Thursday, 24 September 2020

Missed Classic: Asylum II – Got Behind the Mule! (WON! and Final Rating)

Written by Will Moczarski

Eight more hours in the asylum, and I’m done. And done. What a slog! First of all, apologies for the five-month gap between the third and fourth Asylum II posts. You can probably guess the reason for it as it’s currently affecting the whole world. I went through some tough and exhausting times, too, although I’m grateful to have remained healthy (so far), and none of my loved ones have suffered from the Corona virus too much. Work life, however, became very different following the initial lockdown, so there has been zero time for fun and games in a very long while.

With such a long gap, a short recap seems inevitable: To wit, I had five unsolved puzzles and not a clue. My goal was to find (and vanquish) the elusive “master mystic” in order to escape the titular asylum. The five puzzles were: (a) a programmer with the same name as the actual programmer of Asylum II, William Denman; (b) a terrorist who wouldn’t let me use his vending machine; (c) an electric catapult that I couldn’t figure out; (d) Emmett/Emmit the fix-it man who was very unhelpful for a fixer, and (e) McCoy (of Star Trek fame) who kicked me out of his room every single time.

Vetinari helpfully provided some clues in Rot13 (again thank you very much!) but I decide to give it another try without resorting to them just yet, so I go through every room again to get back into the game. And man, I had forgotten how tedious it is to move around those mazes!

After a short while, I don’t know anymore what’s what, and even worse: due to the inventory limit I had picked several places where I could store my stash. However, it’s been months, and I don’t find any of them anymore. Should have marked them on my map.Long story short, I decide to play it all again up to the point where I got stuck. And when I pick up the knife in the unmappable portion of the maze, I get lost big time. I move around and I don’t find the exit anymore. This is when I first check my notes and then decide to try and kill myself with the knife to maybe get transported back to my cell or something. To my surprise, I survive the attempted suicide because it turns out to be a trick knife! Could this help me with one of the four unsolved NPC puzzles? Maybe with the terrorist? To be fair, there is a small hint when you examine the knife. The game then tells you that it looks like a Hara-Kiri knife. After what seems like ages I find the exit and can finally move on. What a cruel and unnecessary section. I’m not too fond of the revolving doors, either, that part of the maze is fairly similar to this one in being nothing but cruel design.
You know you want to.
But anyway...the knife is actually the solution. It’s a somewhat racist situation, too, I’m afraid. The terrorist praises Allah for my self-sacrifice and then leaves to spread my tale. I’m not too happy with this puzzle, I must admit. However, the path to the vending machine is now clear, and I can seemingly insert a coin now. When I attempt to do so, my next line of action becomes clear: “Broken! Please tell the author of Asylum II immediately!” This can only be the programmer William Denman. Let’s pay him a visit, shall we?

The in-game William Denman is rather chatty and tells me that he will fix the bug immediately. I return to the machine to retrieve a bomb from it. Hmm, this may either be for the endgame, or possibly for the catapult? Let’s try that next! (But let’s save the game first.) Nothing apparent happens, so I must be on the wrong track.

This is where I still have three puzzles left: the catapult, Emmett, and McCoy. I re-read all my notes and finally stumble across the fact that I must still look like Alfred Hitchcock. Could that be a problem? It’s worth a try, I guess. And I’m in luck! The surgeon offers to operate on me again but asks me what I will give him. I try a few things and it turns out he only wants one coin. Now I may not be rolling in and out of the Beverly Hills if you know what I mean but that seems a bit too cheap to me! Anyway, I end up looking like James T. Kirk which obviously gives me a lead!
Good thing he didn’t pick Spock, or McCoy might have thrown me out regardless.

