Sunday 7 June 2020

Infocom Marathon: Leather Goddesses of Phobos - Part Two

Written by Joe Pranevich

My six-year old has recently become very interested in space. In the way that six-year olds can pick odd topics to be obsessed with (er… that apple didn’t fall far from the tree), he’s talked so much about Phobos and Deimos lately that I could probably lecture a course on it. Phobos is the larger of Mars’s two moons with a diameter only of around 14 miles. Gravity on Phobos is incredibly weak and a human could take a flying leap of nearly a half mile without difficulty, although with that comes a low escape velocity. Athletic individuals could potentially jump into space! There’s also a good chance that Phobos could break apart in a few hundred years to give Mars a tiny ring of its own. I have learned so much! And yet, my son has never once mentioned the legendary Leather Goddesses of Phobos. This is probably for the best given that he is just six, but still a disappointment. I have half a mind to start a petition to name one of the many Phobos craters after Steve Meretzky, but I doubt that would go very far.

Where we left off last time, I narrated four of the game’s puzzles and collected four of the game’s eight key objects. We have four left and a ton of great puzzles so let’s get to it.

Puzzle #5 - The Mysterious Message

There is one more puzzle in the “main” area of Mars where we started, a frog prince, but since we don’t have all that we need to solve that I’ll skip it for now. The next area to explore is the Martian canal system and we start by using the barge that we found just north of King Mitre’s castle. There are two tricks with the canal boat:
  • We have nearly no control over the barge. While riding in it, we will be slowly taken downriver. There is a button in the ship to turn on an engine to speed it up, but even with that we have to type “wait” a lot and read about the scenery.
  • It has a magnetic mooring system that we can activate when you approach a dock. This is the only way to stop.
By being careful and watching the descriptions, we can locate a number of docks along the way that lead off to tiny corners of the world. The first of these will be called “Baby Dock” (after the then-recently-overthrown President of Haiti) and leads into a desert where we find a dead messenger holding onto a very strange message… and some lip balm. Fortunately, we have a clue in the manual as to how to deal with coded messages:

I have the 3-D glasses from the original box. They don’t help much. 

I didn’t remember the manual hint at first. I tried and failed to solve the cipher by hand since many of the letter combinations didn’t work. Once I remembered the hint in the manual, I knew that I was on the right track. I ended up with something like this:

It did not take me long to realize that the message was simply written backwards:
I’m not sure whether the typo is something deliberate in the game or whether I copied the code wrong, but either way we have an interesting message and something to do if we ever meet the 107th wife of the Sultan. When playing as a woman, the genders are reversed and we will be looking for the husband of a Sultaness, but it is otherwise the same.

All in all, this was an easier puzzle in part because it’s one piece of a bigger whole. Back to the canals!

So many question marks, he could have been a late 80s Doctor Who!

Puzzle #6 - Riddle Me This

As we proceed along the canal, we’ll find a dilapidated shopping mall with a store selling “exits” but which will not make change. There’s no solution to that puzzle yet, but we will come back to it once we get exact change and a way to revisit sections of the canal. The mall is interesting not only that there are two docks that lead there, but also because the second comes right after a bend in the canal and there is another dock directly across the way. This leads to a small puzzle, but one that I solved by accident. If you travel slowly on the canal, your boat will hug the inside of the turn and arrive at the mall. If you travel quickly, the barge will ride the outer edge of the curve and arrive at the other dock. Failing to notice the dock on the other side or working out how to get there makes the game unwinnable. It’s not a great puzzle, but at least it’s not difficult. Welcome to the Sultan’s palace!

