Thursday 17 June 2021

Missed Classic 97: Alice in Wonderland (1985) - Introduction

Written by Morpheus Kitami

A long time ago, Trickster did the opening game on this blog, Below the Root. It was an interesting experiment at a time when graphic adventure games were finding their feet. Some time later, Kenny McCormick did another little known game called The Scoop, this one more mundane in style. What do those and today's title have in common? They were all made by the same company, Dale Disharoon, inc., after the head honcho, Dale Disharoon. (Its a French name) This all comes to a head with today's game, the middle child of Disharoon's PC adventure games, Alice in Wonderland.

If you were to make a list of the top 10 most influential works of English literature, Alice in Wonderland would be one of those works. If you had a wheelbarrow worth of Papiermarks for each reference that has been made, you'd have enough to buy a house on Mars. Its been interpreted, retold, reimagined so many times that I'm sure anything I could say would be unintentionally parroting someone. And I also can't really say I'm that much of an expert on the subject, I'm just an enthusiast. I just like the aesthetic.

So, instead let me tell you about John Tenniel, the illustrator for both original books. Tenniel originally worked as a political cartoonist for the magazine Punch, where he developed his signature grotesque style. A sort of precursor to the surrealists who would appear a few decades after his death. His work consists of the very real projected onto the not so real, i.e., human faces on animal heads. In comparison to those who would come after him, Tenniel had a very good eye for detail, which makes this much more effective than a lot of people who do similar styles. Further, I don't feel like I'm reading the work of a serial killer like in modern political cartoons. If you can find them, his cartoons provide a very interesting look back at 19th century politics.

A Brief History of Alice in Wonderland Video Games before 1985

The Dale Disharoon game wasn't in the first couple of Wonderland-related games, to my knowledge, the first were two text adventures from one Dale Johnson. Mad Venture and Palace in Thunderland, both 1981. Nobody on Mobygames put them in the Alice in Wonderland list, and I didn't think to check IFDB until later. I don't consider that a loss. Reading Renga in Blue's take on them gives me the impression that they're brutal and I'd hate them. There's no upper limit to how difficult you can make your puzzles, you can always make someone chuck more dead zombies into a freezer.

Alice, at seconds before death

Then things go dark for a couple of years. 1984 is when things get hot. The famous Macintosh game Through the Looking Glass. You play as Alice emulating a chess piece of your choice, and you try to capture all the opposing pieces. This is an action game, so while you're trying to do that, the opposing pieces are trying to do the same to you or promoting pawns. There are also holes in the ground. It's not fun. It's not hard to win, but it is very hard to win without getting captured once. Macintosh emulation is easier than you might think, but don't think its worth emulating for this.

I'm sadder than you'll ever know...

Alice in Videoland, also 1984, on the C64, is a series of mini-games, these were very popular back in the '80s, I guess because it was cheaper than programming a real game. Far be it for me to question someone's graphical skills, but those are eyes that hunger for human flesh. The whole game gives me those vibes, so I didn't progress very far. This is the kind of game that makes me feel like at some point the game is going to say "HAHA, MORPHEUS, NOW WE PLAY FOR YOUR SOUL". I wonder if emulation has any effects on whether or not a game is cursed? Would it just be the game files that are cursed or would it spread like a virus? Not a curse that already spreads, like Sadako in The Ring.

Probably the worst case of guess the verb I've ever had

Then there's Alice: Adventures in Wonderland, a Japanese text adventure by PSK, for the FM-7 and PC-88. Probably other systems too, but I'm sure you won't find them. This one has an English parser, but the rest of it is in Katakana, one of the Japanese writing systems. You're supposed to write everything in English, as absurd as that sounds. To be polite, it looks like it was made by the kind of person who's on a list, and nobody's much upset about that. I think I found it, but the screenshot I took doesn't match anything like the ones on Mobygames. I could have just found the next game on PC-88. There's no central database for most of these Japanese computer systems that I know of, and what sources I know of are obviously missing a lot. I'm having a little trouble deciphering the pure Katakana that the game uses. Not that I'm the greatest at the language to begin with. I'd put in actual effort if I cared, and I don't.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1984, Micro Cabin, MSX

Finally, there's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, another Japanese title. Trying to find this was very confusing, since in addition to being extremely similar to the previous title, it turns out that searching for anything related to Alice in Wonderland doesn't get you anything you want at all. Yes, I certainly do want every random Alice in Wonderland page when I have PC-88 in quotes. Games with generic titles like these are annoying to search for because there's so much noise. It could be worse. It could be a lot worse.