McCoy recognizes me as Jim Kirk and gives me a broken transporter unit. Now who could fix this? Of course, Emmett, the fix-it man. I go through my inventory and still have got some coins and the lunch. Maybe Emmett is a Star Trek fan? To make another long story short: he’s not. I need to change my face yet again but now that I have figured out that it’s possible to do that repeatedly it doesn’t seem like a stretch anymore. After Hitchcock and Kirk, it doesn’t come as a major surprise that I now look like Andy Taylor, the protagonist from the Andy Griffith Show. That should impress old Emmett, I’m sure. And it’s a great idea, too: in a stereotypical asylum, there will be people who think they’re Napoleon – or McCoy, or Emmett Clark. If turning into their fictional counterparts was possible, it would potentially enable you to communicate with them. I kind of like this string of puzzles.
"I’m already out to lunch, Emmett. Sorry."

Emmett greets me cheerfully: “Andy! How are you? I’m waiting for lunch!” Such a crystal clear hint is really a rarity in a William Denman game, so I’ll take it. The fix-it man fixes my broken transporter and I happily try it out right away. Unfortunately, I can’t get it to work. There’s a button on it but when I push it, nothing happens. I’m stuck again, if only for a while, because I still have coins, and game logic dictates that I may be able to use them once more – and he actually turns me into the Master Mystic! Will I be able to read that scroll now? Nah, I just look like a mystic, it seems. Oh well.

After a while, I rediscover that there is one door I was never able to open, and it’s inside the final maze. Maybe it’s where I need to use the transporter. Unfortunately, nothing apparent happens but as I turn to leave this is where I get extremely lucky! I suddenly pass through the door without even opening it, and as I reconstruct it from a save game later on it becomes apparent that this is where I needed to use the transporter but the game won’t give me any feedback for it!! I never would have solved this if not by sheer luck and clumsy fingers. Inside, a sort-of showdown awaits. The Master Mystic is inside and tells me that he sees a rat but doesn’t smell one. At first I am confused by this but then I figure that I am still wearing the rodent suit. I restore back, drop the suit in front of his door and try again. This time the Master Mystic seizes my scroll and speed reads it. He is able to gather some wisdom from it, apparently, as he tells me he sees the light and then proceeds to vanish and leave behind his ring. Finally, there’s a voice telling me to look under my desk. Now what happened here? The Master Mystic must have reached Nirvana through the aptly named “Nirvana scroll”, and I now have some proof that I have indeed vanquished him. How was he a threat to the guards in the asylum? I have no idea, and am looking forward to reading your two cents!
A deeper shade of “poof”!
However, the game doesn’t end here. Because of the Master Mystic’s dying (vanishing?) words, I go back to my cell as it seems to be the most likely solution. And I didn’t notice this before but there is indeed only a desk inside my cell. Not a bed, a desk. Can you feel the metaphor thicken? Now if I “look under desk” I can see a picture. However, it’s not as easy to collect it. “Get picture” doesn’t work. Most other options don’t work. It’s “get picture under desk” that does work. And it turns out to be a picture of myself. Now seeing that I still have coins left I may want to visit that surgeon once again. Before I can do that I have to restore once more, though, because I left too many doors open and receive a game over message. And here I thought that I had been so careful! After that final obstacle, I head over to the surgeon and show him the picture of myself. “So you want to look like this,” he says, and finally my face looks like myself again. Now what? I stroll along the empty, peaceful corridors of the asylum for a while, not knowing what to do next. Then it occurs to me: I should probably head to the “doctors only” exit – how fitting, seeing that the game just came full cycle. The guard behind the door is very cheerful and seems content that I brought him the ring. I am free to go but supposed to “stay healthy” because “they” may need me again very soon. Was there another sequel in the pipeline? Does a programmer never get any rest? Did I just play a playful parody of Med Systems headquarters? Was I really Frank Corr?

I guess we’ll never know – I would have loved to interview William Denman but sadly he never replied to any of my attempts to get in touch. I’d be more than happy to read your takes on this, though!




Session time: 4 hours
Total time: 18.5 hours

Version Differences: MS-DOS, Atari 800, Commodore 64

Asylum II was – quite confusingly – redone under the name of just Asylum for the IBM PC in 1985 and for the Commodore 64 as well as the Atari 800 in 1986. Warren Zunino, whose only credit this is, did the DOS port, while Denman himself ported his game to the C64 and the Atari – Randall Don Masteller helped him with the latter. Michael O. Haire provided the graphics for both, and what can I say? It’s a different game! The atmosphere is spot on, and the pictures for the C64 are truly adding to the atmosphere of Asylum (II).