The Palace is a multi-stage puzzle and the decoded message and canal bends are the first two pieces. Once here, we can find a black circle that takes us back to the Leather Goddesses’s ship, but also unlocks a new black circle on the other end so we can return. That will be useful later. Another circle lands us back in the barge and more on that later too. Elsewhere in the palace, we can pick up a clothes pin in the laundry room. It’s not huge and we’ll shortly end up stumbling on the throne room. Once you do, you are trapped and have to answer the Sultan’s (or Sultaness’s) riddle to survive. If we answer correctly, we live and get to meet one of his wives (or her husbands), but fail and we die. Here is the riddle:
Some say I’m pointless / but many are obsessed by me.
I have caused heroic gambles / and sown endless frustration.
Uncounted deaths have I caused. / What am I?
Tiffany immediately guesses “a grapefruit” and she’s led off to her apparent demise. I suppose we’ll be seeing her again shortly.

This one was tough for me. I don’t believe the answer is hinted at anywhere in the documentation or in the game. I guessed “love”, “hope”, and “sex” but none of them were the solution. It took me at least six tries to get it right: the answer is the riddle itself. I am then given the chance to select which husband or wife I want to visit and select the one from the coded message. The number changes each time so you have to have discovered the message to know which one.

Once in the spouse’s bedchamber, we can ask him or her to kiss our kneecaps to trigger the next event. He is thrilled that we are members of the resistance and hands us a secret map (more copy protection) and a lantern before leading us to a secret passage into the catacombs. I can also pause and have sex with him before I head down, but that doesn’t change anything. Once in the catacombs, we learn that Tiffany survived thanks to circus space midgets and a black circle stashed inside of their tiger cage.

I’d like this puzzle more if it had been hinted at in the game. As it stands, if you aren’t good at this style of wordplay you would not find this puzzle very entertaining.

Puzzle #7 - The Catacombs

So many puzzles and we haven’t even snagged a new key item yet! Fortunately, our dry spell will end soon as we navigate another one of Infocom’s “non-traditional” mazes. The catacombs aren't like any of the other mazes that we’ve seen so far in this marathon. For one thing, we are given a map! Sure, it’s not labeled and we have no idea where to go, but the distribution of square and circular rooms must hint at something. However, if we use the map we quickly learn two things: first, it’s not up to date. There have been several cave-ins that have blocked off certain paths. We will still need to keep track of where we can go. The second problem is that we are frequently attacked by beetles, crabs, and alligators. Sometimes they kill you, but other times you just get moved into a random location. When that happens, we have to restore because finding out where we are is pretty much impossible at that point.

As for the animals, the Lane Mastodon comic comes to the rescue again:

More copy-protection! How much does this game need?

Not only must we identify the broken tunnels, we also have to “clap” every five turns, “hop” every nine turns, and “kweepa” every eleven turns to keep us safe from the wildlife. To add insult to injury, our light source will expire quickly and we cannot afford to take many wrong turns. This forces us to build a turn-by-turn “map” of our path, marking when we need to clap or whatever. I made mine using a spreadsheet. It is complicated when you have to do two things at once (throwing off the “math”), but it’s not too difficult. It’s likely that I have not found the most efficient path through the maze, but it works.

My goal is to find the exit, but the square shaped rooms call out to be explored so I build my map to take us to them:

Clap if you love X mod 5 = 1.

Using this method, we find a Cleveland phone book in one of the square rooms (our fifth item!) and a plastic inflatable raft in another. We also locate a ladder up and out of the maze. The exit takes us to the palace’s laundry room where we can snag the clothespin if we neglected to earlier, but otherwise we are done with the Sultan and it’s time to move on.

This is a fun variation on a maze, made all the better by all of the other puzzles that we had to solve to get this far. The fact that we find the Cleveland phone book here rather than in Cleveland is another one of the game’s meta-jokes, I am sure.

Puzzle #8 - The Frog Prince Needs a Breath Mint

The next stop on our canal tour takes us just about to where we started, the “Wattz-Up Dock” which made the eastern boundary of our earlier exploration of Mars. There’s a warning buoy here suggesting that we shouldn’t go any farther, but we’ll just heed that for a moment while we knock out another puzzle: the frog prince.