Ignore the garbled text, I didn't have the right setup on this screenshot

Its on quite a few Japanese platforms, allegedly, like MSX, PC-88, PC-98 and Sharp X1, but I could only find it on MSX and Sharp X1. I don't actually know if they're the same game though. I could only get the MSX version running. After a surprising twist that caught me by surprise. I spent a lot of time under the assumption that the cassette version was broken. I found a copy in a compilation, but that seems to be a .bas file and I don't know how to run those. I'm not very good when it comes to pre-DOS computers and running Basic programs. I also don't know how to run the X1 version at all, but its a cassette and typing load seems to just hang. I still would like help with the other two versions, just in case.

Also, I couldn't find anything beyond a review* for it, but apparently a game called Wonderland exists on both the BBC Micro and TRS-80. Apparently it has one of the best plots and puzzles the reviewer has ever played. I have a company for it, Molimerx (of Sussex), but I have literally no confirmation that this game exists outside of this review. I found nothing online, even on dedicated BBC Micro databases or places dedicated to uncovering everything about Molimerx. I did find yet another game called Adventure in Wonderland (Prickly Pear Software this) on the TRS-80, but I couldn't get it running after 5 minutes, so I gave up. Unlike with the MSX, X1, and co., where putting in that effort means I've solved that problem for multiple games, the TRS-80 strikes me as a system I won't return to. I'm not going to trouble anyone on a system I understand is quite difficult to get running to begin with. Still, I wonder how many other titles like this exist out in the wild, unheard of by most mortal men.

*Computer and Video Games supplement 1984, Book of Adventures, page 24.

Alice, demonstrating my C64 emulator

And then Dale Disharoon's Alice in Wonderland. A game nobody knew would be a decade in the playing on this blog. Unfortunately, I understand C64 emulation less than I understand MSX emulation, so while I wait to this to load properly, I'm going to talk about the companies behind this game.

Windham Classics was a label (subcompany?) of Spinnaker Software that operated from 1983 to 1985, producing several adventure games based on books, not mentioned are Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, the last, the only one produced in-house. For the life of me, I can't figure out how they survived for 3 years. They have no presence anywhere, even in ads advertising random computer games. Very few mentions of their games at all, and the only review Mobygames has for Alice in Wonderland is Computer and Video Games, a British magazine...where it was just published by Spinnaker. I'll get back to this as I check through some other old magazines, but I'm not hopeful.

Dale Disharoon, Inc., not to be confused with Dale Disharoon, the developer, not that that's much distinction, was responsible for this, Below the Root and The Scoop. In addition to this, they was also responsible for some educational titles, like Hey Diddle Diddle. Actual education, not adventure education. These were all published by Spinnaker, in effect, making this all a bunch of fancy labels for a Spinnaker product. To make matters even less interesting, The Scoop was published by Telarium, another subsidary of Spinnaker. Who published some other adaptions of books, including Perry Mason, Rama and Nine Princes in Amber.

After The Scoop, he went on to working on King's Quest VII, The Legend of Zelda, and another Alice in Wonderland, this time a CD-i game. Why haven't you heard of that? Because he founded Animation Magic, which, was in short, responsible for the animation in King's Quest and I.M. Meen, and the first two Zelda CD-i games. You know, the bizarre, ungodly-made abominations with voice-acting to match? Those. In recent years, opinions on the CD-i Zeldas have softened, to the point where some people say they're good? I feel an appropriate comparison is to Michael Cimino, who directed Heaven's Gate, which not only killed his career, but the studio's career and an entire era of cinema. Probably not the best comparison when I lay it out like that...

The title

The commands, some of which are less useful in an emulator

Ah, it's loaded...I guess I have to play the game now. Its not too different from the previous title. It seems like a sound choice for a parser, since Alice did some things that adventure game protagonists don't usually do. According to the manual, I have a strict time limit...of 65 days? There's a space between the 6 and 5 so it might be 6.5 days and it wasn't scanned properly. I'll find out sooner or later. In order to win I have to...uh...well, I'll probably figure it out when I lose.

So funny, so very funny. Ha. Ha. Ha.

The manual: "Be curious. Examine everything, use everything, eat everything." The game: "HAHA! YOU IDIOT!" Anyway, controls are handled by the joystick, or the numpad that my emulator is using as a substitute. The joystick button or right ctrl, so far only jumps or brings up the menu.

This game isn't going to be grating humor-wise or anything

A screen to the right, which I would like to mention took a minute to load, has the white rabbit. "General flunky to her highness, The Queen of Hearts." He is a bit of a dick. I ask what he's doing, and he asks why I care, I'm much to big to fit into a rabbit hole without stooping. This I'm sure is a hint that I can change size...which I already knew because I read the manual. I should have played the creepy Japanese game, I just know it. The next screen over, is the aforementioned rabbit hole.

Alice stooping to enter the tunnel

Entering the hole, there's a note. You see that gap? Well, I have to do a bit of precision platforming here to reach there, otherwise Alice falls on her face. After putting myself in the right spot, I can read it. The Queen of Hearts doesn't allow people to enter without candy on them. That's a weird immigration policy, but whatever. I guess there's some candy outside somewhere.