IBM PC / MS-DOS (1985)

Needless to say, I loaded up all three of them, and here are some of my impressions. I’ll start with the MS-DOS version, as it seems to have come first. And the first difference is the inclusion of what I thought to be no more than a marketing blurb as the backstory for the game: “You have been committed… Welcome to ASYLUM! The late 1970’s saw the advent of a new game genre, the computer Adventure. As the years went by and the games became more involved, society noted a strange new mental illness. This illness resulted from an inability to distinguish reality from fiction, and was directly attributable to a deep involvement in computer adventure gaming. The mental health specialists of the twenty-first century constructed great mazes populated with cyborg opponents. Into these were thrust the ill, to reachieve a fiction reality dichotomy, and thus to reenter society. These mazes were named for the illness, Adventure Syndrome Leading to Ultimate Madness… ASYLUM! But sometimes the cure is worse than the illness…”

What a bizarre, tacked on backstory that is! I sympathized with the self-referential overtones of the TRS-80 version but this is quite a handful. The game itself seems to be unaltered so far, though. The graphics represent the asylum in all its CGA glory, to wit:
Oh, and there’s an Asylum logo on the wall!
A camera is watching me (which is new), upping the creepiness (and futility) of the place. If they are watching my every step, the second part sort-of makes more sense, I guess, but the game’s urgency is somewhat diminished. Or not? I’m not sure about that. I like the unmade bed and the icon on the wall. Also, my trusty nut fork was transformed into a credit card. Strangely, some of the short cuts (like u d w for “unlock door with”) still work, some others (like o d for “open door”) don’t. The system is obviously bugged, too, because c d (“close door”) works with some doors but not all of them. Also, the parser doesn’t understand “get all” anymore which is a shame. The graphics soon enter looney cartooney territory, just look at this:
Next stop: Stereotypia
In keeping with the futuristic makeover of the place, the gold key is now a gold card, and the steel key is now a silver card. The other items appear to be unchanged. Also, the parser doesn’t cut off your input after five characters which only makes the game more tedious as the puzzles were designed for the old parser. Instead of typing “get silver” you need to type “get silver card” now. Progress can be a bitch.

Quite painfully, one of the worst puzzles in the game was made even worse. After going through the futile and boring chore of closing and locking twenty doors to trap an invisible inmate (with short cuts working some but not all of the time) the matches and the candle are dropped in two different places. Had I not solved this game previously, I would have overlooked one of them for sure.
All HAL breaking loose on the IBM.

Interestingly, the “vocabulary” command not only shows you all of the verbs but also all of the nouns of the game. Kind of spoilery, if you ask me. The reason I tried this? After being trapped in the section where you find the axe, I kept waiting for the electrician to appear but he didn’t, so I tried to “hack wall with axe” like I did in the first game. When I “call for help” the game just replies with its staple message: “Try examining things.” Because I don’t know what I should do next, I try to do just that, and to my astonishment the candle I just found is “definitely lit and burning bright.” Another bug, maybe? Or did they cut one of the later puzzles? After a while I “look up” (the game’s equivalent of suicide) and start the game again. However, the electrician simply won’t appear. The DOS version is broken, it seems. For what it’s worth, this is the game over screen:
A touch of Manhunter, getting to meet the game’s maker.
Commodore 64 (1985)

I have conflicting sources about the release of the Commodore 64 port but it seems to have been released in either 1985 or 1986. I’ll go into this in more detail when I’ll write the Med Systems marathon wrap-up post after three more games. Michael O. Haire provided the graphics for this version, and for me this is the one that started it all. I played this as a kid and it gave me the creeps. I never finished it and it made me want to play all Med Systems/Screenplay games which led to the whole idea of this marathon. Let’s see if nostalgia does its thing for me or if I’m only wearing rose-tinted glasses.

