haroutunian’s writing in the story & setting category but it seemed off to award points for it there. However, the atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the detailed descriptions and the nice little nods at Adventure. Some of the jokes have become kind of quaint since but they’re still considerably less cheesy than those contained in Sierra adventures around the time. 5.

Dialogue & Acting: No acting, of course, and no real dialogue. Some NPCs actually “talk” to you but it’s all oneliners. I have scored the game high in the E department because of its writing, I really can’t do it again here. 1.

PISSED Rating: 7 + 2 + 3 + 0 + 5 + 1 = 18 / 0.6 = 30
SPIED Rating: 7 + 2 + 3 + 5 + 1 = 18 / 0.5 = 36

That seems about right. It’s a well-written and well-designed text adventure with an interesting premise but a very simple parser. I’m surprised that the score sort of reflects my enjoyment as it’s a good rating for a 1981 game with no graphics or sound. So where do we go from here? Having since found out that Knossos is not an adventure game, this leaves us only with The Institute for the 1981 stage of our marathon. However, I’ll possibly take a little detour to play some of the earlier works of its author, Jyym Pearson, as they may be well worth the effort! Stay tuned!


  1. Last time I compared this game to Dunnet, but this time it is also reminding me of Beyond the Tesseract, which, if someone here were to pick it up, would lead us inexorably toward the glorious T-Zero.

    1. I never played Beyond the Tesseract but that's a great idea for a missed classic. I've only heard good things about T-Zero, too, and that would also already be in this blog's past, I think? (early 90's, was it?) Maybe someday after this marathon.

  2. Btw, I forgot to announce that Corey Cole won this round with a very good guess of 31!