While we were exploring last time, we stumbled on this frog with a crown out in the Martian desert. If we tried to kiss him, as you would naturally be inclined to do, we balk because the frog is revolting. This takes us into a puzzle which feels like one part Hitchhiker’s Guide and one part Scott Adams. With only rare exceptions, Infocom puzzles never have you act on yourself. You nearly never “hold breath” or “close eyes” to solve a puzzle, instead the solutions always come from the objects that you manipulate around you. (My impression of Scott Adams puzzles may be shaped in part by the first one of his that I played for TAG: Questprobe Featuring the Hulk (1984). That game had several such puzzles, including the first puzzle of the game which required you to bite yourself.) All that gets thrown out this window for this one.

If we want to kiss the frog, we fail because we are offended by his warts. If we close our eyes first, we notice the frog’s rancid breath. We can hold our nose, but then we are disturbed by the frog’s ribbiting whenever we get close. At that point, we are out of hands and have to solve this another way. Now that we have the clothespin from the Sultan’s palace, we can place it on our nose and then hold our ears. That gets us even farther, but now we’re finally freaked out about touching a frog with our lips. If we use the lip balm that we discovered (being held by the dead alien with the coded message), we can slather that on our lips and finally (finally!) kiss the frog. He turns into a prince(ss), we have a quick lovemaking session, and then he drops off a blender on his way out. The sixth special item!

Like this but in space.

Puzzle #9 - The Last Puzzle With the Boat, Seriously

Where we last left the barge, we had it parked by a warning buoy. If we continue down the canal, the current will lead us further and further south. It’s a boring trip because there are no more docks to explore. Eventually, we will reach a tower:
The barge is now passing the metal structure that has been looming closer for the last hour. Its size and power are overwhelming; a relic of Martian technology at its height. Vacuum tubes the size of telephone booths produce power that was once beamed all over Mars. But now, in the twilight of the planet's civilization, the machine's base has rusted away. The massive tower now shoots its ion power beam uselessly across the canal, into the sand of the opposite bank.
There’s no way out to explore, but our body will be charged by the ancient Martian technology if we pass through the beam. And by “charged”, I mean “dead in a few turns”. We’ll shortly arrive at the Martian South Pole and can disembark to explore, but it doesn’t matter until we work out a way around the beam. Otherwise…
Your anatomy, in absorbing a dose of super-ionized energy in trans-lethal levels, has ultimately equalized this submolecular environmental imbalance by fulminating a cataclysmic exothermic reaction. Or to put it in lay terms, you've just blown up.
There is no way to hide in the boat and no obvious way to avoid the ion blast. We need to find another solution.

Fortunately, we already found the solution even if we didn’t notice: one of the black circles at the Sultan’s palace took us back to the barge. At the time, we may have thought that it took us to the dock or perhaps to the water (such that if we went through it without the barge parked where it was, we would have fallen in), but in fact we can experiment to determine that it will always go to wherever the barge is. All we have to do is turn off the magnetic moorings while we are standing outside the barge and watch it slowly drift away downstream. If we wait long enough before entering the circle, we find that it has crashed into the southern end of the canal and just where we need it for the next set of puzzles.

Yes, there are penguins on Mars.

Puzzle #10 - The South Pole

The final set of puzzles on Mars are not difficult. Once we arrive at the South Pole, Trent slips on the ice and falls to his death into the canal water. I’m not going to worry much about him at this point. Nearby, we discover penguins blocking the road. They want me to contribute to their retirement fund and I hand over the coin that I found in the phone booth on Venus. They pass back a one marsmid coin as change; now I’ll have something that I can use to buy an exit at the store in the mall.

Further south, we trigger a scene with robot gypsies who treat us well but then immediately die and leave a crying baby in their tent. The puzzle is to stop it crying, but wrapping it in a blanket works well enough. A turn or so later, we reach a robotic orphanage where we notice a pair of cotton balls in the window. The door is locked, but if we are clever and leave the baby in a wicker basket (like the one that we found on the ship at the beginning of the game) and then hide, a robotic caretaker comes out and picks up the baby. In her rush, she leaves the orphanage unlocked so I can swoop in and take the cotton balls. We have object seven! I was stymied by this one for longer than I care to admit because it’s not clear that the robot lady left the door unlocked. I had tried lots of combinations of hiding to try to sneak in or open the window before just trying the door again.