The title screen sure takes me back right away but this version also has the lengthy backstory which I must have forgotten about. The graphics sure are beautiful:
Takes me right back.

The short cuts seem to work but turning feels really awkward. You sort of strafe between a 3D-ish and a flat 2D view. When I meet the “mad” inmate, he tells me I am in “William Denman’s Asylum” which is a minor difference, I guess. Enough with this breaking the fourth wall business already!

The only thing that looks kind of shitty is the boxes. All of the NPCs are really imaginative in a cartoony sort of way. Take for instance the hypochondriac who seems to be a woman in this game:
Amazing art style or rose-tinted glasses?

In the section with the twenty doors the runner drops the matches and the candle in the same place which is a welcome relief. And: the electrician appears. Good to know this isn’t bugged!
Oh no, man, I won’t fall for that!
Wow, and the electro-shock therapy room is really funky! It’s tough to take a screenshot because it’s all over so soon but it sure looks great. The same goes for the physicist’s lab (formerly the scientist). It’s so playfully wacky, I love it! I also notice that some of the maps appear to be mirrored which is a bit of a pain for me, having mapped the TRS-80 version.
Beloved meteor!
When I finally steal the pills from the hypochondriac (and thus vanquish this bothersome NPC) I find out they are called “drugs” now. Kids these days… When I give the bird costume to the guard there is another self-referential “joke”: “The guard dons the chicken suit! What kind of chicken program is this anyway?” I’m too slow to take a screenshot but the graphics are hilarious!

The phone is now in a separate room, so it’s not accessible from the beginning. Also, “an electronic eye watches.” The graphics change subtly after I have vandalized the phone which is a nice touch. It is also around this point that I notice that the inventory limit is much more generous (or even non-existent?).
Judge Dredd delivers the cliffhanger.
In the second part of the game the ivory key has been replaced with the platinum card, in keeping with all of the other “key items”. When I slip on the banana peel, at last the game insults me. I kinda missed that, seeing it’s a William Denman game and all. “Are you a clumsy oaf, or what?” Hell, yeah. The lawyer, once again, looks hilarious but I’m too slow for a screenshot. Ah, well.
Just tying up my regular exterminator, thank you.
Some changes make navigating a lot harder. For example, you don’t get any messages when passing by most of the rooms so you have to enter all of them if you haven’t made a map, meaning the maps are not only vital for the mazes but also for the corridors. (It’s especially painful for me as the maps are mirrored and I keep stumbling into the electro-shock room for some reason.) All of the letterings are gone, too – no “SURGERY” sign, no “BEWARE THESE HALLS” graffiti.
By the way, this is what the terrorist looks like.
When I see what the catapult looks like I’m sure that it MUST be good for something – also, I didn’t use the bomb last time so I can’t really be on the wrong track with that, can I? However, this is only a bonus section so I decide to spare myself the trouble and just check a walkthrough. To my surprise, it should work exactly the way I tried it in the TRS-80 version. Because there is no walkthrough for that version available I may have used the wrong wording but you should place the bomb on the catapult and press the button, thus blowing a hole in the ceiling. Then you repeat the process while sitting on the bomb. You are then catapulted, Dr. Strangelove or Munchhausen style, to the center of the revolving doors. In other words: it’s not necessary to do this if you figure out the doors. It’s only a convenient short cut and thus an alternate solution.
A catapult? Or rather go-kart Mozart checking out the weather chart?
I finally notice that you need to give the surgeon a coin each time you want to be operated on because that is the game’s way of avoiding dead ends. You could easily walk into the surgeon’s room by accident after your first transformation and thus be turned into Andy Taylor before having solved your quest as James T. Kirk. The game is at least decent enough to prevent this from happening. However, if you stumble into the electro-shock room one too many times you are turned into a vegetable.
Game over screen
Some more text changes lie ahead: Emmett (who is still spelled “Emmit”) fixes my transporter unit “with great flair, much banging and hammering, and a smile.” And after retrieving my picture, the game humourously tells me that it is “a picture of you, before all the fancy face lifts.” The surgeon describes the picture as “a little homely maybe” but proceeds to turn me back into myself. All that’s left is the ending. The self-referential message is toned down somewhat as I need to look under my bed, not my desk this time.
No hint at a possible sequel this time!