Je comprendre deja Francais?

Going back the other way, there's a mill I have to enter. There's nothing in it, it just takes me to the other side of the river, where Alice's sister is. Apparently Alice is skimping on her French lessons. That opens a lot of doors in the 19th century, it's like English today. Talking to her reveals the local pastor has my parasol in his boat, which the manual implies is very useful. Most of the other options don't do anything, but coaxing her gets me a tin of sweets. Also, lamb means mutton in French. You could probably figure that one out on your own.

I suppose people usually swim halfway across the river to your boat?

How do I get the parasol? By swimming across one screen that has nothing on it, climbing into the man's boat, arguing with the man in order for my parasol to appear. Oh, and the pastor is Lewis Caroll. Rowing helps him think of stories. I don't know if that's an actual thing or if it was made up. Next time, Wonderland, game. I sure am glad I spent all that time mentioning other games...

For the rating, I wish to remind you that Below the Root got a 52 and The Scoop got 47. You shouldn't take my minor reluctance at the start of this game, I'm just ticked off at my C64 emulator. Sure, I'm not much for time limits and having to restart the game in order to win, which it looks like I'm going to have to do but that shouldn't affect the score. Its just not something I'd ever play casually.

This Session: 20 minutes

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw. 


  1. I will say 43 for the rating.

  2. Sadly, a vast number of Sir John Tenniel's political cartoons make for unpleasant reading today, as one of his favorite themes was indulging in virulent anti-Irish bigotry. He loved to draw, or rather, caricature, Irishmen as drunken, violence-prone louts with bestial ape-like features, depicting them as literally sub-human.

    1. I did not know that. None of the cartoons of his I've seen seem to express anything beyond an anti-Irish independence sentiment, which wouldn't be a shocking opinion in 19th century Europe. I'm guessing any cartoons with overt bigotry weren't added to the place where I originally found them.

  3. And, wow, this game interface looks a LOT like a prototype of the Maniac Mansion GUI (which also made its debut on the C64). It'd be interesting to speculate if Ron Gilbert played this, or Dale Disharoon's other games Below the Root and The Scoop, at some point.

    1. Could be. Lots of old games have strange influences like this, though admittedly this game isn't as strange an influence as I originally thought.

  4. This setup, an exhausting whirl hrough video game history of one public domain property (we have Disney to thank for that, it's why there have been so many King Arthur, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Oz games), has some weird passive-aggressive energy. Finally getting to the game in question, it looks almost charming, but then I have a soft spot for bookware and the Windham Classics series specifically. Many a morning was spent in the elementary school library trying unsuccessful to get past the rainy season in Swiss Family Robinson for the C64.

    1. I agree about the tone here. It’s kinda off putting tbh.

      Anyway I’m going to give it 49 — not as good as Below The Root, but not that different. It’s a pretty solid game for when it came out.

    2. Yeah, my bad. I was generally frustrated with getting emulators working properly while writing this entry and that probably bled way too much into the text. I don't think this will happen again.

  5. I will guess 38, platforming and adventure games have never been a great combination.

    I will also advise Morpheus to stay away from CRTs for a few days, but I think he will be safe as I have never heard of ghosts climbing out of flat screens.

  6. Leo Vell├ęs18 June 2021 at 21:32

    I remember that Below the Root was pretty good from what i read, but i have a hunch that this one is going to be a little less good. I was going to say 45, but those C64 graphics and colours brought me so much fond memories of my childhood, that i will boost the score 5 points to a round 50

  7. Thank you for the background research, that's always interesting.

    Somehow I find this game's appearance evocative in its detailed minimalism. As I recall from reading an LP, this is much more forgiving than the average action adventure of the time. It feels like the game could just pull me right in...

  8. Not to be confused with Wonderland (1990), one of our abandoned Missed Classics! I hope someone will finish that game eventually...

    1. I definitely want to finish that game, but I'm also staying away from any "real" Magnetic Scrolls games until I feel like I can do them justice. There's an interesting history about those guys and I wouldn't want to mess them up.

    2. MorpheusKitami: Am I seeing an interest on doing a Magnetic Scrolls marathon?

    3. Yes, but I don't anticipate my doing one on them until after Halloween, at the earliest. I've got a different company in mind first.

  9. I have fond memories of this one--I played it as a kid, and somehow I actually beat it. I never was able to get very far in Below the Root.

  10. There was also an Alice in Wonderland text adventure game for the Color Computer released in about 1984. It was unimaginatively titled "Adventure in Wonderland". All I remember is that it was extremely difficult (as compared to other games on the Coco), and I never managed to get very far with it. (review on p. 28)

    1. Ah, this is the game I mentioned as being from Prickly Pear Software. Kind of makes me wish I knew what I was doing when it came to emulating old TRS computers, but oh, well.