The only other thing near the Pole is an exit back to the main part of Mars, so I take it. A few turns later, Trent emerges from the fountain in the desert, revealing that he held his breath for a long time and was carried along by the current. Sure.

Like this, but even less plausible.

Puzzle #11: Chivalry in Space

This puzzle could have been done much (much) earlier, but I skipped it the first time (because of a Trent death before I realized to just ignore them) and only realized when I hit the end of the game that I was one special object down from a complete set. The portal on Venus behind the Fly Trap leads to a spaceship and a tightly time-based puzzle. From the first moment that we arrive, we have only a few turns to discover that there is a passenger spaceship parked outside that is getting ready to leave and make our way to it before it does. The first times I went through this, I didn’t expect a limit and just thought that I was missing something when there didn’t appear to be anything to do. There is a small hint (a rumble message when the other ship leaves), but not really a sure sign that you are about to make the game unwinnable.

Getting to the other ship isn’t exactly difficult either. The main challenge is that the ship is large and there is a long (long!) hallway between our end and the end with an airlock. Fortunately, we discover a stable (!!) on the ship and can ride a horse (!!) down the corridor to arrive at the other end faster.

Once we arrive, we find a spacesuit and an airlock. If we are lucky, there is still a ship parked outside. If we head out, we discover the evil kidnapper Thorbala (or her male counterpart) and have to engage with a sword fight. Did I mention that there’s a sword to pick up in the hold as well? This trapped me for a while because I could not work out how to win the sword fight. When you fight, you will usually get a message that you manage to block her attack or she blocks yours. A small portion of the time, you will succeed in knocking her sword out of her hands. If you take the sword, as I did, you can never win. Instead, you have to take the sword and immediately give it back to her. This gesture makes her realize that you are a “good guy” and destined to win, so she kills herself. Some commenters said that this is a B-movie trope, but if so I missed it completely; I had to take a hint.

With that out of the way, we learn that she was kidnapping a rich man (or woman) and we can rescue him easily from a cowardly monster. He rewards us with fabulous cash and prizes if we just go to his address; he writes it on the back of a photo and zooms off. Of course, the photo that he was scribbling on happens to be a picture of Douglas Fairbanks and we have all that we need to end the game! There’s another black circle to leave the ship hidden in the long hallway and Trent will reappear after being saved by a time traveler, but none of that should be a problem for seasoned adventurers like ourselves.

This mall has seen better days.

Puzzle #12 - The End

After navigating the maze of black circles and weird puzzles, I can hardly call the end of the game a “puzzle”. The most difficult thing is to find the black circle that will take you to the Leather Goddesses and the final confrontation. I found it a bit earlier than I needed to, but the “trick” is the change that we were given by the penguins at the South Pole. We can use that to buy an exit at the abandoned mall. That exit, for reasons never explained, happens to take you to exactly where you need to go. We never found a way back to the mall before, but we can use the rubber raft (from the catacombs) on the canals to explore them all again if we desire. Once we buy the circle, we’re good to go!

We enter the circle to realize that we are in the bedroom of one of the Leather Goddesses of Phobos. If we desire, we can make sweet love to our nemesis before moving onto the endgame-- in fact, we can even do this as a woman for the game’s sole scene that is not heteronormative:

> f*ck goddess 
Your couchmate seems only too happy to oblige. You flush with passion as your two bodies draw closer on the divan. You discover, much to your surprise, that you are making love to a woman. Even more surprising, your misgivings are swept away by the heady pleasure of the soft, full breasts pressing against your own. Suddenly...
We are quickly discovered and swept down into a Plaza. The Goddesses assemble a comically large army to attack Tiffany and I. Meanwhile, Tiffany begins building her device. We have to hand her each of the eight special objects in turn. Assuming that we have them all, she creates what she needs for the final confrontation:
   The guards have finished activating the death ray and have begun the activation sequence. The ground quakes as the berserko robotoids plow through the rubble towards you; the wind from their whirling swords knocks over a few trees. The tanks loom above you, their gun turrets blocking out the sun. Beyond them, the Main Attack Fleet is sweeping in for a final attack.   Tiffany, hammering and twiddling madly at the growing machine, yells, “Okay, things are going neato peachy keen! There! I think it’s all done. Cross your fingers, kiddo!” She switches on the device. Amidst showers of sparks, a powerful electric arc bridges two electrodes. The machine shudders, and you smell something yellow shoot from the machine. [...] Through the smoke of battle, you see a banana peel squirt from the Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddess of Phobos Attack Machine.
   The peel lands a few feet away, as the Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddess of Phobos Attack Machine gives one final shudder and self-destructs in an orgy of flames and shrapnel.   The attacking forces continue to close, and certain death is only seconds away when one of the Chompers, loping towards you at nearly Mach One, steps on the banana peel, and slips a few inches to one side before righting itself. This is enough, however, to nudge a tank into a crater, tripping one of the samurai robots!   More and more of the attacking forces plow into the mess in the crater, like some improbably fantastical football tackle. A stray grenade lands right in its midst, and the resulting plume of debris sheers the fins off the leading warship. Your heart leaps as the entire Main Attack Fleet of the Leather Goddesses of Phobos plummets towards the ground. The mass of metal strikes the ground, and a tremendous explosion knocks you senseless!
We awakened a short time later at a gas station. The game is over, but our adventure is just beginning. Up next for our unwitting space adventurer will be Leather Goddesses of Phobos II: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience of Planet X. But that game, sadly, will never be made as an Infocom text adventure. I am currently scheduled to play it twenty-six games from now, near the end of my marathon. I hope I get there.

Total time played: 8 hr 50 min, not including my alternate gender replay.

But this “sequel” is only eleven games away!

Not Really the Final Score

I hope you enjoyed this “bonus” look at Leather Goddesses; it has taken me a lot longer to finish than I had hoped thanks to the world’s situation(s). So much for my idea of just doing a quick 3,000 word recap and moving on to Moonmist! I am glad that I had the experience of playing Steve Meretzky’s final “hit” for Infocom and sharing it with you.

Having played through this game multiple times and thought about it off and on for months, my opinion is still mixed. My notes say that I opened this game for the first time on February 17, almost four months ago, and I did much of my playing through the early stages of the pandemic. My initial impression was quite poor. I did not like the random nature of the circles, the difficulty mapping, or even the crazy humor-logic that underlies most of the puzzles. I was ready to write it off as a commercial success but a failure of a game. It’s still not perfect and nowhere near the top of my Infocom enjoyment chart, but I appreciate it for what it is and what it tried to be. I had more fun with it the second time around than I did my first.

It is my practice to always write down the score within a day of beating a game. While my own impression of the game may have softened in the intervening months, this is the score that I gave it the night that I finished:
  • Puzzles & Solvability: 4
  • Interface & Inventory: 4
  • Story & Setting: 5
  • Graphics & Sound: 0
  • Environment & Atmosphere: 4
  • Dialog & Acting: 5
That worked out to a final score of 37. That is lower than TBD’s score of 40 and around the same as Starcross and Enchanter. It would have been the lowest-scoring Meretzky game, if it had been up to me to rate it. I suspect that I was being too harsh and should have popped an extra point into Environment or Dialog, but no sense dwelling on it too much. I enjoyed this game more than A Mind Forever Voyaging and that has to count for something.

Up next for me will be Moonmist. My play time is still heavily curtailed, but the good news for you is that I’ve beaten it already (but only once) and just need to type it up from my notes. I’ll try to win each of the other variations before I’m through. I’m aiming for three posts, but you know how these things go.