Went back to get that chicken screenshot after all.
Atari 8-bit (1986)

There is a tape version and a disk version for the Atari 8-bit systems (the Atari 800, I presume). The tape version supposedly does not contain any graphics which is a first for one of the continuum games but I cannot get it to run. Mapping must be a nightmare in that one, too, especially the heptagonal maze. The other version is just like the Commodore port with marginally worse graphics. Michael O. Haire is once again responsible for them, and a guy who calls himself Randall Don Masteller helped Denman with the code. The Atari version was not published by Screenplay themselves but by All American Adventures.
The Atari title screen
At a closer glance, the Atari port doesn’t have the Asylum logos on the walls, furthermore there are no cameras. It seems to be a version of the DOS port, not the Commodore port although the graphics and the title screen hint at the Commodore port. Or is this another different version altogether?
Erm..help?
After leaving the room it becomes clearer: this is a simplified version of the Commodore port. However, there are some differences. I get a message right at the beginning stating that I should “[p]ay attention. Look in devious places. The author, William Denman, is insidious.” Insidious for not answering my inquiries for an interview, maybe. Ah well, he will forever be a hero of mine for writing CivNET.

But this remains a strange mixture of ports: When I pass through the first door, I “hear a faint CLINK! Something has dropped in the maze.” I had that message in the TRS-80 version but in none of the ports so far. However, the version seems similar enough that I decide not to put myself through the ordeal of going through it as well. Even having the whole game figured out it takes quite some time to play the whole thing which is mostly due to issues of navigation and some insanely time-consuming puzzles such as the runner NPC, the morphing walls of the knife maze and the revolving doors.

PISSED Rating

Puzzles & Solvability: Asylum II, like its predecessor, is a very challenging game. I am very happy to have solved it on my own although I was very close to looking at the hints provided by Vetinari at some point. Mapping is still one of the major challenges but there are more in-game hints what you should be doing next. Some bad game mechanics – like the abysmal timer or the principle that you can get caught by guards just about any minute – have been done away with. All in all, it’s better than Asylum, so I’d say 6. This seems like a very high score but considering the chain of plastic surgery puzzles that made me very happy, I’d say it’s justified for a 1982 game.

Interface & Inventory: Just about the same as Asylum. The parser is not the main focus of the game and the fact that the inventory is divided into items in your pockets and in your hands feels progressive but plays like a nuisance. 2.

Story & Setting: This is a tough one. The setting is obviously the same as in the first game but the story is a bit more fleshed out, mostly due to the more interesting NPCs. However, some of them are a major pain in the beehive, such as the hypochondriac who keeps popping up and throwing you off track, or the unseen runner you have to lock in by locking an insane amount of doors. It’s an improvement but only by a margin: 3.

Sound & Graphics: No improvement at all here. It’s in 3D which accounted for the 3-point score in 1981, and there is still no sound. I like the shadowy figures representing the NPCs but items still lack a representation apart from the all-purpose boxes. It may be boring but I’ll have to go with 3.

Environment & Atmosphere: Although I hated, hated, hated the timer in Asylum, its absence takes away a fair bit of the sense of urgency. It’s somewhat nice that the first successful escape only leads to a second part with reversed roles (now you’re working for them!) but it’s also somewhat silly. The Master Mystic is an unsatisfying baddie, and the whole quest appears to have been designed to provide some kind of self-referential revelation in the end. Frankly, it’s a bit too confuse to deliver just that, and all things considered the first game was less polished but more successful in this category. The same goes for all of the bloody pop culture: Solving Star Trek and Andy Griffin puzzles may have been fresh and satisfying in 1982 but at least for me that hasn’t aged very well: 3.

Dialogue & Acting: No acting, only some dialogue. More hints, more fluff, less cryptic stuff. I called it functional the last time around. I still do. 2.

6 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 = 19 / 0.6 = 32. That’s the exact same score that Asylum got, and I’m not happy with it. Why? The sequel is more polished which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed it more, at least for the most part. I’ll use my discretionary point because I can and say: Let’s make it 33!
MorpheusKitami was spot on and guessed the exact score. Well done!

If you’re curious about the Commodore 64 port: The “I” category should be 3 because the dreadful inventory limit does not exist in that one. Also, the graphics are much improved although there is still no sound – adjusted for graphical quality inflation, I’d say 5 points as most of the NPC portraits are really quite lovely. This kind of improves the atmosphere of the game a bit as well, so I’d give it a 4 there. I’d probably dock a point from the “P” category as some of the worst puzzles are still there three or four years later. All things considered the C64 version would score 5 + 3 + 3 + 5 + 4 + 2 = 37 points. Seems about right!

Now where does this leave us? I have three more Jyym Pearson games to play for the marathon but I’ll take a short break from it to provide some context for my first main game Dare to Dream. That game was created by none other than Cliff Bleszinski, and if you don’t know why that’s big news just wait for my introductory post!

Caption Contest: Results

Let’s not forget about the caption contest, though! This was the picture in question, and the question was: What in the world is this?
Now Vetinari guessed that it was “one of the mountain models that Richard Dreyfuss was obsessed in building in Close encounters of the third kind”. ShaddamIVth “recognize[d] Pablo Picasso's "Two Ducks" painting from a mile away even at such low graphics.” Corey Cole agreed that it might be two mountains but guessed that it may be a pair of computer consoles or a shoe shine stand. I really love all of these ideas. They’re all true winners and deserve some CAPs.

However, I already encountered the mystery object in Asylum and even used a screenshot in my final post. It appears to have represented the professor’s mystery machine (or actually his computer consoles, now that I think of it: Corey may be right!), and I made a lame Maniac Mansion joke just to come up with a caption. The mystery sprite may thus actually tie in with the whole self-referential reading of Asylum II which is quite the surprise!

Med Systems Marathon Overview:

(a) 1980 Summary [P1]
(b) Reality Ends (1980) [P1] [P2]
(c) Rat’s Revenge [P1] / Deathmaze 5000 (1980) [P1] [P2] [P3] [P4]
(d) Labyrinth (1980) [P1] [P2] [P3]
(e) Asylum (1981) [P1] [P2] [P3] [P4]
(f) Microworld (1981) [P1] [P2]
(g) The Institute (1981) [P1] [P2]

(h) 1981 Summary [P1]

(i) Asylum II (1982) [P1] [P2] [P3]

Jyym & Robyn Pearson Mini-Marathon Overview:

(a) Curse of Crowley Manor (1981) [P1] [P2]
(b) Escape from Traam (1981) [P1] [P2]
(c) Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 (1981) [P1] [P2]
(d) Saigon: The Final Days (1981) [P1] [P2]

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I knew you wouldn't disappoint and notice it! :-)

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  2. The terrorist doesn't make any sense either. If she is a extremist she is probably very conservative as well, and would never dress so revealingly. It does feel like a bad joke that was shoe-horned in too hard.

    A fun finale though, with the world the way it is I'm glad you got around to finishing it!

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    Replies
    1. Extremism does not necessarily mean conservativism, especially as this is a pre-9/11 game, so the game producers are probably thinking something else than islam. Perhaps she is from some extreme communist group or some separatist faction (ETA, IRA etc.)

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    2. Although I wish you were right, Ilmari, she definitely praises Allah when she sees the player's sacrifice so unfortunately they were definitely thinking Islam. I agree with ShaddamIVth that it feels like a bad joke and it really only makes sense if you take the whole game with a grain of cartoon logic: slipping on a banana peel, the mad scientist(s) and the piano that drops on you whenever you look up fit right in.

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    3. Ah, I didn't notice that bit... yeah, then the whole thing makes no sense.

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