See you soon!


  1. Yeah, the riddle puzzle seems a lazy way to make the game more difficult, but the kissing frog was a nice one. That babel fish type of puzzle are the best

  2. Also, if anyone saw a B movie with that trope, please name it, cuase it doesn't ring a bell to me

    1. Well, Lori must have seen one, because she put the same puzzle in Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. In the battle against Khaveen, you can knock his sword loose, and you gain points by returning it to him. We released QG2 in 1990, four years after Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but we haven't played LGoP and didn't know about that puzzle.

      TV Tropes ( mentions that sword fight under three different tropes:
      * Combat Pragmatist
      * Honor Before Reason
      * Mercy Rewarded

      Lori thinks there was a similar scene either in The Court Jester with Danny Kaye (one of her favorite comedy films) or the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood. I seem to recall something similar in The Princess Bride during the duel at the Cliffs of Insanity.

    2. Thanks Corey. I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood two or three years ago, but can't recall seeing that trope. But if it's used in The Princess Bride, that means it's a well knowm one. I love that one of the names for the trope is "Honor before reason"

    3. I am embarrassed to not remember that puzzle from QfG2. I suspect it is because while I've done a dozen play-throughs by now as a mage or thief, I almost never play as a fighter. Maybe I'll try that the next time I work my way through the series.

      (That reminds me: I've still never beaten QfG5. As a kid, I remember refusing to read the last books in my favorite series. Getting to the end meant that the story was over. Maybe next time I do a run through the series, I will keep going to the end... maybe...)

    4. Outside of adventure games, LucasArts also used the trope in the Light Side ending to their 1997 Star Wars: Jedi Knight FPS.

  3. This is a fun variation on a maze, made all the better by all of the other puzzles that we had to solve to get this far.

    ...Are you for serious right now? Wow. Suffice it to say I beg to differ. :) Even once solved, it's an extremely tedious sequence of commands to type in. Having to keep track of your hops and kweepas is an extra layer of annoyance on top of solving a maze in the first place, and one misstep can be fatal while you're trying to work out a path. The only thing that makes it "better" in my opinion is the existence of the meta-command $CATACOMB in the Solid Gold version that transports you to the exit with the raft and the phone book in hand.

    1. It was annoying, but not too bad since it is fairly well telegraphed what to do. I just set up a spreadsheet with each of the animal actions laid out with white squares where we can do other actions. I then carefully picked through a path while doing those actions. If I make a wrong turn, I restore and do it over. It was time consuming, but not terrible.

      I'd rather have this, in a way, than the puzzle at the end for the cotton balls. It took me much longer to realize that the robot-lady left the door unlocked than it took me to map my way out of the maze. But, that could be just me.

      As always, I appreciate your viewpoint. :)

    2. Haha, don't mind me, just venting :)

    3. The question would difficult is it without Excel? Back then spreadsheet programs were not common, not as powerful and not as user friendly. I'm not blaming Joe for using it but it might be something to consider when judging such puzzles.

      It certainly was an interesting look back at an interesting game though, nice to see the outtakes from the manual you have to use too!

    4. That is a good point, although I don't think I'm doing anything that someone couldn't do on graph paper with a pencil.

      The only "cheat" I ever let myself do on these games is cutting and pasting commands. On adventures that don't have random elements, I might just store the commands to solve X in a text file and cut and paste them into the DOS session. In fact, THAT is more or less how I beat the catacombs: not just storing the "map" in the spreadsheet but avoiding all of the tedium of typing everything over and over again by just having stuff I could paste in to get to the next part.

      Well, that and save states on some of the oldest games. I cannot imagine playing the old C64 games without being able to quickly save and restore without going through the slow emulated disks.

    5. It was certainly _possible_ without Excel. I did it back in the day. But I remember it with very much the opposite of fondness. There's a reason $CATACOMB was added in Solid Gold (or, more likely, they didn't *remove* the debugging verb in that particular build).